Dr George Schaller, the eminent field biologist, who has worked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, lions in the Serengeti in Tanzania, snow leopards in the Himalayas, jaguars in Brazil, pandas in China and the last few remaining Asiatic cheetahs in Iran, is the living legend in wildlife biology. He is considered one of the finest field biologists in the world, also has a close connection with India. His first visit to the country in 1963, when he worked with tigers in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, revolutionised wildlife research in India. Schaller, now 88, has been frequenting India since then and continues to inspire new generations of wildlife scientists and conservationists…
Q: What changes have you observed in India since the first time you came here in 1963?
I was fortunate that in 1963, when I came to India, I visited many reserves all over the country and I was impressed that the country was making an effort to protect the wildlife. But changes have been sudden, the governments have far too casually allowed development to invade the precious reserves and this goes on and on. Suddenly, the government decides they are going to build a canal through Panna tiger reserve. It’s shocking because India has maybe 5% of its land area in reserves – that’s far less than any other developing country. China has about 15%, Nepal has 25%, and the health of your future depends on a healthy environment. One thing people tend to forget is that everything you have, need, want comes from nature. You can’t say we are going to have GDP of 8% forever – endless growth is impossible. So, your economists are a century behind in their thinking if you don’t protect your nature. Growth doesn’t measure destruction, the pollution, erosion, loss of plants and animals and so forth, so you have a figure but then what? It will ultimately go down.
Q: So, how has the conservation movement developed in India in your opinion?
I came here first in 1963 and visited again at regular intervals. There has been tremendous improvement in the people’s consciousness of nature. But in the end, it all depends on the officials who are in charge of policies and enforcing them. If they don’t do their thing, your reserves will get destroyed. You know what happened in a couple of reserves. Tigers went extinct there and are only now being reintroduced. That is good, but it is an effort that is never finished. It should go on forever. That means everyone should be involved in one way or other; everyone should be conscious of what he/she owes to the country and its future.
Q: What strategy would you recommend for India’s conservation effort?
India had started a marvelous job and created a lot of tiger reserves. You can prevent losses such as the cheetahs by being focused. Don't build big highways in protected areas; save protected areas from human activity. This allows tigers from one area to travel to another. If there is too much inbreeding among wild animals, species can vanish. The Rwanda model can be adopted in India. Some part of the money earned from wildlife tourism is indeed being spent on the local community in places like Ranthambore. But that does not mean you can stop protection measures. Poachers can always make good money by killing a tiger and selling its parts. It is a crime but someone will always try to do it. Then, most important, you have to have educated politicians to know what it means to protect nature and you have to have corporations that have some moral standards. In my experience, anywhere in the world, particularly the mining, oil, timber companies, seem to lack moral standards. The only moral for them is more money and that is a serious concern, because ultimately things run on money and I see it all the time, somebody in essence is paid off to do something.
Q: How do you go about educating politicians on the need for conservation?
I mostly deal with politicians whom I can talk to on an informal level rather than shouting against this politician or that! When I work in another country, I am still a foreigner and so I do it informally. I say to them here is the information, it could be good if you could use it because it would be good for you. Lot of politicians are receptive if they could do something about it and things have worked well in China and Afghanistan although they have their own problems.
Q: You made a passage from mountain gorillas to tigers. Tell us how that took place.
Both mountain gorillas and tigers are beautiful animals that were in trouble. Gorillas live in a small area and tigers are being hunted for their skin and trophies. After I finished my study on gorillas, I was asked by John Hopkins University to go to India and look at the wildlife situation. The tigers of course caught my attention and I had this wonderful opportunity at the Kanha National Park to study this species, the mammal community and the behaviour of the local people. I had the opportunity to see what went on there.
Q: What do you see as the future for mountain gorillas?
It is true that gorillas have a small area to survive in. However, Rwanda has made the gorilla its national symbol and is making a lot of money out of it. Tourists from across the globe come to say hello to their near relatives. What Rwanda has done should set an example for a lot of other countries. Most of the money earned from the gorillas is given back to the community by way of spending on health services, schools and hiring staff to monitor them. As a result, local people are for gorillas and they help in tackling poaching. Most other countries make money from such ventures but give back nothing. That should change.
Q: The world’s attention has lately been riveted on forest fires such as in Brazil and Australia. What is your take on that?
There have been huge forest fires in Australia, Amazon and in the USA as well. Some of them are due to climate change It is going to be a serious issue for everybody in the next few decades. The fires are due to deforestation, which means there will be less rain and more drought in future. Climate change is set to trigger disasters in the coming years. However, countries do not want to spend money on rectifying them. They’d rather spend money on building rockets and bombs.
Q: In your career as a conservationist, was there a point when you lost hope?
No. I don't deal with hope, I deal in action. I look at a situation and if I think I can help, I help. I will collect the details of a problem and try to tell the government what has to be done. Some countries listen and some do not. You’ve got to find the right officials to drive home the point. Every country has some officials who care about the future of the country. India is a democracy and it is up to the public to decide on whom to elected as leaders. If public do not bother learning, then you get bad leaders. I won't mention names.