Home People Interviews Meet Anshu Jain – Global Banker, With A Vision For A Greener Planet And A Passion For Wildlife

Meet Anshu Jain – Global Banker, With A Vision For A Greener Planet And A Passion For Wildlife

Meet Anshu Jain – Global Banker, With A Vision For A Greener Planet And A Passion For Wildlife

“Serving as a termite mound for the ever-inquisitive meerkats; Makgadikgadi salt pan, Botswana.”

He grew up using public transport in New Delhi, imbibed values from a principled mother and an ethical civil servant father. Despite rising to become one of the world’s most influential financial minds he barely exudes that ‘banker’ aura and often seems to prefer sleeping in old forest rest houses with a fire for warmth and rhinos and tigers for company. He spoke at length with Bittu Sahgal who combed through his images and notes and discovered an accomplished wildlife photographer, fitness freak and cricket aficionado! More importantly, someone who has pitched his lot in with those seeking to rewild the world, one forest at a time.

Anshu, what would pump more adrenaline into your system today… a rhino snuffling at your tent at night, or an impending, make-or-break financial deal?

Both can be exciting. I love what I do, but it is important to me to have the right balance between work and personal life.

I’ve walked with you and your wife, Geetika in the wild… cold, wet, muddy and happy. I have also seen you conduct high-powered meetings, Who is the real Anshu Jain?

Bittu what you see is what I am. You and I share a love of forests and the wild and that facet of our personalities is readily visible around a fire, particularly in places like Nameri and Kaziranga in Assam where we actually heard tigers calling into the night. At a business meeting, that facet may not be evident, but it remains a part of me. I try to draw many life lessons from nature and one that never fails to impress me is its ability to adapt to situations and stimuli. In business, as in nature, you have to adapt.

The family shares your passion?

Luckily yes. Geetika is a travel and nature writer. My daughter Aranya was named after the forests that we both love. For the last decade or so, my family – Geetika, my son Arjun, Aranya and I – have been fortunate enough to enjoy annual vacations in terrains as varied as the forests of Central India, the Savannah grasslands of East Africa, the semi-arid Kalahari desert and the rolling red dunes of Namibia. This year, we spent time together on the salt pans of Botswana, where my BlackBerry didn’t work and the children had no access to the Internet. (Smiles)

Is wildlife photography a passion, a release from the pressures of daily life, or part of life’s purpose?

Wildlife photography will remain a life-long pursuit. Images don’t merely freeze moments in time, they are catalysts that increase present happiness by triggering past memories. I consider myself at an early stage of learning a craft that combines both art and science. Juggling with light, aperture settings and shutter speeds while trying to figure out where that leopard – or jaguar or lion – is most likely to emerge from, presents delicious problem-solving challenges. Different faculties have to be marshalled simultaneously, almost instinctively, to obtain good results. And when you are out in the bush, the rest of the world seems to vanish. It’s addictive!

You take your photography seriously. What equipment have you honed in on?

After a bit of experimenting, I have settled on two Canon bodies, an EOS-1D Mark II and an EOS 5D Mark III, which I use with two Canon lenses, a workhorse 70-200mm f/2.8, and a 200-400mm f/4 with a built-in 1.4 extender, which is a prized indulgence.

“Backlit egrets fluttering down around a buffalo herd present an unforgettable image; Vumbura Plains, Okavango, Botswana.” Photo: Anshu Jain.

I know the tiger is big in your life, but you seem equally enthralled by caimans, meerkats and jaguars.

How can one not be? The truth is that large animals do tend to dominate your senses, but out in the bush the drama is everywhere and there are no second-rate players. Going to sleep to the sound of crickets, or waking to birdsong is part of the joy and those who are blind to jackals, meerkats or aardwolfs in their search for tigers, lions, rhinos and elephants may miss out on the larger experience. That said, no one should knock watching jaguars in the Pantanal, tigers in Tadoba, or the croc-wildebeest spectacle in the Masai Mara.

How would you rate India’s track record on wildlife conservation?

It’s fashionable to criticise governments for what they have failed to do, but frankly I am proud of the fact that India has kept the tiger alive despite all the odds. If my memory serves me right, even you gave the tiger little chance of survival post-2000, and yet, here we are, with half of all wild tigers living right here in India. If we consider India’s population and the resulting pressure on land, the fact that Central and State governments have purposefully notified over 600 Protected Areas for posterity is remarkable. Pull out a map and you will see literally thousands of square kilometres of protected wilderness. This is unparalleled and I suspect it has as much to do with India’s cultural-religious traditions as the welcome pursuit of modern conservation since the 1970s.

I take your point, but surely you agree that India could/should be doing much more?

Of course it could do more. But we need to be realistic. Take a look at India’s neighbours. Compare track records. When seen in that light India’s record is praiseworthy. However, the wildlife situation is undoubtedly serious and India could allocate more resources to protect wild species and habitats by ramping up support for field protection. We also need more physical areas protected, with linkages to other key terrains. Regenerating degraded forest lands would automatically accommodate spillover wildlife from our best reserves and this would create invaluable ecological assets for tomorrow.

“A coalition of three male cheetahs bring down a young wildebeest; Masai Mara, Kenya.” Photo: Anshu Jain.

If the Indian government asked you to pitch in to help protect our wildlife, what would you focus on that is different?

Protection of India’s less high-profile creatures in under-protected habitats such as grassland and wetlands. I am thinking here of the short grass plains of the Serengeti or the Mara. I believe some of India’s grasslands and scrub forests that support floricans and the Great Indian Bustards, which are so similar to Africa’s Kori Bustards, could be turned into major assets, with community support. India is actually lucky to have such a rich diversity of species in its semi-arid zones, including raptors, wolves, chinkara and blackbuck. It is important to prevent such areas from vanishing. The same goes for wetlands and inland lakes such as Chilika in Orissa, Sambar in Rajasthan, or Nalsarovar in Gujarat.

Can ecotourism be turned into a conservation tool in India?

This is not even a debate. It’s a proven concept. But tourism can be a double-edged sword. If the unimaginative and venal dominate, then we have a problem. Tourism must benefit both wildlife and the communities living on the edges of wild places. Living examples include Sabi Sands in South Africa, the Mara North Conservancy in Kenya, the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Sensibly adapted to India’s realities, such models could bring security and dividends for local people, even as the value of their marginal or degraded land holdings rises with a return to forest cover.

You are virtually describing the GreenKarbon, community-owned, Nature Conservancy concept.

Sanctuary’s GreenKarbon concept, which Deutsche Bank-India fully supports, seeks to restore health to degraded lands owned by communities that live on the edges of India’s finest biodiversity vaults. In my view, this will only happen if the objective is community well-being and prosperity, with restored biodiversity being the collateral benefit. I have no doubt in my mind that supplanting some low productivity farming with high value biodiversity-based incomes can work for India.

How thin is the line between the planet’s ecological and economic imperatives?

The imperatives are fast converging. Scientists now say it is “extremely likely” – at least 95 per cent certain – that human beings are a primary cause of global warming. We have no choice. This situation must be addressed.

You exude quiet pride about India’s past. What is your take on India today and where it will be in tomorrow’s world?

As one of the oldest continuing civilisations in the world, India has played a central role in the evolution of mankind over the millennia. Even today, India remains an important driver of growth. It is one of the few countries in the world with an increasing rate of urbanisation, a large and rapidly expanding middle class and one of the largest and youngest work-forces in the world, all within a vibrant and active democracy. Multiple challenges do exist and they need to be managed, but there is no doubt in my mind that India will continue to be one of the prime movers of global thought, growth and civilisation for years to come.

“An expressive young silverback framed by his verdant forest; Parc National des Volcans, Sabyinyo, Rwanda.” Photo: Anshu Jain.

Banking profit, climate change, politics and wild nature all seem in conflict. Is there a way forward for human happiness that is in sync with nature’s imperatives?

I don’t think nature is in conflict with anything. It is a reactive force. Eventually human happiness will depend on our ability to harvest nature in a manner that keeps its ‘capital’ intact. I know that is the only way humans will survive on the planet, but I also know this will not happen by magic; it must be made to happen. I am happy to see that countries, companies, investors and consumers are beginning to recognise this imperative. For example, 83 per cent of the world’s top 500 companies now see climate change as a business risk. They are also beginning to realise that sustainable businesses and products are essential for long-term profitability and are rewarded. Research shows that companies with good sustainability management have lower debt costs. Many countries recognise that the health benefits derived from less pollution and environmental degradation outweigh the modest costs in terms of GDP growth. Hence they are putting in place “green growth” development plans. A great change is on the anvil, but we have to work together to take it to its logical conclusion.

Do you see a light somewhere… a truce to the daggers-drawn environmental battles that rage between development and environment groups?

In my view, the differences are as natural as those you see playing themselves out in nature. Disequilibrium and stresses cannot be entirely avoided, they must be resolved.

You were born the year I finished school in 1963 Anshu. What is your take on our ecological future in 2050, when my generation will have passed on?

I am extremely hopeful. Nature’s capacity to heal itself has been under-rated. At the same time, the popular media has contributed and – thankfully – awakened the younger generation to the dangers of harming the environment. In the past few decades, conservation has come to the fore not merely on account of people’s passion for wildlife, but because we realise that the bedrock of human development and economics is predicated on a stable ecological system. Undermine that and everything can suffer. This widespread and increasing concern for nature offers us the best hope for tomorrow.

“First light, 5 a.m., red sand dunes and early morning mist off the Atlantic; Sossusvlei, Namib Desert, Namibia.” Photo: Anshu Jain.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No. 6, December 2013.


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Abby Abraham

September 28, 2015, 01:35 PM
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Jennifer Scarlott

January 28, 2014, 04:37 AM
 Anshu Jain's joie de vivre exudes from this interview, as does his deep understanding of human dependence on healthy, functioning ecosystems. I have deep doubts, though, about the concept of "sustainability," sharing many people's concern that capitalism is, at root and by definition, in absolute conflict with nature, and that they cannot coexist. Are new forms of "eco-socialism" part of the answer?