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Know the man behind Project Tiger

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Know the man behind Project Tiger

Project Tiger has evolved from a mere project to an extensive, ambitious system that has imbibed the essence of Sankhala’s legacy...

Know the man behind Project Tiger

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The dwindling numbers of the majestic Royal Bengal Tigers in the Indian subcontinent have been a great cause of concern for conservationists over decades. While hunting as a sport has almost been shamed into an end, the practise of hunting and poaching tigers for economic benefit in black markets is still horrifically prevalent in many parts of India. The Indian government, along with many wildlife organisations, have worked to restore and protect the number of tigers indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Project Tiger was initiated by the government of India in 1973 towards protecting and increasing the scarce tiger population in India. The project's first director was Kailash Sankhala - the driving force behind these revolutionary conservationist efforts.

Born on January 30, 1925, Sankhala was an avid biology enthusiast. Growing up in his hometown of Jodhpur, he went on to pursue a career in the Indian Forest Services (IFS) after completing a bachelor’s degree in biology. As an officer for the IFS, Kailash Sankhala was responsible for sanctioning hunting permits. Not only did he sanction these permits, but in the 1950s, he went on a hunt himself and killed a tiger. The incident left him shaken up, he couldn’t bring himself to stop feeling guilty about killing the striped canine. Consequently, he started looking into conservationist strategies for protecting India’s tiger population. Sankhala was chosen to serve as the director of the Delhi Zoological Park. Despite protests by the public, he refused to make the tigers exist simply as caged-up exhibits any longer. He researched relentlessly regarding the habitats that tigers find favourable, their estimated numbers in different parts of India, ways to ensure no poacher or hunter was exploiting the animals, and so on. He convinced Indira Gandhi, along with the International Union of Conservation of Nature, to grasp the urgency of the issue and to implement a complete ban on tiger-hunting. His research on the subject, along with his experience and observational skills have formed the basis of the conservation projects set up under Project Tiger since 1973. For this selfless devotion to the conservation of tigers, Kailash Sankhala was awarded the Padma Shri in 1992. Over the years, Project Tiger has evolved from a mere project to an extensive, ambitious system which has imbibed the essence of Sankhala’s legacy.

The story of the striped wild cat was also told through a feature documentary — Tigerland — produced by Oscar-winners Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Fisher Stevens (The Cove) that premiered at Sundance Film Festival. It spotlights the efforts of Kailash Sankhala. Kailash’s grandson Amit also elaborated upon his memories, saying: “My grandfather was with the forest department and ended up being the co-director of Project Tiger. We spent a lot of time in the jungle, sometimes for months at a time. My grandfather died when I was 12 and my father Pradeep died when I was 20. I spent more time in the wild since they passed away.” He mentioned that Project Tiger was launched with nine tiger reserves, including Kanha, Corbett and Ranthambore. Regarding the film focusing on his grandfather’s role in tiger conservation, he said: “Tigerland was shot in February-March 2018. There is not a lot of footage from India as my grandfather did not leave much. We have about 5,000 slides and letters, the story was told using all that, through my and my nephew’s eyes, using animation. By rummaging through my grandfather’s things, we realised how well-travelled he was, attending conferences and spending time in Africa to understand how rangers operated there. He never spoke about all that. Or how he would sit by a watering hole for 24 hours at a stretch without food as food would attract ants. He wanted to study what came to a watering hole in those 24 hours — birds, deer or tiger — and would make notes. There were no cameras in those days that they could just leave out. The Russia part of the film, however, is different. It is on Pavel Fomenko who works for World Wildlife Fund (as director of rare species conservation). He is a very hands-on person. Same passion (as Kailash), but different job. The Siberian tiger is a sub-species of the tiger. They are the only ones other than the Bengal tiger and the Sumatran tiger that are still extant. Indochina, Bali, Javan tiger — they are all gone. Siberian tigers have adapted to the climatic conditions. You would think they look bigger but their hair is actually bushier. The attitude towards tigers is similar in Russia. There they have guns so they shoot. In Mumbai, we have leopards getting into people’s homes. But we have got into their homes. Where will they go?”

He pointed out how recently a photograph went viral of a tiger taking shelter on a bed near Kaziranga. Almost all of Kaziranga National Park is affected by floods. Flood in Kaziranga has become an annual affair. There is so much construction that it restricts the movement of wildlife. The tiger got scared and crossed the highway. The good thing is the people allowed the tiger to rest for 10-12 hours. It was not like ‘Iss ko abhi bhagao. The owner of the house even said that he would preserve the bedsheet forever as it has been blessed by the tiger. Eventually, the forest department burnt some fire crackers to make it move back to the forest, which was fine. I am in the eco-tourism sphere. “I own a wildlife travel company and see how tourism can help the community. A typical problem is wild animals taking away livestock as villagers then get angry and kill the predator. The idea is to reduce man-animal conflict. Tourism is a tool that can be used to provide employment other than farming. That way we can protect the community as well as the tiger and its habitat. We also run Tiger Trust which holds legal training workshops for guards hired in villages surrounding the national parks. They don’t even know what the law is, how to arrest poachers. We bring down lawyers from Delhi and train them with help from the forest department.”

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