Belinda Wright – Blazing Trails
Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, wildlife photographer, Emmy-award winner and eco-lodge owner, Belinda Wright has been spearheading India’s fight against wildlife crime for over two decades.
“Much of my childhood was spent in the jungles of eastern India and I soon knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life – work with India’s wildlife. Too headstrong to realise the value of higher education, I decided to make wild places my learning curve and took to wildlife photography, with the constant refrain, “This is not a career,” ringing in my ears. But what a wonderful era it was to explore India. Still in my teens, I travelled everywhere – hundreds of dusty, difficult kilometres through the country at a time when there were not even gates at most of the national parks and sanctuaries. And then I struck gold. At the age of 20, I got a job with National Geographic magazine to join a team photographing India’s wildlife; I was their only woman photographer, and their youngest.
From there, my partner and I went on to make wildlife films, 13 of them, and to write books, five of them. My most magical memories are of the two years we spent in the 1980s filming wild tigers in Kanha and Ranthambhore for National Geographic’s Land of the Tiger. We won two Emmys and 14 other international awards and the film became the second-highest rated show in the history of U.S. public television.
Life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt in 1994. A few tigers I knew well suddenly went missing around Kanha, where I was living. The tribals said people from outside had come and were killing them, and then a man in a PCO booth in a small town called Baihar offered me four fresh tiger skins. That was the defining moment of my life. In a split second I went from a relatively shy wildlife photographer to a possessed hunter of tiger killers. With the help of local police, the gang was arrested, the skins seized and a huge tiger-poaching racket uncovered.
That summer of 1994, I travelled with a friend through 13 districts in Madhya Pradesh. In six weeks we were offered the skins and bones of 39 freshly-killed tigers. We prepared a report that stunned both the government and the conservation community.
Later that year I established the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Our primary aim was, and still is, to provide support and information to enforcement authorities to curb poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. For 20 years, my colleagues and I have pioneered investigations into this grisly trade, in India, Nepal and China. Since 1994 we have had the unenviable chore of ‘documenting’ 1,047 tiger poaching cases and a staggering 4,143 leopard poaching cases.
Fortunately I have always had somewhere to escape to – to ‘smell the roses’ and keep my senses. In 1979, my father bought some agricultural land on the edge of Kanha National Park. Two years later he started what was probably the first private wildlife camp in the country. Kipling Camp is the beating heart of my family, and I inherited the camp with my mother when my father passed away in 2005.
The farmland is now thick jungle. I can lie in bed and hear chital munching just outside the window, and the occasional tiger or leopard padding by, claiming their rights at nightfall when we are safely tucked up in bed. I now wear two hats – one as an unflinching wildlife conservationist, and the other as a cautious wildlife camp owner. The combination is not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be.
We are all born with endless potential, but it is what we do with this and the choices we make, that mould our destiny. If I had to offer advice to the next generation of conservationists, I would say commit to your dreams fearlessly, and avoid ulterior motives and big egos. This is a huge and often heartbreaking task that requires discipline, hard work, knowledge, commitment and responsibility. But it is also a life with heart-warming rewards and sunny days, so whatever happens, do not forget to smile along the way. For that will be your most powerful tool of all.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.