Home People Interviews Meet Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh – Erstwhile Royal, Conservationist, Wildlife Expert And Former Bureaucrat

Meet Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh – Erstwhile Royal, Conservationist, Wildlife Expert And Former Bureaucrat

Meet Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh – Erstwhile Royal, Conservationist, Wildlife Expert And Former Bureaucrat

Ever the inveterate traveler, Dr. Ranjitsinh has found his way to the furthest reaches of the earth to relish nature at its rawest. In summer, on the freezing continent of Antarctica, he stands in front of a rookery of King Penguins. Photo Courtesy: WTI/File Photo.

Named after the legendary cricketer, Dr. Ranjitsinh was a principal author of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. A die-hard conservationist and member of the erstwhile royal family of Wankaner, Saurashtra, Gujarat, he has been a Madhya Pradesh cadre Indian Administrative Service officer virtually all his life. After having served as the Collector of Mandla, the headquarter town of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, he went on to dominate that state’s forest policies for over two decades. Some say he has probably been responsible for the declaration of more wildlife sanctuaries in India than any other human being alive. Having lived through the transformation of India from British rule to Independence, and witnessed first-hand the manner in which Indians, even more than the British, took to destroying forests and wildlife, he speaks candidly with Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia about his hopes, dreams and fears for natural India.

What led a ‘royal’ from the famous Wankaner family to devote his life to wildlife?

The house I was born in was surrounded by a forest teeming with wildlife where no hunting was allowed, not even by our family. At bedtime, as a boy, I would eagerly await the call of leopards. As per the prevalent traditions of that hunting era, my family was keen on shikar and therefore, very keen on protection of wildlife. It would have been very surprising if I had not grown up being in love with and in awe of nature and wildlife.

Did childhood influences determine your life choices?

I went to school at the Rajkumar College in Rajkot. At home, the family conversation almost invariably revolved around animals and birds, and my parents not only encouraged my passion, but allowed me to go all over India in pursuit of wildlife during my adolescence. My greatest childhood and boyhood thrills were to watch leopards feeding above me from beneath a transparent glass sheet, and to feel the warmth of their bodies with my hand. By then, princely states had merged with the Indian Union and my parents made it clear to me that I had to work. I wanted to join the forest service but being hopeless at mathematics, I could not take science for my graduation and hence could not join the forest service. I therefore, decided to try for the Indian Administrative Service and go to Madhya Pradesh, which had the largest forest area in the country.

Who were your principal wildlife influences?

My father, Pratapsinhji, my paternal uncle Chandrabhanusinhji, and my maternal uncles, Lakshman Singhji and Virbhadra Singhji of Dungarpur. I was very fond of reading and was influenced by the writings of Corbett, Dunbar Brander and others. I also learnt a great deal from our game guards and trackers – Nathu, Bechar, Jivraj, Kunwara and Kana, who were amongst my boyhood heroes.

Did any wildlife experience affect you more than others?

Perhaps there were two, very similar. Kanha and its barasingha; Keibul Lamjao and its sangai. As a boy of six on my first visit to Mandla, I vowed to become the Collector of Mandla and to come to Kanha. When I did in 1967, I counted only 64 barasingha, and their predicament indicated that they were doomed for extinction. It shook me and I vowed this time that I will do my utmost to save them. In the process, Kanha became a second home. In 1975, I carried out the first aerial survey of Keibul Lamjao and found that the world population of the Manipur sangai was just 14 animals, making it the rarest large taxa in the world then. That was another shock and it became a life’s mission to save that deer.

Sandwiched between his daughters Meenal (left) and Radhika (right) during a trip to Antarctica in 2011, Dr. Ranjitsinh exemplifies the doting father. Photo Courtesy: Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh.

You chaperoned India’s wildlife conservation journey almost from its very inception. Much of its policy and law was guided by you. Your thoughts as you look back?

I wish I had done more when the milieu was more favourable – established even more parks and sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere, especially in the mountains, arid lands and coastal areas; developed partnerships with the local people in conservation, started special projects for the saving of critically endangered species and perhaps, most importantly, succeeded in creating greater specialisation and professionalism in the Indian Forest Service.

You were once a shikari. Do you support the idea of resurrecting hunting as a tourism hook?

Not in the least. Firstly, I do not support the idea of our birds and animals, even man-eaters, as articles for sale. Secondly, it would not help conservation as our birds and animals belong to the nation and not to private individuals, even if they live on private lands, and hence private individuals would not be able to have game farms on their own lands. Lastly, we have moved out of the hunting era and the restarting of any hunting would not only be retrograde, but would be in direct conflict with the current conservation ethos of the country.

Have India’s wildlife laws helped keep our wildlife alive?

I think they formed the basis of conservation action at the field level. When the Wildlife (Protection) Act was enacted in 1972, the subject of forests and wildlife was a state subject and the prevalent state laws were all different from each other and dealt only with the regulation of hunting. The 1972 Act established all-India procedures for the notification of Protected Areas and their management, the control of trade and taxidermy, special treatment of endangered species and a host of other conservation concepts. It also enabled the stoppage of the export of musk, snake and lizard skins, monkeys, and other animals and birds, which were then being exported in the thousands. It also enabled the control of poaching, including that by government servants who, if apprehended, would lose their jobs, as any government servant convicted of a crime has to be discharged from service.

Tell us what you think about the Forest Rights Act (FRA)?

In India there is almost invariably a divergence between a concept and its implementation. The purpose of the FRA is ostensibly to rectify a colonial wrong vis-à-vis the forest rights of the local people. However, it is politically motivated and its impact, predictably, has been disastrous. Every time any state has taken up settlement of past forest encroachments with pompous declarations that any further encroachments will be strictly dealt with, it has invariably resulted in a spate of new encroachments. Madhya Pradesh is a classic example. When past settlements of land ownership including encroachments have already occurred a number of times, what was the purpose for another such Act? The FRA lays down that anyone who was in occupation of forest land on the eve of the enactment, will have the land and other claims settled in their favour. Thus, those who have broken the law and encroached, have gained and those who were law-abiding and did not, have lost out. No enactment has caused greater harm to the forests of India in the history of this country. If the purpose was to get political mileage, the party which enacted the FRA also has not gained from it.

Your thoughts on the linkages between climate change and biodiversity?

There is voluminous data linking biodiversity and nature conservation to climate change and I do not wish to reiterate the same. However, to cite a couple of examples, the shifting cultivation practiced extensively in the Northeast resulting in the clear-felling and burning of forests, not only destroys the forests and the multi-faceted biodiversity of the region, but adds carbon to the atmosphere and hence is a ‘double whammy’. In the trans-Himalaya, where there are no trees and where there is strong sunlight year round, we do not access solar power but burn cattle dung as fuel, which is the only manure that those unirrigated fields can safely use, and in the process cause more carbon to be released. Another ‘double whammy’.

A youthful Ranjitsinh poses in front of a pair of young lions in the Gir National Park, in this picture dated circa 1972. Decades later Dr. Ranjitsinh served on a 12-member committee appointed to oversee the pending transfer of lions from Gujarat to a relocation site in Madhya Pradesh. Photo Courtesy: WTI/File Photo.

Have corporates replaced the royalty of yore?

I feel that corporates have a tremendous potential to exercise their social responsibility in this regard, and some of them are doing so. But much more needs to be done. They could adopt a national park or a sanctuary, or support the conservation of an endangered species.

What about the recent government moves to reverse environmental protection and wildlife conservation policies and laws?

The conservation agenda and policies of the present government have not quite emerged so far. The public pronouncements of the government are in support of conservation. We need to wait a little longer.

Have India’s NGOs lived up to their promise?

The answer is both yes and no. Some excellent work has been done by NGOs, including in some fields where the government itself has achieved but little. One example is the control of illegal trade. They have also provided linkages with the local communities, which is crucial. However, there is a reluctance to raise their voice against anti-conservation government action. Many NGOs are patronised by governments and hence they choose to remain silent.

Your take on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)?

International trade in wildlife has been a great source of faunal and floral destruction in the past. CITES has contributed very significantly to its reduction. However, it has not fulfilled its expectations in a number of cases – tiger and leopard derivatives, ivory, rhino horn, red sanders and a number of others.

Is the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) likely to be of any value to Indian Conservation?

It is unfortunate that the IUCN is not the international conservation fulcrum it once was. If it re-energises itself and perhaps revamps its approach and mandate to specialise in some specific spheres of conservation, it could again be of greater relevance to India.

Has Project Tiger lived up to its original promise?

There has been much criticism of Project Tiger. However, having been associated with the project at the time of its inception and being familiar with the status of the tiger then, I would say that had it not been for the Project, the tiger and its habitats would have been in far worse shape now, and therefore, the Project has achieved a major part of its target. Indeed, there are very few tigers left outside of tiger reserves, which proves a point. The Project has also achieved to a significant extent the safeguarding of the diverse habitats of the tiger and its prey base, which were primary objectives at the time of its inception.

This hand-painted plate of a Lesser Florican remains one of Dr. Ranjitsinh’s most treasured possessions. It was created by Shri Dharmakumarsinhji, Indian royal, ornithologist and writer, who gifted it to Dr. Ranjitsinh’s uncle, from whom he subsequently acquired it.
Photo Courtesy: Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh.

Do you have a message for young conservationists? Are you hopeful for tomorrow?

To my mind, conservation is tantamount to patriotism, as it endeavours to save the motherland with no personal gain involved. Conservation in India has always flowed from the ‘top’. It will survive in the long term only if there is a ground swell of support for nature conservation from the people themselves. This can be achieved if the younger generation fights for it. They would be in harmony with the Indian Constitution, which uniquely enjoins upon every citizen to ‘Protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures’ as a Fundamental Duty. As for being hopeful for tomorrow, if I was not, I would have long been dead!

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.

 
 
 

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