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"A country like India must have a land use plan"

G. Ananthakrishnan

George B. Schaller, a pioneer in field biology, says it is possible to achieve economic growth without destroying the environment and losing wildlife. In an interview in Bangalore recently, he says even India and China, the two most populous nations, can save their forests and biodiversity. Excerpts:

With his meticulous research four decades ago and the resulting scientific treatise on India's wildlife titled "The Deer and the Tiger" (Chicago University Press), Dr. George B. Schaller significantly influenced India's first major conservation policies. As Vice-President of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society he now steers its international conservation programmes covering wild species that range from rare sheep in the Pamir mountains to tigers in tropical forests and cheetahs in the Iranian desert.

Your work on the tiger is most striking for many people in India. What is India's conservation record since your path-breaking work?

I made a very small first step, and described what I actually saw in the forest. Since then the best tiger biologists like Ullas Karanth have put tiger studies on a firm basis, how to census them, how to monitor them and so forth. Raghu Chundawat and a whole lot of others have added to the knowledge. Now you have a really solid background, so you know what must be done and what government policy there should be and how local people can be involved. That's how it is normally. You start science with small questions and other people continue and it spreads out. It is satisfying to see knowledge, Indian knowledge and that there are so many good biologists. They don't need outsiders anymore. So I come back to enjoy, to see friends. The Wildife Conservation Society has been funding projects for years. Right now we have two projects in Ladakh, one in Arunachal. (WCS has) set up a very good model in South India. So when tigers are in trouble in other places, in Bandipur and Mudumalai tigers are not being heavily poached like elsewhere. There is a great local enthusiasm for wildlife and that needs to be built throughout India.

Was your research permission was cancelled at some point…what happened?

No, the only thing that ever happened was, I was invited by the King of Bhutan in the late 60s to work on Takin and at that time you had to get Indian permission to go to Bhutan. Somebody, an Indian vet wanted to study Takin alone so he spread some rumours so they could give him the permission. That is ancient history.

Is there really hope that we can save much of what is left of natural spaces, given the push for economic growth?

You can have development but it has to be done carefully, it has to be planned. The Government has to have its policies. It has to decide that this area we are going to save, we are going to guard it and work with local communities, so they are involved. But Governments tend to want to make money right now. Politicians don't think of the future almost by definition and so there is very little long term planning. A country like India, or for that matter any country must have a land use plan. Certain areas should be designated as part of the natural heritage. You can have people in landscapes, but if you plan correctly you can save habitat and wildlife as well.

So right now, countries are at a critical point. Consumption is increasing far faster than population. There is less and less thought regarding the environment. The United States is a prime example. The present US administration is nothing but a subsidiary of big business and big oil and has no concern for the environment. Every environmental Act passed by Congress and this administration is anti-environment. So countries cannot afford that. They have to have leaders. Indira Gandhi did a tremendous service by raising awareness of environment and wildlife. Countries need leaders like that. The US had Teddy Roosevelt a hundred years ago. One hopes the public will take the environment into consideration when they vote.

China and India face economic pressures…they have more complex ecological systems. We have already lost a lot.

You have lost a lot, but you still have a lot. You still have quite a bit of forest. You still have tigers, leopards. But the problem has been in the last few years, the Government has gotten quite lax. They sat back and said, okay, things are pretty good. Meanwhile, how many thousands of leopards have been killed just to send skins to Tibet. There needs to be much more detailed monitoring. That is what Ullas is trying to do for some of the tiger areas in the world.

In China, the outlook is open for most species. For tigers it is questionable and it is on a downhill slide, almost at the bottom, for most species and habitats, they can do it. The Chinese Government has been extremely supportive of conservation. When I started work there in 1980 there were about a dozen reserves, now they have about 2,000, totalling about 15 per cent of the country. They need better infrastructure, better management, all sorts of things, but the first step is to be there and create something.

Talking about development and prosperity, many people look at this as an economic versus environment question…

That is a far too simpleminded way to look at it. What you need to measure among other things is the services that the natural environment provides. Cleaning the air, cleaning the water, the genetic background to rehabilitate areas…you can in rough ways actually measure it. Once you do that, the billions of rupees that the forest provides for free that would cost you otherwise. So it is not a simple thing of economics versus environment. If you look at prosperity figures, most of this has gone to a very small fraction of people who are getting wealthier and the average income of most people has not increased that much.

Some say that there is enough science and money to handle problems arising from economic activity. We can always handle that with our genius rather than keep things as they are…

A country has to decide how to spend its money. If it is trying to be like the US, that spends probably a trillion dollars invading a country and killing Iraqis, instead of spending those dollars to help the poor people of the US, to help education and the environment in various countries. Lot of things can be done with funds that are for the social good and if governments and people in power truly think they want to do something for the future of their country.

Where does the citizen movement come in to conserve nature? Organisations like yours put in money to preserve natural spaces…

Well, it works to a certain extent. In the US what saves the environment is that almost all communities have a small nature conservation organisation that is worried about protecting forests, keeping some stretch of river, open spaces or land. That has a great impact. In countries that don't have local involvement, people get run over by government.

How serious is the problem of invasive species?

That is a tough one to control thanks to globalisation, of course. But it has been going on forever. The lantana bushes came into Bandipur and Mudumalai a century ago and had created thickets throughout the forest. But that is visible. How many viruses, bacteria, insects are coming in by the thousands. The fact is in ecology, we know almost nothing so far, about how these ecosystems work.

What are you currently pursuing in field biology?

Most of my research at present has a larger aim. I work with Marco Polo sheep in the Pamirs. The sheep have these gorgeous big horns…

You have suggested the creation of a wildlife sanctuary there.

Yes. This includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Tajikistan and I have been working in all those countries making censuses. I find that the Marco Polo sheep move across international borders. But these are animals that draw attract public attention. Trophy hunters like to shoot it and everybody knows about it. Therefore, it is a good symbol on which conservation can be based. I am trying to get the four countries together to make a landscape plan, a land use plan for that part of the Pamirs that takes into account setting up reserves. There are already some…and saving cultural livelihood of the herders without destroying the grasslands. Having trophy-hunting areas as long as some of that money goes to conservation and the local communities. It is extremely difficult because governments don't like to do that. And I have tried to bring the officials of these countries together to discuss the options and hope to co-operate and get the big donor organisations like the World Bank and the USAID to get involved in planning and implementing some of the issues. You have to protect wildlife, plants and people for the future.

In China I am doing something similar and have been doing so for a number of years in the Tibetan plateau. There are several hundred thousand square kilometres that are completely uninhabited because it is too high, most of it above 4500 metres. There are nomads. You have the Chiru, the Tibetan antelope that has the finest wool in the world and India is involved in that. There is a trade in the wool – the Shahtoosh business. The Wildlife Trust of India and the Wildlife Protection Society of India and other NGOs have been working very hard to reduce the trade in Shahtoosh. But the wool still comes from Tibet. China has worked hard to control poaching and it is down a lot, but it still continues.

Again, I am concerned about protecting and managing huge landscapes. Up there am dealing with half a million square kilometres. It is just a different scale than one deals with here in India.

What is the state of the tiger?

The only country where the tiger population has increased recently is Russia. Because the Widlife Conservation Society and others had an intensive programme there, they have tried to increase prey numbers by reducing poaching. That looks hopeful. Whereas next door in China, it is in absolutely dismal condition. The Northeastern Siberian tiger from Russia is the occasional visitor, and as far as anybody knows there are no residents, we don't know of any breeding populations left in China. Just some scattered individuals. So it is not very hopeful. But in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, yes, most definitely they can increase with protection and monitoring. Ullas Karanth has set up the Tigers Forever programme of the WCS in some areas. In Laos, most of the places the tigers are gone, but there are patches where tigers can be maintained and definitely increased. Nepal has been doing all right, except now there is political turmoil and poaching and everything has increased. Sumatra still has a few large reserves.

We have not discussed the lion. You were the pioneer in studying it in the Serengeti.

In Africa it is a serious problem and the lions are crashing. Everybody thought that there are lions everywhere. There are good lion populations in the reserves, but outside these, the human population has increased and the prey availability has gone down. So the local people are doing just what local people here did with tigers – they are poisoning them. It was generally assumed that lions were safe, but they are ending up in fragmented pockets just like the tiger in India. One estimate says there are some 20,000 lions left. I don't know if it is correct, but it is true that a good proportion is in Tanzania, which has few people for the land area. It is a good lesson that if you are lax and turn your backs saying things are in pretty good shape, it is almost guaranteed that they will be in bad shape. People here were relaxed about the tigers in the 90s and suddenly there is a crisis. It is the same with lions (in Africa). So we are talking about any species that you treasure. You can never ever turn your back. Not just this generation but if you want, forever.

Does carefully planned eco-tourism play a part in conservation?

Most national parks in the world don't pay for themselves. Even though tourists pay fees, it still takes a lot of local staff that has to be paid and the infrastructure eats up lot of money. Most of the money in eco-tourism…it has been calculated that less than ten per cent of the money in eco-tourism goes to the local people…hotel owners from town set up lodges, tour companies from town take people there, and very little money reaches the local people, so mostly they are no better off.

There is a lot of literature coming out on the effects of climate change on biodiversity.

It is going to have a serious effect on biodiversity. Vegetation zones are going to shift, some animals won't be able to adapt, others will move to other vegetation zones, species will get completely new mixtures from what they were in the past. So it will give lot of opportunities for study, but the impact is huge. I was just up in Arctic Alaska and things are changing very rapidly since the 1970s there. It is going to be less quick and drastic further south towards the equator. Any nice reserve you have in the bottom of mountains is going to completely change and things will shift up. If you are going to have reserves you need to have from high mountain zones right down to lower areas, north to south. You have to plan reserves differently. Rainforests in the Amazon are going to end up moving elsewhere, disappearing. Ecologists have a lot of interesting studies to do because we simply don't know how to predict it. But we know what happened at the end of the last ice age when things had drastic changes. Now we can monitor what is happening to tree growth in the Arctic, or see what is happening to sea ice. It is just so rapid that you can see things changing from one year to the next.

What would you say to someone who said extinction is nothing new, that it happened in the past and it is happening again…

That statement is perfectly true. But the problem is that it has been calculated that extinction rates are a 100 to a 1,000 times greater than they were in the past. In other words it is so fast that things don't have much time to adapt. As I mentioned earlier, we know almost nothing about how the habitat or ecosystem functions. We know a little bit. We quantified what tigers eat, what chital (deer) eat. We have some superficial idea, but we are dealing with tens of thousands of species in the habitat. Most of the insects, the soil nematodes and so forth…what is their function? How many of those species can you lose before the whole thing collapses? Which ones are the real keystone species on which the system depends? We are still groping. When you don't understand something, the best thing to do is to save all the pieces so that you have an option in the future.

Edward Wilson (the naturalist) said that the earth's sustainable capacity was exceeded (by the population) in 1978…

That certainly sounds reasonable considering the consumption. The population curve may well level off in the middle of this century but the consumption curve will keep going up because you have well over two billion people in India and China alone who want to consume more. I assume people never have enough. Now matter how much they have, they want to consume more. Even though their house is full of stuff that they don't use or need. Other people emulate that.

You have a cell phone. The phone has a little mineral in it called coltan. It is a capacitor that intensifies the energy that enables this little machine to send signals. Coltan is mainly mined in the eastern Congo. It is mined by thousands of people living and digging in the forest. They need meat. Therefore they eat gorillas and elephants. So your little cell phone helps kill gorillas. Then you had a cup of tea this morning. Somewhere rainforest is falling to plant more tea so you can drink more tea. So every act you do has an ecological impact and until everybody and the governments realise it and try to minimise it, I don't see where we are going to make much progress.

What was your experience with conservation in the US…the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge?

I was on an expedition in 1956 that made a biological survey that in 1960 became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is now nearly 20 million acres in size. It is the finest wilderness area in the US -- no roads, nothing but mountains and wilderness, and huge migrating herds of caribou. The northern part has some oil and for years both Bush presidents, particularly the current one wanted to drill for oil there. We have already got that whole region leased for oil, except for four per cent, which is in the ANWR. There is simply no excuse, it is simply ecological vandalism to go in and drill up, ruin that four per cent just for some more oil even though the US has no energy policy, no energy conservation policy at all. The amount of oil that they could get out of there is estimated at maybe six months' worth. That could easily have been saved if they had raised gas mileage standards and so forth. It makes you so furious because it is simply a grab for quick money and no other justification.

What bothers me is that here is a very rich country that is wasting its money right and left. It is a fairly well educated country. Yet, it is unwilling to save one of its last great wilderness areas.

Then we get a country like Rwanda, where I study gorillas in Central Africa. Here is a tiny, extremely poor country that is highly overcrowded…they have mountain gorillas. Throughout all the turmoil of several wars, genocide and so on each government has said it treasures the gorillas. And they have saved it and the forest. No matter how great the pressure. Here is this little country really concerned about its environment and its species like the gorilla and a rich country like America that trashes its environment. It is a sad contrast.

Where would India and China fit on that scale of awareness?

Both India and China are well aware of what needs to be done and they are trying to do it. China is setting up reserves in large numbers. The infrastructure is still poor but the government is very aware of the general environmental problems. It does not mean it will go away very quickly but at least they are trying to act on them. India still has all these reserves and forests. It has options and now it needs political will power.

You have a project in Iran. Are there cheetahs there?

That is what we (WCS) are working on. I went to Iran several years ago and asked them 'what do you want done?' They said we would like to have help with the cheetahs. We don't know how many there are, maybe 50 or 60. Again, they are very hospitable and keen to work with WCS. The main thing that slows things down is the US government. For every piece of equipment we take there we have to get US government permission, whether it is radio collars or GPS or anything. And when we seek permission they take a year and a half.

Genetically, the African and Indian population (of cheetahs) are very close. You would expect minor differences because of the isolated populations. The Indian government at a high level approached the Iran government asking for cheetahs for cloning and Iran very wisely said 'no.' Besides, if you want to play with cloning, you first practice with something less rare. There are lots of African cheetahs raised in captivity you could use those.

How many animals does a cheetah need to kill in a year…you don't have the habitat (in India) that has enough blackbuck and gazelles to support a population of cheetahs.

The Hindu