The legendary Dian Fossey is credited with saving the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. But her monumental work was helped considerably by the foundation laid by an 18-month study of gorilla behavior by German-born American wildlife biologist Dr George B Schaller. It inspired her to take it up as a mission, which ended tragically for her. She was murdered but the mountain gorillas came back from the brink, though they are limited to a small area straddling Rwanda, Uganda and Congo.
Dr Schaller moved on from gorillas to other animals across the globe. He came to India in 1963 to study the tigers. By then India had already lost its cheetahs and the tigers were on the brink of extinction. Today, thanks to the seeds sown during that decade, India can boast of being a pioneer of tiger conservation.
Eighty-seven-year-old Dr Schaller’s work during the 1960s contributed to the awareness of conservation, and now climate change and global warming.
Described by author Peter Mathiesson as “a stern pragmatist who takes a hard-eyed look at almost everything,” Dr Schaller retains his fighting spirit, saying to conservation pessimists, “We may not win, but we haven’t lost yet.”
In this exclusive interview, edited for clarity and brevity, with Deccan Chronicle, Dr Schaller suggests that India can do with its tigers what Rwanda did with its gorillas.
You made a passage from mountain gorillas to tigers. Tell us how that took place.
Both mountain gorillas and tigers are beautiful animals that were in trouble. Gorillas live in a small area and tigers are being hunted for their skin and trophies. After I finished my study on gorillas, I was asked by John Hopkins University to go to India and look at the wildlife situation. The tigers of course caught my attention and I had this wonderful opportunity at the Kanha National Park to study this species, the mammal community and the behaviour of the local people. I had the opportunity to see what went on there.
What do you see as the future for mountain gorillas?
It is true that gorillas have a small area to survive in. However, Rwanda has made the gorilla its national symbol and is making a lot of money out of it. Tourists from across the globe come to say hello to their near relatives.
What Rwanda has done should set an example for a lot of other countries. Most of the money earned from the gorillas is given back to the community by way of spending on health services, schools and hiring staff to monitor them. As a result, local people are for gorillas and they help in tackling poaching. Most other countries make money from such ventures but give back nothing. That should change.
How has the conservation movement developed in India?
I came here first in 1963 and visited again at regular intervals. There has been tremendous improvement in the people’s consciousness of nature. But in the end, it all depends on the officials who are in charge of policies and enforcing them. If they don’t do their thing, your reserves will get destroyed.
You know what happened in a couple of reserves. Tigers went extinct there and are only now being reintroduced. That is good, but it is an effort that is never finished. It should go on forever. That means everyone should be involved in one way or other; everyone should be conscious of what he/she owes to the country and its future.
What strategy would you recommend for India’s conservation effort?
India has started a marvelous job and created a lot of tiger reserves. You can prevent losses such as the cheetahs by being focused. Don't build big highways in protected areas; save protected areas from human activity. This allows tigers from one area to travel to another. If there is too much inbreeding among wild animals, species can vanish.
The Rwanda model can be adopted in India. Some part of the money earned from wildlife tourism is indeed being spent on the local community in places like Ranthambore. But that does not mean you can stop protection measures. Poachers can always make good money by killing a tiger and selling its parts. It is a crime but someone will always try to do it.
The world’s attention has lately been riveted on forest fires such as in Brazil and Australia. What is your take on that?
There have been huge forest fires in Australia, Amazon and in the USA as well. Some of them are due to climate change It is going to be a serious issue for everybody in the next few decades. The fires are due to deforestation, which means there will be less rain and more drought in future. Climate change is set to trigger disasters in the coming years. However, countries do not want to spend money on rectifying them. They’d rather spend money on building rockets and bombs.
In your career as a conservationist, was there a point when you lost hope?
No. I don't deal with hope, I deal in action. I look at a situation and if I think I can help, I help. I will collect the details of a problem and try to tell the government what has to be done. Some countries listen and some do not. You’ve got to find the right officials to drive home the point. Every country has some officials who care about the future of the country.
India is a democracy and it is up to the public to decide on whom to elected as leaders. If public do not bother learning, then you get bad leaders. I won't mention names.