Home People In Remembrance K.S. Lavkumar Khachar – Iconic Naturalist And Defender Of Wild Nature

K.S. Lavkumar Khachar – Iconic Naturalist And Defender Of Wild Nature

K.S. Lavkumar Khachar – Iconic Naturalist And Defender Of Wild Nature

“Let us create opportunities for more and more young people to swim the sea, climb the Himalaya and to watch such sunrises.” – K.S. Lavkumar Khachar
Photo: Bhushan Pandya.

Lavkumar Khachar, an associate of Dr. Sálim Ali, passed away at the age of 84. His student days were first spent in Rajkumar College, Rajkot, and then in St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and he went on to become one of India’s most iconic naturalists. He was many things to many people, but his lasting legacy will probably be a lifetime spent fashioning naturalists out of thousands of budding young nature enthusiasts. Unconditionally straightforward, he was an unflinching defender of wild nature and while dozens of people felt the heat of his passion when they came up against him on this issue or that, I have not met any who interacted closely with him, without being impressed and inspired.

One by one the oaks are falling. I knew Lavkumar personally for most of my life as an uncompromising, infectiously good-humoured naturalist who was born to the Jasdan royal family of Gujarat, and whose heart belonged to wild nature.

Before launching Sanctuary Asia in 1981, I sat with him in the Bombay Natural History Society library and the gist of what he said to me was this: “Look around you at the writings of bygone days. These accounts are all personal observations by naturalists who loved being outdoors, faithfully describing what they saw, then leaving others with experience to interpret. If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

He was really busy those days putting finishing touches to the epic Sixty Indian Birds, a book he co-authored with K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, but on more than one occasion asked about when Sanctuary Asia was going to make its appearance, often adding: “Frankly, I doubt that you will be able to run or sustain a magazine of the kind you describe!” Nevertheless, like Dr. Sálim Ali, R.E. Hawkins, K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, Zafar Futehally, Kailash Sankhala, S.P. Shahi, S. Deb Roy, Fateh Singh Rathore and so many other departed conservationists, he freely invested time and energy into Sanctuary Asia. All these greats believed the magazine was vital to India’s wildlife conservation movement and not a day passes when I am not reminded of my debt of gratitude to them.

Lavkumar was undoubtedly one of the architects of the wildlife conservation movement in India. He conceived and launched the massive nature club movement for the World Wildlife Fund of India (WWF-India), guided the destiny of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for long decades, added his vast nature-education experience to the mission of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and catalysed the birth of scores of small and vital nature conservation initiatives such as Snehal Patel’s Nature Club, Surat.

His initial focus was, predictably, the Gir forest and its surrounds, which he championed while based at his headquarters at ‘Sundarvan’ in Ahmedabad. An accomplished naturalist who revelled in being ‘out there’, he felt that a new crop of young Indians were emerging with very little connect to the natural world. He thus made it his single-minded mission to change that. The nature camps he ran through the Hingolgadh Nature Conservation and Education Programme, and up in the Himalaya in Manali were legendary in that they did not merely serve to mould large numbers of young persons, but also grew to become universities of sorts where nature educators were injected with both knowledge and conservation values.

Lavkumar Khachar was the quintessential green teacher. Here, he talks about nature to students from the Rajkumar College, his alma mater. Photo Courtesy: The Rajkumar College, Rajkot.

Just how viscerally in love with and in awe of nature he was might best be judged by a passage from a 5,000-word article he wrote for Sanctuary Asia in January 1983, based on a trek to Nanda Devi’s Valley of Flowers:

Harsh environments allow only very limited life forms to survive. By virtue of their adaptability however, once they find a niche, the lack of competition enables plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals to exist in a state of equilibrium almost indefinitely. In Nanda Devi's basin, the web of life had remained virtually unaltered for millions of years. Each summer brought new life to the mountain as plants and insects thrived and in turn sustained the larger life forms. I was awestruck when I realised that the area I was in was possibly the last remnant of the extensive Himalayan pastures that had existed before the advent of man.

It was this infectious passion that he infused in all those who came into contact with him. The mind boggles at the thought of the sheer number of such ‘impacted individuals’ who now head nature clubs and conservation organisations across India, including Kishor Rithe of the Satpuda Foundation, who candidly credits Lavkumar as his source of his inspiration and values, not directly but through his teachers who attended Khachar’s camps and who in turn inspired Rithe.

Equally, his strongly-held, and freely expressed opinions raised hackles and often caused even those who loved and admired him to climb walls in despair. But with his signature smile and that naughty twinkle in his eye, he had the knack for winning his irate friends back. No one I know was ever able to hold a grudge too long against Lavkumar Khachar.

He was viscerally opposed to translocating lions from Gir to Kuno and fell just short of giving the Supreme Court judges a piece of his mind! Equally, he minced no words against those who opposed the Narmada Project, which he championed vociferously:

The big dams be damned, let us talk of basics. Surely each Indian must be guaranteed one hot cup of tea a day. That totals to a billion-plus cups of tea. That one cup of tea needs fuel for heating the water, milk and sugar, and diesel for transporting the tea from Assam or Kerala… naïve people must not attempt to lead social revolutions. They cause great harm.

Lavkumar was like that. Direct, often scathing about those he considered ‘anti-Gujarat’, who in his opinion were forcing large numbers of people in Gujarat to rise up against dangerous undercurrents created by so-called environmentalists in combination with irresponsible reporting by the English press. All this, without an ounce of malice and trunks-full of good humour.

In his long association with wild India, Lavkumar Khachar retained personal dignity and integrity and was never once afraid of expressing strong opinions even against those who believed he was ‘on their side’. He called me once asking how best we could fight plans to denotify much of the Little Rann of Kutchh to facilitate more salt pans. A pragmatic man, he nevertheless shared an excellent relationship with Tata Chemicals and even sought their help to protect and manage the Charakla Saltpans, and praised them for the good work they were doing by encouraging birds to thrive on lands in their control. He also readily wrote testy letters to them if and when he felt they were crossing the line between commerce and conservation.

While Lavkumar was widely admired and loved, he was probably not as appreciated and acknowledged enough in his lifetime as he rightfully deserved. He was presented with the prestigious Sálim Ali-Loke Wan Tho Lifetime Award for Excellence in Ornithology, the Venu Menon Lifetime Achievement Award and the Delhi Bird Lifetime Achievement Award. He took all these in his stride, grateful, but not overwhelmed. I doubt that India will see too many more people of the mettle of this gritty man who was a rare combination of emotion, intellect and science.

Bhushan Pandya who shared Khachar’s unshakable love for Gujarat’s wilderness areas wrote to Sanctuary about this huge loss: "Lavkumar Khachar, has left us with a nature conservation vacuum. He may not be with us, but the green teacher he was will continue to reside in our minds and hearts through his teachings and his on-ground conservation efforts over the last six decades.”

Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015.

 
 
 

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