An interview with Dr M K Ranjitsinh, Chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India
It is perhaps sacrilegious to squeeze all the achievements of the Wildlife Trust of India Chairman, Dr M K Ranjitsinh in one short profile note. A scion of the former royal family of Wankaner in Saurashtra, Gujarat, he is one of the most distinguished and accomplished wildlifers in India and indeed the world. Named after the famous cricketer, Dr Ranjitsinh has led a peripatetic and multifarious life that has seen him make full use of his multi talented personality.
As Collector of Dhar and Mandhla districts from 1965 to 1970 he handled one of the severest famines in recent times, with almost one and a half lakh laborers working on the scarcity works and food-grain provision being a major task. He was Deputy Secretary and Director, Forests and Wildlife, in the Ministry of Agriculture and in this role took substantive roles in administrative aspects of wildlife conservation of the forests of Andaman and Nicobars, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa. Dr Ranjitsinh has been instrumental in setting up one of the most remarkable zoological gardens in the country, Van Vihar in Bhopal, perhaps the only zoo in the world with an open air enclosure for leopards. As Commissioner of Bhopal from 1983 to 1985 he directed relief operations during the disastrous gas leak in December 1984. He has also served as Director General of the Council for the Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) and was involved in sanctioning of projects of prominent non governmental agencies. Dr Ranjitsinh drafted and piloted the Wildlife(Preservation) Act of 1972, the first comprehensive wildlife legislation applicable to the whole country. As the first Director of Wildlife Preservation of India under this Act from 1973 to 1975, he drafted the schemes for financial assistance to different Indian states for establishing national parks and sanctuaries. He has spearheaded the protection of the Central Indian race of the Barasingha, the Manipur Brow antlered Deer and the Nilgiri Tahr, amongst numerous other species. As the Member Secretary of the Task Force for formulating Project Tiger, he was instrumental in the identification of the first tiger reserves in India. Dr Ranjitsinh prefers to see animals in the wild, but he was responsible for the launching of the successful captive breeding and rehabilitation of three species of crocodilians in India.
Dr M K Ranjitsinh, who framed India’s Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. Photo courtesy of Ranjitsinh and the Wildlife Trust of India
From 1975 to 1980, he worked as the Regional Adviser in Nature Conservation in the Bangkok regional Office of the United Nations Environmental Programme(UNEP) and rendered technical advice in nature conservation, ecosystem management, legislation and international cooperation in this regard to Asian countries. Thailand’s national conservation plan was prepared with his assistance. His exemplary efforts in nature conservation saw him as the only representative on the Expert Group that assisted the Government of Germany in preparation of the International Conservation of Migratory species of Wildlife. Dr Ranjitsinh played a leading role in the amendment of the Wildlife(Protection) Act of 1972 and banned the trade of endangered species all over the country. He loves tigers but he loves their elusive mountain dwelling brethren, the Snow Leopard too and initiated a project for the conservation of this species. India’s premier wildlife research institute, the Wildlife Institute of India was started with his support and he acted as Chairman of its Research Advisory Committee. He has been the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES) and has led the Indian delegation to the World National Parks Congress in the United States. Travel is an obsession with Dr Ranjitsinh and he has visited more than 90 countries till date. He has been a pioneer in establishing a compensation scheme of cattle killed by tigers and leopards and diverted the tribals of Orissa from their hunting practices. His academic credentials are impeccable and he holds a PhD in Wildlife Ecology from Saurashtra University. He has published more than 50 papers on wildlife and nature related issues and has written two books on wildlife, including ‘Beyond the Tiger: Portraits of Asian Wildlife’.
Dr Ranjitsinh espouses the non lethal usage of wild animals and thinks that India’s unique religious traditions do not permit the wanton destruction of wildlife. An avid reader and collector of books, he loves Hindustani Classical music and collects coins, stamps and art related to wildlife. His stalwart efforts have been recognized by the award of the Order of the Golden Ark of Netherlands in 1979 and by election to the Global 500 Roll of Honor of the United Nations Environment Program(UNEP)in 1991.
INTERVIEW WITH DR M K RANJITSINH
Shubhobroto Ghosh: To begin with, thank you for your time and patience in granting this interview. To start off with, where are you from?
M K Ranjitsinh: I am from Wankaner in Saurashtra in Gujarat.
Wildlife Trust of India
Shubhobroto Ghosh: I understand you belong to a royal family. Are you related to the cricketer Ranjitsinhji?
M K Ranjitsinh: Erstwhile royal family(smiles). I am not related to Ranjitsinhji the cricketer, but I was named after him. He was known to my family as a friend.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What is your educational qualification?
M K Ranjitsinh: I have an MA in History (Honors) from St Stephen’s College in New Delhi. And I hold a PhD in Ecology from Saurashtra University of Rajkot that was awarded to me in 1983.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: If you do not mind me asking you this, Royal families have traditionally been accused of exploiting humans and they have also been accused of exploiting animals. How do you defend your royal connections especially when you relate it to your work for social causes and particularly wildlife conservation?
M K Ranjitsinh: This is a very interesting question, I must say it is a very provocative question and sometime ago a journalist asked my father a similar question. But I am not provoked at all. I’ll take your question.
First, exploitation of humans. You tell me, if royal families were all exploitative and abusive, why are members of ex Royal families still getting elected in India? The electorate of India does not consist of fools and certainly the people of Gujarat are no fools. See, you have to understand that there were good rulers and there were bad rulers. If the will of the people is manifested in elections and people weigh their choices rationally, isn’t there something to be said for ex members of Royal families still getting elected in a democracy like India today?
My father once mentioned, “In a monarchy, one family exploits the people(If that is how you want to put it.) In a democracy, a thousand families exploit the people.”
Now to come to your more germane question regarding exploitation of animals, I have to admit that some princes of royal families were inveterate hunters and slaughtered animals indiscriminately and such wanton killing was and remains indefensible. But at the same time there were hunters like Dharmakumarsinhji who were keen observers of fauna and he was an ardent ornithologist. I also have to say that there was more wildlife in states of yore where princes were interested in hunting. When I started as the Director of Wildlife, about 80% of the then existing wildlife reserves were former hunting reserves of the British and of the princes. If one family hunted many animals, in Northern Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh there were still more tigers in this country then than now after the Project Tiger initiatives. Hunting was not a free for all during the colonial rule.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What about sport hunting? The morality of taking a life for pleasure?
M K R: I would not advocate sport hunting now. It will militate against the current ethos of animal protection in India. But again I emphasise that 50 years ago, there was more wildlife in India than now. The Maharaja of Dholpur in Rajasthan was a former hunter and would call individual Sambar by name. Regarding the moral issue, there is no more or and no less morality in taking a life by hunting than eating a chicken. What I do mean to say is that there is no morality in taking a life per se. But there are different kinds of hunting. One is hunting for possession, a selfish affair. And there is hunting for eating. And many hunters turned into conservationists, for example, Jim Corbett and Billy Arjan Singh. So you have to take into account different perspectives on this issue. For example, does it help the cause of the tiger by saving maneaters? I don’t think so. I would rather have a maneater shot than captured since an animal in captivity is as good as dead as far as conservation goes.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on keeping wild animals in zoos ?
M K Ranjitsinh: I am not in favor of keeping animals in captivity per se but support ex situ conservation as a last resort for saving animals. But certainly I am opposed to keeping animals in captivity for the enjoyment of people. I well and truly believe that the best way to appreciate the beauty of an animal is by viewing it in the wild. In India, people ogle at animals in zoos and National Parks. It is our own fault. The whole conservation effort is too tiger centric. People do not appreciate other forms of wildlife. I was in Corbett recently when I spotted a leopard in a tree. Some tourists were causing a ruckus so I asked them to stop making noise. “This is just a leopard, not a tiger,” I told them sarcastically. And believe it or not some of them left the spot immediately murmuring, “Only a leopard, not a tiger, not a tiger.” This mindset has to change.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on the reintroduction of animals ?
M K Ranjitsinh: Reintroduction of animals should be done the right way. It could bring focus on the area which is very important. Take for example, the Rhinos of Dudhwa that were brought there in 1979 from Assam. They are still in an enclosure and in my opinion, they should have been released.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: How do you view domestic animal welfare in the light of wild animal welfare?
M K Ranjitsinh: I am not against domestic animal welfare but there is a conflict between wild animal welfare and domestic animal welfare because they compete for the same resources in areas of wild habitat.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: How do you justify spending money and resources on animals when there are people dying out of hunger and starvation and poverty in India ?
M K Ranjitsinh: If you are a welfare state, you have to give attention to poverty alleviation. Is the solution to this the destruction of forests? Saving animals means saving forests and ecosystems, the natural heritage of the country. Land diverted for demographic use cannot be brought back for any other use. How many people will you help by destroying forests? Saving habitat of animals is the primary issue here, the animals come second. And to what extent is the reclaimed land cultivable? Marginal land should be forested. In Western Satpura in Southern Aravallis in Bhil tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh there is an ecological holocaust. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have lost 32,000 square kilometers of forest areas in the last sixty years. If everything in a democracy should be put to vote, then why not put the future of the entire country to vote on every issue including the fate of our religious shrines? Is that acceptable in a democracy? Is that how a democracy should function? And does a democracy necessarily mean a free for all?
In this country, there is a religious sentiment to save forests and wildlife. There is also a fear of retribution, a hangover from the colonial past. In some places, people do not encroach on forests because they fear dacoits. Wildlife also survives in demilitarized war zones. There is no single overriding common denominator regarding protection of animals and wildlife in India. Some communities are more conducive to conservation principles than others. And the survival of forests in India is inextricably linked to the survival of animals. If the tigers are not there in Sariska, how will the forest survive? You have to have certain choices. If we are prepared to protect our religious sites considering them to be sacred, why are we not prepared to save our forests that are also part and parcel of God’s land?
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What is your stance on the burning debate on ‘Tigers versus Tribals’?
M K Ranjitsinh: As I have mentioned, tigers cannot roam free as man eaters. But there IS a distinction between tigers as a threat to human life and as a threat to human property. In a protected park, people should be moved out. In other areas, tigers would have to coexist with humans and they will not survive. We have to look into ways to resolve this man animal conflict. The aim should be to lessen damage to human property without destroying the animals.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: You have written several books on wildlife. Who are your favorite authors?
M K Ranjitsinh: (Laughs) Too many to mention. Dunbar Brander, George Schaller, Colonel C H Stockley, Dharmakumarsinhji, Salim Ali, Saroj Raj Chaudhury, Jim Corbett, F W Champion. I liked Burrard’s books on mountain fauna. Also books written by Stebbing. Most of these people were pioneers in their respective fields.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: Which wildlifers do you most admire?
M K Ranjitsinh: I liked the conservation efforts made by the British and Indian princes. I appreciate the works of Sanjay Deb Roy, Kailash Sankhala, Billy Arjan Singh and Saroj Raj Chaudhury. Chaudhury was a remarkable man – he contributed a lot to forest management in India and was the first director of the nascent Wildlife Institute of India.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: How many countries have you visited ?
M K Ranjitsinh: (Laughs) Close to 90 I think. I love to travel and visit countries and sometimes it so happens that two countries join to become one and one country divides into two!
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on feral animals?
M K Ranjitsinh: (laughs) What kind of feral animals?
Shubhobroto Ghosh: Any kind of feral animals.
M K Ranjitsinh: They have to be considered on a case by case basis. In New Zealand, they shot 18,000 Himalayan Tahr in two years, that is probably greater than the number of Tahr that exist in India. There might be a case for controlling feral Cheetal Deer in the Andamans. I would say that the local fauna and flora would have to take precedence in conservation and if feral animals are imposing a threat to them, they should be controlled.
The phone rings. Dr Ranjitsinh picks it up. It is his wife asking him to come home early. “I think I will be late today,” he replies. “I have a guy at the office here named Shubhobroto who is asking me all kinds of awkward questions.” He puts down the phone and says, “Pray continue.”
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on sustainable use of wildlife?
M K Ranjitsinh: I don’t believe in sustainable use of wildlife and would be uncomfortable with the concept. Sustainable use is never the ONLY way to save animals. Killing wild animals would go against the grain of ethics in India. Ethically, it would be counterproductive. It would imply animals should have monetary value in order to be preserved. I know some countries accept sustainable use of animals but India is different in that we believe in sanctity of life. There should be no lethal usage of animals. But some sustainable use that does not harm the animals like using shed peacock feathers is OK. We have to be careful though that this allowance is not misused.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: Are you a vegetarian?
M K R: I am turning into a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I have never been a great meat eater.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on euthanasia?
M K Ranjitsinh: I would agree to euthanasia if there is no hope of recovery for an animal.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your views on corporates funding wildlife protection causes?
M K Ranjitsinh: If there are no unwarranted strings attached, I don’t have a problem with accepting money from them. It is a moral judgment one has to make. As long as it is not anti conservation, it is OK in my opinion to accept money from industrial groups.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: Do you believe in God?
M K Ranjitsinh: Yes, I do believe in God. Nature is God’s creation. I have worshipped in every religious shrine I have come across in my travels.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: If Nature is God’s creation, who created God?
M K Ranjitsinh: I have to be honest and say that I do not know the answer to this question.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: What are your hobbies and your pastimes?
M K Ranjitsinh: I love listening to Hindustani Classical Music. Also appreciate sport, specially cricket and tennis. I collect coins and stamps bearing animal pictures. Collect art related to wildlife. I love mountain walking and mountain mammals and am a great admirer of mountain scenery. I am also fond of books on animals and wildlife.
Shubhobroto Ghosh: Thank you very much for your time and trouble.
M K Ranjitsinh: My pleasure.
Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist for the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in the Times of India, The New York Times, Statesman, Asian Age, and the Hindu. Ghosh has been active in animal protection issues since the early nineties and is a member and supporter of several animal organizations, among them Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Born Free Foundation, People For Animals and Beauty Without Cruelty. He has worked at the Wildlife Trust of India, was project coordinator for the Indian Zoo Inquiry project sponsored by Zoocheck Canada, and did his Masters thesis on British zoos.