Meet Peter Jackson

Meet Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson with a tranquillised tiger in Nepal: “Cats are among the most beautiful works of nature.”
Photo:Peter Jackson.

Born in London on January 27, 1926, Peter Jackson was recently presented with the Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit by the IUCN Species Survival Commission. He is also the recipient of the Second International Sálim Ali Award for Conservation from the BNHS. Through a long and eventful life he has been a journalist, naturalist, photographer, conservationist and cat specialist. He is probably among the most knowledgeable experts on wild cats in the world. Deeply concerned, but not over-sentimental about the tiger, the vast proportion of his life has been dedicated to its protection. He speaks to Bittu Sahgal about his lifetime fascination with wildlife and his concern for India's vanishing forests.

You are an old India hand. What brought you to these distant shores?

My job. I was the Reuters Chief Correspondent in India between 1954?60 and again from 1962-1970. Those were historic days. Chou en Lai had come to Delhi in 1954 with the Vietnam issue unresolved and Nehru wanted to help find the solution. Later came Bulganin and Krushchev (the first time Soviet leaders had been out of the communist sphere) and President Eisenhower - I travelled around India with them. There were the Pakistan and China wars and Kashmir was a continuing problem. My coverage of such action-packed events exposed me to this marvellous country and its people.

And how did a hardcore news journalist get involved with nature conservation?

Blame it on Mount Everest! In April 1953, I was assigned by Reuters to cover the successful British expedition to the world's tallest mountain. Sitting on a hillside in Nepal, gazing out across the snows, I saw a huge dark bird, gliding along the valley below me. I recognised it from the jacket of a bird book I was carrying, but which I had never looked at till then. The caption inside told me it was a Himalayan Black Eagle. It was immensely exciting. I knew sparrows and starlings and crows, but this was really something that sparked a new interest in birds that has lasted all my life.

A book? A book actually got you tangled up in decades of conservation battles?

Life is strange, but it was not just any book. The book was Sálim Ali's Indian Hill Birds, given to me by General Sir Harold (Bill) Williams, who was then Engineer-in-Chief of the Indian Army. One thing led to another, including my meeting with Adrienne Farrell, my wife-to-be, who was Reuters' Delhi correspondent, and who was to nurture and support my passion for India's wildlife. In the end it was a love of the outdoors that got me hooked. I began to recognise and photograph birds, and a passion for wildlife developed that ultimately led me to a new career, away from mainstream journalism.

What about Dr. Sálim Ali? How much did this birdman influence you, a cat man?

A year after I saw the Black Eagle, Gen. Williams took me birding near Delhi with Sálim Ali. A friendship bloomed that lasted until his death 30 years later. I accompanied him on several ornithological expeditions to places as distant as Bhutan. And I enjoyed taking him on some of my compulsive early morning outings to my 'backyard' around Delhi, which I discovered to be rich with birds. In Bharatpur, my wife and I would help Sálim ring nesting storks. We really got to love the great but unpretentious man.

There may be between 3,500 to 7,500 wild snow leopards left alive, but these are under threat from poachers and villagers who kill them in retaliation when they lift their livestock. Photo:ISLT.

And when did cats enter your life?

In Bharatpur. Maharajah Brijendra Singh became a close friend and host. One day, he took me tiger hunting in Baretha, 30 or 40 km. from Keoladeo Ghana, he with his gun and I with my camera. I saw my first tiger, just its hindquarters, as it escaped into the bushes. I did not get a photo, nor did the tiger get shot. But that was my first glimpse in the wild of the magnificent animal that was to play a large part in my life.

Was it easier to communicate nature conservation values to the public at that time?

Actually, it was more difficult. Remember, in the 1950s shikar was the rage and few Indians were really interested in protecting their country's wildlife. The press concentrated on politics. But I did meet some truly exceptional people who were fighting against the tide to protect the nation's fast vanishing wildlife, notably Zafar Futehally, one of Sálim's clan. It was my interaction with these pioneers that nudged me in the direction of nature conservation.

You also knew Mrs. Indira Gandhi, didn't you?

Yes. As a foreign correspondent of an important news agency I closely followed Jawaharlal Nehru's activities and so came into contact with Mrs. Gandhi. She was a founder member of the Delhi Birdwatching Society, of which I was later Honorary Secretary. It was easier to meet powerful politicians in those days. Mrs. Gandhi even came to dinner at our house to see my bird photographs. And when I wrote to her in 1970 about the need to declare the Sultanpur jheel near Delhi a bird sanctuary, she asked me to take her there. She had to cancel at the last minute, but she instructed the Chief Minister of Haryana to protect the jheel and in 1971, the Sultanpur Bird Reserve was established. There have been problems over lack of water in recent years, but when I was there just now, water was starting to flow through a pipeline the canal authorities have installed to match the normal rain pattern.

Mrs. Gandhi's interest was a key reason that much of our wildlife is still around today. Were you an influence on her?

I like to think I helped, but she was intrinsically keen on nature. Others influenced her more than I did, including Sálim Ali, who prevailed upon her to save Keoladeo Ghana and later to abandon plans for a hydroelectric project, which would have virtually destroyed Kerala's Silent Valley. I recall visiting Gandhi's birthplace, Porbandar in the 1980s. I spotted a small lake where over 4,000 Lesser Flamingoes were gathered. (Interestingly enough, across the lake was a fertiliser factory whose effluents were producing the blue algae on which Lesser Flamingoes feed.) When I learnt that the lake was being filled in to construct a park, I wrote to Mrs. Gandhi, who then wrote to the Gujarat Chief Minister; the park plan was abandoned and the lake protected. I understand that the flamingoes are still there. Mrs. Gandhi had good people advising her on wildlife; people like Sálim Ali and Kailash Sankhala, who became the first Director of Project Tiger.

You were here when the project was born?

Yes, I was. As far back as the 1940s, Jim Corbett had suggested that the tiger was in trouble. The first real survey was undertaken in the 1960s by J.C. Daniel of the BNHS, who came up with an estimate of about 2,500. That was an interview survey. Sankhala, who was Director of the Delhi Zoo, was given a Nehru Fellowship to study tigers and presented a similar figure at the IUCN General Assembly in Delhi in 1969. He persuaded leading conservationists that the tiger was in danger of being lost. All the other subspecies were in the Red Data book and now the Bengal tiger was included too. The whole nature conservation situation in the early seventies was transformed by Project Tiger. Hunting was banned, so also the export of skins and trophies, which had reached a dangerously high level in the 1960s. Special tiger reserves were established. I had become so seriously entranced by wildlife by 1969 that I left Reuters to become Director of Information for WWF in Switzerland. As luck would have it, this was when WWF launched Operation Tiger. As the only person at WWF who had seen tigers, I volunteered to manage the project. On this assignment, I was able to interact with people like S. R. Choudhury, H.S. Panwar, S.P. Shahi, Valmik Thapar and Fateh Singh Rathore. Men such as these paved the way for the revival of the tiger, whose demise had clearly been on the cards. I also got to know scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), of which I have been a member since 1956. Later, I worked with people from the Wildlife Institute of India and the Indian Institute of Science and was impressed by their abilities and dedication.

And who would you say were the key players responsible for saving the tiger in the 70s?

The man who really took up cudgels for the tiger after the Delhi Assembly was Guy Mountfort, an advertising man but also an expert ornithologist. He was an International Trustee of WWF and he came up with the idea of a million dollar campaign for Operation Tiger. Mountfort started raising funds without so much as an authorisation from the WWF! He was determined to save the tiger. Most people hardly believed his to be a serious effort till it worked. Mountfort flew to Delhi and met Mrs. Gandhi, along with Zafar Futehally and Charles DeHaes, a young business executive seconded to assist Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, the WWF President. Their meeting was pivotal. The very next day, Futehally announced Mrs. Gandhi's support. A task force of officials and conservationists was immediately set up, with Dr. Karan Singh, a cabinet minister, as Chairman, M.K. Ranjitsinh from the Department of Agriculture as the member secretary and included Zafar Futehally, Dharmakumarsinhji, Anne Wright and Sankhala.

The Himalayan lynx (photographed in captivity) is killed for its fur.
Photo:Thakur Dalip Singh.

And did the one million dollars that kick-started the initiative actually get to India?

Indeed it did, in the form of hardware and training. But there is an amusing story: it was meant to be shared between all the tiger range countries. However, Mrs. Gandhi assumed that the entire one million dollars was for India and no one had the courage to tell her otherwise. WWF had to raise another 800,000 dollars, and thankfully it was done quite quickly.

And how was the money used?

To buy urgently-needed vehicles to start with. I bought four second-hand jeepsters, big, air-conditioned vehicles, from Delhi. There was criticism, notably from my friend the late S.P. Shahi, who felt that they were too luxurious and expensive. But two of those jeepsters were still working for Project Tiger until recently - nearly 30 years later. We also bought jeeps from Mahindra and Mahindra. Basically, we came up with the funds to buy equipment that Sankhala identified as necessary. And wherever possible we acquired it in India. We also paid Bharat Electronics to design and install radio networks in the initial nine tiger reserves.

Surely it must have taken more than a few vehicles and radio networks to save the tiger?

Sankhala is not around any more to answer that question, but he told me that Kanha was saved because men like H.S. Panwar could now control the devastating summer fires, thanks to radio communication and vehicles which could get firefighters to the spot quickly. Vehicles were essential for efficient management of the reserves. And we delivered a whole lot of other equipment too, including binoculars, cameras and even two jet-boats for the Sundarbans. We arranged for British and American experts to fly to India to provide training in tranquillisation of animals, and monitoring of both animals and plants. I think all this helped to promote confidence in the highly-motivated team of Indian forest officers, who deserve the credit for turning the tiger situation around.

Was it Mrs. Gandhi's autocratic style that did the trick for the tiger?

That helped, but it was much more than that. She headed the Congress party, which ruled at both the Centre and State level. More than anything else, this is what allowed Project Tiger to be pushed through, despite some opposition. Some states were concerned at the loss of revenue when large blocks of forest were removed from exploitation.

Was it the tiger that kept bringing you back to India even after leaving WWF?

I decided to work as a freelance writer in 1979, and in 1983, because of my familiarity with tigers and other wildlife, I was asked to chair the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It was an unexpected honour for a non-scientist to lead a group of the world's leading cat experts.

As a long-time observer, would you hazard a guess as to why we are currently losing a battle everyone thought we had won decades ago?

There has been a dramatic political change in India, with no dominating party and leadership. The tiger lacks political support. Politicians are concerned about conserving their positions and power. Few understand that we, like the tiger, are part of nature and that we are destroying the very foundations of life. India's human population has nearly doubled since Project Tiger was launched, and the pressures on wild lands and forest resources are devastating. The excellent laws that Mrs. Gandhi ushered in are being observed in the breach. Add the huge illegal international demand for tiger and other animal parts for doubtful medical purposes and you have a prescription for disaster. I fear not only for the tiger, but all associated life-forms, including lesser wild cats – and humans.

And what is the way out?

India was one of the first countries to include nature conservation as a constitutional duty. Prime Minister Vajpayee has just made a remarkable statement about tigers on the occasion of Children's Day. Politicians and business people - but really all of us - need to understand the importance of nature for human survival; if sufficient wild lands and their wildlife, including tigers, are protected the successes of a few decades ago can easily be repeated. These wild lands are important for vital resources, such as water, and also provide many valuable products, apart from wood. I take strength from the fact that Indian newspapers write about wildlife and conservation problems almost daily. Throngs of Indians now visit wildlife reserves. You did not ask me about Sanctuary, but it is one of the best nature magazines I know, and, what is important is its strong dedication to conservation. In time, all this has to work to the advantage of the tiger and other wildlife.

And, I must stress that India still has one of the finest arrays of wildlife in the world. Despite all the pressures, only the cheetah out of India's 16 wild cats has become extinct. Elephants and rhinos, deer and antelope still roam the country, and despite the problems they sometimes cause, Indians have had a greater affinity for wildlife than any other country I know.

What do you see as the future of wild tigers?

Tigers have the best chance of survival in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, and in the Russian Far East. Russia may have only 400-500 tigers, but 95 per cent of them roam freely in a vast territory of over 50,000 sq. km. The subcontinent's estimated 4,000-5,000 tigers may seem a more secure number, but these are scattered in small groups in fragmented habitats, making them especially vulnerable to poaching and inbreeding. But the tiger can survive, perhaps not everywhere, if only it is given the chance and sufficient space.

Peter Jackson has spent a lifetime in the defence of cats, including leopard cats whose skins fetch high prices in Japan. Photo:kunal verma.

Given the increasingly endangered status of all wild cats, would you say your mission in life has failed?

By no means. Some cats, as well as other animals that were a matter of concern, are recovering and doing quite well. That largely applies to North America and Europe, from which there is a lesson to be learnt. Much of the excessive exploitation of wildlife is rooted in poverty – animals mean food and money. Well-planned and managed eco-development can help, but governments need to raise living and educational standards, and promote co-existence between wild animals and humans.

How can the IUCN be persuaded to go beyond its current mandate and make a difference to wild cats in the field?

The IUCN is a unique organisation, bringing together 78 states, 112 government agencies, 735 NGOs, 35 affiliates, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries. Its effort is to provide scientifically-sound advice to convince governments and others to tread the conservation path. This is a diplomatic rather than confrontational approach. As Chairman of the Cat Specialist Group, my job has been to ensure the place of the wild cats in the overall picture and serve as the channel for providing IUCN and other organisations with the advice of leading world scientists and wildlife managers.

Any message to young persons in India?

Children have a natural interest in animals. It needs to be nurtured into an understanding of how we are all connected in the web of life by demonstrating how each creature plays a role that affects others. Go out and see the wonderful world of nature. Learn how it works and how it is the vital support for your own lives. Encourage others, including your elders, to do so. Work on your political and business leaders to ensure that they respect and protect nature - in their own interest, as well as everyone else's.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol.XX No.6, December 2000.


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