George Schaller is considered the greatest conservationist of the past 100 years. He has confronted, studied and helped protect tigers in India, lions in the Serengeti, the Giant Panda in China, mountain gorillas in the Congo, snow leopards in Mongolia, jaguars in Brazil and wild sheep and goats in the Himalayas. Having established over 20 nature reserves — including the Chang Tang Nature Reserve in Tibet, the second largest protected area in the world — Schaller talks about the perils and perks of conservation.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEWWhat brought you into this field?
Naturalists usually start out young. I was a keen nature enthusiast and it took me to the University of Alaska for an undergraduate degree. Alaska was the perfect place for observing wildlife and being close to it. So that’s how I got an official start in my field.
What idea do you think can change the world, or your field?
The most important aspect that needs addressing is that of community change. I can say, with some experience, that no matter how hard conservationists or governments or activists try, true solution will be elusive without taking into account the communities that lie in the vicinity of the natural habitats we are trying to safeguard. Today, 85 percent of natural parks all across the world have people living there. So, you have to take them on board, and there can be no universal solutions to how you will accommodate their needs/demands. Each place has its unique set of problems.
What’s the biggest criterion for conserving a particular species?
In spite of our current advancements, we have absolutely no idea how ecological systems work. Everything is interconnected. A decline in elephant population will have a drastic effect on a nearby ecosystem, but we wouldn’t know how until it actually happens. In India, they tried to reintroduce the cheetah by using the Iranian cheetah species as an option. Wisely enough, the Iranians refused. Not only do they have only 50-60 Iranian Asiatic cheetahs left, the project would have been a sure disaster. I have no doubt that the 10 or so cheetahs introduced here would have been killed by the local cats, the leopards. However, we do have to emphasise on saving some specific species for financial viability. So, saving the snow leopard would get more traction and funds than, say, saving a species of leech. And personally, it’d be far more interesting to work with snow leopards than with leeches. Who says we can’t conserve for personal reasons? You can use emotional appeal to save species, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Do you approve of the scientific efforts that are, or at least were, underway to try and resurrect extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth?
Well, we are already in a big soup sustaining and preserving the species we already have. So, I think it’d be a silly idea to resurrect a species, especially such as the woolly mammoth that used to roam the Siberian permafrost. Today, half of that permafrost has melted, the tundra is disappearing, so where would you put that mammoth?
What do you think is the problem with conservation in India?
One very disheartening aspect is the lack of funding for wildlife endeavours. Many talented, passionate Indians go abroad to study conservation but when they come back, they get paid very little. One of the organisations I work with, Panthera, works towards this end by helping with funding for those exceptional people involved in saving the big cats.
Apart from protecting species, can conservation have a political impact?
Yes, actually there is an enterprise that’s showing some promise. There is such a thing called the Trans-Frontier Reserve. So you have a lot of forest areas that are shared by more than one country, for example, the Manas National Park, which is spread over Assam and Bhutan. In such a situation, we encourage both the countries to cooperate and even call them Peace Parks. Ideally, India and China should work together to run the bioreserves in Arunachal Pradesh. I was involved in the setting up of the Pamir International Peace Park that lies at the intersection of four countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China. When countries know such a project is in their best interests, they will cooperate and that, I believe, can act like a gateway to other modes of cooperation.
What can India learn about conservation from China?
China has been doing some good work. They have set up around 2,000 wildlife reserves in the past 30 years. They have put in bans on poaching of many animals and there are stricter punishments for hunting certain species. The killing of Chiru (Tibetan antelope) can land you in jail for 5-15 years. India needs to introspect and learn what led to the drastic decline of its tigers, especially in reserves such as Sariska. The problem, sometimes, can actually be quite simple. It could simply be negligent forest guards giving poachers free access; so, I don’t think fixing some basic things is that difficult for the Indian government.
You have helped set up some of the world’s largest protected area sanctuaries in Tibet and the AfPak. Do you have any such plans for India?
I feel India already has some brilliant minds working hard in conservation efforts. My friend Ullas Karanth, who works on tiger conservation and is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme, is doing a great job and I wouldn’t want to interfere with his style of functioning.
What do you think has been the most successful method of conservation?
Over the years, I have realised there is no universal method that is successful in helping preserve species. Like I said earlier, some species have a bigger emotional connect with people and because of that, it is easier to draw attention to their plight. But we can harness anything that might make people change. Make saving animals a spiritual matter, encourage abstaining from excesses like fur and leather, avoid over-consumption as it entails cutting down of forests and putting the life of thousands of species in peril.