Photo: Bhushan Pandya.
Driven by a passion for protecting wildlife, Kirat Singh, is about to join Cornell University. He won a ‘Special Tiger Award’ during the Sanctuary-RBS Wildlife Award ceremony in 2005, and stands apart from most others his age in that he is gifted with a generous dose of maturity and pragmatism. With mentoring and support from the faculty of the Shri Ram School, New Delhi, he has played a major role in turning Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Tiger Programme into a force for conservation. Keerthikrutha S. studies at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, where she is doing her B.Tech in Biotechnology. She was Sanctuary’s Kids for Tigers National Ambassador in 2005. A self-confessed herp-addict, she has already published a paper on gyrating DNA barcoding in herp-technology and a report on Typhlops thurstonii from Wynaad. They are the voices of tomorrow, destined to guide their generation through the minefield of biodiversity protection, climate change and economics. Bittu Sahgal spoke to these young environmental activists and citizens of the future about their interests and hopes for a healthy planet.
What got you interested in wildlife conservation and the tiger?
Kirat: I started out pretty young. I think the first time I participated in Kids for Tigers was in class 5. What got me interested was that my school, the Shri Ram School, was heavily involved in environmental issues such as air pollution control and water conservation. One particular person, Mrs. Madhu Bhatnagar, was instrumental in getting me interested.
Keerthikrutha: My first stepping stone into this field was Kids for Tigers, the Sanctuary Programme where I met many people including you and Dr. Anish Andheria who continue to inspire me.
What do you feel our Prime Minister should be doing about climate change?
Kirat: As a respected and well-educated economist, he needs to understand that our planet is not a bank that can be forever borrowed from. Climate change is the most direct signal from our planet that this overdraft has gone on for too long. The Prime Minister first needs to focus on afforestation. Deforestation is responsible for close to 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions but the amount of carbon one tree accumulates in a lifetime is mind boggling. He needs to then invest seriously in renewable energy such as wind and solar power. India has a chance to develop cleanly, it needs to take that chance. I know it’s too much to ask, but he needs to get a Planning Commission that considers climate change a serious hazard.
Keerthikrutha: Introduce a carbon tax to encourage a shift from carbon to non-carbon development. Experts who understand should guide the nation on the actual steps that may include solutions involving both private and public sectors. But there are many other steps too including the need to lower India’s birth rate, prevent the destruction of forests from illegal mining and winning a national consensus on the need to ensure that natural ecosystems are protected and regenerated within a reasonable time frame.
If you could control their actions, what would you have adults do in terms of planet management in the next 10 years?
Kirat: 1. To begin with, enact and adopt a just and equitable global climate treaty that will ensure that the biggest per capita emitters clean up after themselves, and at the same time, incentivises clean development for big emitters like India and China. 2. Adopt effective climate change mitigation strategies. Let’s face it, even the most optimistic don’t believe that climate change will be reversed and will leave us unscathed. For a start, mangroves along Asia’s coastlines must be allowed to be and not cleared for tourism and mining. 3. Treat biodiversity as an integral part of the human existence on this planet. Those who try to prevent animals and plants from being wiped off the face of the planet are not pursuing an elitist hobby. Animals and plants are vital to our existence, to our food security and to our water security. If for no higher ideal, save tigers for Aristotelian selfishness.
Photo: N.S. Achyuthan.
Keerthikrutha: Apart from nature conservation and equitable distribution of wealth, in my view the vicious cycle of resource depletion and degradation will only be controlled if we are able to manage our population. Even such issues as man-animal conflict, carbon emission and the standard of living of humans is linked to this one solution. I would also somehow want the masses to understand that every organism has a vital role to play and I would sow the seeds of respect for other creations in them! I feel that a body as powerful as the United Nations is needed for the environmental security of our planet, represented by country leaders, both developed and developing.
Describe your most moving nature experience.
Kirat: Every time I’ve been in a forest.
Keerthikrutha: I was in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve with family and friends and we were ‘herping’ until 20:30 hours after which a friend received a minor injury and our outing had to be abandoned. By this time we had recorded Malabar pit vipers, a hump-nosed viper, caecilians, and some non-venomous snakes. I had my heart set on seeing Rhacophorus malabaricus, whose calls we kept hearing, but saw none. Anyway, we returned to the dormitory to rest and my mother got an earful from me about how I was disappointed that I did not see the Rhacophorus. Just then, unbelievably, a rhaco fell from the roof, literally on me. I felt that Mother Nature had listened to me and had responded in such a wonderful way.
What do you feel that young persons such as yourself can possibly do to slow down or prevent the ecological catastrophes being foisted on you by my generation?
Kirat: We are lucky that we are a part of the system that we are trying to reform. This means that by just changing the way we live, we can make a difference. Now I’ll be honest, once in a while I leave the lights in a room on when I leave it. However, most of the times, I realise this and I come back to switch it off. The important thing for all of us is to remember that every action of ours has a carbon cost and we need to reduce this expenditure by as much as we can.
Of course, this isn’t enough. Young people need to realise that what is at stake is nothing less than their own futures. They need to begin by making themselves aware of the issues, the reason why we need to save tigers or the science of climate change. Once they get a grasp of that, they need to make other people aware of those very issues. They need to become a part of the movement that seeks to ensure environmental sensitivity in policy making. This movement has a million faces, you can join hands with Sanctuary and Kids for Tigers, WWF, Greenpeace or the Satpuda Foundation, I’d say anything short of joining the Maoists is good. Through all of this, young people must keep in mind that they aren’t a ‘Green’ lobby or faction, which creates reactionary mindsets, they are the advocates of truly sustainable development.
Keerthikrutha: The first thing is we must decide never to let what is happening now happen in the future! This will mean creating awareness among the urban masses who are the main players in accelerating climate change! We must work hard to ensure that young people today involve themselves and understand the science behind climate change. Rigorous science will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the phenomenon and this is what might help us prevent, or decelerate the process.
Photo: Keerthikrutha S.
Do you think that your generation will grow up just as irresponsible as mine, or will they collectively wake up to threats, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, that loom large?
Kirat: The sad answer to this one is that I cannot be sure that my generation will be much better than the one preceding it. When I see people my age, I see little concern for the environment. However, I feel that in the coming years, we will have no choice but to mend our ways. The effects of climate change and other forms of environmental assault will eventually impact even the most insolent of us.
Keerthikrutha: My generation gives the issue more seriousness than the older generation! But, there are sections of every generation that are equally ignorant. For them the self is more important than society or the environment. Nevertheless, I believe that if we can ensure equity and a higher standard of living for the larger population then we do have a chance, collectively, to prepare against threats such as biodiversity loss and climate change!
The tiger. The polar bear. The blue whale. The giant panda. All very popular animals. Has the strategy of focusing on the charismatic failed, or was there really no other way?
Kirat: If you look at the numbers, then probably yes, those methods failed. However, they need to be viewed in a historical context, there was a time and place for everything. For instance, tigers initially did well in India after the launch of Project Tiger. As the years went by and we became less enamoured by animals, these strategies lost their relevance. For this reason, whenever I talk to people about tigers, my opening argument is that of sophisticated selfishness, we can’t survive without tigers and tiger forests.
The more I look at the struggles against extinction, the more I feel that we need to start talking money. We need to comprehensively evaluate what biodiversity is worth and what its destruction will cost. We need to take into account the oxygen and the water biodiversity provides, we need to count the climate benefits biodiversity gives, we need to essentially incorporate into our cost-benefit analysis items traditionally tabled aside as environmental externalities.
Keerthikrutha: Initially, when I joined Kids for Tigers I felt that conservation would be possible only if species on the top of the food chain are protected. After all they were better known and more charismatic! But, now looking that I have had time to examine the issue more closely I feel that microfauna and some of the lesser known species are vital to protect. For instance, a child can see and experience butterflies, squirrels, pigeons and frogs more often than the bigger animals. Such children will probably be able to appreciate the role of ‘lesser’ creatures better and might be prepared to get involved in protection if they felt that there might actually be no more squirrels, butterflies, frogs as we saw almost happen to the Common Sparrow. Actually, of course, we need them all!
Photo: Shiv Ahuja/Spectral Q.
Do you have hope for the future?
Kirat: I do but I must admit, partly so because I see no other option. I know that for the coming decades, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of their poverty stricken existence must be the imperative and for that, roads have to built, minerals have to be mined, forests have to be cut. However, we need to realise that in the long run building roads through forests denuded by mining will come back to hurt us. If we build roads to go around biodiversity rich zones rather than through them, if we invest in recycling, mine only where we have to and restore those habitats, if we leave the world’s crucial forests alone and engage in afforestation on idle land then yes, I have hope.
Keerthikrutha: I do have hope! A hope for a future unaltered by man’s intervention in Mother Nature’s climate plan! I believe climate variations are natural, but humans are now accelerating the process. If we stop aggravating the problem a better future is possible and the course of evolution can proceed as was intended.
What is written into your personal future in terms of your life goals?
Kirat: I don’t know for sure. I see myself becoming either an environmental economist or a lawyer. I know that I don’t want to become an environmentalist, simply because I feel that the way to win our battle is to live life the way we ordinarily would have wanted to, just with additional concern for and sensitivity towards the planet.
Keerthikrutha: Well, at times I used to wonder… had there been no stepping stone through Kids for Tigers, I might never have known what I wanted to do! But now I do know. I want to be an ecologist working on reptiles and amphibians and at the same time get into the Indian Administrative Service, where I feel I will be able to further the work of scientists and conservationists the best way I can.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXX No. 4, August 2010.