Remembering Ashok Kumar – The Old Monk Of Wildlife Conservation
Photo: Vivek Menon.
Ashok Kumar’s demise has left a gaping void in the fight against wildlife crime in India, writes long-time colleague Vivek Menon.
“Dzo ge kao na, Kujira ku na,” a line of schoolchildren chanted in unison. “Don’t sell ivory, don’t eat whale meat.” There must have been a hundred or so of them, all marching in an orderly line, each with a lit candle in their hands. In their midst was a young girl who was leading the chant, and an older Indian man who was masterminding the procession. It would have looked like any normal protest march on an Indian street except for the fact that the children were all African, the young girl was Japanese (as were the words they were all chanting), and we were in downtown Nairobi, snaking past the five-star hotels where members of the Japanese delegation to CITES were staying.
The timing was also important. It was 2 a.m., seven hours before the CITES Conference of Parties was to open in Nairobi. Among the items tabled for discussion was the trade in ivory and whale products. This orchestrated chorus of protest was a unique civil society admonishment of the Japanese delegation, a not too subtle reminder to them that elephants and whales were not for sale. Meanwhile, the brain behind the procession was already one step ahead: “I am sure this is disturbing their beauty sleep and if their sleep is disturbed, they will make mistakes tomorrow,” chuckled Ashok; “and if they make mistakes, we win!”
The Avuncular Operative
Ashok Kumar was not your archetypal naturalist. He was not schooled in the natural sciences, nor did he fit the narrow definition of the naturalist as a twitcher of birds or stalker of beasts. He did not wear over-pocketed safari clothes or sport an unkempt beard, the standard ways in which the jungle man makes himself known. Half his career was spent selling steel and cars in a world far away from wildlife and he started his profession in wildlife conservation when he was in his fifties. If you saw him you did not immediately think of a dashing wild hero, but rather an avuncular figure with a ready chuckle and a kind twinkle in his eye. He was, in that sense, made to be the best undercover operative against wildlife crime that India has ever seen.
Ashok assimilated the strength for battle from his mother, who was jailed during the Indian independence movement; the art of legal attack and defence and a love of courtroom drama from his father, a Sanskrit scholar who liked to fight cases for the right causes; and the love of the jungle from his brother-in-law, who took him tiger shooting into the forests of the terai as a young man. “I never killed a tiger,” he reminisced, “but walking those forests was magical and I learned to drink Old Monk, so something did come out of all that tramping around!” The rum remained a constant through most of his life, a brand that epitomised the raw, dark, insatiable burning for the wilds that he nurtured within himself.
His first brush with conservation was attempting to get Dalma notified as a wildlife sanctuary. He petitioned Indira Gandhi and later Sanjay Gandhi and finally got the legendary ornithologist Dr. Sálim Ali to visit the park. He tried to woo the old man to turn into an elephant lover: “Don’t you like watching elephants?” he asked Sálim Ali. “Yes, yes of course,” replied the veteran with a twinkle in his eye, “… but birdwatching is safer, no?” But Sálim sa’ab did what was required at the National Board for Wildlife and the little haven for elephants, in what was then part of Bihar, became a Protected Area.
Ashok, who was with Tata Steel at the time, followed this up by giving office space for the Eastern Region Office of the fledgling WWF in the Tata premises in Calcutta. But it was in Dubai, where he spent more than a decade in the automobile business, that he really came to occupy his niche. He saw wildlife skins being trafficked openly and so started a correspondence with the CITES Secretariat. He also interacted with Indian enforcement authorities and cracked down on the trade. And then, having had enough of the corporate world, he took early retirement to come back to India and focus on his first love.
Crime and Punishment
The ’90s were heady days for Ashok. He started the first unit to track wildlife crime in India, based out of WWF India. He hired me after he saw a piece I had written on the illegal wild bird trade, and together we started the TRAFFIC division of WWF. He was a strong and resolute advisor to the then Minister of Environment and Forests Kamal Nath and spent many a year in the ministry advising him on conservation issues. And he took to breaking down wildlife crime in India with a vengeance.
Much of his time was spent in dusty, hot, middle-income towns conducting sting operations to nab wildlife criminals, and in courts of law and police stations that most citizens would hate frequenting. Sometimes he could be found at the United Nations where he campaigned seemingly forever to stop the trade in wildlife products. On long weekends, he retired to the forests of Corbett and Rajaji, recharging his batteries for yet another battle.
It was in the ’90s too that he garnered perhaps the greatest achievements of his career. He busted the famous Sansar Chand gang and masterminded the biggest-ever seizure of tiger bones and skins that India had ever seen, prompting the Prime Minister to admit that India was undergoing a tiger crisis. He also finally nabbed Sansar Chand and put him behind bars, having pursued him for nearly a decade in courts of law and the by-lanes of wildlife crime. “Only Allah and Ashok Kumar are omnipresent,” lamented the dreaded tiger trader in the courts, when Ashok appeared yet again as a witness in a case that spelt doomsday for him.
It was that never-say-die attitude of Ashok’s, the precision of a falcon swooping in on its prey, the tenacity of a top predator to shake off a false lunge and regroup in attack, which allowed him great success in tracking down and putting wildlife criminals behind bars. He won numerous court cases, including landmark ones against ivory traders, fur dealers and shahtoosh traders. If there was one unstoppable force that traders and poachers of wildlife in India were truly afraid of, it was Ashok Kumar. And it was not just that he tracked them with a singular personal devotion, he developed institutions to combat wildlife crime. TRAFFIC was his first foray; he teamed up with Belinda Wright to set up the Wildlife Protection Society of India, then joined me yet again to create the Wildlife Trust of India. He also steered, as Member Secretary, the Supreme Court’s Subramanium Committee on wildlife crime, which led to the setting up of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India.
I worked shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm with this legend of a man for two-and-a-half decades. He was my karmic guru in protecting the wildlife of India. The father of the fight against wildlife crime, he finally achieved rest from his decades of activism when he passed away this August, a day after his 81st birthday. Those who know him well believe that he is still looking out for the forests and wildlife he so loved, an archangel of conservation running Sansar Chand and his ilk ragged in some otherworldly climes.
The author is Executive Director, Wildlife Trust of India and Senior Advisor to the Present, IFAW.
Author: Vivek Menon, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 10, October 2016.