Saturday, November 5, 2011

The 'Wright' of our Wild- An interview with leading Wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright

“If only animals could vote”, laments Belinda Wright as she ponders over the failing standards of the Indian wildlife. Known as India’s leading wildlife conservationists, Wright has been known for her charismatic personality and how, despite being of British origin, she has considered India as her home and refused to go back to her original roots.

Belinda Wright 
Speaking from her Delhi based office, the Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), Wright has been working relentlessly for the last three and a half decades for the Indian wildlife An NGO which doesn’t exactly carry the tag of international ones the WPSI‘s commitment is primarily to the tigers, their habitat, and the Indian people. Going about her work without bothering about any media glare Belinda is currently extremely occupied with her constant conservation efforts as she prepares for a wildlife enforcement meeting which concluded in China earlier last month.  Just weeks before that she was tied up with a working group for the Planning Commission of India to ideate plans on saving the current Indian wildlife scenario.

Born and brought up in Kolkata (India), her love for wildlife, as she mentions is in her DNA as both her parents were animal lovers.  It was this love for wildlife that inspired her to launch the WPSI.  

Through this organization, she has also tried to reach and help various local communities from remote villages.

In the Sundarbans, over 180,000 mangrove saplings have been planted in and around the Bali Island by the local communities, with the help of Wright and her organization. The locals have also formed a voluntary Tiger Rescue Team which reacts swiftly to any reports of tigers entering nearby villages.

Wright has been a wildlife photographer and filmmaker for the National Geographic Channel and has also won two Emmy Awards and 14 other major international awards for her National Geographic film 'Land of the Tiger' . She has also been conferred with the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award 2005. 

It is these kinds of efforts that make Belinda Wright a unique figure in her own right. In an exclusive interview with yours truly she sheds more light on her life, serious issues concerning wildlife and her efforts to save it.

Q.Your views on the current wildlife scenario in India. Do you honestly feel that the Indian Tiger can yet be saved?

Tigers are not a difficult species to save. They breed well and require undisturbed space (particularly to avoid conflict in human habitation), protection, food, and water. Tragically, it seems that we are not able to provide them even these basic survival requirements. What tigers give us in return is unimaginable. Their very presence is the reason for protecting forests that are the source of about 300 rivers. Tigers stop the exploitation and devastation of these forests that are vital for the environmental security and wellbeing of the nation. The tiger is also a keystone species that plays a critical role in keeping the ecosystem that it lives in healthy.

The tiger is an iconic species the world over and the national animal of six nations, including India. If we cannot save a species of this magnitude, how will we be able to save other species, and indeed our precious planet?

Q. How and when did the idea of Wildlife Protection Society of India come up? Tell us about the achievements and breakthroughs that WPSI has managed to make over the years.
Wright at the Dec 2007 seizure in Allahabad 

I founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) to try and bring new energy to the wildlife conservation movement in the 1990s and to fill what I saw was a critical gap, the lack of wildlife enforcement. One of WPSI’s primary aims is to provide support and information to the authorities to combat poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in wild tigers.

Probably our single biggest achievement is that we have helped ensure that people actually now know how and why tigers and other species valued in the wildlife trade, are brutally killed and traded. We have exposed the facts, and the killings are no longer the guarded secrets of wildlife criminals.

Q. Over the years you have constantly tried to bring the core issues concerning Indian wildlife to the forefront. But somehow they haven’t exactly yielded the results that they should have.  Does frustration creep in after a while?

Fortunately, I have always been a fairly optimistic person, and despite the incredible odds, some positive things do happen. For example, there is a lot more awareness of the problems and needs of wildlife conservation than there was in the past, particularly in civil society and the judiciary. Greed and corruption play a negative role in practically every issue, and wildlife too suffers from this. Political support is also lacking – if only animals could vote!

Q. What exactly do you think is wrong with the Indian system that it is failing to save the falling standards of the Indian wild ?

As I said earlier, the failure is mostly to do with greed and corruption – in the political system, in the forest service, and all the people who put pressure on them to bend the rules. The government has invested huge sums of money for wildlife conservation, but while the one hand provides, the other destroys. Forests are seen as easy pickings for mines, highways, dams, nuclear power stations – just about anything. Another huge problem is our burgeoning human population, which puts pressure on all lands and wild places and results in the growing problem of human-animal conflict.

Q. How and when did your interest in wildlife start?     

Wright with a tiger cub in Patna, 1974
My parents were both animal lovers and we shared our large home in Kolkata with dogs and horses and many orphaned wild animals. My interest and passion was always wildlife, and I have never thought of working on any other subject.

Q. Tell us a bit about your childhood,  your background and your wildlife experiences of your younger days.

My family is of British origin with a long association, going back many generations, with the Indian Subcontinent. My mother was the daughter of an ICS officer and my father was the son of an IPS officer – he was born in Kolkata, and so was I. My brother and I had a wonderful childhood in Kolkata and Bihar (we spent practically all our holidays in what is now Palamau Tiger Reserve) in the 1950s and 1960s before we were sent off to school in England. I hated being away from India, but it didn’t take long before I was back again.

Q.Who are your role models in wildlife conservation and why?

My first wildlife guru was Dr. Salim Ali, who I was fortunate to know well. Billy Arjan Singh and Fateh Singh Rathore also became close friends. But ultimately I think my role model is Dr. George Schaller. He is a rare combination – a renowned scientist and an unshakable conservationist, someone with determination, knowledge, and soul.

Q.  Give us your view on what should be the way forward for our administration and other concerned people to improve the wildlife scenario. If you were to make a short list of points to be undertaken to save our wildlife (especially the tiger), what would those be? 

So many excellent recommendations have been made over the years and ignored. The creation of a sub-cadre for wildlife could probably bring about the single biggest positive change so that managers and field staff are properly trained and dedicated to wildlife issues. The Prime Minister even agreed to this proposal, but it never happened. We desperately need better leadership and management of our protected areas, especially to motivate the demoralized field staff. Field staff vacancies need to be filled and training and infrastructure improved. And we desperately need intelligence-led, professional enforcement.

A solution to much of these problems can also be found with the support and collaboration of local communities. I know such support is possible, but it will not happen under the present system.

Q.  Do you think the Indian middle class is too far away from issues concerning wildlife? Nobody seems to care about it. Don't you think that the media has a bigger role to play to aware the average Indian on critical wildlife issues? 

The media is playing a critical role in spreading knowledge and information on wildlife and environmental issues. Thanks to their efforts, the average Indian is much more aware of the issues, then it was say ten years ago. But the knowledge gap is still wide. People still do not understand what is actually needed - the solutions to the problems - even though these are well documented.

 Q.What's WPSI's current motive given the present day wildlife situation in India? What would your future objectives be? 

Curbing wildlife crime will always be our focus, but the human-animal conflict is increasingly 
becoming a widespread problem and a challenge for contemporary wildlife conservation efforts. This is an issue that must be handled swiftly and professionally, with government and non-government organizations working closely together. Every district with forestland should be equipped, trained and prepared for conflict situations.

Q. How long do you intend to continue on this endeavor to save the Indian wildlife? How would you like to be remembered as? 

I will continue to fight for India’s wildlife for as long as I breathe. Despite all the failures, I would like to think that I do make a positive difference, and I don’t care if
I am remembered or not. That is not the reason why I do what I do. I am driven by a lifelong passion that I am sure will never be extinguished.

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