60 minutes with george schaller Environment

India can never turn its back on tigers and say they’re safe: George Schaller

George Schaller, the eminent American wildlife biologist, conservationist and author, has spent a lifetime studying some of the world’s most elusive species: mountain gorillas in central Africa, snow leopards in the Himalayas, giant pandas in China, and jaguars in South America. He is senior conservationist at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Schaller, who visited Bengaluru recently, talks of how India’s tiger census techniques may not be accurate, that local communities must benefit from tourism in protected areas, and that his hugely diverse range of interests could owe to his “short attention span”.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

There has been a lot of jubilation over the rise in tiger numbers in India; but scientists, including from WCS, have said the census methodology was flawed, that the numbers could be unreliable. What are your views?

Local governments have not always used accurate census techniques. And so the figures you’ve got are very approximate. So when you say they have increased by this much — that’s propaganda.

But the point is that given the global situation of tigers, with country after country — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia — where the tiger’s gone, and other places where they’re on the decline, the main country where the tiger has a very good chance of survival is in India. About half the remaining tigers in the world are right here in India, and India has made a major effort to protect its reserves. This hasn’t always been successful, like Sariska for example, where all the tigers were poached. That was a valuable lesson.

You can never just turn your back and say, oh, they’re safe, or they’re increasing. You’ve got to constantly, constantly monitor what’s going on. No state likes to say there are fewer tigers — they always like to say there are more tigers than the last census. And tigers are extremely difficult to census.

Has the focus on ‘charismatic’ animals like the big cats shifted attention away from other species that are equally — or more — threatened?

Charismatic is a Greek word that means gift of grace. It’s a lovely word. I spent a good part of my life looking at so-called charismatic animals, from gorillas, to tigers, to giant pandas. But if you are a journalist and want to get the public’s attention and want to educate them, if you start talking about earthworms you will have a hard time.

But if you write a solid piece about tigers — and that if you protect tigers then you have to protect their prey animals, see what vegetation their prey animals eat — you get a rounded picture by just paying attention to what a charismatic animal does to the rest of the community. And if you remove it, you suddenly have problems. People complain about wild pigs going into the fields. If you had enough predators, they would keep the pigs down. And also they’re beautiful. I mean, if you’re talking about conservation, you’re also talking from your heart, not just your mind because you respond to the beauty of an animal. You can’t sit next to a tiger without being impressed by its power and beauty.

You have said that you ‘couldn’t possibly imagine doing good work without being emotionally involved’ with your subjects. You study them but also champion their cause. How easy is it for a scientist to make time for both research and advocacy?

If you call yourself a scientist you want to collect solid information. Then you have two things you must do. You must give the information to the government and push the government to improve things. You also have moral responsibility to tell the public what you’re doing, what you found out and how they can help. Yes, you’re emotionally involved, and it’s a moral responsibility to protect wildlife and their habitat.

Conservation in India, especially in tiger reserves, often comes at the expense of tribal communities — they are routinely evicted from protected areas or barred from collecting forest produce, for instance. Must India move away from concepts such as ‘inviolate’ people-free forest areas that are derived from American practices?

In India, you have to develop an Indian system that works with communities. You cannot protect an area that has communities living inside. You have to have areas that are strictly protected for all species that are there. Communities in the area have to benefit, particularly through monetary benefits. If it’s a national park, most of the entry fee should be devoted to communities living in the region, to build medical facilities, build schools, benefit them by giving them jobs. It can be done. But I’ve noticed in most reserves in India that money doesn’t go to the communities.

You have worked on giant pandas and mountain gorillas, the Tibetan antelope and Bengal tigers; how do you choose your hugely diverse subjects that are spread so vastly across the globe?

I have a short attention span. My family and I lived for over three years in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to study lions and other predators and their prey, and its the most lovely place in the world to study wildlife.

And so I decided, well, I must look at the Himalayas, and my wife and kids were not happy that we were leaving. There are so many wonderful places in the world that we can’t let get destroyed; so if I can shout a little bit about some beautiful spots and somebody listens, that is a tremendous pleasure.

Look at the changes that have happened in India in the past half century. There were very few people really interested in nature when I started here, and look at all the people that are really concerned about nature. There’s a real important core here in India that is trying to help nature.

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