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Meet Debbie Banks

Meet Debbie Banks

Debbie Banks has been working with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) for over a decade during which she has championed wide-ranging issues from the condition of forest guards to the illegal trade in tiger parts.
Photo: Joanna Van Gruisen.

Too young to be called an ‘old India hand’, U.K. based Debbie Banks does nevertheless have years of India-experience under her belt, working consistently to protect India’s tigers from vanishing down the tubes in China. Tough, (very) likeable and persistent, Banks has all the qualities that the tiger needs to survive this criminally negligent generation whose leaders have proven to be insensitive and directly responsible for the tiger’s decline. She spoke to Bittu Sahgal, a friend and compatriot, about her life, mission and her hopes for the future.

India is a long, long way from home. How did this adventure begin?

I guess it was writ! I grew up in the northeast of Scotland and graduated with a degree in Zoology from the University of Aberdeen, before moving to London to complete an MSc in Conservation. In between degrees I raised some funds to be able to travel to tiger country – I was on the verge of joining the Tiger Trust team to the Russian Far East – but the plan fell through at the last minute. Instead I used the funds to travel to India whilst I was volunteering with the Environmental Investigation Agency, or EIA as it is better known.

On the rebound from Siberian tigers!

For a while I thought I would end up a vet and find a way to get into wildlife veterinary practice. But I grew up with a “bee in my bonnet” as they say in Scotland – I was always getting wound up over social and environmental injustice. Whaling and sealing were big issues when I was a kid. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Lukannon and Greenpeace’s efforts, I campaigned locally to call for an end to the use of seal pup skin in sporrans (Gaelic for a ‘purse’ traditionally worn in the Scottish Highlands)! So in a way, it was inevitable that I would find a way to work on something I was passionate about.

And tigers? How did they get to you?

It’s always difficult to explain how someone from a small town in Scotland was moved to get involved with tiger conservation. How do you articulate the way in which that cat gets under your skin? Especially when it feels like a guilty pleasure or privilege when there are so many other problems in the world.

It’s difficult to associate pleasure… with tiger conservation, but I know what you mean. How long has it been Debbie, this battle of yours? And what has it actually involved?

I’ve been with the EIA since 1996, and in that time we’ve worked with a number of individuals and organisations to investigate and expose examples of the corporate destruction of forest India, we’ve worked with conservation stalwarts to examine and illustrate the breakdown in the system of governance and the politics that obstruct progress. We’ve investigated the markets for illegal tiger trade that have driven the slaughter of India’s big cats. We’ve championed the brave guards on the frontline with our support for Kaziranga National Park. But it always feels like two steps forward, one step back. For every great Field Director out there, there’s a dozen political louts waiting to destroy their efforts for short-sighted political or financial gain. For every positive government initiative there are others, particularly in some notable tiger states, seemingly intent on doing the opposite.

Banks is seen here with a rhino baby that was rescued following the 1998 floods in the Kaziranga National Park. Photo: EIA.

Nothing has improved, has it?

I would have to say, that in recent years, at least in relation to our work in the international illegal trade arena, we’ve been greatly encouraged to see the Government of India leading the challenge to put an end to tiger farming and the threat it poses to wild tigers. India is also one of only a handful of countries that has a multi-agency wildlife crime enforcement unit – one that drastically needs more financial and political support, but at least it has one.

Do you find time to enjoy the wildlife you work to save?

Most of the time I am in consumer countries like China, looking at dead tigers, leopards and snow leopards, I rarely get a chance to spend time in the forest. But the little time I spend in the forest is precious. Just last year I had the most amazing time in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. I was with friends Belinda Wright and Nitin Desai, and we were watching the Jhalra tigress, could just see her ears twitching in the grass as she watched sambar in the lake. We could see one of her cubs stalking their mother from the left, we didn’t see the one approaching from the right. Suddenly in a rush, all three converged and three tigresses leapt into the air, roaring and batting each other. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard anything like it. The sound reverberated in my chest, beautiful and mind-blowing.

So. Here is a magic wand. What’s the first thing you would use it for to achieve your mission?

Good grief! Where to begin? Greed. I’d eradicate greed. Something we are all guilty of and the reason that forests across the world are plundered, the reason why businessmen in China want a tiger skin rug. Gandhiji had it right, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

Greed surely drives those tiger farms in China. Who buys all those fake “tiger medicines” I wonder?

When China officially banned the use of tiger bone in Chinese medicine in 1993, a number of businessmen speculated on the ban being lifted at a later date and started farming tigers legally, ostensibly under the guise of a reintroduction plan, but actually they have been stockpiling bones and skins. Meanwhile, Chinese medicine professionals, industry and consumers adopted effective alternatives; tiger bone was never a life-saving medicine, and surveys show a decline in the availability of tiger medicines in the market in China and a decline in desire for tiger bones among the average traditional medicine user.

The EIA and WPSI exposed tiger and leopard skins openly for sale in China. Photo: Debbie Banks/EIA/WPSI.

So why are the farms still there?

The tiger farmers made the wrong business decision and are now lobbying the government to lift the ban. Meanwhile, the EIA and other organisations and the media have found tiger bone wine being illegally sold in fancy tiger-shaped bottles on the premises of a number of captive tiger facilities. These businessmen are not only undermining their nation’s own laws they are reigniting a demand, they are creating the perception that it’s ok now to buy tiger products. It’s not even about traditional medicine any longer – it’s tiger bone wine that’s sold as a tonic – marketed as a prestigious gift or a non-financial bribe to get a promotion or transfer.

And if the ban is lifted?

It will be like declaring open season on wild tigers everywhere, as it’s cheaper to kill a tiger in the wild than it is to raise one in captivity. The pro-tiger trade lobby use economic models and theories to argue that tiger farming is a solution – many economists and modelers though would argue that financial models are not a reliable way to predict human behaviour. Certainly, a legalised trade is not going to stop organised criminal networks from profiting from illegal trade. And frankly, free market economists are hardly in a position to tell us they’ve got it right, I mean, look at the global financial crisis!

So where do things stand now?

The pro-tiger trade lobby argues that the ban hasn’t worked. We would argue that there is much more the government could do to make it work, if they want to. At the end of the day, if China is truly committed to tiger conservation, the government will put an end to this by closing the tiger farms down and investing in more effective, intelligence-led enforcement operations in cooperation with their neighbours.

Debbie Banks firmly believes that legalising tiger farms would amount to an open season on wild tigers everywhere since it will always be cheaper to kill a tiger in the wild than to raise one in captivity. Legalising trade, she says, cannot and will not stop organised criminal networks. Photo: Faith Doherty/EIA.

Who inspired you to walk down the wildlife path? Who inspires you today?

It wasn’t a person that inspired me to walk down the wildlife path in the first instance, it was wildlife itself.  But along the way, across the world, I have been inspired by so many different people. University lecturers who said “go for it”, forest guards with stories of near-fatal clashes with poachers and of life on the frontline in horrendous conditions, activists and whistleblowers who are beaten up or face jail on trumped up charges because of the forces they challenge, individuals who live in the forest and have a deeper and more intrinsic relationship with the wildlife around them than any of us can imagine. People who’ve never given up – including this interviewer Mr. Sahgal.

Give up? What’s that? Seriously, was there a moment in time when you decided that this was to be your life?

A significant land mark was in 1994, when Valmik Thapar came to the U.K. to give a presentation at the Zoological Society of London. 60 minutes with 100 slides, he started out quiet and mellow and by the end was roaring at the audience about what was happening to the tigers of India. You could have heard a pin drop. People could scarcely breathe. His passion was overwhelming.

You are young and I pray your passion lasts. Obama should help! Do you hold out any hope that he might make the job of defending the environment across the planet just a touch easier?

Oh yes! Maybe too much hope! I can’t remember a politician in my adult life who has generated more hope than this man. The world needs more “Obamas”

The EIA has been tackling climate change issues by investigating and exposing those responsible for illegal logging and timber trafficking. This ‘log raft’ in Indonesia is how timber barons move their contraband. Banks believes that the EIA’s experience of over a decade in tackling illegal logging could play a vital role in curbing forest loss through the newly-constituted mechanism of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).
Photo: Sam Lawson/EIA/Telapak.

His number one battle is climate change. How involved is the EIA with this issue?

Very much so, and we have been for many years, in a uniquely EIA way. By investigating and exposing the environmental criminals that are responsible for illegal logging and timber trafficking, and through our investigations into international illegal trade in ozone depleting substances, some which contribute to global warming. It’s important that the international community does not forget about these offenders who undermine global efforts to fight climate change. Policies and commitments are only as good as their enforcement and to date there has been a serious lack of political commitment and financial investment in combating environmental crime.

Tell me more about EIA’s climate battles.

How much space do you have? I could go on forever. Actually as part of our 25th Anniversary we’ve been reflecting on this recently:

Our tackling of ozone-layer depletion has resulted in significant climate benefits since Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS), are also potent greenhouse gases. The eradication of illegal trade in CFCs would represent a reduction equivalent to 25 per cent of the U.K.’s annual CO2 emissions. A successful phase-out of the chemicals used to replace CFCs – HCFCs – could prevent greenhouse gas emissions totalling 16 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent: that is six billion tonnes more than the Kyoto Protocol is expected to achieve. As I said, the list is long.

And then we have deforestation, which EIA has been battling around the globe.

Yes. Deforestation is responsible for up to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts are underway to curb forest loss through the mechanism of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). In this area EIA’s experience of over a decade of tackling illegal logging will be vital.

The EIA campaigned against illegal marble mining in Jamwa Ramgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan, where large chunks of forest have been ravaged, wildlife migratory routes blocked and water sources damaged. Photo: Debbie Banks/EIA.

One last question. A personal one. How tough has it been for you to work on issues that flirt with national forest and wildlife policies in India? Does your “foreigner” tag place brakes on you?

I think that is something I am conscious of more than it being a reality. I hate that awkwardness that comes with talking to people about issues that are taking place in their backyard when we haven’t cleaned up ours! But actually people, be it NGOs, media, government officers, villagers haven’t reacted that way. Maybe it’s because I see these as issues that are divided by generations, not borders. Our predecessors robbed us of options regarding the stewardship of our countryside in the U.K., through their agricultural policies, tax breaks for plantations, etc. Though the circumstances are very different in India, my generation needs to ensure that we don’t do the same to future generations, no matter where we live.

Or maybe it’s because I just won’t go away, that I wear people down and it’s just easier for them to deal with me than ignore me (smiles).

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIX No. 3, June 2009.


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