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Remembering Peter Jackson

Remembering Peter Jackson

Peter with a tranquilised tiger in Nepal. In his words:
Photo Courtesy: Peter Jackson.

This unassuming man was a hardcore journalist who fell in love with wild cats and touched the lives of diverse conservationists, writes Bittu Sahgal.

I knew Peter Jackson well. When Sanctuary was born in 1981, he was among the first to celebrate its birth and, during one of the several International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meetings we used to attend together in Delhi, he turned to me and said: “Bittu, I love the big cats, but if Sanctuary truly wants to be recognised as a serious champion of wild creatures, you must remember that the small cats are just as important. Give them space, both in the wild and in your magazine.”

Sixteen years ago, I wrote of this remarkable man in Sanctuary:

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 Bombay Natural History Society (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.

Peter first came to India as the Chief Correspondent for Reuters, a position he held between 1953-60 and then again between 1962 and 1970. He was a powerhouse journalist in the old mould.

In April 1953, Reuters asked him to cover the successful British expedition to Everest and, adventurer that he was, he found himself smitten not just by the mountain, but virtually all the life of the mountain. Subsequently he turned into a birdwatcher and became a lifelong friend of Dr. Sálim Ali, whose Indian Hill Birds, was presented to him by General Sir Harold (Bill) Williams, then the Engineer-in-Chief of the Indian Army.

He covered the dramatic events of post-Independence India when Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, searched in vain for a way to end the Vietnam war. He also travelled around India with Bulganin and Krushchev, first-time Soviet leaders who had just begun exploring the world outside the ‘Iron Curtain’. To say he was an experienced India-hand would be putting it very mildly. He witnessed and reported on all the wars with Pakistan and then China. He also understood and analysed the Kashmir problem and helped present the Indian perspective to a world that found it difficult to fathom the nuances of the India-Pakistan relationship. A journalist who knew how to access news, he was the one who broke the news about the Dalai Lama’s two-week trek through Arunachal Pradesh to Dharamshala, where Nehru offered His Holiness political asylum in India.

When he met Adrienne Farrell, Reuters’ Delhi correspondent, whom he married, his tryst with nature was sealed as she was a passionate outdoors woman who led him to choose a path away from mainstream journalism, to one that involved field trips with Dr. Sálim Ali.

Peter Jackson dedicated his life to protect wild cats, big and small, such as this leopard cat photographed in Tripura's Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Zeeshan Mirza.

The side of Peter Jackson I knew best was that of a crack photographer and prolific author. His Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, written for IUCN in 1996 and his epic Riding the Tiger: Tiger Conservation in Human-dominated Landscapes, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1999, represent an archival record of the history of wild cats that will be read and re-read down the decades.

His single-minded passion for wild cats made him one of the planet’s most respected experts on wild felines. It stood to reason therefore that Peter was appointed Chairman of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and of the Species Survival Commission between 1983 and 2000. With the passage of time he handed the reins over to younger persons, but was nominated as Chairman Emeritus, a position he richly deserved. In the year 2004, in recognition of his lifetime work, this remarkable man inspired scientists to name a newly-identified sub-species, the Malayan Tiger, after him – Panthera tigris jacksoni.

This was a man who lived a life enriched by both adventure and a pure love of nature. Today, with brash new leaders in control of country after country, the work of stalwarts like Peter Jackson is being undone. While India’s population has doubled since the date Project Tiger was launched, the physical space available to tigers has been halved. That tells the story of tigers better than all the press releases and politically-expedient reports we see published day after day.

This was then his rapier-like analysis of the problem facing Indian wildlife in the year 2000:

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.

Peter Jackson was a true friend of India. If only some of the powerful people in charge of our country imbibed a tithe of his understanding and true caring for the country they now lead!

A file picture of the man, who knew the conservation realites of India like few others, inspecting a decoy dummy in the Sundarbans. Photo Courtesy: Peter Jackson.

I know of no serious wildlife expert or conservationist whose life was not touched in some way or other by Peter. Here is what Dr. M. K. Ranjitsinh, a close associate, had to say about him: “Peter was not a scientist. His love for the tiger and for wildlife emerged in his middle age. He did lead from the front but carried his group forward as a team, which had an impact on cat conservation for which he claimed no credit and the extent of which was not realised until he left the scene. His role in conservation highlights paradigms not many realise – that man can do more than money in conservation, that determination and dedication can outweigh science and specialisations, that a request can often achieve more than a command. This was valid in the era of Peter Scott and Peter Jackson, it is valid even now.”

Valmik Thapar was another tiger defender who was deeply influenced by and who worked closely with him. In his words: “Peter was a man who was passionate about wildlife and especially the tiger. Throughout the 1990s I worked with him to coordinate IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group in India. Indian wildlife will sorely miss a man who cared deeply for the natural world and strongly believed in its future.”

Sanctuary readers can find out much more about Peter Jackson from the Internet with just a few keyboard clicks than I could possibly mention here. Here is what he said to me in a frank conversation just under two decades ago and perhaps it’s best to let him have the last word:

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.

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.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.


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