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Meet Anne Wright

Anne with the tiger cub Palamau who was rescued in Bihar in 1956. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

August 2012:Founder Trustee, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India, appointed by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, as a Member of the Tiger Task Force for Project Tiger in 1970, Member of the Indian Board for Wildlife for a quarter of a century and a former Member of seven State Wildlife Boards – this is one hugely accomplished lady. For her service to the cause of wildlife, she was awarded the ‘Order of the Golden Ark’ and the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’, or MBE. She speaks to Bittu Sahgal about some of the history of wildlife protection in India that she herself fashioned.

How did a Britisher turn into a dyed-in-the-wool Indian?

Well, it was really my father who led the way. He came from a family that had been associated with what was then Ceylon, and India for generations, and he joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS). After fighting in the First World War, he returned to Cambridge University, passed the difficult ICS exam and was posted to the then Central Provinces (CP). His first postings were in the remotest parts, as Assistant Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner. After five years of service, he went to the U.K. on leave and met my mother at a tennis party in Hampshire. On his return to India – with great daring – he sent a proposal of marriage by telegram in June 1926 from the village of Baihar. By a strange coincidence Baihar is near Kipling Camp and the old post office is still there!

In Victorian days it was not done to send a telegram directly to a proposed bride and my grandmother all but dismissed him. If it were not for a plea from my paternal grandmother, Lady Layard who was the widow of the Chief Justice of Ceylon, the marriage would not have taken place. My mother was sent out with her father for the wedding in Bombay. She was later sent back to England where I was born in 1929.

And then?

A few months later, my mother and I returned to Balaghat in the jungles of old CP. From then on my sister (who was born two years later) and I grew up in the wilds, educated by governesses. We often accompanied our parents on tour by bullock cart or on elephant back. By the time we were four we had learned to ride – we rode everywhere on our beloved ponies and were given a remarkable amount of freedom. Posted in Amroati and Raipur, only the towns were out of bounds. In Chikalda (and I am of course using all the ‘old’ names), I rode our elephant ‘Rup Kali’ and after learning the mahout’s orders and how to clamber up her trunk, was allowed to take her out on my own. Our interest in birds was inspired by a judge from the High Court in Calcutta who came to stay and caught rheumatic fever. He was an ornithologist and as he lay in bed in the garden with his binoculars and bird book he taught us all he knew. The garden was full of Paradise Flycatchers, Baya Weaver birds, White-browed Flycatchers (my favourite) and sunbirds. There was no electricity in those days and we slept out at night under our mosquito nets, gazing at the stars and listening to the jungle noises.

Tell us more about your childhood…

My father spent six years in Delhi as the Deputy Commissioner. It was a time I remember well, particularly viewing the world from the shoulders of his gunman as he strode around our bungalow at 17 Raipur Road. But our happiest memories were being posted back to Central Provinces, where we spent the summers in our beloved Chikalda in Melghat – and the passion for wildlife, birds and insects grew. As children we collected scorpions and followed tigers’ pugmarks on the golf course. We watched panthers leaping across the parapets of the beautiful Gawilgarh Fort. It was sheer paradise as we moved from the DC’s bungalow to the Commissioner’s house with a grand view of the jungle where we could watch sambar crossing in the glades below. I once met a panther after sneaking out of bed to raid the kitchen during one of my parents’ dinner parties! Our evening treat was a short car drive to look for a tiger or leopard beyond our gates.

My mother died in Kashmir when I was 12 and my sister and I were later sent to school in England. It was a period of great misery, only relieved by a sojourn at a ‘finishing school’ in Switzerland. When I was 17, I returned to Delhi after my father had been posted as Counsellor to the first British High Commissioner to independent India. I was in Delhi when Gandhiji was assassinated and sat, deeply moved, with the Mountbattens by his funeral pyre, until we were forced to leave by the huge crowds that accompanied the procession. At the age of 21, I married Bob Wright, a young merchant of Calcutta who was the son of a senior IPS Officer. We only returned to England for brief holidays and lived on in Calcutta after his retirement.

Anne going after a man-eating tiger in Orissa, 1965. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

Anne, you have lived through so much history. Such a rich period. Shikar, of course, was as normal as breathing then.

As a young couple we were keen social hunters who would reserve a shooting block and spend all our holidays with friends in the jungles of Bihar. That was 60 years ago in a very different era, but I am so relieved that I never shot a tiger, although I have to admit that I did try. But on one occasion, a tigress nearly got me! Wounded by someone else in a beat in the ravines near Gwalior, the tigress charged with a terrifying roar and was shot by Sardar Balasahib Angre within two feet of where I stood swinging my Rolleicord box camera. I remember blacking out for a moment, and that the
world had stopped.

Last year at a party in Delhi I met the Lord Mayor of Slough – he was a Sikh from the Punjab, in full regalia with the Mayor’s chain around his neck. The Mayor was highly amused that he was a Brit and I was a citizen of India!

Where, when and how did the wildlife protection virus first truly hit home?

The wildlife conservation virus first hit me, after years of booking shooting blocks with friends from Calcutta, when the great drought of 1968 took its toll in the jungles of Bihar. We heard about the death and destruction by poachers sitting over the few remaining waterholes, and I decided to act. Funds were raised with help from the legendary E.P. Gee, and from WWF-Kenya. A convoy of Jeeps left Calcutta and we set up rescue camps in the jungles of South Bihar. Bob provided tankers from the Asansol coalfields and young assistants, who joined us to dig waterholes in the riverbeds. Oil drums were cut in half and placed in the forest. We would fill these with water every evening and I was touched by how trusting the animals – who we had once hunted – were. We also provided water to 17 of the forest villages. A close friend, another wildlife legend, S.P. Shahi, CCF of Bihar, instructed all his DFOs to follow suit. During this time I persuaded Mr. Shahi to sell his guns and take up the camera and together we did a tour of inspection in North Bihar. It was unbelievably hot and we stopped in old forest bungalows to rest at midday. I well remember inspecting a waterhole and looking up to see a poacher’s machaan in the tree above. Mr. Shahi suitably chastised the DFO.

The Wright family, Rupert, Anne, Bob and Belinda, 1971. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

S.P. Shahi was such a good friend of Sanctuary. Such a major influence on us. I’m not at all surprised he did what you asked.

Well, in 1969, I took Dr. Colin Holloway of the IUCN to the Palamau forests and he and Mr. Shahi sat in the Betla forest bungalow and drew up the very first Management Plan for a tiger reserve. That same year, the Maharaja of Baroda – who we knew as ‘Jackie’ – wrote to ask if I would like to be a Founder Trustee of WWF-India (it was then called the Indian National Appeal of WWF), and to advise on the first list of trustees. WWF-India was registered as a Charitable Public Trust and launched by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on November 27, 1969 at the India International Centre in New Delhi. WWF’s Eastern Region began in a modest way on the verandah of our home in Calcutta. I was ably assisted by Deepika Jaidka, and later Bonani Kakar, and we handed over jeeps and many donations for Project Tiger and worked on projects and awareness in seven states in the eastern region. After the team expanded, the Tatas generously gave us an office in their building. And this was despite the fact that we held up my friend J.R.D. Tata’s hotel in Calcutta for 10 years, because the site was right in the middle of the flight path of thousands of Whistling Teal that used to visit the Alipore Zoo in the winter. Unfortunately, despite structural compromises, the phenomena ended once the hotel was built. In 1988, I was happy to be asked to break the ground for the new WWF-India office in Delhi, to be built by a generous donation from the Godrej family. Sadly, our old friend and the Founding President of WWF-India, Jackie Baroda, died shortly afterwards, on September 1, 1988.

But I’m running ahead of the story.

An absolutely fascinating story. Do go on.

After the dramas of the Bihar drought, I suffered nightmares in Calcutta, which was then the hub of the wildlife trade. There were shops in the Calcutta New Market that had shelves groaning with the weight of tiger skins, most of which were exported to make tiger skin coats. This led me to the office of the Import and Export Commissioner on the Esplanade, who informed me that he had issued licenses for the export of 3,000 tiger skins in 1968. That same year 500 shooting licenses had been given out – out of which many ‘shikaris’ must have failed to secure their trophies. The inference was that at least 2,500 of the skins that were exported were from illegally killed tigers.

A friend and I posed as innocent tourists and went in search of tiger skin stockpiles. What we found was horrifying! We were led down the back streets of Calcutta and in a small office, we met one of Calcutta’s biggest skin dealers. He told us that he had been doing Rs. 100,000 worth of business in tiger and leopard skins every month. Business wasn’t that easy any more but he could promise to supply us 20 to 50 fresh skins a month. We continued our search and were led by six bearded toughs down a narrow lane to a godown. Here we were shown a waist-high pile of fresh skins – 25 leopards, two clouded leopards and a tiger. They promised a supply of over 200 fresh skins a month, if we would only give the order. A few days later the story repeated itself in a ghastly tannery that we visited. There were more piles of skins with ghostly skulls heaped on shelves. It was heartbreaking. Clearly this insatiable trade in their skins was the reason for the rapid disappearance of tigers and leopards from our jungles.

Anne (behind, with Spey) and her sister Val (with Punch) sitting on a canon at the Gawilgarh Fort, near what is now the Melghat Tiger Reserve, 1940. Credit:Anne Wrights Collection

Calcutta was indeed a major hub for wildlife back then. I remember my stomach turning at the sight of all manner of wildlife being openly sold in Hogg Market.

In 1970, I wrote an emotional article for the Statesman describing the shops in the New Market, which is what Hogg Market is now called, where “bleached fangs and glimpses of gold and stripes on the shelves” made my heart sicken. “Yes, madam, we have rare clouded leopards, baby tigers cheaper, see this black leopard – very rare.” The article was republished in the New York Times in 1971, headlined “Doom awaits tigers and leopards unless India acts swiftly.” The story raised an outcry and was perhaps the first documentation of the large-scale slaughter of our wild tigers and leopards for their skins.

It’s hard to believe now just how many tigers and leopards were killed in the 1960s for the fur trade, so that rich women in Europe, the United States and Canada could strut around in tiger and leopard skin coats. Fortunately there were plenty of opponents in these countries to this ghastly trend, not the least of whom was Sir Peter Scotty.

You have been quiet for some years now Anne… but I remember you as one of the dynamos that drove wildlife protection in India for three decades?

Thank you for calling us dynamos! There was so much to do and it was really a question of being in the right place with–for the most part–a great think-alike team. We were facing a crisis of unknown proportions in unchartered territory. But we were fortunate to have the unstinting support of a very concerned Prime Minister, at a time when the Central Government had considerable sway on policies and actions in the states.

I regularly met with Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, at her house in Safdarjung Road and at her office in the South Block, where she planned Project Tiger. In 1970, Mrs. Gandhi formed a Tiger Task Force consisting of Dr. Karan Singh, Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh, Zafar Futehally, Kailash Sankhala and myself. We were asked to select six tiger sanctuaries (we increased it to nine), which would be funded by the Central Government and a donation promised by Guy Mountfort of WWF International. Our brief was to report on the problems of a selected number of Protected Areas spending three months in each. I chose Palamau in Bihar and Manas in Assam. Palamau was fairly easy since I knew it well, but Manas was a challenge. It had an international border, was divided by many rivers, and it took time to map and explore the area on elephant back assisted by the Forest Department. They were both declared in the list of first tiger reserves in 1973.

Anne in the field with Ashok Kumar studying the map of the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, December 1985. Credit:Annie Wright's Collection

This was about the time that you all managed to get some of the world’s finest laws passed in India too?

There was a desperate need for a new law to replace the 1912 Act where the fine for poaching a tiger was only Rs. 50. Fortunately, Kanak Lahiri, a friend from the West Bengal Forest Department, had been posted to Delhi as Inspector General of Forests, and it was he who first asked for a “model” act. The Wildlife Act in Kenya was recommended and by another stroke of good fortune the Kenya Polo team was due to play polo in Calcutta in the winter of 1971. Bob wrote to the captain who kindly brought a copy with him. The Act was duly sent to Delhi to be examined by lawmakers and specialists. Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh played an important part in studying the Maharashtra Wildlife Act, which was also used for the final draft. The new Wildlife (Protection) Act was passed by Parliament in 1972, and put in force for the whole of India except for the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

There was a huge sigh of relief as the dreamtime for the protection of India’s wildlife took shape. A number of exceptional men including Nalini Jayal and Samar Singh headed the new Department of the Environment and the tiger was saved from the very brink of extinction.

Heaven alone knows what the state of wildlife in India would have been had you all not been so relentless and effective. The Indian Board for Wildlife was then a force to reckon with. Was this when the Protected Area network we now see in place was put together, piece by piece?

For 19 years (1972-1985 and 1989-1995), I served as a Member of the Indian Board for Wildlife, chaired by Mrs. Gandhi, Dr. Karan Singh and Dr. Digvijay Singh. In the early years I always sat next to my friend Dr. Sálim Ali and looked to him for support. He sadly died in July 1987. I was also a member of the State Wildlife Boards of West Bengal, Sikkim, Orissa, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We had a good team and they were exciting times. As a representative for the eastern region, it was great that we managed to push through the creation of Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) in Orissa in 1975, Dalma WLS in what is now Jharkhand in 1976 (Sanjay Gandhi and his wife Maneka inaugurated the sanctuary – hopefully the sapling he planted is now a huge tree!), Gautam Buddha WLS in Bihar (1976), Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal (1983), Namdapha National Park (NP) in Arunachal Pradesh (1983), Sundarbans NP in West Bengal (1984), Nameri in Assam (1985), Dibru Saikhowa WLS in Assam (1986), Neora Valley NP in West Bengal (1986), Balphakram NP in Meghalaya (1986), Chilka Lake in Orissa (1987), and Jaldapara in West Bengal (1990) – to name but a few! All this meant a lot of work with maps, lists of rare animals and photographs to be produced for the IBWL chairperson and members.

Today, with all the antagonism towards wildlife from both politicians and sections of the human rights groups, these very treasure troves are being slowly dismantled.

We had our fair share of traumas then too, but there were also some funny moments. One vivid memory is the arrival in 1986 of several pairs of White-winged Wood Ducks at our home in Calcutta. I had been to stay with Sir Peter Scott in Slimbridge and he kindly agreed to donate the rare birds for eventual release in their habitat in Assam and in Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh. British Airways flew the precious birds into Calcutta, free of cost, and they were brought to our house, where they escaped. Our sitting room was briefly reduced to shambles as the heavy birds flew around the room knocking over lampshades and ornaments! After this escapade they were kept under lock and key in my daughter Belinda’s bathroom. Later, I accompanied the birds to Miao Zoo where they bred, and some of the birds were released in the wild. That same year, in 1986, we carried out a fascinating Lesser Cat Survey in Northeast India, which was led by a dear friend, the indomitable Dr. B. “Biz” Biswas of the ZSI.

Anne receives the Order of the Golden Ark from Prince Bernhard at Soestdijk Palace, 1979. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

With this kind of influence in her life, little wonder Belinda has turned into a veritable wildlife ‘Green Beret’.

She was totally steeped in this work. I remember Belinda and I taking our rescued leopard ‘Prince’ from Calcutta to Tiger Haven in the monsoon of 1971. Billy Arjan Singh had to organise a lathi charge at Lucknow to get the three of us through the railway station! Later we continued our journey to Tiger Haven by bullock cart!

Are you disappointed with the manner in which the legacy of wildlife conservation that you and your colleagues had built for India is treated today?

Sadly, yes! In the old days we all worked together openly collaborating with forest guards to CCFs, and from secretaries to ministers. Nowadays – with notable exceptions – I find most officials and their bosses are arrogant and suspicious. They are willing to sacrifice, without any morals, precious Protected Areas for mining and highways in the name of development. It is tragic that denotification is the main subject of the agenda of the present Wildlife Board, and very sad that the original objective of the IBWL has all but been forgotten; to protect India’s great heritage of wildlife and forests. It is also hard to believe that the present government system can do so little to curb poaching and encroachment of the very lands that we fought so hard to conserve. The present system hasn’t even updated the Wildlife (Protection) Act for six years, or created a special Wildlife Department, let alone effectively tackled and banned the use of tiger traps, or arrested the few people who make these traps for the express use of killing tigers!

You are still Chairperson of the Rhino Foundation, right? Given that rhinos are more secure today than ever before, are you proud of the foundation you laid?

Yes. Although I am proud that the Rhino Foundation was able to help the Assam Forest Department in the past, we are now looking to some local companies to take over the charity. It is too far away to run from Delhi. With the guidance of Dr. Anwaruddin Choudhury, we were able to donate wireless sets for Orang and motor-bicycles for Pobitora. Possibly our best project was the gift of two anti-poaching patrol boats to help guard the riverside of Kaziranga. The Forest Department of Assam, aided by many NGOs, has made a huge contribution in saving the rhinos. It is tragic that Kaziranga is presently being ravaged by floods and that the animals are dying in their hundreds because of NH-37 and lack of access to the high ground in Karbi Anglong.

Dr. Ullas Karanth, Belinda and Dr. George Schaller at Kipling Camp, March 1991. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

Tell us about Kipling Camp in Kanha? What was the genesis? And do you like what you see of wildlife tourism in India today?

Almost all our family holidays, during my childhood in Central India and as an adult, have been spent in the jungle. In the early years Bob and I had a family camp on the edge of Palamau in Bihar. It was popular with our friends but it became too expensive to maintain once Bob retired from business. Belinda was working in Kanha in the 1970s for the National Geographic Magazine, and it was then that Bob got the idea of setting up a camp on the edge of Kanha. Wildlife tourism was virtually non-existent in those days and the only places to stay were the forest bungalows. Our modest camp – which we called Kipling Camp – was the first in Kanha, and perhaps the first private wildlife camp in India. We welcomed our first guests in 1982 – 30 years ago – and have hosted a number of important wildlife meetings. Our strong conservation ethics have never wavered and the footfall of the camp has remained the same; in fact we have reduced the number of rooms rather than enlarge the camp. It is still a quiet, genuine jungle experience. We employ local staff and there are creature comforts but no frills such as a swimming pool or a manicured garden. It has been wonderful over the years to see a barren patch near a village transform into a forest that is probably now richer than the surrounding area.

What a far cry from the attitude of many new entrants to the wildlife tourism trade today.

Yes. How times have changed! Again I blame the present tourism problems, inside and outside some of the parks, on the lack of guidance and regulations from the government. We should not stop the citizens of India and enthusiasts from abroad from seeing the wonderful wildlife of India, just because the government has been unable to manage the situation. People – particularly children – should be aware of the treasures we still have, and the problems. And as for the tigers, it never ceases to amaze me that they kill, mate, and have cubs despite of all the curious (and often noisy!) visitors. And surprisingly, poaching which cannot be controlled elsewhere, is uncommon in tourist areas.

The Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh must be commended in their efforts to control the huge amount of visitors, by limiting vehicles and creating zones in Kanha National Park. It is not what I like or remember, but we have to accept that the world has changed. Strictly regulated tourism is a must, but so is a big improvement in land use policies. These should be enacted without delay.

Your late husband, the indubitable Robert Hamilton (Bob) Wright was a force to reckon with in his day. Were you both on the same page where wildlife conservation was concerned?

Bob was a down and out animal lover and conservationist who loved nothing more than to spend his time in the jungle. We had a house full of animals in Calcutta and he always encouraged my conservation work. However, one area of disagreement was that our home always seemed to be a wildlife office!

He was a gregarious person who loved to help others. After his retirement from business, he ran Calcutta’s Tollygunge Club along with numerous charities. Setting up his beloved Kipling Camp enabled him to spend weeks in the jungle with his faithful Labradors. It was also a place where he could do what he did best, and that was to entertain friends and visitors. He spent most of his last days there. Bob passed away in Calcutta in April 2005 leaving Kipling Camp to me and Belinda.

Anne ‘breaking the ground’ for the new WWF-India office on Lodhi Road, New Delhi, 1988. Credit:Anne Wright's Collection

And Belinda, who is carrying the heavy mantle you left for her? You have to be really proud of your daughter! What were her earliest influences? Did you help finance the birth of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), which she has led for so long?

I am very proud of Belinda. There were never any grey areas for her from the day she was born! She was taken to the Bihar forest from three months onwards and wildlife conservation has always been her passion. She started off with a very successful career as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. Working with her then husband, Stan, she won two Emmy Awards in Los Angeles – you can’t go higher than that – for their wonderful documentary for National Geographic, ‘Land of the Tiger’. The film was a first – it only showed the wildlife with no shots of people or themselves bravely filming, which is the fashion nowadays. When Belinda started uncovering large-scale tiger poaching in 1994, she gave up her career and pretty much her life as it was, to do full-time conservation work and founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Just as the fur trade was uncovered in the late 1960s, 30 years later it was Belinda who played the lead role in exposing and documenting the second great threat to wild tigers and leopards – this time to feed the insatiable demand for tiger parts in China.

I haven’t done anything for the WPSI, except to encourage and admire their work over the years. No other organisation has done so much to expose poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, the trade in shahtoosh, the use of tiger and leopard skins in Tibet, and last but not least, the ghastly Chinese trade in tiger parts. Belinda has risked her life and her health for this cause. I am her greatest admirer.

What would you say was the turning point that allowed you all to rally the troops around the tiger in the 1970s?

The turning point for me were the horrors of the 1968 Bihar drought, and the shocking discovery of so many poached tiger skins in Calcutta’s New Market.

If Mrs. Indira Gandhi were still the Prime Minister, would you say our wildlife would have been safer?

Without a doubt! The rescue of the tiger was due to Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s understanding and genuine love of nature. All our wildlife and wild places would be safer if she was alive today. During her time India was prepared and geared up to protect our forests and wildlife for generations to come. Sadly, her great plan has not been effectively followed up.

How did it feel, getting an OBE?

I never got an OBE – that was left to Bob and Belinda – but was awarded the lesser MBE. At the time I was thrilled to bits and grateful to Prince Phillip who was probably behind it. More prestigious for me was the Order of the Golden Ark, which I received from HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, at Soestdijk Palace in Amsterdam in 1979. I took our son Rupert and two friends to Holland to meet Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard, who presented the Award and held a wonderful reception for the awardees. But all that was a long time ago!

Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 4, August 2012


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