Meet Dilip Khatau
Dilip Khatau is a globe trotter whose heart has never quite moved away from India. His ancestral home is Kutchh and his almost singular purpose in life today is to help save the tiger by working together with NGOs, government officials, local communities and the corporate sector. He met Bittu Sahgal at the Corbett Tiger Reserve on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of The Corbett Foundation. Khatau believes that Panthera tigris will survive, provided its defenders keep their nose to the ground and their shoulders to the wheel.
The elections are just over. Has the tiger won or lost?
The tiger is a survivor. No single election can determine its survival or demise. But from the point of view of Uttaranchal and the Corbett Tiger Reserve, the results are positive. In the coming days, you will see The Corbett Foundation work with the State and Central Governments to drive home the connection between protecting the tiger’s forests and the water security of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh.
What is it about Corbett that seems to have you and thousands of others in its grip?
Everything. The mahseer in the Ramganga and Kosi rivers. The elephants, tigers and deep sal forests. The cold. The heat. The birdsong. Everything. The hills of Kumaon and Garhwal have the power to repair even the most wounded psyche. Speaking for myself, over the years, the people and enduring cultures of Uttaranchal have held me in their grasp and I hope never to escape.
You were once a dyed-in-the-wool playboy. When did the tiger take over your life?
I really don’t know. It just happened. I did once live the high life on virtually every continent and would not change that part of my life for the world. But the high life for me now means sitting on the deck of my home in Corbett, listening to elephants trumpeting across the Kosi. I had read all of Jim Corbett’s stories and spent my youth camping in the Kumaon, the locale of his gripping tales. I was a hunter too, but totally supported the 1970 ban on tiger shikar. Back then I was just a spectator. I only began to actively protect tigers a decade ago when I started The Corbett Foundation.
And you suggest that the tiger will outlast prophets of doom. Is this realism or bravado?
I have lived long enough to recognise mood swings. The 90s were black days for the tiger. After initial success with Project Tiger, we lost huge tracts of tiger habitats. International poaching gangs infiltrated our defences. Tiger numbers fell from 4,000 (in the 80s) to around 2,000. But in recent days, a discernible swing is visible. Politicians may not work for the tiger, but they don’t speak publicly against it either. And our courts are pro-active about defending tiger forests. The cat still faces terrible threats but it’s a wily animal that has a knack of making a comeback given half a chance.
Did you ever think the tiger was a lost cause?
In the late 60s, I believed nothing could save the tiger. I loved the wilds then, but was not at the forefront of nature conservation. I was then cynical, bordering on apathetic. I changed my mind when Project Tiger demonstrated what could be done by collective national effort. What is more, I saw just how quickly nature was able to put back together the forests we so foolishly destroyed.
To what do you attribute Project Tiger’s relative success?
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the political will to implement it. And, of course, the all-crucial Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, which passed the Parliamentary gauntlet because people like Dr. Karan Singh and Kailash Sankhala convinced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that without forests, wild tigers had no future. Clearly all this would be of little use without the dedication of people like Digvijaysingh Khati, Field Director of Corbett, and his field staff.
You and I just returned from Bangajhala and Powalgarh in the Ramnagar Forest Division – Jim Corbett's haunts. We saw how roads are causing deforestation and siltation into the Kosi river. Is the tiger losing out on past gains?
It’s a real worry. Half of all the tiger habitats –150,000 sq. km. – have vanished in the past 30 years, including a huge chunk of the Corbett Tiger Reserve itself, under the Kalagarh Dam. We are resisting roads in critical tiger habitats around Corbett, but we believe more is to be gained by constructive engagement than confrontation; for instance by looking for less damaging alternative routes. Uttaranchal is, after all, a new state with over 60 per cent of its land area under forest cover. When its people are told that the tiger provides them with water, they ask whether it can also provide them with jobs and cash. Some rowdies recently burned effigies of Corbett Foundation Trustees because we opposed roads in the tiger reserve! But by and large Uttaranchalis are extremely proud of their natural heritage. We will turn this to the tiger’s advantage.
Photo: N.C. Dhingra.
By working with women and children in villages to win their support and participation in solving their most pressing problem – water. You yourself have promised to help us do this through Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Complan Tiger Programme in Ramnagar. As of now, together with the Forest Department, we are involving people in small projects to restore soil and moisture regimes. This will provide some jobs in the short term and water and soil fertility in the long run.
Is there real hope of getting long-term support from communities for whom one tomorrow is an eternity?
Of course there is, Bittu. The Corbett Foundation works in 50 villages that ring the tiger reserve. We hold regular baithaks (sittings) and we speak to them about their problems – health, education and women’s rights. Our doctors visit every village to treat and medicate. These doctors talk to locals about tigers and forests and water for wells and farms. It’s a slow process. But we are constants in peoples’ lives. Even in changing political circumstances they know we are on their side.
Can we switch to tourism? You own the Infinity Resort in Dhikuli. But tourist lodges block elephant corridors between Corbett and Ramnagar.
There can be no denying this. But do remember that when we built our lodge a decade ago, we ourselves did not block any elephant corridor. And even our worst critics today acknowledge that we have been good neighbours to both wildlife and local villagers. The elephant corridor problem began when Corbett’s popularity began to attract quick money seekers. They set up ‘wall-to-wall’ lodges to our left and right on the banks of the Kosi using permissions from pliant Gram Pradhans who should have known better. Successive Field Directors of the Corbett Tiger Reserve raised concerns, but because these were on revenue lands they could not stop the proliferation of lodges. But we are working on plans to carve out new routes for elephants at vulnerable points. In this, we need the help of district officials.
What about the type of tourism being promoted. Don’t you think that it is too tiger-centric?
The tiger is such a powerful animal that to some extent this is probably inevitable. But I agree with you. We need to orient visitors to see more. Experience more. As Bikram Grewal of Delhibird keeps pointing out, Corbett is probably one of the world’s best birding destinations. Not many people know that the Corbett Tiger Reserve bird count is higher than that of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo Ghana! When birders from the UK, Europe and the USA start coming to Corbett, the balance will automatically shift away from the tiger.
But do we have trained guides who can tell one bird from another?
Not enough, but we are getting there. Delhibird is going to impart birdwatching training to 75 tourist guides in Corbett. By the way most of them are from Ramnagar and earn between 40 and 60,000 rupees each year. Working with wildlife officials we will turn such guides into ambassadors for wildlife conservation in the months ahead.
Photo: N.C. Dhingra.
There is the other accusation; that tourism does nothing for locals.
I can only speak for our own facility. We believe we have given back more to the local economy than we have taken from it. Not merely in cash, but by way of medical, health and education programmes. You saw this yourself yesterday when you met 30 Gram Pradhans during The Corbett Foundation baithak.
That's true. I also saw that many Gram Pradhans were women who were more articulate than the men! But I noticed that they wanted to be paid to help put out fires in the park. Are you making any headway with winning their support for wildlife protection?
We are, but not by far enough, or fast enough. Gyan Sarin who heads The Corbett Foundation, says that women tend to listen more carefully and they follow through on most promises and agreements. Fuel wood and fodder outside the park has been so over-exploited that people are now facing resource deprivation. So they look to the park for their biomass needs. When prevented they respond angrily, sometimes actually setting the fires. It is a tough situation, but the truth is that all of us working for wildlife are guilty of spending too little time and energy on solving problems for ordinary people. It’s not just crop raiding, or even human-animal conflicts, people are alienated because they are constantly accused of being the problem itself. The Corbett Foundation works on the assumption that they are potentially a part of the solution.
And who are your allies in this mission?
I am happy to say that the list is too long to reproduce here. But clearly the principal ally is the Uttaranchal Forest Department. And Brijendra Singh, whose life has been devoted to Corbett, is a guiding light for us. So are people like Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh, who has played such a major role in protecting the tiger in the decades gone by. The WWF-India’s Terai Arc team is working with us to secure forest corridors. There are so many more.
What drives you? Is there a master key to the seemingly implacable conservation issues confronting India?
I am driven by the belief that somehow nature will find a way to repair itself. Our job is to allow it to do so. We have serious problems to tackle in the days ahead, ranging from climate change and deforestation to the protection of endangered species like the tiger and all the wildlife associated with it. In this, the 30th year of Project Tiger, I believe the key to good governance is to teach young people to understand, defend, and even worship nature’s monuments – mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, deserts and coasts. There can be no better way for them to express their love for their country, or to add meaning to their own lives.
To support The Corbett Foundation, contact:
Gyan Sarin, The Corbett Foundation,
405, International Trade Tower, Nehru Place,
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIV No. 3, June 2004.