Conservationist and naturalist PRERNA BINDRA talks about her love for wildlife and the perils of conservation efforts to TERESA REHMAN
Please tell us more about your latest book, ‘The Vanishing’?
The Vanishing tells us about India’s incredible wealth of wildlife, and its remarkable history of conserving it. For instance, India has wild predators like tigers and leopards that thrive among a human population of 1.3 billion. We have the bulk of the population of Gangetic dolphins, Asiatic elephants, greater one horned rhinos and the last the Asiatic lions.
However, wildlife is more imperiled than ever before, and The Vanishing takes an unflinching look at the unacknowledged crisis that India’s wildlife faces and why it matters to us if the forest is bereft of tigers and elephant, if the bees vanish, if the gharial goes extinct from our rivers, if the skies are emptied of vultures. I have also woven in the ‘nature of animals’– how leopards have a sense of kinship, of the empathy among elephants-.
I travel to the remotest of forests and meet with creatures on the brink such as the Great Indian Bustard and the imperiled grasslands it inhabits. I look beyond increasing tiger numbers to show how their prime habitats are being decimated. The Vanishing focuses on the failure of governance in wildlife conservation, and how our ‘growth at all costs’ model threatens our ecological and economic security. It also shows us the way forward if we are to conserve our wildlife.
How has been life as a woman wildlife conservationist and naturalist?
Exciting! Heartbreaking! Difficult. Empowering.
As you may have read in The Vanishing, I did not have a career plan to be a wildlife conservationist or a writer. In ‘my day’ we did not plan careers, and well, I was expected to have some ‘normal, respectable job before ‘settling down-read marriage. But here I am, obsessed with protecting our wildlife, and wilderness, and how that happened is another story!
There have been many women pioneers in the field of conservation, and they are such an inspiration: Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall to India’s very own-but little known J. Vijaya, who in the early 1980s, when she was just about 21, travelled to places like Bhagalpur in Bihar, UP, Odisha and the fish markets of Kolkata to map out the gruesome trade in turtles for meat.
Having said that, it has not been a cakewalk, and working with male colleagues was enormously challenging. And yes, Me Too! I have faced harassment –both working as a journalist, and as a conservationist, in the field and in the ’modern’ metros of Delhi and Mumbai. It took grit and enormous courage to deal with this, and it has been essentially a lone battle.
I also found a paucity of women at decision-making levels. in many meetings in the MoEF or the Standing Committee (of the NBWL), I used to be the only woman. I realised that men find it hard to take women in a leadership role. I had to work that much harder to be taken seriously. There was this typical ‘boys club’ attitude, like ‘How can this chit of a woman…’ if you know what I mean. It could be petty – personal egos and jealousies – or the fact a woman was actually achieving something on her own merit. But it got daunting at times. There was a perceptible effort to pull me down when I took on the leadership role on some issues.
But there are rare and wonderful exceptions when men appreciate and support you.
Why do you think it’s important to write books on wildlife and environment? Do you think we have enough?
We are in the age of Sixth Extinction. By some estimates species are dying off as much as 1,000 times more frequently than they used to before humans. It’s the worst spate of die-offs since the giant meteorite that hit earth some 65 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs, and over half the planets’ species.
Unlike the previous mass extinctions caused by such asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions, the demon meteor this time is us—Homo sapiens. Our impact has game-changed the planet—altered and destroyed natural habitats, changed the climate, rapidly making the earth inhospitable, placing us in that phase of history commonly referred to as the Anthroprocene.
We have lost half of our wildlife is the past 40 years. Obviously, we are not talking or writing enough about environment and wildlife.
Writing about wildlife about environment and ecology is important, wildlife is not being mainstreamed which is the need of the hour. We need dialogue around environment, nature; we need to understand how preservation of nature is intrinsic to human welfare, and the bedrock of our survival, and development. We need to appreciate nature, be enraptured by its wonder, care for its preservation—and I believe books can play a role in this—after all books inspired me to greatly in my life, and my vocation.
“When I grow up I want to be a Tiger” is meant to be a book for children?
Yes, seven-year olds and above, is what I thought! But well, I had a mom-and dad read it to their four-year old, who called me saying she had a little tiger at home-a cat! And yes, I have had a 89-year-old read When I grow up…aloud to me!
My love for nature has literary roots, and well, I guess I am hoping that books will continue to inspire-children and adults alike.
When I grow up I want to be a Tiger is the story of a young tiger cub, T-Cub) and he ‘tells you about his life in a forest, and his animal friends (and foes) including monkeys, peacocks and elephants. T-Cub is living the good life of a wild tiger—prowling the forest, loved by his mother, teased by his sister. He is learning the laws of the jungle, to hunt, to be a tiger.
I hope the book will being tigers alive for them. To show them tigers are people too (only better!) That animals, even tigers have personalities. T-Cub is endearing. A little scared-but doesn’t really want to show it! I think the children liked that.
It was not written with a purpose to educate. It was fun for me to write and I thought it might just be fun for others to read You don’t thrust lessons down their throats, but at the same time your story needs to tell something to the children, right?”
Why do you have a fascination for tigers?
How can you not be fascinated by tigers? I remember my first sighting of tigers-I saw four at one go, and this is what I wrote “I spotted my fourth tiger of the day walking in from the bushes, crossing our path. Heavy paws padded the earth quietly, almost soundlessly—unbelievable for a creature so huge and powerful (but then I recalled, it is this stealth that makes this big cat an efficient predator; giving the tiger an element of surprise as it leaps on the unsuspecting prey). She (it was a tigress) stopped, gave me a piercing look, golden eye locked for an arresting moment with my brown one. I could feel her weighing her options, assessing if we could be trusted. Apparently, she thought us unworthy opponents (or I like to think she thought us as ‘safe, non-threatening’) for she sat down, draping herself gracefully, in front of the jeep..
I was in Ranthambhore Tiger reserve, surrounded on all sides by four of the most incredible, charismatic creatures in this world. “
But it is not just tigers…all animals, all wildlife fascinate me. My happiest times in the forest are spent watching elephants. I adore elephants, and respect them enormously, they are creatures of such intelligence, sensitivity with complex social structure. I am fascinated by dolphins and gharials; feel blessed if I can glimpse a leopard. And not just megafauna-try watching birds in your backyard, or even dragon flies. I was amazed to learn that these tiny drone-like insects, so dainty with their glittery, glassy wings are one of the greatest migrants of the planet—the ‘global skimmer’ dragonfly flies non-stop for thousands of miles across oceans.
You are also an engaging, powerful speaker. Do you enjoy talking about wildlife and nature?
I am? Thanks! And to think that I was terrified to go up on stage and would become overwhelmed with shyness!
Yes, I enjoy talking about nature, wildlife, to communicate the wonder of nature, why it is important to us, to share my moments in the wild.
I have had speaking events across the country at literary festivals, think tanks, schools, universities. I have spoken to audiences as diverse as parliamentarians, bureaucrats, media, corporates, defence personnel, NGOs, NGIs, students, think tanks, literary groups, environmental societies and media.
Which has been your most successful conservation effort?
I have learnt that victories in conservation are ephemeral, the next threat is usually around the corner.
Sometimes I have been able “to make a difference”, which is one way I define success.
Through our work in the National Board for Wildlife’s Standing Committee, we were able to halt a destructive ropeway project that would have gone through a nesting site of critically endangered long-billed vultures in Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Had the project gone through it would have meant the local extinction of these vultures (whose numbers have fallen by an astounding 97 per cent in just about 15 years (between 1992 and 2007), and this was the few places where their breeding was a success, and they had actually recorded an increase in population.
We were able to achieve the making of atleast three Protected Areas, including the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary, in Uttarakhand, which is part of the greater Corbett landscape, and an important habitat for tigers and elephants. Also, Nainadevi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, a beautiful oak forest (close to Nainital) was protected primarily for pheasants like the cheer, koklass etc, while it also has other rare wildlife like fox, leopards, serow etc
This has been an extraordinary, collective effort through a diverse coalition of forest officers, rangers, biologists, NGOs, NGIs and other individuals, moving in a collective rhythm to achieve this success. This all has been possible due to the collective of forest officers, rangers, biologists, NGOs, NGIs and other individuals.
Which is your favourite region in terms of wildlife conservation? And why?
That’s like asking who is your favourite child, or your favourite book (there are too many!), I can’t out one region, one wilderness above the other. In that sense, I am fortunate to have travelled to the remotest, and finest, parts of India,
I have a very soft spot for the Terai forests-the Corbett landscape because I have worked in these areas, and also because it was in these forests that I used to go to most in my early years. I love Dachigam that incredible forest on the edge of Srinagar and the only sanctuary for the hangul, a species of red dry, Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest-the only one with tigers is fascinating, as the little-known gem called Saranda, the largest, finest Sal forest in the world, now ravaged by mines. Manas is one of the most beautiful and special places, and so is Dibru-Saikhowa with rare species like dolphins and Bengal floricans.