Animals in the wild mostly avoid any encounters with humans – and when they do attack people, it is usually in self-defence, says legendary field biologist George Schaller.
And it would be wrong to declare tigers and leopards that attack humans as “man-eaters”, Schaller, who believes he’s still young at 83, told IANS in an interview.
Thus, there is a need for training the communities settled on the periphery of wildlife parks and sanctuaries because the wild animals — be it the tiger or the leopard or the elephant — don’t want trouble from the humans, said Schaller, who attended a two-day nature conservation biology workshop at Great Himalayan National Park’s camp office here in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh.
“And if a tiger is a man-eater, then its killing is certain,” he added.
German-born Schaller, who devoted six decades to conservation of wildcats and their ecosystems, is currently the Vice President of Panthera, an organisation founded in 2006 for conserving the animals.
Schaller, who is wild at heart, said in India — a storehouse of biodiversity — development is a big issue.
“India is saying it’s doing a lot for the preservation of wildlife. But it is really disturbing that 200 sq km of forest area of the Panna tiger reserve (in Madhya Pradesh) which is being diverted for non-forest purposes. After the 1990s, the country’s image in preserving forests is going down,” said the biologist-cum-author, who travelled to Central Africa to study the mountain gorilla when he was 25.
It is greed and corruption that threaten nature more.
The problem, in fact, across the globe is that oil, mining and timber companies are prepared to pay anything to operate in sensitive areas. Sadly, governments and officials succumb to their pressures.
“I know people (supposed conservationists) who prefer to sit in their offices (rather than go into the field). Conservation has not to do only with animals. It also has to do with economics and politics.”
Schaller, who has studied wildlife in several reserve forests and national parks in India, said the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand is the most vulnerable to poaching for international trade owing to its proximity to the Nepal border, a major trade link to the Chinese traditional medicine market.
Estimates say India supports the highest population of tigers in the wild, accounting for 2,226 of the estimated 3,890 worldwide.
Schaller, who has worked for nearly two decades on studying endemic wildlife in the Tibetan Plateau, said the snow leopard also needs protection from pastoral communities.
“The Spiti Valley (in Himachal Pradesh) and the Hemis National Park (in Jammu and Kashmir) support a good population of the snow leopard,” said Schaller, who spent most of his time in the field in Asia, Africa and South America.
“They are beautiful and majestic animals that rarely attack humans. They attack only when the villagers attack them with sticks. I have spent nights in their habitat and they passed my sleeping bag.”
“Man-animal conflicts are more a social issue. For the conservation of the wildlife, you need cooperation of the local communities,” he said.
Apart from the Spiti Valley, the state’s Pin Valley National Park, which Schaller trekked in three-four years ago, the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, the Great Himalayan National Park and the Pangi and Bharmour areas of Chamba district have a sizable population of the snow leopard.
Even neighbouring Uttarakhand has a good population of the elusive and highly-endangered species.
According to Schaller, for conserving the snow leopard there is need to maintain a sizable population of its prey species like the Asiatic ibex — a wild goat — and the Himalayan blue sheep.
Schaller’s photograph of a snow leopard, taken in Pakistan in 1970, is the first recorded image of the wild cat.
The founding fathers of wildlife conservation advocated the need to link eco-tourism with the local communities.
Take the case of tracking the critically-endangered mountain gorilla — the world’s largest ape — in the Virunga Mountains in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda in eastern Africa.
“This is the best managed park in the world, in terms of both earning foreign exchange and wildlife management. Part of the income fetched from the visitors is used for the welfare of the communities who reside along the park, who are also making an effort to conserve the forests.
“If we fail to create awareness on wildlife, then we will fail to preserve for our future generations,” he added.
(Vishal Gulati attended a nature conservation biology workshop coordinated jointly by Unesco and the Wildlife Institute of India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)