Saturday, July 21, 2012

What ails wildlife conservation in India?

Every single day, we lose some part of our natural heritage. Somewhere, a tiger dies, or a patch of forest is cut down or a dam floods pristine jungle. And while development will continue to extract a price, this is taking us straight down the precipice of disaster. And disaster not just for the denizens of the forest, but for all mankind. We’re robbing the bank just so we can live better today, but what about leaving the future generations bankrupt and facing utter ruin? How can we claim to be responsible parents, when all we’re going to leave our children is vulnerability to Mother Nature’s most severe tantrums?

These problems are not getting solved, there is not even a comprehensive solution in sight. And all valiant efforts of our conservationists don’t seem to be going anywhere. Isn’t it time we stepped back and asked ourselves one simple question?

"How effective is a cause when it can’t even enlist a few million in a country of a billion plus people?"

But why is enlisting people such an issue?

1. Serious lack of engagement with people

The primary problem is lack of engagement with the people first, and hence, with the issue. Unfortunately, this problem is not visible or immediately apparent to those of us cocooned in our urban comforts. Most people don’t know or don’t realize the seriousness of these problems. Hell, most don’t even understand why we need tigers or forests. They don’t know that their action or inaction is capable of causing disasters for the future. Because if they did and understood the magnitude of the problem, would they not act?

The problem is, very few people in the conservation world really want to engage with regular people. Because engaging means understanding what drives and motivates your subject. It means you need to create messaging that they ‘want to hear’, not necessarily always what you want to tell them.

The preferred solution is to lecture them via any and every media contact point. Unfortunately for them, the decision to engage is dependent on the subject and not on the perpetrator. So, the lack of engagement means it’s obvious that we haven’t been able to engage sufficiently with enough people.

2. Messaging  disconnect

Moaning that the tiger is vanishing is not enough to motivate someone busting his butt in the daily grind. “Save the Tiger”, “Our World is dying”, “Apocalype coming” are all coming out of urban orifices. But the message doesn’t really permeate the surface. Because most people haven’t seen a tiger in the wild. And even the most cynical “I’m not a tiger-person” conservationist will agree that it is a life changing moment. I can count at least a hundred people I know, who’re passionate about saving this animal because they can’t bear the thought of never being able to see it again in the jungle.  But if you haven’t seen one, then how does it matter if Panna loses its tigers? Bannerghatta safari or Alipore Zoo still has tigers!

3. ‘Holier than thou’ attitude to wildlife tourism

“The house is burning down, but we’re more worried about the neighbor stealing the crockery. “

The wildlife tourist is treated like a pariah in this country. Like I heard someone say, “They want our money, but they don’t want us”.

The single most important source of support can be the million plus people who visit our forests every year. And that number is growing.  These are the very people who are there, have taken the time, spent the money and are very likely to sample some of our amazing wildlife.  The iron is hot, someone just has to ram home the message. Imagine a million people petitioning the government to stop mining in Tadoba. Isn’t it easier than a bunch of people repeatedly going to the Supreme Court? Because a million people mean a million VOTES.

But what do we do? Treat them like shit. Find ways to keep them out of the forests with asinine, poorly worded guidelines.  And the problem is not the guideline, it is the thought behind it. Which says – ‘I refuse to engage with you, so I will turf you out.’ Because I can. And on issues which are largely aesthetics-driven and can be addressed with proper enforcement.

So you stop tourists from entering the forest. That’s easy. But is that the solution? What about people who encroach into the forests or about poachers? Or will they meekly obey these ‘new’ guidelines?

So what is the answer?

“A hundred pickaxes pack more power than one mighty sword”

1. Inclusive Conservation

The answer is not to be ‘exclusive’, conservation needs to be ‘inclusive’. Deomcratize conservation, take the onus from the hands of a few onto the shoulders of many.

If you ask a person who’s just seen a tiger whether he’d like it to go extinct, what do you think the answer will be? That’s where ‘Save the Tiger’ will be at it’s most effective. When you find your subject at their most receptive and drive home your message.

2. Get more people to care. Then leverage the Snowball effect

People get people. Believers get more believers. And lovers beget more love. And this snowballing effect is what will enlist more people than a Telethon (which is wonderful, but it is more for people who have already seen the light) So if someone has a wonderful time in Ranthambhore or Velavadar, you bet your life that more will be motivated to follow. Let people create a wildlife epidemic, infecting each other with their experiences. And this will happen on its own. No one need spend any money or effort creating support.

3. Actively empower and enlist people

Empower people, make them feel valued. Like they can contribute. Like they are part of the cause. Make them feel like brand ambassadors or advocates, to go and spread the joy of the wild. We need to make people come to our forests (and behave properly of course) discover their love for the wild and then, enlist their support for the cause.

4. Scale up tourism

Of the responsible kind I may add, before the hawks rip me to shreds. Lay down, clear, transparent and enforceable rules and enforce them. Punish rule-breakers, whoever they may be. Enable people people to have memorable experiences in our forests. After all, isn’t sighting a huge male tiger, an elephant calf between his mother’s legs or thousands of flamingos taking to flight far more of a treasure than watching your thousandth sunset on Baga beach?

This may sound simplistic, but the most effective movements are built on simple, single minded, inclusive ideas. Again, I do not claim that this is the only solution to all our ills, but what it should do is solve one fundamental issue with conservation – lack of engagement and support from people en masse.

And when this does become inclusive and lays claim to becoming a serious movement, trust me, no one will be able to ignore a few million voices. Or should I say VOTES?