Shekar Dattatri is Wildlife and Conservation Filmmaker
Q: You are exceptionally passionate when it comes to biodiversity. What is your connect with Nature?
My connect with nature started when I was six or seven years old, when I started observing nature in my neighbourhood. It got more focused when I was exposed to books by Gerald Durrell and other nature writers from the age of 10. When I was 13, I joined the Madras Snake Park as a volunteer, and this helped me to connect with reptiles in a hands-on way. I was also an avid birdwatcher back then, and took every opportunity I could, to get out into the field and observe birds and animals. I also taught myself to understand their behaviour by reading books by eminent biologists and researchers such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, George Schaller and Jane Goodall, among others.
Q: How did you venture into wildlife filmmaking? How difficult was it to make a mark into international television, long dominated by westerners? Also, what kind of movies on nature you prefer shooting—one with a happy ending or one that ends in doom?
Thanks to an older friend who lent me his precious Nikon camera when I was in my teens, I had begun to delve into nature photography even as a school student. In 1983, soon after I finished my Bachelor's Degree, I got an opportunity to work with John and Louise Riber, who came to India to make a film on snakebite. I was their assistant throughout the process of making this docudrama, and picked up some rudimentary filmmaking skills through osmosis. For the next few years, a few colleagues and I got together and made a few films on nature and environment, with me as the cameraman as well as the person taking each film through the complex production and post production process. In 1990 we completed a film on the rainforests of south India, with a focus on Kerala's famous Silent Valley. This film picked up awards at several international film festivals, bringing me to the attention of the Heads of channels such as Discovery and National Geographic. The wonderful thing about western production companies and broadcasters is that they welcome talent, wherever it emerges from, and accept you on the basis of your merit. Not only was there no discrimination because I was an Indian, I was actually given a lot of encouragement, for which I'm very grateful. As for what types of films I like to make, well, first and foremost, I love to make stunning natural history films. However, in the year 2000, I realised that India's wildlife faced many challenges and that the public needed to be educated about these aspects. So, from making pure natural history films, I began making conservation and advocacy films. The idea was to make extremely well-researched shorter films that showed not just a problem but also its potential solutions. I have been doing this for the last 18 years. These films are neither pessimistic nor optimistic but are realistic, portraying things as they are, and pleading for a better treatment of our precious wildlife heritage. I've also made films on a few success stories, such as the revival of Chilika Lake by the Odisha Government, and the campaign to save the Amur falcon in Nagaland by committed individuals.
Q: You have worked closely with tribal communities. How do you view the ‘misty-eyed romanticism’ that all indigenous people live in ‘harmony with nature’? What, according to you, is a probable solution to the widening chasm between forest conservation and tribal welfare?
Yes, for about 10 years from the time of its inception in the early 1980s, I worked closely with the Irula Snake Catchers' Cooperative Society in Chennai, which was started by Rom Whitaker to provide an alternative livelihood to poor Irula tribal snake catchers who were left in the lurch by the much-needed ban on the snake skin trade. The ban had come about because, despite the popular belief that tribal people always harvest natural resources with restraint and wisdom, traditional snake catchers like the irulas were wiping out snakes from the countryside with no restraint, to supply the bottomless international demand from the fashion industry, for snake skins. While it is true that tribal people in extremely remote parts of the world who have no connection with modern commerce, like some tribes deep in the Amazon jungle or the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, live in equilibrium with their environment, the situation rapidly changes when commerce and profit enter the picture. When it does, all restraint is thrown out of the window and tribal communities become just like the rest of us and overexploit their resources for short term gains. This may be a politically incorrect thing to say, but it's the glaringly obvious truth when we remove our rose-tinted glasses. There is no simple solution to this problem. After all, every human being's distant ancestor was an ancient tribal hunter-gatherer, but human aspirations for a comfortable existence have turned us into exploiters of natural resources, each at our own economic level. Initiatives like the Irula Snake Catchers' Cooperative Society can harness traditional tribal skills for more benign exploitation, such as harvesting snakes for their venom and releasing them back into the wild, instead of harvesting them for their skins. But such initiatives are usually not scalable. So, all solutions need to be site and community specific. There is no single 'magic bullet' answer. As far as tribal communities living within our tiny Protected Areas, who are trying to eke out a living through unviable agriculture in conflict with wildlife, or unsustainable levels of Non-Timber Forest Product collection, voluntary resettlement with generous compensation, combined with long-term hand holding and skill development, is a good solution. Instead of decrying resettlement, those who are concerned about such communities must work closely with them to secure for them all the compensation and facilities that are their due, and also aid them to become self-sufficient by teaching them other skills, helping to educate their children and generally easing their transition to the mainstream. However, I must emphasise that any relocation must be voluntary, and no one should be resettled against their will.
Q: Have you any advice for young wildlife enthusiasts?
I see a lot of uninformed young wildlife enthusiasts reacting in a knee jerk way to serious and complex conservation issues. Without a doubt, they are well meaning, but please remember that the path to hell is paved with good intentions! For instance, the best way to deal with a confirmed maneating tiger is for an experienced sharpshooter to put a well-placed bullet in its head. If that man eater is allowed to keep on killing poor villagers, they will quietly poison many other innocent tigers in the area in retaliation. By trying to save one tiger that has been given a human name by safari drivers and guides, the result would be the quiet deaths of many other unnamed tigers by a justifiably irate local population. So instead of going on candle light marches to 'save' a maneating big cat, wildlife enthusiasts should educate themselves and understand that wildlife cannot be saved through emotional, knee jerk breast beating, but only through carefully understanding each issue, and working in a sustained manner with the government and local communities, to address the problem in a rational and sensible way.