Meet Wildlife Trust Of India’s Abiding Hero Ashok Kumar
Photo Courtesy: Ashok Kumar.
The nature of his work tends to keep Ashok Kumar in the shadows. He works on issues concerning the wildlife trade and one of his life’s preoccupations has been to checkmate people like Sansar Chand, whom he considers one of the most dangerous wildlife traders ever to have operated in India. At present, Sansar Chand is reportedly in Tihar jail in Delhi. Ashok speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about his life’s mission and the future of wild India.
Three decades of wildlife work... any regrets?
Not one. Wildlife has given me so much – besides the deep satisfaction I get from what I do. I have travelled to the remotest parts of this world, seen the rarest creatures... would I have done that as an executive in a steel company? I doubt it.
How did the story begin? What inspired this lifetime passion?
My mother, the late Urmilla Shastri. She was, undoubtedly, my inspiration. She was a freedom fighter, and was jailed twice during the freedom movement. Her life gave me the strength and motivation to fight for the causes I believed in. We lived in Meerut and she was a firebrand youth leader who used to deliver speeches about India and how it should be a free country. They jailed her for that. It was a brutal era that most young persons today barely even know about. My mother became unwell, and she died young. She fought for India’s freedom and I fight for the forests and wild animals that make India… India.
And your father?
He was a simple soul. He was a Sanskrit professor, and a very principled man. The values I imbibed from him and my extended family have stood me in good stead.
You were a part of the corporate world then, right?
I worked for Tata Steel and they do look after their own. But I felt I had to do something more. After a while even the security and the substantial income you earn tend to feel hollow. I looked around for what would really fill me with satisfaction and though I know my mother might have wanted me to carry on her mission for India, I knew that I was simply not a political animal. So, though others in my family chose that path I gave it a miss.
And the wildlife bug? When did it seriously infect you?
During my stint with Tata Steel in Jamshedpur I passed through forest after forest. I used to visit Similipal often, and those forests with their elephants had me totally captivated. That was where I met the legendary Saroj Raj Choudhary, the Field Director of the Similipal Tiger Reserve. He and his tiger Kheri had me in their grip. I fell in love with everything wild. And here is something you did not know. While I was in Calcutta, working with Tata Steel, I used to buy copies of your magazine Sanctuary and distribute them free to people who I thought might be influenced by and enjoy it.
Ashok that gladdens my heart. So your leaving a secure job for wildlife was partly my fault?
Yes… (smiling) it was partly your fault Bittu! Though I had started working for wildlife even when I was with Tata Steel. A senior official of TELCO even gave me a second-hand jeep because, as he was fond of saying: “Ashok is doing such good work by protecting our wildlife.”
You went overseas for a bit too?
Yes. To Dubai. I was offered a job, which I took, even though I had never even been overseas before. But even there, I soon began looking for ways in which to get involved with wildlife and helped launch the Dubai Natural History Society, which I believe is still going strong. A high point in my life was when we facilitated Dr. Sálim Ali’s visit to Dubai. Frankly, that posting gave me the necessary financial security, a nest egg that helped me take yet another decision… to move back to India to devote myself fully to conservation and wildlife.
That is when you established TRAFFIC – India?
Yes, I had gone to Cambridge University in England to discuss the possibility of starting a TRAFFIC office in India. There I met the TRAFFIC International Director Jorgen Thomsen and he said, “We are in search of someone who can start an Indian branch of TRAFFIC International.” And I responded: “You are looking at him.” That was 1991.
TRAFFIC was the big league.
Yes it was, but the TRAFFIC office in which we began was a tiny little room in the basement of the WWF-India building on Lodi Road, New Delhi. Here I was soon joined by Vivek Menon and Mohit Aggarwal. The three of us ran TRAFFIC India. Frankly, the wildlife trade had a field day back then. There was virtually no opposition. So when we successfully organised a massive seizure at Majnu-Ka-Tila in Delhi, it was a gauntlet we had thrown down. I was then the director of TRAFFIC. I think it was the biggest seizure ever made in India until that point. Even we were taken aback. There were literally hundreds of kilos of tiger bones. This was the first indicator that tiger bones were prized so highly by the illegal, global wildlife trade.
How did officialdom react?
With disbelief at first. Some tried to insinuate that the bones did not belong to tigers. However, some Ranthambhore park officials were able to confirm from stripe patterns that the animals had come from their forest. And since Ranthambhore was one of the best-documented reserves and their tigers amongst the most photographed and filmed in the world, we were able to double check this. This was the first, very rude jolt to a nation that was on a high of much-touted tiger conservation success... tigers were more threatened than we imagined. Frankly, everyone’s eye was off the ball. We thought we had already saved the tiger and our guard was down.
Was? It’s still down! Ashok, what three things would you have TRAFFIC focus on today?
Well, I have never believed in pressing my expectations onto others. But to tackle the magnitude of illegal wildlife trade as we face now, we would do well to focus on: 1. Facilitating better coordination between Forest Departments and enforcement authorities. This is imperative if we want to seriously take on the wildlife trade. We are desperately in need of better coordination among agencies, particularly for information gathering for undercover operations. 2. Capacity building of all the wildlife enforcement authorities. 3. Dramatically step up forensics and legal assistance to ensure convictions. Right now offenders believe they can easily get off.
Photo Courtesy: Prerna Bindra.
Which brings us to day one. When did the WTI take you over?
Actually way back in 1998. It was started by four of us. Vivek Menon, Tara Gandhi, Thomas Matthew and I. Each of us invested Rs. 5,000 to start WTI and Mohit Aggarwal was our ‘settler’. Today, we have over 150 people working full time to protect wildlife and we run programmes and projects across India.
You are proud of WTI!
Of course, yes. We have achieved dramatic results at a time when the odds have been stacked against wildlife. We have been quieter than most NGOs, and our strategy has been to engage with the system, even when we opposed it for this or that project, or policy reason. The list of our ongoing projects is immense, including a wild animal rehabilitation centre in Kaziranga, and the focus we have drawn on the once-ignored Valmiki Tiger Reserve.
Speaking of Valmiki, have you been back to Singhbhum? And Dalma, which you actually helped establish?
Dalma was on my beat because of its proximity to Jamshedpur. I once met a sadhu (holy man) there who had kept an abandoned mouse deer with him. I used to write for The Statesman, Calcutta and sent the image for publication. It created a sensation in natural history circles because Prater had described the northern limit of the chevrotain only up to Nagpur! Later it was proved that the delicate herbivore’s range was much wider than Prater had presumed.
We then started working and lobbying for Dalma to be declared a sanctuary, which it eventually did become in 1975. I visited Dalma just once after it was established when the foundation stone was laid. I want to go back, but I wonder if that would be wise because I am sure I will be heartbroken to see how the foothills have been desecrated. They have cut an irrigation canal right through the forest and the ancient migratory route of elephants has been disconnected below Dalma.
Switching tracks… you were once the Honorary Secretary of Kolkata’s Alipore Zoo?
Yes, initially a Committee Member and then the Honorary Secretary.
Did Kamal Nath help you?
All along Kamal Nath has been a good supporter of my work for wildlife. When he was the Minister he appointed me as a consultant to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, even as I held the post of Director – TRAFFIC India. Frankly, look back in time and you will see that his tenure was probably the most productive one in the past few decades. He understood what wildlife needs were, even though some conservationists might have been upset with a few of the projects he had to clear as environment minister.
You were Member Secretary of the MoEF’s Subramanian Committee and a consultant to the ministry in the 1990s. Was that wasted time?
The Subramanian committee was appointed to study the implementation and enforcement of wildlife law in states. We travelled from place to place – visited sanctuaries, met local wildlife and police officials, studied issues, wrote the report sitting in the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. That effort was not at all wasted. The period that followed saw decidedly better implementation of wildlife laws. The committee recommended the establishment of a national body to curb wildlife trade, the precursor to the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, which has since its establishment broken up number of wildlife trade syndicates and confiscated so much contraband.
Did Sansar Chand or Ratiram Sharma ever threaten you?
The threat perception is always there, but not necessarily overtly. After all I used to work undercover for many years, until it became obvious to me that only young people really buy skins these days, so I shifted gears to train youngsters to do the job. It’s the nature of the job to work under threat and suitable precautions are taken. Once in court for a Sansar Chand case, in earshot of me he said to a wildlife official that “Maine to uspar (pointing to me) supari lagayi hai.” (I have put a contract on his head)… and in jest I replied, “uspar to maine bhi supari lagayi hai” (I, too, have placed a contract on his head!).
Has the special status accorded to J&K impacted wildlife?
It has created some issues. But in 1978, they formulated their own Act pretty much similar to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. There have been other amendments since that have helped further, including one in 2002 following a case filed by me, granting protection to the Tibetan antelope by banning shahtoosh shawl production. We will always work for tougher laws and seek to plug loopholes, but the key issue really is the effective implementation of wildlife laws, which leaves much to be desired.
Photo Courtesy: Ashok Kumar.
Sanctuary has been highlighting the connection between narco-terrorism and the wildlife trade.
There is undoubtedly an increasing connection between players of these different illegal activities – be it narcotics, terrorism, even human trafficking, both internationally and within India. We have reports of poachers using sophisticated communication equipment and even assault rifles. Some forests have been virtually occupied and often destroyed by extremists. Yes, the linkage is direct and needs to be tackled seriously.
Tell us about your famous 1993 wildlife seizure in Delhi.
Using a decoy customer, we set a deal for tiger bones and other wildlife articles. Nearly 300 kg. of tiger bones, eight tiger skins and 60 leopard skins were among the articles seized. That marked an important milestone in tiger conservation. For the first time we were able to provide concrete evidence that bones were one of the most sought after of all tiger parts. Prior to that, it was only the skins that were known to be in demand.
Give me a straight answer… the MoEF’s many expert committees… are these a farce?
Straight answer? Then it would be “No… not all.” There are many individuals in the MoEF (present and past) who not only care, but who work very courageously and diligently against all odds. These people can and do bring about policy change.By tarring everyone with the same brush we demoralise them and undermine our own cause in our enthusiasm to criticise those whose service rules seldom allow them to rebut public reprobation.
Has the National Board for Wildlife’s status fallen?
I do not think its status has fallen. Again, we have good people there who are trying to influence policy and other issues. But yes, a more proactive involvement of the NBWL would certainly be welcome!
What about IUCN’s Species Survival Commission and their Specialist Groups?
All these institutions are important, particularly when you gauge their collective impact. The groups you refer to offer scientific support and help frame management plans for protection of wild species. This is often the very heart of many management plans that Protected Area Managers use to physically protect and manage sanctuaries and national parks.
Do WTI and WPSI share information?
Both the organisations are working for the same aim – conserving and protecting wildlife. Where there is an opportunity, or a necessity, we will definitely work together, and have done so in the past.
What was your relationship with the late Billy Arjan Singh? How did you help protect Dudhwa?
I knew Billy quite well. He was an amazing human being and I am honoured to have known him closely. His bravery, energy and zest have been an inspiration for me. I would not take credit for getting the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve declared, but yes, an article ‘Tigers of North Kheri’ published in 1972 may have had a positive influence in getting the North Kheri Forest Division declared as the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve.
Your family? Do they support you?
I am lucky. My family has been my support all through my life. They are very happy, proud and solidly behind me for my work against the wildlife trade.
Que sera sera! Whatever will be, will be. You asked about my inspiration earlier, Bittu? Well, life has come full circle. It started with my mother inspiring me and now it is my children and grandchildren who are the driving force behind my motivation. They love the jungle... all of them. My granddaughters, all of five years old, excitedly asked me to “look at the fish,” while I was pointing out the tiger to them! In them I see hope! I now have a home in Uttarakhand close to the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. That forest energises me and inspires me, as do my family and friends. Life is good.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII No. 5, October 2013.