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Interview: Dr. Harbhajan Singh Pabla

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We spoke to Dr. Harbhajan Singh Pabla about the little known world of Wildlife conservation in India.

Dr. H. S. Pabla grew up in a Punjabi village, in India and joined the Indian Forest Service in 1977, retiring as the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state of Madhya Pradesh in February 2012. Apart from doing the usual things that an Indian forester does, he nurtured his love for the wilds while managing national parks like Kanha, Panna and Bandhavgarh. Along the way, he developed a penchant for questioning the status quo and challenged the stereotypes that have ruled the conservation mindset in the country. He introduced the concept of “conservation by incentive” in the form of a cash reward to farmers for hosting an endangered bird, the lesser florican, in their croplands. He was responsible for changing the face of wildlife tourism in Madhya Pradesh, despite opposition from NTCA, and made tourism revenue a significant resource in tiger reserves of the state. When Panna lost all its tigers, he developed and implemented the tiger reintroduction plan that has given the world the confidence that wild tigers will always be around. He was the principal force behind the reintroduction of gaur in Bandhavgarh and blackbuck in Kanha, after both the species had become locally extinct in the nineties. His unfinished agenda for the state included the reintroduction of barasingha in the Forsyth country, i.e. the Satpura Tiger Reserve, and the white tiger in its native Sanjay Tiger Reserve. Barasingha has already reached Bori in Satpura, and he hopes to see white tigers in the wild before saying adieu to this world. He unsuccessfully tried to introduce community-based sport-hunting for the conservation of crop raiding species. His wish-list for conservation also includes seeing Indian foresters riding horses for patrolling and enjoying the wilderness. Apart from a stint on the faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India, he has been an international consultant in wildlife management. He is an ardent tennis player and lives in Bhopal, India.

He is the author of Road to Nowhere and Wardens in Shackles.

The titles of both your books have a hint of foreboding. What exactly is wrong with the Indian approach to conservation?

There are several problems with the way we do conservation of wild animals in India. For example, we do not know why we are preserving dangerous animals who are a serious threat to human life and property, especially of our poorest citizens. Secondly, we have not developed the institutional and professional capacity to manage wildlife because we have adopted a passive management approach enshrined in the dictum “Leave nature alone, it will take care of itself”. As a result, some areas are overpopulated with animals while others are empty. Thirdly, although the states are constitutionally responsible for what happens to wildlife on the ground and what wildlife does to the people around, all the powers to control conservation policy are with the Centre. Fourthly, poor people living in the forests are the victims of conservation while the urban elite enjoys romanticizing about it and makes decisions about conservation policies of the country. Fourthly, conservation of wild animals is a huge drain on our poor country but we have never considered making it an economic development tool as in many countries. Wild animals can create millions of jobs in remote areas through tourism but we treat wildlife tourism as an encumbrance on conservation. We do conservation of harmful animals only for intangible benefits (like moderating climate change) ignoring the losses they cause and generating no immediate benefits. This is not sustainable in the long run. We need a conservation policy which focuses as much on immediate benefits from wild animals as on long term ecological benefits. There is so much more which needs to change if conservation is to be a success in India.

Please give a brief overview of the wildlife conservation effort in India so that your readers get some context to your work.

Systematic wildlife conservation started in India in the seventies of the last century when the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 created a unified national framework for conservation in the country and Project Tiger was launched. Although all our forests are wildlife habitat and wild animals are protected everywhere (you cannot kill an animal even if it destroys your home or cropland or kills your cows), we have also created national parks and wildlife sanctuaries where special measures are taken to increase wild animals. There is a complete ban on the consumption or trade of wild animals and their products and derivatives. Despite these big initiatives, the populations of most animals have not increased much since then, due to some inherent problems. India is the most populous large country in the world. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for the country to spare enough space for supporting viable populations of large animals. We are losing our wildlife habitats to the expansion of human habitation and infrastructure and lots of animals are illegally killed by people for food, smuggling and for protecting their crops and properties. Despite the ban on consumption and trade in wildlife and wildlife articles, illegal trade and consumption are rampant. Tigers, rhinos, pangolins, etc. are dying to feed the Chinese markets with wildlife-based medicines and wines and millions of turtles and birds are smuggled to Southeast Asia as pets. All wild animals are food to forest dwellers, but they cannot hunt them legally. We have to find a way around all these issues if we want to preserve our natural heritage. Wild animals can be an economic asset if managed well and can be a huge liability if unmanaged. India has not decided to use its wildlife to generate economic benefits for its people so far. That is why we are struggling to conserve it.

Tell us briefly about your experience in the Indian Forest Service. You’ve touched upon misconceptions about foresters. What does a forester’s typical day look like?

The Indian Forest Service (IFS) is one of the best professional services in the country. It allows one a good mix of outdoors and urban lifestyles. A forester also has a tough job of meeting the needs of the present generation, for forest products, while saving the forests for future generations. Demands on forests are huge. Every section of our society wants to take away something or the other, even the very lands, from our forests in one way or the other. Our poverty and our growing prosperity are threats to our forests in equal measure and a forester has to ensure that the forests survive both. As a forester often has to fight tooth and nail to save every inch of forests, they are generally seen as insensitive beings although no section of our bureaucracy does as much for the poorest sections of the society, especially tribals, as the foresters.

Forestry is a complex profession and one’s routine depends on what level you are in the hierarchy and what your assigned job is. In general, senior officers spend more time in offices, going out only on planning and inspection tours. The subordinates spend more time in the field dealing with operational issues. The main job of a forester is to enforce the forest laws, which empower him/her to prevent theft and poaching, produce forest goods such as timber, bamboo, wildlife, etc. and deal with demands on forests from various quarters. A field forester (a forest guard or forester) often patrols his forest alone or along with an assistant laborer and has to walk several miles every day. If any theft of forest produce is noticed, he/she registers the offence and sets about tracing the offender. Wild animals are often shy and usually, they are not a threat if at all seen on a patrol. When a tiger or leopard becomes a man-eater or an elephant turns rogue, it is a tough time for a forester as his options are often limited but expectations from the society are high. The forest service is now going through a tough time as forests need continuous looking after but new generations do not want to live away from urban life for various reasons.

What can India learn from ecotourism-dependent nations like Botswana and Australia?

Saving wild animals is much easier if ecotourism is the objective of having them around. This is because the economic benefits of tourism neutralize the losses inflicted by animals. Wherever wild animals are producing jobs through tourism, visual or hunting tourism, people want more animals around them. Where animals only destroy life and property, without benefitting people in any way, as in India, conservation is tough. The lessons for India are obvious.

How can the young generation get into the field of forestry? What do you think the Indian education system needs to emphasize on to kindle the interests of children in this field?

There are many avenues for entering forestry as a profession. Depending upon your educational qualifications and competitive strength, one can aspire to be an IFS officer, scientist, range officer, forest guard, etc. through competitive exams. To be a happy forester, one must have love for the outdoors and all that goes with it. Our education system must inculcate the love for outdoors among our children irrespective of the fact whether they want to be foresters or not. One is much happier and healthier in the company of trees, birds and butterflies than while cramming bookish knowledge. The kids who have got some exposure to nature during their formative days stay connected with it throughout life and they contribute to the conservation of the environment wherever they are.

In all your years in this field, which animal are you fond of?

I loved my job and all that came with it. Although all animals are exciting in their own way, predators often excite people much more. As I happened to be working to save wild tigers most of my life, nothing was more exciting than seeing a wild tiger without an appointment. The tiger has such an aura around it–it just mesmerizes you, and you simply cannot move away from it as long as it is within view.

Describe your process in compiling these books.

My books took a long time coming. As my views about wildlife conservation were quite different from my peers, I started toying with the idea of writing a book nearly 20 years ago. However, the pressures of service did not allow that. In the meantime, I kept collecting more experiences and insights about my profession and the pressure to put them down on paper kept mounting. As soon as I retired from service in 2012, I started writing freely without any plan or organization. When I thought I had put down everything I wanted to say and share, I started organizing it into sections and chapters. Then I realized that putting everything in one book would make it too big and daunting to readers. Therefore, I decided to break the whole matter into three volumes to be released one by one. Two volumes of this prospective trilogy have thus been released while the third is in the works. More matter is getting added to the original text as my thoughts continue to churn and new events unfold every day. Thus, the third volume is likely to be quite different from the one I had originally envisaged.

When my text was ready, I started looking for a publisher. I knew that first-time authors have a tough time finding publishers. While looking for publishers online, I came across the concept of self-publishing and print on demand (POD). The idea appealed to me and I compared the packages and services offered by various publishing houses. I first self-published my book, both as an e-book and paperback, but I needed an Indian platform. Pothi.com was selected as it did not ask for any fee for uploading the book and I put my book for online sale through Amazon, Flipkart, etc. for a small fee.

As my books are self-published, I had to have them edited and designed myself. I found online freelance editors, book designers and book cover designers to do the job (e.g. freelancer.comdesigncrowd.com). The availability of online freelance support services has made the job of writing books quite easy. And you do not need to go looking for retailers as the online retailers have global reach and the books start selling the day they are out.

Who is your favorite wildlife conservation writer?

In fact, nobody in India writes on the issues which agitate me. Most of the books on conservation are either on biology and ecology of animals or descriptions of what someone saw in the field. Wildlife in India can only survive only if the losses it causes are less than the benefits it generates for people. No one has written on these issues so far. However, two recent books, one by Jairam Ramesh (Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature) and another by M.K. Ranjitsinh (A Life with Wildlife) give an excellent historical perspective on modern wildlife conservation. Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson were the writers who gave me my first insights into Indian natural history.

What is your next project?

My next project is the third volume in the trilogy on Wildlife Conservation in India. I still do not have a title in mind. It will generally cover the need to have a new integrated law for forest conservation, problems of building a conservation paradigm for India based on extensive forest corridors and the potential of the Forest Rights Act 2006 to destroy India’s forests and wildlife, among other subjects.

It was great talking to you Dr. H. S. Pabla! Wish you luck in spreading the word about the wildlife conservation effort in India.

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