Thursday, June 28, 2018

Interview with prominent wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright

“If only animals could vote”, laments Belinda Wright as she reflects on the rapidly failing standards of the Indian wildlife. Widely regarded as one of India’s leading wildlife conservationists, Wright has been striving hard to save the Indian tiger from extinction over the past three and half decades.

Belinda Wright
Speaking from her Delhi-based office, the Executive Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), Wright sheds light on several critical issues concerning Indian wildlife and her efforts to save it WPSI’s commitment is primarily to the tigers, their habitat, and the Indian people and Wright has been responsible for countless seizures and raids on poaching gangs.

Born and brought up in Kolkata (India), her love for wildlife, as she mentions, is in her DNA- both her parents were animal lovers.  It was this love for wildlife that inspired her to launch the WPSI.  And through this organization, she has also been attempting to reach and help various local communities from remote villages.

In the Sundarbans, for instance, over 1,80,000 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.

Not many would know that Wright has also been a wildlife photographer and filmmaker for the National Geographic Channel and has won two Emmy Awards along with 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. 

Undoubtedly, Belinda Wright is special. In an interview with yours truly she sheds more light on her life, serious issues concerning wildlife and her efforts to save it.

Q. Can you shed some light on the current wildlife scenario in India? Do you honestly feel that the Indian Tiger can yet be saved?

Belinda Wright: 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. Tell us a bit about the history of Wildlife Protection Society; especially its achievements and breakthrough over the years.

Wright at the Dec 2007 seizure in Allahabad 

Belinda Wright: 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 attempted 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?

Belinda Wright:  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 continues to fail in arresting the falling standards of the Indian wild? Where are we going wrong?

Belinda Wright: 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. You have been extremely passionate about wildlife. How and when did this passion for wildlife begin?

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.

Belinda Wright with a tiger cub in Patna, 1974

Q. Tell us a bit about your formative years, especially the experiences related wildlife.

Belinda Wright:  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 have been your role models in wildlife conservation ?

Belinda Wright:  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.  If you could, what be your recommendations for our administration and other concerned people to improve the wildlife scenario? 

Belinda Wright: 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 unconcerned from issues concerning wildlife? Nobody seems to care about it. And should the media play a bigger role to make the average Indian be a little more concerned about the critical wildlife issues? 

Belinda Wright: 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 is WPSI's current motive given the present day wildlife situation in India? What would your future objectives be? 

Belinda Wright: 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 think you can continue on this endeavor to save the Indian wildlife? How would you like to be remembered as? 

Belinda Wright: 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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