Wildlife Conservation & You, a Bangalore based non-profit, organised a conference in Mumbai on 6th June. The aim of the conference was to connect wildlife enthusiasts with conservationists. This is the third year it has been held, though previously only in Bangalore. Around 50 participants spent their Saturday munching over the thoughts and words during five interactive sessions and a panel discussion.
The day began with Anish Andheria, of the Wildlife Conservation Trust who gave the keynote address. He got the ball rolling with some hard hitting facts. He mentioned that India has a viable forest cover of only around 5% as against the supposed 21% and it is from there that over 600 of our rivers originate. There in is the reason to protect our forests, but as he mentioned, even the Bandra-Worli Sealink had a higher budget than the yearly budget spent on wildlife in India. He provoked a discussion that went on longer than the organisers could allow, but setting the foundation that this conference would be a two-way conversation about conservation.
If Anish’s talk was hard with the facts, then Nitin Desai’s session on “Wildlife Crime and Enforcement” got participants squirming in their seats with the images. Nitin works with the Wildlife Protection Society of India and his talk was not for the faint hearted. The pictures were graphic and even averting one’s eyes didn’t seem to shut those images out. As one of the organisers Smitha said in her introduction, a session on crime paints the real picture upfront and while we, city dwellers, might not be able to have a direct impact on crime, it is these sessions that set the raison d’être of such conferences.
Prerna Singh Bindra, of the Bagh Foundation, in her session of “Challenges to Conservation — How You Can Contribute” initially painted a grim picture but later reassured us that India has one of the best wildlife laws in the world. However, there are proposals to change them, and if that happens, the very foundation of all conservation work could become weak. She spoke about how the need to protect what is left of our wildlife is seen to be at loggerheads with the rambunctious demand for development. A sound and long term vision probably lies in finding ways to make it work for both sides. Later, she used a personal example to elucidate how each of us can do our bit to help our urban co-habiters. She has a water bowl at home for birds with a few rocks placed in the middle. “It’s for the bees,” she told us, “they sit on them. If that isn’t there they will drown when they come for a drink.” Now that’s an idea each of us can implement today as the world’s main pollinators are in serious threat.
Rita Banerji’s session “Visual Media in Conservation” was just after lunch and in that she had the toughest slot as our digestive systems were trying to shut down the brain. She woke us up with a short film “The Flight to Freedom” about the Amur Falcons. These transequatorial migrating birds halt in Nagaland during their 22000 km migration. They used be caught in large numbers by the locals using large fishing nets. Conservationists stepped in and have changed that story. Through her presentation, she spoke about stories of positive change and how visual media can play a role. One of her projects, The Green Hub, is aimed at training locals in wildlife documentation through visual media and can potentially influence wildlife conservation in the North-East.
Kedar Gore of The Corbett Foundation in his session “Grassroots Conservation” showed us the other side of the picture. While in the past sessions the need for balance had been mentioned, he brought in a practical perspective. The tribals who’ve lived in the core area or even buffer area need to be placated, at times through monetary compensation for losses due to man-animal conflict, but also through infrastructure that could help them lead a better life, one that might reduce the burden that falls on their shoulders. He made a crucial point that relocating tribals to a city is not a solution as often they are ill-suited for those jobs. Many of the projects involve a behavioural change, possibly the toughest to bring about, but then all beginnings are slow and one needs to plod on to be successful.
Through the day many of the questions by the participants were geared towards understanding man and animal conflict, and so the panel discussion on that topic seemed apt. Given the density of our population there will always be conflict but it’s how we deal with it that makes the lasting impact. The panelists informed us that there are different reactions from those living in forested areas. Some accept it as a part of life saying this is the price for all the forest gives, but others believe the animals must go. At times, rage can lead to killing wild animals that are themselves confused and frightened. It is a very challenging role for the forest department officials who need to manage this fragile relationship between man and wild animal. The question of man-eating tigers did come up in the light of the T24 controversy, and was skilfully handled by Prerna who categorically said that man-eating tigers are not acceptable and cannot be released into the jungle. And as Nitin put it, one man-eating tiger might give all other tigers a bad name!
But what can each of us do? The very reason for this conference was answered at different levels. Whether in Kedar’s session where he spoke about needing volunteers and a participant immediately volunteered his time as an English teacher. Or in Prerna’s session where she spoke about a woman in Punjab who visits kitty parties and attempts to persuade women to stop gifting the now banned Shahtoosh shawls, an integral part of the Punjabi wedding trousseau. Or Rita’s talk that reminded us to dig deeper into our skill-sets to help wildlife and conservation efforts.
At the end of the day’s sessions, the participants milled around, talking to the speakers, connecting with each other and thinking about what next. Do we need another such session to take that step forward? Maybe not. WCY 2015 got 50 odd Mumbaikars thinking, maybe it’s now for these Mumbaikars to get another 100 thinking.
It was great to see that the hotel hadn’t placed the complimentary plastic bottles of water on each table, but kept jugs of filtered water with glasses. When I checked with the organisers, this was their specific request to reduce the plastic that we consumed as a group. Maybe next time such sessions could attempt to leave an even lesser carbon footprint by having an outdoor, electricity-free conference! Though it’s probably a lot to expect with Mumbai weather, and the audio and video support required can pose a challenge but it’s worth a thought.
After that well-spent Saturday, Mumbai got its first monsoon showers on Sunday and as the temperature dropped it was a delightful reminder about the power of nature, and our small but significant part in eating into her. It is upto each of us to play a positive and worthy role, and not be remembered as the negative force that destroyed this wondrous planet we all call home.