Photograph by Shekhar Dattatri.
Born in 1941 to an armed forces family, K.M.Chinnappa is the quintessential wildlife protector. A true son of the soil, his father was a soldier who took to farming after retirement. Chinnappa joined the Karnataka Forest Department as a Forester in 1967 and has been a frontline warrior all his life. For much of his career he served as a Ranger in Nagarahole, where he was best known for his uncompromising ways and his almost fanatical adherence to the law. He won the Chief Minister’s Gold Medal in 1985, but chose to take voluntary retirement in 1993 to serve the wildlife he loved even better “from the outside”. He speaks here with Bittu Sahgal about his life and his mission to protect the wildlife of Karnataka.
You have been selected to receive the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award. Your reaction?
I am delighted of course. Also very surprised. I did what I did because wildlife is the purpose of my life. That others have thought this worthy of such recognition will drive me to work even harder for the wildlife of India.
But why wildlife? What moved you to devote your entire life to wildlife and forest protection?
I was born in a village called Kumtur, very close to the Nagarahole and Brahmagiri forests in the Western Ghats. As a child, these wild forests injected a love for nature in me. Such love never leaves you. And if people want to harm what you love, you automatically become a protector.
And why did you choose to join the forest department?
In those days this was our best option. There were no NGOs to employ people like me. When I joined the forest service in 1967 eyebrows were raised by my Divisional Forest Officer, because I opted for a posting in a remote forest section, refusing a ‘lucrative’ job at a much coveted checking gate. I love the forest. This has always been the purpose of my life. I will always be grateful to the forest department for providing me an opportunity to serve in wildlife areas.
I have seen you in the forest with elephants. The look on your face changes completely! What is it about them that you love so much?
I love the way they live, they look, their behaviour... Anyone who has lived near elephants will also confirm that their family relationships are inspirational. These animals were born to be free and that is what places like Nagarahole are meant for.
Was Nagarahole always like this? What was it like when you first served here?
Actually when I first came to Nagarahole there were literally thousands of people living inside the forest. Poaching was rampant. The hadlus (swamps) that are so attractive to elephants and other wild animals today, were occupied paddy fields! Only after the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, were the hadlus returned to their natural state. And then wildlife gradually returned.
This must make you feel good today.
Yes. Today, whenever I watch a group of elephants or a herd of gaur in the swamps I remember how tough life once was for them. My experience over the past few decades of protection clearly shows that left to their devices and with proper protection, viable wildlife populations and habitats can and will recover. Observing this healing process has been one of my greatest rewards. When I think back over the many years, I see this recovery process as a gift to future generations of Indians.
But all this has not been easy. You have been shot at and threatened often.
After I joined service, I always believed that my singular duty in life was to take on poachers, battle them and beat them back. Even during armed encounters with poaching gangs, my sole concern would be protection of animals and to me no cost was too high. This firm conviction made me so resolute that never once did I back out of any fight, however dangerous it was.
And did the forest department stand by you and your family?
I received overwhelming support and encouragement from some of my senior officers during the moments of crisis that I faced while in service. As so often happens, people against whom we have to take action, once falsely implicated me on murder charges. Can you imagine that? Technically, I was even ‘jailed’ in 1988. I was facing suspension from the service to which I had given my whole life. It was a very traumatic time for me and my family. But it was my Chief Conservator of Forests, Mr. Parameswarappa, who stepped in and prevented me from being suspended. These things are part of any person’s life when you fight for wildlife.
But is this a very frequent occurrence?
I would not say it is frequent, but it is always a threat. I remember in 1992, a huge mob attacked Nagarahole following the death of a local poacher. They not only set fire to parts of the national park but also burnt my house in Kumtur village. During this crisis, the then DFO, C. Srinivasan rushed from Hunsur with reinforcements. The next day Mr. Parameswarappa, then the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, came to Nagarahole and backed me up fully. Many of my colleagues and staff also supported my crusade against poachers and smugglers. In the end it is such teamwork that is essential.
Photograph by T.N.A. Perumal.
So has all this work secured the future of Nagarahole?
As mentioned, people once cultivated paddy, even brewed liquor in the park! Forget about the tiger, even deer sightings were few and far between then. We were under-staffed and under-equipped. I had only two watchers, one guard, one elephant and one gun to patrol an area of 100 sq. km. But we persisted and it paid off. Today, the situation is very different. Sustained protection and the dedicated efforts of the protection staff with whom I worked have resulted in Nagarahole becoming one of India’s finest tiger forests. It does have a secure future, but only if commercial interests and their political and financial backers, such as the World Bank, are kept far from wildlife reserves. These people do not understand nature, they only understand money, which animals cannot eat.
Talking about understanding nature, you have long been an advocate of strong research.
Yes. We must supplement field experience with hard data collected by conservation biologists. For instance, the long-term study conducted by Dr. Ullas Karanth has actually documented the process of Nagarahole’s amazing recovery. His analysis reveals that the prey biomass in Nagarahole compares with that of the African savannas and this in turn supports a healthy population of tigers.
So you would hold Nagarahole out as one of our early success stories?
Yes, but I would quickly add that the battle is far from over. New threats are emerging and we need to be on constant guard and also ensure that the park is managed scientifically.
Can we switch tracks? What is your view on the Veerappan phenomenon? How did he manage to elude detection for so long?
Veerappan was a wily forest bandit who knew the terrain like the back of his hand. Though he was evil, I have to admit he was a past master at identifying calls of animals and birds as he lived in the forest all his life. He evaded arrest because he would detect the approach of humans/police very early and slip quietly away. It is this jungle craft that kept him out of reach.
And now that he is gone?
Already there is talk of the stone quarry operators demanding the opening up of restrictions clamped during the Veerappan hunt. We need to look at this a little differently. An excellent opportunity for long term conservation of elephants has presented itself. The need of the hour is to notify the large patches of forests in Kollegal, Satyamangalam, M.M. Hills and Moyar areas contiguous with the Biliguri Rangaswamy Temple, Bandipur and Mudumalai parks and upgrade the same to Protected Areas. This will ensure day-to-day patrolling and setting up of anti-poaching camps that will serve a two-fold purpose: 1) They will serve as a catalyst in the recovery of elephant populations (which Veerappan diminished ruthlessly) 2) It will effectively prevent ‘mini-Veerappans’ from moving into the vacuum left by him. Such petty crooks, ironically, were rendered inactive when Veerappan was around.
Photograph by R.G. Srikantha.
Can I touch upon an issue that I know is sub-judice? Please do not answer it if you feel uncomfortable. Cases were filed against you and your colleagues recently under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972? Why? And what are you doing to counter the allegations?
(Smiling) As you yourself said, this is sub-judice. We have approached the courts for justice and we have the fullest faith not only in the judiciary, but in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 too. Seven cases have already been stayed. The Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Honourable Supreme Court of India has inquired into the matter and held that our activities were bona fide. They said we the ‘accused’ have in fact helped protect forests and wildlife We are now consulting our lawyers to question such extraordinary abuse of official power to curb our fundamental constitutional rights and to try to prevent us from discharging our fundamental constitutional duties of protecting forests, wildlife and rivers. When officialdom is pressured to harm the interests of wildlife, it seriously threatens the survival of India’s priceless natural heritage. I do not wish to say any more than this at this stage.
If you were appointed the Forest Minister of Karnataka, what are the first three things you would do?
If I did not first die of shock I would:
1) Direct the forest department to refocus and rededicate itself to its core duty of protection and enforcement.
2) Make concerted efforts to strengthen Protected Areas by consolidation and reduce fragmentation of habitats through well planned incentive-driven voluntary resettlement projects.
3) Invite expert scientific opinion for better management and monitoring of Protected Areas.
Sanctuary will take your message to over one million Kids for Tigers across India. Do you have any message for them? How do you reach out to children?
First, let me say how glad I am that you are catching them young. If we provide our children with opportunities to experience nature firsthand... they will never repeat the mistakes of our generations. This is what I am currently doing in Karnataka through an education programme that reaches out to children living in towns and villages near tiger habitats. To your Kids for Tigers and to all other children interested in wildlife I would say: “Pick up the baton and run the conservation marathon. For at stake in the future is a glass of clean drinking water, which nature provides free and for which no one should be asked to pay.”
Photograph by N.C. Dhingra.
Editor’s Note: K.M. Chinnappa is the President of Wildlife First. In all, 12 criminal cases have been filed in various courts against 18 conservationists associated with Wildlife First, a Bangalore-based NGO. These were the result of three principal conservation activities they undertook, for which they are now accused of alleged “trespass into the national park” for: a) conducting a study on the siltation of Bhadra river due to mining operations; b) making a 12- minute educational video titled ‘Mindless mining’ which documented the ecological damage caused by those mining operations; c) carrying out community-based conservation work in villages in the Kudremukh region and for paying compensation from their own funds to eight families of landless poor who had encroached on forest land (for two decades), to voluntarily move out and relocate. The above incident has been widely reported in the national media, which castigated the persecution of conservationists and NGOs associated with Wildlife First, apparently on the instigation of the mining, timber and road construction lobbies. The strategy is to use wildlife laws to wrap wildlife conservationists in criminal cases, leaving such protectors with no time or resources to deal with the scores of forest and wildlife law violations that they detect and bring into the public domain. Strategic Law Suits Against Public Participation, (SLAPP) are employed by those who have money or power on their side to prevent public minded citizens from ‘interfering’.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIV No. 6, December 2004.