Long before it was fashionable, a dedicated band of conservationists braved the fashions of the day to protect what they knew was a vanishing heritage. Those who sought such protection in the days of shikar, had to cope with both derision and animosity on a scale we might never understand. The 1970s and 80s, were however considerably better years for Indian wildlife. With a Prime Minister who was truly committed to protecting wildlife at the helm, these were exciting times. A lot of this had to do with the nature of the men and women who were in charge of protecting wildlife then. Their vision laid the foundation for the survival of India’s endangered species and habitats. The first, of a multi-part series of men who have almost been forgotten.
R S Dharmakumarsinhji
R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji or ‘Bapa’ as he was popularly known, belonged to the royal family of Bhavnagar and like most royals of that time, he was a passionate hunter. However, his interest in hunting soon transcended into a lifetime of protecting wildlife. He was fascinated by animal behaviour — how the cheetah tackles his prey and even the sexual stamina of lions. He played an important role in protecting the Asiatic Lion and when he died in 1986, he was a popular figure, known and recognised for his passion and commitment to wildlife conservation. A prolific writer, his books Birds of Saurashtra and Sixty Indian Birds are still sought after. Reminiscences of Indian Wildlife is another valuable collection of hunting anecdotes and his reflections on the natural history of India.
It was Kailash Sankhala, a forest officer, who was the driving force behind Project Tiger and one of the first to raise a voice in favour of protecting the tiger, as early as 1956. He had studied the tiger and its habitat extensively under a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and this earned him the privilege of being the first Field Director of Project Tiger. Sankhala helped to weld together a team of dedicated officers and garnered the required political support. It was his perseverance and dogged efforts that brought the tiger back from the brink of extinction. He authored several books and essays on India’s wildlife including Tiger! : The Story of the Indian Tiger. In 1989, he started Tiger Trust, an NGO to enable him to continue to dedicate his life to the cause of the tiger. Today, we could do with a man as committed and unyielding in his endeavours as Sankhala, to provide a new lease of life to the tiger and its endangered home.
Naturalist, author and wildlife photographer, M Krishnan is one of the most respected names in natural history writing. Initially, Krishnan struggled to make a living by writing and selling his drawings to small magazines, and even worked with the Maharaja of Sandur near Bellary in Karnataka, as his political secretary. His essays were published by The Hindu and The Illustrated Weekly of India. His weekly column in The Statesman was published for 46 years — from 1950 to 1996, the year he died. As a photographer, he used only black and white film and a camera that was a composite mix of accessories put together by himself. His columns, poems, essays and sketches share his joys, experiences and observations of wildlife from large and small creatures to nature in temple art and folklore, and conservation issues. He was also responsible for getting Vedanthangal declared as a bird sanctuary. A wise, forthright and opinionated man, this chronicler of the natural world did not shy away from writing or speaking about what he believed in.
S P Shahi
A shikari turned passionate advocate of wildlife conservation, Shahi was extremely and emotionally involved with the forest and its denizens. He played a significant role in pushing the Bihar government to protect Bihar’s wildlife. As Chief Conservator of Forests, he stood up to politicians and fiercely defended the wild habitats under his care. His studies on the Indian wolf are widely referred to even today, and it was his commitment to these animals that convinced the Bihar government to protect them. He took up photography at a late stage in his life, but became an accomplished wildlife photographer and his works were published widely. He chronicled his observations in the book Back to the Wall, The Saga of Wildlife in Bihar, which was published in 1977.
This is the first part of a four-part series on the people who were in charge of protecting wildlife