Friday, February 10, 2012

Is bird-tourism possible in Gujarat?

Shyam Parekh | Monday, January 30, 2012 
While the world was busy discussing recession and Eurozone crisis and India was obsessed with the nth warning by Anna Hazare to have a strong Lokpal Bill, a small conference quietly concluded in Gandhinagar. It was the second edition of Gujarat Bird Watchers' Conference. Shorn of quite many feathers and the glory compared with the 2010 event, the conference saw flocking of birds, err… birders of the same feather! It was interesting and shocking at the same time to hear them chirp some birdy tales.
A bird-watcher friend animatedly described poaching incidents that he witnessed at birding sites like Nal Sarovar and in the Little Rann of Kutch. He had some pictures which he wanted me to see. He wanted me to do something to stop rampant poaching. Indeed disturbing. But what was more disturbing was the fact that he refused to go on record or even spare pictures - for the fear of being found out! He was afraid of being persecuted by the authorities. But what can a newspaper do without any evidence or on-the-record comment? In the past, any journalistic attempts to expose poaching or threats to the avifauna have been invariably followed by notices from the forest department either challenging the attempt to expose something or sometimes even booking the journalist for an alleged crime of poaching!
A well-known wildlife photographer complained how the access to the best of the protected areas was denied to him by local foresters. The lensman had dared to release some pictures depicting some poaching and tree-felling. On top of that he dared to say no to the forest officer's wish to take credit for a beautiful and rare picture of lions that the photographer had taken!Needless to say, his career as a wildlife photographer has been ruined to some extent. Shooting the messenger is not going to help conservation.At the same time those attempting to contribute towards conservation should learn not to get deterred by such vested interests.

The most shocking part of the conference was that the second edition was a quite scaled down and lacklustre affair. The more unbelievable part was that forest officials, who are entrusted with conservation, were conspicuous of their absence. The event was attended by bird watchers, ornithologists, conservationists and wildlife photographers from over a dozen countries! Gujarat is home to over 40% of the avifauna of India and one of the finest birding destinations in the world. But, when it was hosting probably the only such event in India, how can Gujarat Forest Department, the custodian of conservation of birds, be away?
Interestingly, some of the most renowned names in bird-watching in Gujarat too stayed away from the event. Was it that their fragile ego was hurt or that the organizers were not organized enough to invite them? Whatever happened, the kind of fillip such an event could have given to the conservation activities by bringing all stakeholders on the same platform, did not happen. One hopes, these were teething troubles and next time on it will.
The state government which rightly saw a great opportunity in promoting bird tourism in Gujarat should not leave conservation of birds only to some of the disinterested employees of the forest department; neither to the bird-watchers - who usually love to bash media! Some of them love to blame media for everything that goes wrong on the conservation front. Interestingly, if a demoiselle crane is identified as a common crane there will be half a dozen phone calls for sure, the first thing in the day! The poor editor will be put to great shame for the unforgivable error. But when a demoiselle crane has been killed and when the media tries to talk to these very people, they usually refrain from talking saying "this is too controversial".
Conservation of birds, their habitats and wetlands is a far more complex and challenging issue. It needs an unusual approach - particularly for a state like Gujarat. The state government should be proactive in setting up an apex body that has conservation of birds as its sole objective, irrespective of the departments which have a stake in birding habitats - forest, irrigation and revenue.
Such a body can also grant accreditations to wildlife photographers, professional and amateur ones, to access protected areas for photography. This will ensure that the photographers are not forced to capture only what the foresters want them to, they end up contributing to conservation and documentation of natural heritage fearlessly.
The author is the resident editor of DNA Ahmedabad

No comments: