'Battle for conservation will be fought in our cities'

Updated: Oct 12, 2019, 11:25 IST | Fiona Fernandez |

Award-winning environment journalist Bahar Dutt discusses a new book that celebrates the lesser-known triumphs of conservation in India, and the travesty of Aarey

Dutt most fulfilling assignment was on the banks of the Chambal. She held a tiny hatchling of a red roof turtle in her hand and gently released it into the river. Being a part of the first few moments of the life of this ancient creature was rewarding, she says. Pics/ Vijay Bedi
Dutt most fulfilling assignment was on the banks of the Chambal. She held a tiny hatchling of a red roof turtle in her hand and gently released it into the river. Being a part of the first few moments of the life of this ancient creature was rewarding, she says. Pics/ Vijay Bedi

What lessons did research for Rewilding teach you?

For this book, I spent two years travelling to India’s most remote corners; sometimes alone, and at times, with my four-year-old. I covered places from Manas on the border with Bhutan to Orang (Sonitpur district, Assam) a lesser-known park but extremely vital habitat for the rhino and pygmy hog. When I finished my travels I came away with an immense sense of pride on how much we are doing to conserve our wildlife, but this hope sits on the precipice of concern. It takes so much hard work to restore an ecosystem or bring back a species and with just one nod from a decision maker, the same forest can be signed away for a dam or a road. Take the Panna example. While we have an army of forest guards on the ground to protect the tiger in this national park in Madhya Pradesh, we now want to drown the same habitat for a river-linking project. Never mind the millions of rupees that have gone in bringing back tigers to a park that lost all its big cats to poaching.

After a decade of covering stories on mining and deforestation, it was time to tell stories of all that we are doing right. I had changed my lens to document all the good stuff and the monumental decisions we are taking to restore species. So we are setting up captive breeding centres for vultures, we have banned the drug that caused the decline of the bird (even though countries in Europe have not done the same) we are moving big animals like rhinos and tigers like a game of chess to repopulate habitats from where they disappeared. That’s a lot of work and a lot of stories that we don’t hear about often.

Almost a decade ago when we thought of captive breeding of animals we only focused on that, now we are willing to put in the effort to restore habitats. Another dichotomy I explored with Rewilding was how ‘rewilding’ a habitat can sometimes mean uprooting trees! In a chapter that explores how people in cities are restoring ecosystems, the prosopis juliflora had to removed in order to bring back the more native trees or flora.

I learnt that our concept of restoration ecology has become more refined; even in cities, we don’t want to create just a park for joggers, we want to revive an ecosystem, restore the water table and bring back species that were once found in that landscape a 100 years ago. The restoration of the Aravali biodiversity Park in Gurugram, Haryana is a classic example that’s explored in the book.

Panna National Park brought back tigers but now faces new threats
Panna National Park brought back tigers but now faces new threats

Today, Bombay is fighting to save Aarey. As you read this, 2000-plus trees have been hacked to make way for a Metro car shed. The next targets could be our saltpans and mangroves. As someone who’s reported on the good and bad around India's environment, can rewilding play a role here?

I am so glad you posed this question because Aarey links nicely to a chapter on urban restoration projects. In one of the chapters on urban rewilding I look at how people in cities can lead the conservation movement. I look at two examples one from Gurugram and another to restore a lake in Bengaluru. The urban middle class that was only associated with watching tiger safaris while on holiday is now willing to take on the green battles. I find that immensely motivating and heartening. Ultimately, the battles for conservation will be fought in the cities, as our policymakers are here, which is why we have to build that mass movement for the environment.

Aarey is a classic example of that mass movement. Yes, scientists have argued that the trees at Aarey were exotics they were not native trees, but that to me is not relevant. In my book, its referred to as the pigeon paradox wherein urban restoration projects you may end up conserving the more common species, like the pigeon, but that’s okay as you end up creating a larger constituency for wildlife as a whole.

For the people leading the movement, I wish them more power to fight this battle. It has become convenient to assume that our forests are the most easy to siphon off as there are no people living on them so no compensation needs to be paid, so its easier to chop trees for public projects. Let’s make chopping trees far tougher than it seems.

You lost a job opportunity due to your environmental reportage in UP. How did such knocks impact you and your research?

Well, the story is about all these lovely little creatures from turtles to baby gharials. In one of the chapters, I write about how a sanctuary dedicated to the turtles in the river Ganga was just wiped off the map of India due to a political decision. I wrote an article around this news point, and a few months later I was told that a job I had applied for was denied because I wrote a piece against the establishment. That shook me, as I thought as a journalist I had done my job, I had reported the vanishing of a wildlife sanctuary which to my mind was a big story. But I have no regrets; given a chance, I would still choose to do that story. I soldier on with that conviction.

The chapter on the mahseer was insightful…

It was the most fascinating chapter. From an academic viewpoint, from a conservation policy angle and from the discovery I made in the process of writing this book. A private company with all noble intentions breeds the mahseer in captivity. But the place where this fish is released ends up destroying a sub-species of the same fish in the river Cauvery! When I probed further I would discover another nugget of information on the mahseer. Visiting the captive breeding centre in Maharashtra was an eye-opener – how fish eggs are kept, the way they shine like tiny diamonds, the science of breeding them in captivity just had me hooked! I got to hold a full-grown mahseer fish in my hands; it is a super powerful fish, though it felt as slippery as soap!

Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature (Oxford University Press) is available in bookstores and amazon.com

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