Bittu Sahgal at Dachigam
Bittu Sahgal at Dachigam (Photo: Tahir Shawl)

‘Kodai [Can] Bounce Back in Five Years’: Interview with the Legendary Warden of Sanctuary, Bittu Sahgal

Founder of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, an Indian non-profit focussed on conservation; founding editor of the prominent wildlife and ecology magazine, Sanctuary Asia as well as Sanctuary Cub, for young readers; initiator of projects such as Kids for Tigers and Mud on Boots: legendary Bittu Sahgal began his life-long campaign in the 80s. A recent interview in Mongabay sums up his long-standing achievements, energy, and enthusiasm; as well as his concern about what he refers to as ‘homo stupidus’, and hope for our young people, who ‘don’t have their hands on the wheel’.  Today, Sahgal continues to inspire.

‘I still remember the time Bittu packed me off to a forest, telling me it would change my life,’ says Bijal Vachharajani, author of several books with environmental concerns and commissioning editor at Pratham Books, a children’s book publisher with a focus on areas such as sustainability. ‘And he was, as usual, right. He walks into a room and reminds every single person there why we have to be nature defenders, and by the time he walks out, everyone’s signed up. I still go by his mantra, that to create change, we have to talk to the bachha party, not the buddha party.’ 

This 73-year-old environmentalist and editor is one of the most passionate conservationists you will meet—and his renowned energy was as contagious as ever when The Kodai Chronicle spoke to him this summer. In this exclusive interview, Sahgal speaks to TKC’s editor-in-chief from his home in Mumbai to highlight the importance of Kodai and the Western Ghats in our hearts, imaginations, and futures. 

Edited excerpts follow.


Rajni George: How do you feel about the changes in communications technology?

Bittu Sahgal: These have become essential tools. If you don’t adapt, you become irrelevant. Sanctuary’s reach has grown geometrically thanks to digital communication. But… nothing can replace meeting people in person. That luxury the pandemic has stolen from us.

Sanctuary is like the Grand Central Station for conservation in India. And the show must go on. We are enablers that shine spotlights on other people’s work and put them together and work towards conflict resolution… somewhat like marriage counsellors

RG: Thank you for speaking to us. I see that your events are on hold, but you plan to have more soon. How are things at Sanctuary?

BS: Our events have not gone on hold, in fact we now have many more events, but the majority are online. Where we work in villages, a considerable amount of our work is still outdoors, where we share information on COVID-appropriate behaviour and how to stay safe. Sanctuary is like the Grand Central Station for conservation in India. And the show must go on. We are enablers that shine spotlights on other people’s work and put them together and work towards conflict resolution… somewhat like marriage counsellors.

Bittu Sahgal at Pench
Bittu Sahgal at Pench (Photo: Abir Jain)

RG: Yes, this is an essential role of any kind of conservation. It’s a kind of matchmaking, because you are matching resources and roles. Our editors and reporters at The Kodai Chronicle, for example, often spend much of our time trying to match resources and leads.

BS: You’d be surprised though, how much information is available, but hidden on the Internet. And then you have people like Zai Whitaker… If you were to sit down with Zai and do a three-hour interview, you would get the history not only of the Palani Hills area but of India’s conservation movement. Sanctuary owes Zai a lot. She is an absolute gem and, with Rom [Whitaker] and Shekar Dattatri [renowned herpetologists], was among those that helped Sanctuary produce our ‘Project Tiger’ TV serial for Doordarshan in the mid-90s. The films had a viewership of around 30 million Indians. 

RG: Yes, and even from her parents’ time, the Futehallys. That legacy has been passed down.

BS: Oh! her parents―my word! When people like that go, they take libraries with them. Sadly the oaks are falling, and we must work overtime to see they are not replaced by weeds.

Whether in Kodai, Kanha, Nagerhole, or Silent Valley, all our victories are temporary, all our defeats are quasi-permanent

RG: We talk about who is going to replace this generation of conservationists—how do you feel about this question of legacy?

BS: It’s like this. Whether it’s legacy, or a battle, or a campaign―it doesn’t begin and end with any one person. It’s a long-distance relay… a marathon relay. When we pass on, we hand the baton over to younger, stronger legs. That’s happening right now. YOU are taking charge of the baton. 

RG: Are we winning or losing the race?

BS: Whether in Kodai, Kanha, Nagerhole, or Silent Valley, all our victories are temporary, all our defeats are quasi-permanent. We’ve got a job on hand. The things that have been started, 30-40-50 years ago… we believed we had the time to pace ourselves. ‘In a decade or two,’ we would say. No longer. In the Anthropocene, the time-buffer has been reduced to the next three to five years. Our climate crisis and its handmaidens, the COVID-19 pandemic, floods, droughts and the long litany of [related] miseries are only the start of the ecological tipping point.

Bittu Sahgal at Mutthodi Bhadra Tiger Reserve
Bittu Sahgal at Mutthodi Bhadra Tiger Reserve (Photo: DV Girish)

RG: Yes, the spillover―zoonotic diseases. It’s all connected. What I want to ask you is: how do we reconcile that gap between putting something down, archiving, and actual effect?

BS: Our memories and history are the strings that hold the pearls of the necklace that is life together.  It’s actually quite straightforward. To negotiate the future, we need to learn from the past. Ecological amnesia can be lethal. If we imagine that the lessons to be learned from warriors are irrelevant today… that battles fought decades ago have nothing to teach us… we will fail prey to tomorrow’s trials of life. Today’s environmental legacy is a result of yesterday’s miscalculations. The economics of GDP and the growth mantra need reinvention. Today the biosphere is sending us warnings, tomorrow it will send consequences beyond the capacity of Homo sapiens to handle.

RG: What is Sanctuary’s strategy?

BS: Our Board and our network are engaged at the tri-junction of biodiversity, economics, and climate change. Species loss, human rights, economic stability, food security, water security, health security… all are, everything is, going to be determined at this critical tri-junction. 

But Rajni, we are living in silos. Even well-intentioned people! All too few actually recognise the wisdom of handshakes that go beyond ‘I am a wildlife expert and will only deal with wildlife issues’, or ‘I am a lawyer, so I will concern myself only with legal issues’. Nature wasn’t designed like that. And the defence of nature won’t succeed by using such logic. Anyway, I don’t think this is a direct answer to what you are asking.

Bittu Sahgal at KFT National Camp, Pench
Bittu Sahgal at KFT National Camp, Pench (Photo: Sanctuary Asia Photo Library)

RG: Actually, I think it speaks to what we are talking about! The challenge for someone like us, is that as lay people, we sometimes feel we can’t be a part of that conversation you refer to very often. How do we use a publication like Sanctuary?

BS: As I keep saying, we are just custodians of Sanctuary the magazine. It belongs to the likes of you!

Please believe me, it’s not the engineers, economists, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who will determine the course of history. Human ambitions were always forged by poets, thinkers, artists, performers… mothers! These are the people who always inspired and cherry-picked the best options for humanity. They are the ones who choose happiness and safety as the compass to guide our destinies. Essentially, this involves working towards a functional relationship with nature… using it without abusing it, and accepting that we are a part of the biosphere and not at war with it to ‘improve our lives!’  All our futures are determined by the quality of the biosphere. 

RG: Who is the writer starting the conversation now, after writers like Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh?

BS: I don’t think there is any longer ONE writer. Social media has thrown that out the window. Now what is of great value is the filter in your head, because we are now spoilt for choice. Like iron filings to a magnet, with heads and hearts in sync, we need to filter the useless from the useful. I would always value writers such as Arundhati and Amitav who write for themselves, over those that write for ‘the market’. I seldom watch the news on television now, because I find most of those guys have lost the plot. They tout development, but when their own kids leave home they will inhale the toxins, and be hit by a virus released by the very people who partly own the medium that spouts fake news. 

We need first to restore their original habitat, protect it from more monocultures, keep all toxics including pesticides out of their home. Even reduce sound and light pollution to return balance to nocturnal ecology of these havens

RG: Like many, I frequently encounter gaur, as a part of daily life. Like many, I live near a developed part of town and a forested area. What is your take on people in Kodai getting too close to wild animals such as gaur, petting them, feeding them?

BS: Wild animals should be left wild. One ‘accident’ in Kodi and most locals will raise a war cry against  the gaur they apparently love so much. It’s time that jewels like Kodai and the Palani Hills began to be recognised as living infrastructures to be protected from the likes of Unilever, which  exhibited even more irresponsibility after their mercury dumping came to light. Like the Minimata disaster that came to light in Japan because methyl-mercury was dumped as industrial waste into water sources. Kodai’s lake is now highly polluted. I would urge that nobody eat a single fish from the Kodai lake as this could seriously impact the nervous system. And heaven knows the real impact of  Unilever’s mercury dumping on wild creatures, including gaur. Kodai, Mahabaleshwar, Darjeeling, Shimla… these were not meant to be industrial centres… they were designed by nature to provide varied climes for all manner of species to retreat to when the climate changed.  

Bittu Sahgal and Salim Ali
Bittu and Salim Ali (Photo: Sanctuary Asia Photo Library)

RG: So, do we tranquilize the gaur and relocate them, as some advocate? 

BS: No! I would not choose that option. We need first to restore their original habitat, protect it from more monocultures, keep all toxics including pesticides out of their home. Even reduce sound and light pollution to return balance to nocturnal ecology of these havens. Do this and Kodai will bounce back inside of five years in ways that you will never believe possible. The gaur will then leave Kodai streets alone, because they neither love our noise, nor lights, not smells. 

RG: Is this easier said than done? Also, some people believe that the gaur ‘got lost’ and entered Kodai. What do you make of this?

BS: Animals don’t get lost. Animals are forced, they are corralled into situations where their food supply, safety, and quietude are interrupted. I admit that it’s difficult to deal with the ignorance, avarice, arrogance, and apathy of humans. But for real solutions, it’s human behaviour that must change. This involves electing the right people. Setting good examples for our children. If we are able to change our ambitions everything will change… for the better. 

[W]e need to go back to the communities that used to live here. Ensure they are the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration and the transition will be both smooth and equitable

RG: Yes, that is one of the things we want to do at The Kodai Chronicle; to showcase the culture of the place. 

BS: It’s a great ambition. Kodai’s magic is its wilderness. Wild animals are the Gardeners of Eden. If we give them back most of their habitat, Kodai’s prosperity, health and happiness index will rise. It’s not rocket science. Grasslands are natural to the Palani Hills. We don’t need to ‘plant grasslands’. We need to remove exotics like wattle, planted all over the sholas. The grasses will come back automatically, brought back by wind and rain and herbivores, birds, and insects. Because you still have the germ plasm. And if the grasslands and forests are allowed to regenerate using nature-based solutions, wild creatures large and small will find their way to such restored habitats. 

You speak to anybody with even a tithe of ecological understanding, they will tell you it’s the climate and the plants that determine the fauna of natural ecosystems. That’s the way Project Tiger succeeded. In the next few years, we need to go back to the communities that used to live here. Ensure they are the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration and the transition will be both smooth and equitable. 

RG: And tourism could possibly be a sustainable way forward?

BS: Yes, provided locals understand that inappropriate, industrial-scale tourism will kill the golden goose.

Part II of The Kodai Chronicle’s conversation with Bittu Sahgal will be published separately.

Rajni George

Rajni George is founding editor and acting editor-in-chief of The Kodai Chronicle. She has worked at Penguin Random House, Granta and The Caravan. Her work has been published in The New Internationalist, The New York Times, and Mint Lounge. She works remotely in climate change adaptation, and lives on St Mary's Road.

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