Meet Kishor Rithe

Meet Kishor Rithe

Kishor Rithe has been working to protect the wildlife and forests of the Vidarbha region for over 10 years.
Photo: Kishor Rithe.

Kishor Dnyaneshwar Rithe gave up his secure lecturer's job at an engineering college to work full-time on the one mission that drives his purpose – wildlife conservation. His story proves conclusively that individuals can make a difference and that the tiger benefits directly when people with missionary zeal step in to protect it. After a decade of working on the ground, mobilising students, lobbying officials and fighting poachers, Rithe, Honorary Wildlife Warden, Amravati, Maharashtra, tells Bittu Sahgal,  "It is the children who will ultimately save the tiger, not only in India but around the world." 

On May 20, 1999 you arrested six traders with leopard and tiger skins. And more recently, you infiltrated and exposed an illegal arms factory. What makes Kishor Rithe tick?

Tigers! Defending tigers. Working with people who defend tigers. Talking about tigers. Spending every possible moment in tigerland.

But you are a professor, a teacher…

Yes, and I will continue to be a teacher who is trying to teach people why and how to protect nature.

And who is helping you to do this?

(Smiling) Bittubhai, do you have space in Sanctuary to print the full list? At one time only specialists were trying to save the tiger. Frankly, they have failed. Now the task has been taken up by thousands of different people. Teachers like me, District Magistrates, businessmen, students, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, housewives. As you yourself always say: "Together we can save the tiger."

But most people say that politicians and officials are part of the tiger's problems.

Most of them are. But a few are working harder than NGOs to save the tiger, particularly in cities like Amravati. When I came here, I discovered that many people wanted to save the tiger, but had no focussed organisation to work with. So I started the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati (NCSA) and though the university was the major source of members, government officials were also among the first to join.

Who helped you at this point?

The Bombay Natural History Society and its members, experts in botany and zoology from the University, members of Pakshimitra (Friends of Birds) with whom I used to go birdwatching, and many others.

In Vidarbha almost all the forests have been hacked down and the few that remain, like Melghat, have become the focus of a very concentrated attack from gangs. Not only gangs of poachers, but also gangs of contractors who want to steal minerals, build dams and cut timber. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

What work did NCSA do in the early stages?

Apart from talking to youngsters about Vidarbha's wildlife and holding nature camps, we also started a 'Save the Trees' movement in Amravati in 1994 and held a 'Save the Satpuras' march in 1996. The heart of our work has always been the nearby Melghat Tiger Reserve. Defending it and the surrounding Satpura forests is an obsession with us now.

And what are the principal threats?

The same as tigers face everywhere, but here in Vidarbha almost all the forests have been hacked down and the few that remain, like Melghat, have become the focus of a very concentrated attack from gangs. Not only gangs of poachers, but also gangs of contractors who want to steal minerals, build dams and cut timber.

Is the forest department equipped to handle such threats?

If they were given a chance, they could. But they are understaffed and poorly paid. While the 'enemy' is equipped with the most sophisticated resources, our people are usually on foot and don't even have lathis to use against guns.

Why is this?

Because while in ancient India the old god was the forest, today the new god is money. And the money god rules very harshly. Melghat will attract government spending only if it can yield monetary returns. According to the calculators of economists and bureaucrats, protecting the tiger is only an expense, not an income, so they do not allocate funds and when they do, the funds are released late.

So what are you doing about this? What needs to be done to solve these problems?

We must somehow create the political will to save the tiger and all it represents. And we must protect the protectors of the tiger the forest staff. We are doing what we can with limited resources, but we need more support. We hold training camps for forest guards and officers. We collect money from donors for giving away awards. Our volunteers work with forest staff on wildlife protection, carrying out raids and conducting tiger censuses. Like industrialists, we too sit outside the cabins of ministers, but while they beg for contracts to make money, we beg for the tiger's life.

Wildlife conservation is a specialised field. What qualifies you for this work?

It does require special skills which is why I signed up to work with knowledgeable people like Dr. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who trained us in Nagarahole on prey density estimation techniques, line transects, camera traps and much more. The Smithsonian Institution also sponsored me for a month-long international course on wildlife conservation management held in Uganda in June last year.

Rithe patrolling the Melghat Tiger Reserve, where honey collectors have attempted to fell a tree.
Photo: Kishor Rithe.

And how are you bringing all this knowledge to the defence of the tiger?

By sharing it with others through training programmes, particularly with forest people and volunteers who are prepared to spend time in and around tiger habitats. Perhaps, most vital of all, we are sharing our purpose, knowledge and our fears for the tiger with the group that has the greatest stake in the survival of the species – children.

How are you doing this?

By talking to children in more than 100 schools in Amravati, Nagpur and Jabalpur. We are working with 'Kids for Tigers', the national programme that managed to get one million signatures to save the tiger a year ago. We will be showing children slides, taking them to the forest on camps, getting them to organise their own 'Save the Tiger' petitions, helping them to do special tiger projects that explain the food chain and showing them how saving tigers saves rivers and thus ourselves.

Some suggest that the tiger has no time and by the time kids get started, it may be extinct.

I do not agree. Kids may not be able to fight poachers, or even directly stop a dam. But they have voices and they have parents. When we talk to 10,000 children on Monday, by Tuesday at least 50,000 people hear about our tiger message. And as every day goes by, this number expands. There is no better way to convince the Collector to help us than to win his daughter or son to our side.

Have you ever been threatened by people for the work you do?

Not just threatened, people have also tried to bribe me. When we try to save the tiger, others who want to make money will be affected. While I am not foolhardy, such threats are generally ignored.

What projects are you now involved with?

Again, a big list may be required! But basically we are working to protect and restore the corridors that connect the protected forests in the Satpura Range. These, for instance, include habitats between Melghat and Pench, Pench and Kanha. We are also fighting to prevent the illegal encroachments that take place in the tiger's forests on a daily basis.

Are you talking about village encroachments?

Yes, but there is also the issue of encroachments by the government itself. Here the money power of large dams, mines and timber operations comes into play. Private parties manage to convince people in power that there can be development only if forests are destroyed. After great difficulty we managed to explain to the authorities that building the Chikaldhara Pumped Storage Project, would harm the water sources of the region and in the process, a vital tiger breeding habitat would vanish. Soon after this, however, came the news that the Upper Tapi Irrigation Project Stage II was to be built by cutting 244 ha. of rich forest in the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Our battles never end.

You also mentioned the problem with roads.

Yes. And for this I blame human rights' groups from Mumbai who have hardly ever stepped into the forest. They went to court and said that tribals need roads and electricity. The court never listened to them, but contractors in the PWD did. As a result more than Rs. 30 crores were spent destroying precious habitats inside Melghat "to help poor tribals". Today the roads are being used by Maruti car owners. Not one of the 50,000 Korku tribal people own a car, not even the local Member of the Legislative Assembly!

Musali roots collected from Melghat. Bona fide use is not a problem, but trade could destabilise the habitat. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

And what damage are these roads doing?

They provide access to the heart of the forest to poachers, timber and Minor Forest Produce contractors and tourists in a hurry. Road kills have gone up. We cannot track tigers on these tarred roads. The delicate feet of tigers, sloth bears and other such animals are burned when tar melts in the 450C summer.

Why does the government not seem to understand the impact of their policies?

Someone with a better understanding of national affairs has to answer this. All I know is that while we were demanding more protection, the Maharashtra government some months ago decided to close the Wildlife Wing completely! It was unbelievable. It seems some World Bank money was refused so they wanted to close down the whole protection set-up. It took a huge amount of energy, many meetings and pressure from different quarters to reverse the decision. Added to this, as mentioned earlier, is the issue of official sanction for forest-destroying projects and a lack of action against offenders.

Despite your obvious critical view of the government, you were appointed the Honorary Wildlife Warden for Amravati and to the Maharashtra Wildlife Advisory Board.

To be fair, many of the officials who are criticised publicly are not to blame. The office of the Chief Wildlife Warden, for instance, is under continual pressure to clear projects and not take action against offenders. NGOs must accept much of the blame for not being able to prevent such officers from being victimised. I was probably chosen as the HWW because I work with the government to train their staff for anti-poaching, help hold nature camps, often defend them against public criticism and help their families when they are in trouble. That is the very least we can do for their invaluable service to the nation.

Can we shift focus? One of your achievements was to rediscover the Forest Spotted Owlet in Melghat. But for some reason you never quite got the credit for this.

It hardly matters who got the credit; the fact is that the bird was discovered. We had video footage and stills, but global ornithologists insisted that it was the Spotted Owlet Athene brama and not the Forest Spotted Owlet Athene blewitti. The evidence eventually spoke for itself. We are now studying two new blewitti sites in Melghat. The bird is safe. That's all that matters.

So are you a tigerman or a birdman?

Who was Dr. Sálim Ali? He is my role model. He saved elephants and lion-tailed macaques in Silent Valley. Everything is connected. We have been studying the relationship of birds and agriculture on the fringe of tiger habitats for quite some time. The role of owls in controlling agricultural pests cannot possibly be underplayed.

You also won a Tiger Link award in 1997.

Yes, that was for highlighting threats to tigers in and out of Melghat. I really value that award because if the best-known tiger people in India have judged my work and found it acceptable, then I must be doing something good. The same year I received a lesser-known, but equally heart-warming endorsement: The Marathwada Friends of the Birds Award.

Rithe seen investigating the submergence area of the Upper Tapi dam, near Rangubeli village. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

How do you fund yourself?

It's amazing how much you can do with very little money, not that money isn't needed. Without the generous help of Care for the Wild International, for instance, I would not have a Gypsy to move around in and I would be less effective. The BNHS has given me funding from time to time to conduct vital surveys. And then there are very small, but vital, local donations.

Where were you born? Did your family help you in your wildlife work?

I was born in a tiny village in Wardha District (where Gandhiji once lived). My father worked in the village health centre as a clerk. My family taught me to respect nature, to worship the river and appreciate bird song. It was through these values that I discovered how dangerous modern urban lifestyles are to nature and how traditional practices had taught people to live with the tiger. Later on, instead of pushing me to accept lucrative commercial offers (I was a computer engineer), they encouraged me to follow my heart and work for the tiger.

And what made you fall in love with the tiger?

I have to say it was the passion of one man. I was in college in Amravati when I met Praveen Pardeshi, an IAS officer posted at the Zilla Parishad. With him I was able to truly appreciate the magic of Melghat, a forest he was helping to protect. He taught me my first lessons in conservation and also the importance of research. He also showed me how lucky I was to be living in the shadow of the world's most amazing cat.

If you had a magic wand, how would you use it for the tiger?

I would make humans consume less. I would create politicians and businessmen who care for nature. I would equip foresters better and pay them decent wages so they know that they are valued. I would see to it that local communities became the first beneficiaries of the forest, not faraway merchants. I would set up dedicated people around every tiger habitat to study and defend it. Nature will look after the rest.

Isn't this what most NGOs say they are working towards?

Maybe. But in my experience most people do not really understand how the government works, so most of their efforts are wasted. After 50 years of independence, I do not think that any NGO can claim to have done much for wildlife. Our forest areas are shrinking, wildlife corridors are vanishing, species are being pushed to extinction. We desperately need to work together, but most are busy fighting each other.

Do you enjoy working with kids, taking them out to share wild magic?

That is what gives me the greatest pleasure. But sometimes it can also give you a heart attack. I will never forget the day I was taking some kids on a trek in Melghat and two full-grown sloth bears decided we merited further investigation. We were at least 15 minutes away from camp on a ridge surrounded by bamboo outcrops. I quickly herded the children ahead and remained at the end of the line, but the bears just kept following us. Bear attacks are not unheard of and I whispered to the kids, "Walk fast, but don't run." Thankfully, the moment we crossed the Sipna river, the bears turned away. Just before reaching our camp we saw a mouse deer, my first such sighting in Melghat. That trip was magic. But some of it was very scary magic.

Cattle grazing in the Gugamal National Park in Melghat: one of the many problems that beset the region. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

What is your dream today? What now occupies your life?

You want to know about just one dream? I want to set up a Biological Field Station in the Melghat Tiger Reserve where university students and young researchers from India can run research programmes for Project Tiger. I want to create and conserve a contiguous tiger habitat in Central India between Yawal-Melghat-Pachmarhi-Pench-Kanha. This is probably the world's largest potential tiger breeding habitat and extends over 6,000 sq. km. This area is going to be critical to the water security of Central India because some of our most important rivers are fed by this forested catchment area. Yet by official design, mines, dams, roads, thermal plants, smelters and all kinds of destructive projects have been planned here. If we are able to protect this Satpura tiger home, we will have served the tiger's interests as almost no other action can.

Some human rights' activists say that wildlifers only want to move villagers out.

We have no such plans. But they can say what they want. There is no doubt that the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 has placed curbs on people, but this was essential to protect the five to six per cent of the country under the PA network. And it has also prevented industry from destroying the forest completely. Have human rights' groups been able to do this? Besides, I have also worked to change the forced displacement policy of the Maharashtra government. What human rights groups don't realise is that some villages desperately want to move out of forests such as Melghat. When the Bori village was moved out, for instance, others were watching. Now several other villagers want to move out too as they want to avail of the same rehabilitation package.

Any words for readers who might want to follow in your footsteps?

If you want to save what you love, you have to do more than just care. You have to be systematic, scientific. You must learn to get along with others and unite them. And most of all, you must trust that nature knows how to manage itself and keep others from interfering with its systems. There is no better way to defend wild India. Your life could have no greater purpose.

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXI No. 4, August 2001.


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