The Royal Bengal Tiger — officially India’s national animal — was once found in almost every region of this vast country. But, despite a government project launched in 1973 to protect the tiger, numbers are falling fast. Some tiger reserves have none at all, and it has been discovered that several authorities have been falsifying figures upwards to hide the animal’s disappearance.
Tiger is Lynchpin
“If we lose the tiger, we lose everything,” says wildlife film-maker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri. In a recent, hard-hitting opinion piece in one of his country’s most respected newspapers, The Hindu, he wrote: “The tiger is the lynchpin that holds the ecological ‘apple cart’ of the country together. If we allow it to go extinct, it will be the beginning of the end for our entire wild heritage, in addition to our water and food security.”
One nature reserve which claimed to have 21 tigers was found on close, scientific examination to have none at all, he says. This situation is replicated again and again across the country as Indian wildlife conservation buckles under the unstoppable momentum of economic development.
“Today, except in a handful of reserves, our protection system is in tatters,” Dattatri warns. “Thousands of guard posts remain vacant in all the [Indian] states, leaving our treasure troves of biodiversity open round the clock to looters.”
Grim for 'Wild India'
He adds that in the four years since he applied for a Rolex Award — for which he was made an Associate Laureate in 2004 — the situation has become particularly grim for wild India, a world that he and his eloquent camera know as do few others.
“India today is seen by many as simply a huge mineral resource, lying beneath what remains of our forests. The vast scale of habitat fragmentation is bringing wildlife such as elephants into conflict with people again. There is a very scary nexus between the media and large corporations that exploit the environment. There is less and less political will to do anything, as there is also a nexus between politics and industry. And the public are mostly too busy acquiring the middle-class lifestyle. If they are concerned, they simply say: ‘What can we do’?”
Dangers of Whistleblowing
However, Shekar Dattatri reacts to a challenge with a fierce determination. He is more committed than ever to employing his many talents to draw attention to the plight of India’s wild animals. The award-winning wildlife film-maker has branched out into public advocacy, journalism and children’s books. He is also working with government and conservationists in his efforts to awaken India to the threat to its heritage before it is too late.
It is a role that brings peril and hardship: the forces of unbridled development are often unscrupulous and vengeful in their efforts to subdue those who question them. Dattatri and his associates have spent the past three years fighting what he describes as “vexatious lawsuits” brought by officials sympathetic to a giant mining company whose ecological damage Dattatri exposed in his film “Mindless Mining”, leading to a Supreme Court order to the company to wind up its operations.
For filming in a national rainforest park he was charged with trespassing, and allegations were made against him in a District Court. Fortunately a higher court halted the actions against him. “We lost a year fighting these latest battles in court, but hopefully the worst is behind us,” he says.
Recognition for Films
The lawsuits did not dampen Dattatri’s spirit of enterprise. Four more films have been completed since he received his Rolex Award, while a shower of awards and invitations to be a film festival judge testify to his growing national and international stature. His films include a second documentary on the plight of the Olive Ridley turtle, a film about the resettlement of forest people, another about the forest guards of the Kanha Tiger Reserve and Point Calimere — Little Kingdom by the Coast, about the loss of coastal wetlands, which won Best Nature Film at India’s Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival in 2007.
At the same festival he gained the distinction of the Prithvi Ratna (Jewel of the Earth) Award for his “outstanding contribution to public education on matters relating to environment and wildlife through film-making”. Dattatri also won a Carl Zeiss Award for Conservation in 2007.
Plans for a new film on the Sarus cranes of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh were put on hold when the monsoon rains failed in 2005, causing local wetlands to dry up. Then, to Dattatri’s horror, the monsoon failed again in 2006 — and the chief minister of the state decided to construct an airstrip in his constituency, which happened to fall right across the cranes’ breeding ground. “It was a dangerous situation,” the film-maker says, adding that intense pressure is often applied on those who oppose government plans. But he has not given up on the project: “It is my life’s mission to make a film wherever there is one that really needs to be made.”
How to Count Tigers
“However, not every film can be strident advocacy,” Dattatri adds, explaining a diversion into educational film-making — a video manual on how to count tigers. Working with leading tiger biologist Dr K. Ullas Karanth, director of the India Programme and Technical Director, Tigers Forever, Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York, Dattatri is making an instructional documentary for forest guards and conservation managers on scientific methods for monitoring tigers and their prey.
One reason tigers are so endangered, and their numbers exaggerated by forest managers and tourism promoters, is the reluctance to use scientific means to assess their population. Dr Karanth has refined such methods, and Dattatri is helping to propagate them through film.
“We think this may be the first such film of its kind in the world, turning some pretty complex science into practical, usable advice for forest guardians,” he explains. It is an example of the practical conservation he now espouses.
Dattatri’s long professional association with Dr Karanth has led to a deep appreciation of how habitat fragmentation is imperilling these magnificent predators. It also inspired Dattatri’s impassioned appeal in The Hindu. To his surprise, many forest officers wrote privately in support of his views, criticising an outdated system for the failure to protect habitat from the relentless exploitation of large corporations and private plunderers.
In another journalistic foray, he challenged government plans to create a “one-size-fits-all” scheme to give people land rights even within National Parks and Sanctuaries, and build roads and other facilities that would threaten the forests’ viability — a policy that Dattatri firmly believes will accelerate the loss of forests and wildlife. To its credit, India’s national government has taken note of his views, appointing him to the prestigious National Board for Wildlife which is chaired by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Dattatri is impressed by the calibre and commitment of his fellow board members, who met for the first time on 1 November 2007. “It was a positive meeting and we hope it will translate into positive action,” he says. Much of his work today is behind the scenes, rather than behind the camera, working with conservation bodies to challenge legislation that would further fragment wild habitat — a time-consuming and often frustrating, but necessary, task.
Reaching New Frontiers
However one new endeavour brings him particular joy — writing children’s books illustrated with photographs by himself and others. His first children’s book, about the Olive Ridley turtle, was designed for older children and adults. His second, about a baby elephant, is for much younger children, and gently instils the need to safeguard places where baby elephants can live.
His film about the forest guards of the Kanha Tiger Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh reveals another dimension of what drives Shekar Dattatri — a concern for the people who protect the forest. “These guards are very poor. They lead dangerous lives fighting off poachers, and seldom receive recognition. Their numbers are dwindling across India. My film acknowledged their contribution to protecting our heritage.”
Being selected as an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise has imparted much momentum to Shekar Dattatri’s film-making and to his struggle to save wild India. Besides the equipment he purchased with the Award money, it has also attracted further sponsors — most recently a British businessman who agreed to donate US$40,000 towards further films. “The Rolex Award tipped the scale in my favour,” says Dattatri. “For the world at large, the Award announced: ‘This guy is worth supporting’.”
Published in 2008