Meet Rajiv Bhartari – Field Director, Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand
Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.
Born in Dehradun and schooled in Meerut, Rajiv Bhartari did his masters in botany at the Delhi University and was selected to join the Indian Forest Service even before he graduated. The forest was a part of his childhood, as his father was a Madhya Pradesh cadre Forest Officer. He spoke with Bittu Sahgal by lamplight in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, about his passion for wildlife and the hard business of protecting it.
People visit Corbett for a few days, then regale the world with exotic tales. One can only begin to imagine the stories you have to tell.
Here’s one. Years ago, one monsoon at sunset, when the park was closed for visitors, I was on patrol on elephant back, across the Ramganga river at Phulai chaur. Some distance away, a herd of elephants were grazing and I got down to observe and photograph them from behind a tall tuft of grass. The pachyderms moved slowly in our direction and when they came close, I took a photograph. The lead elephant froze, then turned tail. Then the entire herd started running away from me. The sight of over 100 elephants moving in one direction and hundreds of chital deer in another direction was an unbelievable spectacle. Years later, when recounting the story to a visitor, he remarked that the click of a camera sounds similar to that of a gun being loaded! It sounded plausible and made me marvel at the intelligence of elephants, their past traumas and the dramatic impact even minor human actions can have on animal behaviour.
That was a good one and heaven knows how many more stories you have in store! Tell me, though you serve the park named after him, is it true you started out disliking Corbett?
I suppose you could say so. I would studiously avoid the shikaar cupboard in the school library and my distaste for anything to do with hunting continued through my early professional life. Frankly, I avoided Jim Corbett in favour of Norah Burke’s stories in Jungle Pictures. Her father was a Conservator of Forests in early 19th century Garhwal and Kumaon and he administered forests that are now part of the Corbett National Park. She was the one I admired.
So what changed? You are now one of India’s ‘Corbett Experts’.
I researched Jim Corbett at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and awoke to his greatness. He was a pioneer, not just where conservation was concerned, but also in social development. His personal investment in the villagers of Choti Haldwani could be held out as a lesson in modern ‘people-park management’. Corbett’s was a coherent, unique life philosophy. It imparted a universal appeal to his books that surpassed boundaries of space and time.
Let’s move on to you. When did tigers enter your life?
I was a probationer posted in the Sampurnanagar Range of the North Kheri Forest Division, the buffer zone of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. I saw my first two tigers here, plus a ratel. At this point, I had also been selected for the Indian Police Service and, perhaps, these animals helped me make a career choice.
And was it wildlife for you from day one?
Not quite. Between 1989 and 1992, I worked as a Divisional Forest Officer in the Social Forestry Division in the Bulandshahar District. I was responsible for raising plantations on alkaline lands and along the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. But the area was incredibly rich in wildlife and I estimated a population of around 2,000 blackbuck in the district, more than most sanctuaries.
And what cemented your wildlife destiny?
The trigger was a Diploma Course in Wildlife Management at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 1992-1993. I wanted to pick up skills in the art and science of wildlife management before actually working in a national park. Much of the work I do in Corbett today was conceived during my training. I also read all I could, spoke to conservationists and visited Protected Areas.
The Corbett Tiger Reserve has pretty much been your life, hasn’t it?
It’s been 14 years thus far. I was the Deputy Director between 1993 and 1999.
Photo: Aditya Singh.
So you probably know this forest like the back of your hand?
Yes, you could say that. I drafted the management plan for the park and, in the process, I gained an incredible amount of knowledge about legal issues, law enforcement and the process of relocation of villagers from Dhara, Jhirna and Kothirao. Subsequently, when I began work on the development of the Jhirna Tourism Zone, I greatly benefitted by speaking with communities whose participation I sought to improve the park and the living standard of communities through ecological development of the buffer areas.
It must be tough, and frustrating, trying to undertake such a massive task with limited resources?
It is tough, absorbing and interesting and we try to make what resources we have go as far as possible. I have studied countries like South Africa and believe that here in Corbett we have reason to be proud of our methods. We have not only designed regulations for tourists that are safe for wildlife, but also good for tourism. We have also organised training courses for nature guides and have launched a Corbett Bird Watching Programme to help move the focus away from the tiger.
With so much international focus, the park is really a brand ambassador for India. Such training must be an Uttarakhand affair right?
Absolutely. We strive constantly to raise awareness and improve skills of our own staff and of guides and mahouts. Events like the platinum jubilee celebration of the Corbett National Park, and the establishment of a Corbett Centre for Wildlife Training at Kalagarh that I had worked on with my team were huge events that actually raised the quality bar of all associated with Corbett.
Then there is the other side, the more difficult one involving poachers and politics and social stress on the periphery. And, of course, the continuous stream of gratuitous criticism and advice.
Yes. Poaching is certainly the dark side, the unromantic side of our work. My tenure has been fraught with problems, as would be that of any manager of a large Protected Area (PA). But the challenge has also been part of my personal development that provided an opportunity to hone my wildlife management skills. Advice is always welcome. We take what is relevant and ignore what is not. As for critics, they play a very positive role, irrespective of their motives. But sometimes I do wish I could put them in the hot seat and see how well they perform!
The Wildlife Institute and Corbett Park have been interchangeable constants in your life.
They have. After my first stint at Corbett, I moved to WII as a faculty member, then became a professor there for three years supervising research on the history of the park and Jim Corbett. Some people thought I suffered ‘Corbett Tunnel Vision’ but the fact is that interactions with other PA managers, their problems and also interactions at the national and international level have helped broaden my horizons.
And have you worked in other PAs?
Yes, I have. Between November 2003 and April 2005, I was posted as Conservator of Forests, Bhagirathi Circle at Muni Ki Reti. This was a tough assignment involving territorial forests, but it included the incredible Gangotri, India’s third largest national park. This was largely a ‘paper park’ with no recognition, infrastructure and regulations. The principals are the same – protect, manage people and parks to the advantage of both (if possible) and try to ensure that external influences do not have an adverse impact on the area in your charge. I learned about life, not just wildlife, while looking after this high-altitude habitat.
What are the most serious issues confronting the park? Do you have the necessary support and resources to protect Corbett?
The three most critical problems are rapid land-use change, spread of invasive plants including Lantana and the decrease in moisture availability, coupled with erosion and land degradation. To what extent the last two are related to climate change and fire management practices remains to be seen. As far as resources go, the task is so immense that almost nothing would be ‘enough’. But I do wish we could scientifically analyse management programmes and establish systems for long-term monitoring of the habitat. I also wish it was possible for legal intervention to prevent ill-advised land-use practices that set back conservation.
I notice you do not mention poaching as one of your top three problems, despite the rash of elephant killings that took place before you took charge?
The management initiated Operation Lord soon after those infamous killings. Nearly 200 local youth were employed as watchers to strengthen patrolling. This actually benefitted tigers too. We are better protected because there is far greater vigilance. No poaching has been detected inside Corbett National Park in recent times but sporadic cases continue to be detected in the peripheral areas. Long-term joint foot patrols have been organised with adjoining Forest Divisions and the Bijnore Plantation Division to check this.
Photo: Aditya Singh.
How do you spend your time in the park when you have no specific work agenda?
I love birding, but (wistfully) I cannot remember when I last went to the park without a specific work agenda.
Why are you so aloof from NGOs? Do you think they have a constructive role to play in wildlife protection?
Am I aloof? My colleagues think not! They say I am “an NGO-type official”. Let me make it clear. NGO support is vital for wildlife conservation. But we need dialogue, transparency and accountability from NGOs, just the way they demand it from government officials. Also, some degree of coordination to prevent duplication. Five NGOs doing the same kind of thing because that is either the least difficult or the easiest way to raise funds can hardly benefit any park. NGOs must strike a chord with the local people. At another level, credible NGOs must set up an intelligence-gathering network and work in tandem with us for enforcement. Yes, NGOs have a very vital role to play in wildlife conservation.
You are one of India’s leading ecotourism experts and have implemented many of the suggestions of the National Wildlife Action Plan in Corbett. Is this a replicable experiment? Can tourism actually become a conservation tool in India?
I believe ecotourism is destined to play a very vital role in wildlife conservation tomorrow. I have worked as the Conservator Ecotourism for Uttarakhand and I helped set up the Centre for Ecotourism and Sustainable Livelihoods at Chunakhan near Corbett. Within our park today, we have used three guidelines for tourism: 1. We used existing buildings rather than build new constructions. 2. We focussed on human resources and alternative technologies and equipments. 3. We undertook meticulous planning and training. Our visitor response suggests that something we did worked. Tourism will become a tool for conservation if it is planned with wildlife conservation at its heart, and if it is solidly implemented and monitored. Also, if we have a buy in from tourism professionals.
How can we forge common cause between the government and NGOs?
By first being clear about a vision, about where we want to end up and by which route. We often agree on a course of action but have different visions for the future. This leads to conflict. Clearly, adjoining communities and stakeholders need to be involved in tourism development, management and monitoring as owners and planners, not merely as menial employees. Corbett offers us the opportunity to test replicable experiments across the country. It is a good training ground for village communities and conservation practitioners.
Tourism can become a tool for conservation in India only if you have appropriate plans, regulations and monitoring systems. Responsible sectors of the tourism industry need to be acknowledged and supported through incentives.
Is the buffer of the Corbett Tiger Reserve being adversely affected by road development?
Bittu, roads are fundamental to the development of any region, particularly in a mountainous state like Uttarakhand where access is difficult. But yes, roads can fragment habitats and this can cause permanent loss of habitats. Whereas wildlife populations can recover from poaching, permanent habitat loss can be fatal to species. Wider roads also encourage more people to drive faster 24x7 and ribbon development could certainly make life difficult for animals. Long-ranging animals like elephants and territorial animals like tigers are the worst affected by habitat fragmentation. Corbett is unique in that it enjoys an uninterrupted continuum of forests outside the tiger reserve boundary. But the animals desperately need free access to the Kosi river and its forests. Any interruptions would need to be looked at very carefully and remedied.
So are we seeing the beginning of the end? Is the tiger crisis going to overwhelm Corbett too?
Corbett is the tiger’s domain. My staff is well trained and motivated. We will ensure that the tiger survives. But present and future citizens must share this dream.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII No. 2, April 2007.