Meet Rajesh Gopal
October 2003: Quiet, unassuming and backed by almost 15 years of field experience in Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Rajesh Gopal is the man currently in charge of Project Tiger. In the 30th year of its existence, he speaks to Bittu Sahgal about his hopes and fears for the future of Panthera tigris.
There are hundreds of people who would give anything to have your job.
Well, I would not give it up for the world! I feel alive when I am in tigerland. Though I am a scientist, I am humbled by nature's perfection, which no human being will ever fully comprehend.
You have spent most of your life in the wild haven't you?
You could say that. Nearly 15 years between Kanha and Bandhavgarh, which were once contiguous and intimately connected forests. I did my doctoral thesis based on my field experience. The truth is that I envy those who live truly close to the earth. People such as Manglu Baiga, a living legend in Kanha. The instinctive knowledge of such simple people outshines scientific learning. In 1996, Manglu came quietly to me and took me to a spot in the Kanha meadow near the museum where he pointed out a python in the process of swallowing a small chital. To this day, I will never quite know how he always managed to "know" what was going on in the forest, but he did.
H.S. Panwar knew him too and spoke equally admiringly of him.
No one who knew Manglu could be anything but filled with admiration. On another occasion in the Kanha meadow, he once took me to a tiger family (a resident male, female and a pair of two-year-old cubs) that were sharing a kill. We sat for hours watching them and I saw a cub licking a wound on his father's paw. Such rare, almost religious experiences, are part of the life and lore of such simple people.
May I switch tracks? It has been 30 years now. Has Project Tiger failed?
No, it is a role model for others to emulate. Wild tigers are still with us, though many people said that the species would not last to see the new millennium. To that extent, it is a success. But its survival graph is being severely tested right now and if we rest on past laurels the story may not have a happy ending.
What do we have to do to save the tiger?
Look, I am a scientist. If you really want an answer you would need to devote the rest of your magazine for me! But to put it simply! it needs wild spaces in which to live, it needs humans to want it to live and its protectors need to be enabled to save it. Nature will do the rest.
As simple as that?
Yes! Project Tiger has demonstrated just how dramatically habitat recovery can take place. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, the odds against the animal were much higher than they are today because the nation was largely unaware of the rationale for protecting tigers. Today, thanks to a large extent to efforts from magazines like Sanctuary and many wildlife organisations, not only India, but the whole world wants the tiger to be saved. We must now turn this support into action on the ground. We have to set aside wild habitats for prey species to survive and win the support of economists and politicians by pointing out that the nation's water and food security is dependent on the 300 rivers that originate in Project Tiger habitats.
Some suggest that too much attention has been lavished on the tiger and that other species are suffering as a consequence.
They are ignorant of the basic assumption on which Project Tiger has been founded – that the tiger stands on an edifice of plants and animals and that the strike strategy to save the cat is to save its forest home and all species residing therein.
Can you give me some examples?
My doctoral thesis was on the barasingha of Kanha. More than anyone else, I know that Project Tiger saved this endangered animal to a great extent because of the protection afforded to the Kanha meadows and surrounding areas. Similar examples exist across the country, where species ranging from lesser cats in Sariska and tree shrews in Bhadra to elephants in Corbett have benefitted in the name of the tiger. I could go on forever to name orchids in Namdapha, reptiles in Ranthambhore and even sharks in the Sundarbans.
Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger advised that we should do nothing and allow nothing to be done as nature would look after the tiger. You place a greater reliance on science.
Essentially, Sankhala's philosophy continues to be the cornerstone of Project Tiger. We continue to rely on natural regeneration, not habitat or species manipulation. But scientific wildlife management techniques have improved manifold today. These help us understand the tiger's needs and evaluate its habitat better. Science also helps us estimate tiger numbers more reliably. We can audit ecological changes with aid from Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and for the first time we will have a tiger atlas of India. Like guns and vehicles, science is a vital tool to protect the tiger. Forensic advances are helping enhance crime detection and effectiveness against the wildlife trade.
How many tigers do we have in India today?
No one can give you an exact count, but we have slid back somewhat from the successes of the "80s. The trade in tiger bones and the systematic fragmentation of tiger habitats owing to population pressures outside our sanctuaries and national parks has rendered the species vulnerable to local extinctions. There were fewer that 2,000 tigers on the day Project Tiger was launched in 1973. This number probably doubled in a decade and a half, but the graph slipped downwards again, though steps have now been taken to stabilise these numbers.
So which method pugmark, or photo trapping do you advocate?
It's not a question of one or the other. Pugmarks will continue to be the prime source of tiger information in the country. We are evolving region-specific protocols and monitoring systems in the GIS domain. This will incorporate methods best suited to a site including camera-traps, which involves using infra-red beams to digitally "capture" tiger images for later identification through stripe patterns in specific areas. Digital photography also helps track movement of individuals so that we can protect their extended ranges. Overall we are slowly getting a more accurate picture of tiger populations. While the numbers are rising in the best-protected areas, we are deeply concerned about the fall in the number of tigers outside protected forests.
But with 60 per cent of all tigers living outside, are we overseeing the tiger's demise?
That is far too pessimistic a view. Several new government initiatives are coming to the tiger's defence today. As was the case in 1973, the tiger has also found new friends, including the one million children who are part of Sanctuary's Kids for Tigers initiative. Recent changes introduced by the Government in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 including the Community Conserved Areas will help us to introduce region-specific protection for corridors and fringe tiger habitats. We even intend to use the Environment (Protection) Act to declare corridors and buffer areas as Ecologically Sensitive. This is vital as many of our best tiger reserves including Corbett, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore already have an optimum tiger population and any increase will have to come from the natural regeneration of new areas.
Are you being given the resources you need to do the job?
No amount of resources will ever be "enough". But the Government of India's Tenth Plan has indeed accorded priority to the serious issue of human-animal conflicts, for instance. We have funds to resettle villages who wish to move voluntarily out of parks and sanctuaries. As of now, we have been given Rs. 150 crores for Project Tiger. Of course, I want more, but I intend to use what I have to the fullest. We have also invested a good deal of money for eco-development, which I know you have been critical of for some time!
That is true. It was meant to be ecological development and has become economic development. Even the World Bank agrees that this project has not fulfilled its intent.
Bittu, the problem is that park managers cannot possibly become social activists, finance experts and sociologists all rolled into one. To solve the problems of people living outside tiger habitats, we need the fullest support and cooperation from District Collectors, bureaucrats, villagers and civil society itself. When there is any problem outside the Protected Area, the Project Tiger Field Directors, or park managers become the single point of blame, which I think is unfair.
And still you struggle on. What moves Rajesh Gopal?
I love wildlife. I can't think of any better purpose in life than to defend God's creations. E.P Gee's Wildlife of India was like a bible for me. Equally, I feel a sense of responsibility towards the brave souls who have gone before us. Deb Roy, S.P. Shahi, Kailash Sankhala, S.R. Choudhury... all these stalwarts have gone, but I feel they are up there somewhere watching over us. How can we let them down?
Does your family support you in this quest?
Absolutely. My wife and kids are proud of what I do and without their support I would be unable to achieve anything. My father was an officer in the Railways and as a result I spent much of my childhood in and around Lucknow and Delhi. I fondly remember birdwatching and nature outings in his company and these were my first seeds of love for nature. Incidentally, he was the one who introduced me to Sanctuary by presenting me with the premier issue in October 1981! Ever since, I have collected every single issue! In fact, the article written by H.S. Panwar on the tigers of Kanha was a great inspiration and led me to devote a significant part of my life to studying wildlife.
Do you have plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Project Tiger?
I would not term them as celebrations, but we have a lot of plans. Apart from the usual workshops, distribution of posters and literature, we intend to work with Doordarshan on a documentary on Project Tiger and we are in the process of putting together a definitive document on the status of the tiger in India. We are going to focus largely on children as it is their heritage we seek to defend.
In my view, Project Tiger provides real hope for the survival of the striped predator in India. The Prime Minister of India has made a personal promise to save the tiger. And we now have over one million Kids for Tigers around India who have sworn to help save the cat. T.R. Baalu, Minister of Environment and Forests is also deeply committed to Project Tiger. This is in India's best national interests because these forests are the sources of our finest, purest rivers and lakes.
I believe that together we can and will save the tiger. And towards this end, children will surely play a huge role in winning public support and re-launching Project Tiger. The task before us involves stirring the imagination of the nation to raise support for this magnificent animal.
What is Project Tiger's greatest challenge?
With a mere two per cent of the world's forest areas, and more than 15 per cent of the world's livestock and human populations, we must maintain a viable population of tigers in India for all times, together with the biological heritage that belongs to generations unborn.