Passion for the Wild

A veteran involved in the conservation of tigers urges the tiger to be protected together with its ecosystem, which means everything from termites and turtles, to butterflies and orchids are saved. The Thumb Print shares some moments with BITTU SAHGAL


1. You have been associated with Project Tiger since its inception. A lot is being done for the conservation of tigers in India. Can you tell us how successful these attempts were and how do you see the future of tigers in India?140bittu_2


Before commenting on Project Tiger’s success or failure, let us go back to the solutions of the 70s. What really saved the tiger then?
1. The strategy was to protect the habitat from encroachers, miners, commercial forces — and the animals from poachers.
2. Kailash Sankhala was a great choice as leader of Project Tiger and he was given a free hand to choose good men from each Project Tiger state. They worked as a team.
3. We had the political support of Indira Gandhi.
4. The imagination of the world was fired by the appeal to save the tiger.
5. The first sign that Project Tiger was succeeding was not the number of tigers that were on the rise, but the fact that streams and rivers that used to run dry within weeks and months of the rains, began to flow full and pure all year round.
Yes Project Tiger is a success, when you consider the fact that the tiger had been written off in the early seventies, but today it is quickly sliding back into the morass.
As of now we are losing the battle to save the tiger, with habitats vanishing before our very eyes. Reports filter in daily of poaching in or around Protected Areas. If short-term gains continue to be the order of the day, we will come to a stage when, without forests, we would neither have tigers, nor water. And on the dawn of such a dark day, India’s economy would lie shattered as well.


2. How successful were you in your attempts to popularise the concept of conservation of tigers among youngsters? Have you ever tried to reach out to the children and youth of Northeast India?


Awareness about conservation is rising amongst youngsters. More people are now asking for the tiger to be saved than ever before, particularly youngsters. As a result, we now see campaigns to recycle waste, avoid plastics and save forests. Every political party manifesto claims to champion the environment. But paradoxically, as the level of `environmental awareness’ reaches dizzy heights the degradation of our surroundings has plummeted to unfathomed depths! This is because of a few people for whom money has become a God.
One refrain I constantly hear from children is: “But what can we do to make a difference Bittu Uncle? Slowly issues such as climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, toxics and health are percolating down to the next generation. I believe in the age of television children are more aware than ever before. Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Tiger Programme has been engaging young children in Guwahati and the kind of response we have got is nothing short of remarkable. Even the Chief Minister of Assam came to meet the children when we met at the Sarla Birla School, and he took an oath with them to protect their wildlife.


3. And why only the tiger? What is so special about the Tiger? Don’t you think other small wildlife species get sidelined while we are talking about the big animals?


No! We ask that the tiger be saved together with its ecosystem, which means everything from termites and turtles, to butterflies and orchids are saved.


4. What made you bring out Sanctuary Asia? How would you describe its evolution as India’s premier wildlife and ecology magazine? Where does it stand today in terms of generating awareness about the environment and wildlife?


I started Sanctuary Asia, India’s leading wildlife, conservation and environment magazine in 1981 to raise awareness among Indians of their disappearing natural heritage. The overwhelming response to the magazine led to the birth of Sanctuary Cub, a children’s nature magazine, in 1984.
Sanctuary Cub reaches out to children across India through schools and nature clubs. We conduct nature walks, camps, slide shows and rallies for children with the help of qualified naturalists and environmental educationists. For more information, visit and
In 1999, Sanctuary started the Kids for Tigers programme, which reaches out to one million children, through 1,500 teachers in 750 schools across India. We are drawing connections between the survival of the tiger and our own ecological health.


5. Have you been to Northeast India? What is your take on the rich biodiversity and ecological hotspot of the region?


The Northeast is my second home. I have travelled extensively and walked through its forests. I believe this is one of the most beautiful places on earth and the value of its biodiversity is beyond measure.


6. What do you think is the biggest threat today to the wildlife and biodiversity of Northeast India?


Poachers and industrial projects compete with each other to wipe out our wildlife. But the single greatest permanent threat to India’s biodiversity arises from schemes that seek to alter natural habitats to usher in ‘development’. Scores of mines, dams, thermal plants, smelters, tourism projects and other similar destructive activities are racing closer and closer to the heart of wild India.
In the Northeast, hydroelectric projects are the biggest threat. There is also a revolving door between the drug trade, arms trade and wildlife trade. Wildlife contraband and timber is being used to fuel crime, terrorism and insurrection-related extremism in India. Karbi Anglong is one of the most tragic arenas of this misfortune.


7. How do you think local people be involved in the protection of tigers and other endangered species?


Remember, hundreds of rivers originate from the tiger’s forest home. Every citizen – including you — needs to understand this. And the way you can be more active is to become familiar with the issues. This done, you must speak out so that your silence is not mistaken for support by those who enjoy destroying nature.


8. Today, we see many media houses collaborating with ngos to campaign for the protection of wildlife. Do you think it’s an innovative way to create awareness?


Yes it is an innovative but we have to go way beyond mere media awareness now. Eventually nothing will work if foot patrols in forests, married to the strictest implementation of the law does not become the order of the day.


9. What kind of work are you doing on the issue of climate change?


We are working with colleagues to get our Prime Minister and the Deputy Chairman of our Planning Commission to take climate change seriously. Of course simultaneously we are trying to get children to remind the adults in their lives to do what they can because our generation is proving to be extremely irresponsible. Basically we have to move away from carbon energy and we have to restore natural ecosystems, which sequester and store carbon.


10. What kind of an agenda does the National Board for Wildlife, India have for Northeast India?


Well the ‘non-official’ members want the Northeast to be protected for posterity, but the Prime Minister of India is the Chairman of the National Board for Wildlife and he feels that the Northeast’s forests should be drowned under massive reservoirs to generate power that will be consumed all the way to New Delhi.


11. Please tell us about your childhood. How did you develop this affinity for wildlife and nature?


I was born in Simla in1947. My parents sent me to school in Simla, where I fell in love with nature. My parents never pressured me to be who I was not. I spent many of my school vacations at sanctuaries. I completed my graduation in Calcutta and moved to Mumbai in 1970.
My life now swings between defending it and enjoying it. I find myself eternally fascinated by nature. Each time I venture out into the wilds of India I find myself marveling at the fact that magnificent creatures such as mouse deer, Nilgiri langurs and slender lorises can still be seen in our vanishing forests. At one time every square inch of the Indian subcontinent belonged to them. Today they are being pushed out of every corner because humans want more and more land. Because we have lost the ability to live cleanly, choosing instead to pour poisons in our own drinking water and to sully the very air we breathe.


12. How old are you and where are you based? How do you relax? What do you do when you are not thinking about wildlife and the environment?


What I do now I have been doing since I was 25, that is four full decades! Editing Sanctuary, fighting to save the tiger, protecting rivers, coastlines, mountains feeds my soul. Each year my wife Madhu and I choose to escape the noise and aggression of city life to some wilderness or other. It was as a result of such trips that Sanctuary, the wildlife magazine I edit, was born. Sometimes I wonder what on earth I would be doing, if the wildlife virus had not taken me over!


13. Do you think the Northeast of India is under-reported in the media in terms of its environment, wildlife, rivers and mountains?


It used to be under-reported. Today it is very well reported for all the wrong reasons. Industrial hawks keep very close tabs on the Northeast and not a moment is lost before finding some way or other to plunder its fabulous forest wealth.


14. Please tell us about the books you have written?


I have written a book on Bandhavgarh and co-authored several others in Sanctuary’s Inheritance Series of books, including Kaziranga, Corbett, Periyar and Bharatpur, plus a compendium titled ‘India Naturally’.


15. You have also made many documentaries. Do you think the visual media is more effective than the print?


It is, but I see all too few films that actually have a conservation edge. Those few filmmakers who are working towards this objective are facing huge odds, including state governments who ask for punitive charges to allow them into areas, which are otherwise being destroyed by industry.


16. Please tell us about one memorable incident in the wild.


On a full moon night in the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, as we listened to the sounds of the night, from a distance of almost 30 or 40 metres, I saw a tiger walking straight towards me. Behind it was not one, not two, but three half-grown cubs. I will defend those tigers to my last breath.