How a doer excels

Conservation of wildlife and wilderness areas is possible only when there are political will and strong scientific evidence to back such efforts. While it is relatively easy to generate scientific evidence to back why a patch of land has to be protected, getting the political class to back it is a tough battle. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. This inspiring book, Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscapes in the Twenty-First Century by well-known conservation scientist Sanjay Gubbi is all about his efforts in negotiating the bureaucracy and convincing the political masters to protect large tracts of forests in the Western Ghats. Through this book, he succinctly brings out all the problems that plague our forests and national parks, and how one can achieve conservation when the odds are against it.

Sanjay Gubbi narrates in great detail his journey of winning battles for wildlife in Karnataka, with a focus on tigers, which are a flagship species. It is an uphill task even in states such as Karnataka that has many individuals and institutions involved in conservation, and has better awareness than other states.

One well-known issue which generated a lot of attention in the media was the ban on night traffic on the Mysore-Mananthavadi Highway. This highway connects Mysuru with Wayanad in Kerala by passing through a tiger reserve, and the rising vehicular traffic had led to an increase in small and large animals dying due to accidents. Sanjay's sheer doggedness, including fighting lengthy court battles, led to the government investing in crores of rupees to realign a road in the interest of tigers and banning night traffic on the stretch inside the tiger reserve, leading to fewer deaths of animals.

Whatever wildlife survives in our forests is partly due to the hard work of the frontline staff and the forest guards who put their lives in danger. These are people recruited from villages and towns in and around the protected areas, and who have a great deal of knowledge of the terrain, flora and fauna, and the community. Despite being paid meagrely, and having poor clothing and equipment, they carry on with their duties, patrolling the forest and warding off hunters and timber smugglers. These unsung heroes get no recognition or rewards, unlike the officer cadre.

Thanks to the efforts of Sanjay, now the frontline staff in Karnataka get hardship allowance, which is a morale booster for those working in difficult conditions.
The political class and their vested interests, along with the bureaucracy, wields enormous power over our forests and wildlife. So, engaging the political class and bureaucracy is as important as adopting good science to conserve wildlife. No amount of classroom-teaching or training teaches you how to do it. This requires life skills such as building a network of committed individuals both in the field, media, political class and bureaucracy, thinking on the feet, and a large dose of common sense.

Sanjay proves that he is well aware of the practical problems and puts it rightly, "Government decisions are often unpredictable. I sometimes doubt if science ever comes into play when making decisions about conservation in India."

He certainly is not among those scientists who only do well in the field, but he is keen to make a positive impact.

In fact, he summarises his approach as "Our approach required patience, planning, consistent follow-up, timely action and reasonable compromises to make it work. A critical factor was to identify and work with several institutions from different spheres: from wildlife officials, lawyers, the media, elected representatives, animal welfare advocates, and citizen naturalists."

He points out an important factor for success that many activists miss out on. "Forming successful alliances is very critical. In my experience, working with the government was very productive because, once they took ownership of the issue, their support for their cause continued despite various pressures,"

The book reveals that Sanjay has kept a meticulous record of his work and events for the last two decades, which is rare for conservationists in India. The narration is fast-paced and engages the reader by keeping a good balance between science and activism. His patience and long-term follow-up, dedication and commitment, led to the increase of the protected areas network of Dandeli-Anshi Tiger reserve in Uttara Kannada district, undertaken by the government.

This book should be an important companion for those aspiring to be conservationists, and read by all those pursuing conservation. It shows how one person along with like-minded people can join up 21 nature reserves in Karnataka and minimise huge impacts of habitat fragmentation.

At a time when we are fast losing biodiversity and habitats to forces of globalisation and industrialisation, we need more and more of Sanjay Gubbis. One hopes his work continues to inspire others.

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