Prof. Raman Sukumar is not one of the salesman conservationists that you meet every other day trying to pitch themselves up rather than the wildlife they pretend to conserve. Yet, he is the most respected, most popular, most distinguished, and if one may say, the most saleable face of wildlife conservation in India and Asia – considering that Asian wildlife conservation needs, and can certainly do, with more than a-dime-a-day support.
Worldwide, conservationists look up to him for his scholarship. Scholars look up to him for his conservation acumen. Activists looking to do good work, and not knowing how, trust him with their might and energies. Donors looking to spend on conservation trust him with their monies. (They know he puts their money as well as his exactly where his judicious mouth is...!)
Though now Prof. Sukumar addresses the larger issues of conservation, including ecological pressures and impacts on flora and fauna, he is still widely known by his nicknames, Asian Elephant Man and Elephant Suku - names that he probably won, much like his Ph.D, for his pioneering study of 'man-elephant relations and conflict'. (Years later, his work among the elephants was also to get him the Chair of Asian Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN.)
Shali Ittaman of PTI spoke to Prof. Sukumar about his work, about his concerns and about his steadfast belief that he represents a cause that is worth fighting.
Q: Prof Sukumar, so many years of work on the Asian Elephant... You are really the animal's best friend, aren't you?
Sukumar: I have tried a few things...!
Q: ...and very successfully, I should think?
Sukumar: Well, I have made a few points...
Q: Has your interest now gone beyond the elephant?
Sukumar: Certainly, yes. Conservation biology is really the big area of my study, and it includes the elephant – being the flagship species that it really is...
Currently, I am studying global climate change and its long and short-term impacts on the flora and fauna, which is everything between the forest floor and the canopy.
Q: What are the current big dangers to Indian wildlife?
Sukumar: There are many dangers depending on the region - loss of forests, fragmentation of wildlife habitat, degradation due to invasive weeds and poaching. There are also great dangers looming on the horizon from pressures of development activities such as mining road and rail traffic and tourism. India is on the fast track of economic growth, and I think that we are just beginning to see an escalation of developmental pressures.
But crucially, when one talks of danger, it must be understood not just from the point of risk to flagship species such as the elephants and the tigers, but also from the perspective of risk to flora and fauna, which, like I said, is everything from forest floor to tree top. It is only then that issues such as global climate change and weed invasion of wild lands begin to look alarming.
Q: Are these also the biggest threats to the elephant population in India?
Sukumar: The immediate danger to larger species such as the elephant and the tiger is from habitat fragmentation, which, from the view of conservation is no less a threat than hunting. Elephants especially are migratory by nature. They must move from one forest part to the other to meet their forage requirements. Today many of their traditional movement routes are either being blocked or under pressure the forests are bisected by roads and railway tracks and what remains in the name of forest tracts are patches of degraded wilderness.
Q: You have been asking estate owners to desist from development work near eco-sensitive zones? Do you see this as a big issue?
Sukumar: Yes. Mining, quarrying, logging and single crop plantations have often been talked about in the context. An equally big issue is encroachment by commercial plantations such as coffee and tea.
Q: Eco-tourism also seems to becoming the by-word near sensitive zones? How do you see it shaping vis-à-vis conservation?
Sukumar: In a democratic country like ours, it is difficult to ban people from going into the forest. After all, forests are a common resource and belong as much to the common man as much as to the conservationist. The need of the hour is therefore responsible eco-tourism based on thoroughly thought and rigorously applied rules and regulations.
Having said that, I also think eco-tourism has its positive sides. Eco-tourism can lead to sensitisation of the masses towards wildlife conservation. Eco-tourism can also bring in the much-need money for conservation and to local economies, though this is not happening now.
Currently, poor farmers are selling their lands at cheap rates for commercial development. I propose an alternative ... commercial ventures should be permitted on lands near wildlife reserves only through long-term leases, say 30 years. In this way, subsistence farmers are not deprived of their lands but have a regular source of income. Let us face it... conservation does need money but we should not open the floodgates!
Q: You have also in the past talked of a land use policy on lands next to critical forest areas. Could you define this?
Sukumar: I think there has to be a clear land-use policy for the entire country including all forest areas, not just critical ones. With respect to our protected areas, tiger and elephant reserves or biosphere reserves, this should include management plans that define not just what is to be done within the forests but also along the periphery. This should be public knowledge so as entrepreneurs know where to go to locate their projects, whether these be mines or tourism ventures, or which lands to keep away from.
Q: The big debate on human-animal co-existence just does not seem to be going away? There was a rather stormy one recently when Sunita Narain, Valmik Thapar and others sat on the tiger study after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh intervened on behalf of the vanishing animal? Another one seems be in the making now with the forthcoming tribal bill? On which side of the line are you?
Sukumar: I really do not want to get into this now. I will only say there has to be a balance.
Q: But you have in the past talked about “keep off zones”, haven't you?
Sukumar: Yes, I have... and surely, there have to be keep-off zones, especially in ecologically sensitive forest areas. But then let me reiterate, there has got to be a balance. When one area is marked out-of-bounds, other areas can be opened out. The Bannerghatta National Park (Karnataka), for instance, is already fairly fragmented and fragile. A few more people in and out will make no difference. It can be developed as a safari park to cater to the large numbers of people including IT professional coming to Bangalore but do not have the time to visit either Bandipur or Nagarahole. Nairobi National Park in Kenya is quite a money spinner.
Even in the case of tribals, I can understand the historical injustices done to them. They surely need to be compensated. But where and how are issues that need to be studied and then addressed. For instance, you should not give away large areas of land to tribals in critical areas such as wildlife corridors. In such cases there has to be an honourable package for settling them elsewhere. In other non-critical areas, lands can be turned over to them.
Q: Yes, of course Professor! But a studied response that you are suggesting may take a long time, and I wonder if our depleting forests and endangered wildlife have so much time...!
Sukumar: It is not a very happy situation. But if we begin now we can settle these issues in about ten years...after all we have been talking for several decades!
Q: This is for general information... What is the ideal forest cover that any nation must have?
Sukumar: The national policy states 33%....
Q: And how much does India have?
Sukumar:  About 20%, according to the Forest Survey of India... But again, the question is what kind of forest this is... There can be good forests as well as bad forests. A few standing trees and a little shrubbery cannot constitute a forest.
Q: So what is the best figure for India?
Sukumar: I cannot go beyond the national policy.....even that is difficult to achieve!
Q: ...and to that you add the bad count of lions, tigers, elephants and other animals and birds ...! Prof Sukumar, are you optimistic of the way wildlife conservation work is shaping? Do you think Indian wildlife has a chance?
Sukumar: I am optimistic. Animals and plants are amazingly resilient! Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing conservation but merely studying them.