Could you tell us briefly about the work done by yourself and Wildlife SOS in India? What are the key projects that you focus on?
Wildlife SOS was established in 1995 by myself and co-founder Geeta Seshamani with an aim to help protect India’s wealth of wildlife and severely threatened biodiversity. The institution was founded on the belief that by providing sustainable alternative livelihoods and education to indigenous communities dependent on wildlife resources, sustainable models of wildlife protection and conservation could be created. Our aim is to protect and preserve India’s wildlife, operate rehabilitation centres for wildlife in distress, conserve habitats, raise awareness, conduct research, study biodiversity and provide sustainable alternative livelihoods for communities otherwise dependent on wildlife to earn a livelihood.
Wildlife SOS’s greatest accolade has been to successfully end the illegal and barbaric practice of dancing bears in India. We have rescued 628 endangered sloth bears from illegal custody while providing guidance to nomadic communities to help establish them in alternative sustainable and legal livelihoods. This is seen internationally as a unique successful sustainable conservation model. We did this in partnership with the Government and the indigenous communities mainly to put an end to the poaching and trafficking of bear cubs.
We also work extensively to protect elephants in India. Wildlife SOS established India’s first elephant hospital, which is a part of the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre Camp in Uttar Pradesh. The goal of our elephant project is to help prevent illegal trafficking of elephants while improving the lives of the elephants that live in captivity. Wildlife SOS currently runs two elephant care facilities in India. Refuse to Ride is a resource website we recently created to sensitise tourists to the plight of elephants that give joyrides. If tourists realise the torture the elephants suffer just so they can have a joyride, then this could potentially reduce the demand for illegal trafficking of elephant calves for this vile industry and help end the cruel abuse they suffer to make them rideable.
Wildlife SOS also works with birds, leopards, Asiatic black bears (moon bears), Himalayan brown bears and other species that are in intense human-wildlife conflict situations in India, particularly in the states of Jammu and Kashmir (black bears, brown bears and leopards) and Maharashtra (leopards). Wildlife SOS runs a bear orphanage for black bears in Kashmir and a rescue centre for leopards in Maharashtra. Our mission is to encourage tolerance towards our wild species and help people learn to coexist with them.
Additionally, we run a 24-hour rescue hotline in three states: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Our rescue team works round the clock attending to distress calls from members of the public, police, animal-lovers and other organisations who have found wild animals in peril or caught in conflict situations.
Is there a single achievement that you and Wildlife SOS have accomplished which stands out to you?
One of our biggest achievements has been putting an end to the dancing bear practice in India. For over 400 years, the sloth bear had been a target for human exploitation. A nomadic tribe known as the Kalandars began “dancing” sloth bears for the emperors during the Mughal era. Over centuries, the emperors and kingdoms disappeared, but sadly the dancing bear trade stayed on, transitioning to a cheap form of street entertainment for tourists who paid to watch the bears. Sloth bears are only found on the Indian subcontinent, with a subspecies in Sri Lanka, thus making it a rare and endangered species that enjoys the same level of protection as the Bengal tiger under Indian law. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 made it a punishable offence with a jail sentence of up to 7 years if convicted, and yet, this practice of dancing bears carried on in blatant disregard of the law.
Thus started Wildlife SOS’s flagship project to tackle the dancing bear trade. In order to protect the indigenous sloth bear population, efforts had to be made at different tiers. We focused not only on rescuing the bears but also on helping to alleviate the Kalandar community. Providing an alternate means of livelihood allowed us to uproot the practice effectively. Our journey has been quite a challenge, as it was difficult to gain the trust and cooperation from this at times hostile community, who felt that Wildlife SOS were attempting to take away their only means of survival. But over time they realised that our intention was to help them and support them with alternative forms of livelihood. Additionally, Wildlife SOS have designed and carried out several initiatives to empower the women of the community in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Like in the case of most societies, the Kalandar women too face various cultural and societal challenges that are difficult to break away from. Therefore, the aim is to provide a platform that gives employability to them and helps develop capabilities and skills that enable these women to become self-employed entrepreneurs.
In 1999, Wildlife SOS established the Agra Bear Rescue Facility in collaboration with the Indian Government and the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, which is today the largest rehabilitation centre in the world for sloth bears. To date, we have rescued 628 sloth bears, rehabilitated over 3,500 nomadic Kalandar families with alternative livelihoods, sent over 6,000 Kalandar children to school and empowered the women in the community.
Our success with the dancing bears and being able to end a cruel 400-year-old practice – one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world – gave us immense confidence that we could now solve any problem and nothing was impossible!
When did you realise that you wanted to dedicate your life to the protection of animals?
I can say that my love for wildlife and the beauty of nature started at a really young age, when I started bunking classes and biking off to the nearby national forest instead of going home. This was followed by a long trek through the elephant-, leopard- and bear-infested forest, with me settling high up on a tree overlooking a waterhole so I could watch the jungle’s denizens come and quench their thirst, all in the glory of the silvery moonlight! Obviously later that night I would be frozen into an icicle up on the tree and be forced to climb down to stretch my stiff joints and restart my circulation with a small campfire. While this taught me a lot of junglecraft, it also showed me the beauty of wildlife and made me determined to do everything I could in my lifetime to preserve and protect this wealth of wildlife that India had, but was fast disappearing if we did not do something about it soon… Time was running out. It was a real SOS situation. That was how Wildlife SOS was born.
As CEO of Wildlife SOS, you have helped to introduce legal restrictions on snake charming, circus animals and dancing bears. In addition to these legislative changes, have you noticed a broader change in the average Indian’s relationship with wildlife over the course of your career?
Yes, I’ve certainly noticed a broader change in India and the Indian people’s relationship with wildlife. Technology and the Internet has made it easier for people to access knowledge and information, thereby making it easier for us to tackle ignorance. Challenges still exist but now we have the tools to change people’s minds. However, in some circumstances it feels like people have become surrounded by selfish desire for their personal wealth and comfort and have lost their sense of tolerance for animals, whose habitats they currently occupy without any thought to how many animals, birds and reptiles have been rendered homeless so they could have a plot of land or an apartment!
What must be done to convince local communities that animals are not a commodity to be exploited? Do you find it is more important to alter perspectives or approach the issue in more pragmatic terms, as an economic matter that needs to be addressed?
Human compassion and tolerance is crucial to saving wild animals and protecting the habitats they need to survive in. Wildlife SOS recognises this important aspect and therefore believes in a more holistic approach. We conduct awareness programs to educate the public about using techniques for avoiding and resolving human-wildlife conflicts as well as encouraging responsible community participation in various conservation initiatives across the country. Wildlife SOS also works closely with state governments and forest departments, to help animals which are caught or involved in human-wildlife conflict situations in several states.
We facilitate and organise workshops for law enforcement officers to help familiarise them with the latest poaching and wildlife trafficking trends. Furthermore, the Wildlife SOS anti-poaching and intelligence-gathering unit, Forest Watch, employs reformed poachers who help us infiltrate poaching gangs and bring down traffickers. Wildlife SOS works closely with the police and other enforcement agencies while assisting the Forest Department with prosecution efforts using its legal defence team.
On the whole, what are the rehabilitation prospects for rescued leopards, elephants, sloth bears and other Indian wildlife that your organisation cares for? Are any animals able to be reintroduced to the wild?
Animals that we are able to treat, heal and release are put back into the wild at every opportunity.
We operate 11 wildlife rehabilitation facilities across India:
- Elephant Hospital & Care Centre Camp in Mathura
- Elephant Rehabilitation Centre in Ban Santour, Haryana
- Agra Bear Rescue Facility
- Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre
- Van Vihar Bear Rescue Facility
- Purulia Bear Rescue Centre
- Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre
- Pahalgam Rescue Centre (for Asiatic black bears and Himalayan brown bears)
- Dachigam Rescue Centre (for Asiatic black bears and Himalayan brown bears)
- Wildlife Rescue Centre in Gurgaon, Haryana
- Human-Primate Conflict Mitigation Centre in Farah, Uttar Pradesh
The parameters we use for determining the “release-ability” of the animal is its fitness and ability to survive on its own in its natural habitat. Rescued animals receive veterinary treatment if required, then are kept under observation, and if found fit for release are then released back into the wild. For this, permissions are secured from concerned authorities to release the animals into suitable habitat. The release is done in the presence of officers from the Wildlife Department and the same is also documented by photos or videos.
Human-wildlife conflict is a growing problem in India. Where possible, what can be done to prevent animals coming into contact with people, or ensure a more symbiotic relationship where interactions are likely?
Conflicts between humans and animals have negative impacts for both sides. People suffer crop damage, depletion of livestock and destruction of property, and sometimes even lose their lives in such encounters. On the other hand, this also results in destruction of habitat and the collapse of wildlife populations, and intensifies negative human attitudes towards wildlife, which can also lead to violent and brutal consequences for wildlife species that are caught in human-wildlife encounters.
In an attempt to overcome this growing challenge, we have made it our responsibility to educate not just the local communities, but also the younger generation living in human-wildlife conflict zones about their surrounding environment and the animals that are a part of it. Our teams conduct awareness programs to educate the public about using techniques for avoiding and resolving human-wildlife conflicts. These teams also encourage responsible community participation in various conservation initiatives through our centres in Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Agra, Bannerghatta and New Delhi.
Aside from the so-called “charismatic megafauna” like the Bengal tiger and Asian elephant, are there any lesser-known threatened species in India today which face conservation challenges that you think deserve greater attention?
Species like the Indian mongoose and honey badger as well as owls, monitor lizards, etc. all need attention. The Indian star tortoise is another species that is vulnerable and perhaps the most trafficked tortoise species in the world owing to the unique star-like radiating pattern on their carapace (shell). It is also poached for meat and body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, while live animals are sold into the exotic pet trade. An estimated 20,000 Indian star tortoises are poached from the wild in India each year to meet the demand for the illegal wildlife trade.
India is also home to two species of pangolin – the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). Both species are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Indian pangolin is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red Data List, whereas the Chinese pangolin is listed as Critically Endangered.
Pangolins in India are severely persecuted and are one of the most trafficked and endangered species, and sadly much sought-after by poachers and traffickers. The awareness about this species is poor and as a result of this ignorance the animal is trafficked more easily. These reasons are boosted by the increasing demand for the species, along with a rise in its buying and selling prices. It is an organised trade in India with villagers helping poachers locates the pangolins.
Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?
As a child, my heroes were Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson whose books I could not put down at all. Growing up, I drew more inspiration from my parents who encouraged my interest in wildlife conservation and also from forest officers like Bhupen Talukdar and the likes of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and David Attenborough. I also drew inspiration from my perfectionist father and my botanist mother who is also a cancer survivor. Geeta Seshamani and her tireless work with Friendicoes Animal Shelter was an inspiration, and I eventually started working with her to establish Wildlife SOS where she plays a very visionary role in our conservation projects.
What has been your best natural world experience to date?
I’ve had so many unique and unforgettable natural world experiences to call any single one my best. I can perhaps list a few of my top ones:
- Watching a tigress calmly walk right towards me when I was on foot and then as my heart was pounding with excitement, she turned away when she was about 20 metres away and disappeared mysteriously into the forest without so much as a second glance at me. She left me speechless. I measured the distance between me and her footprints (pug marks) when I caught my breath.
- Sitting on a tree above a herd of wild elephants in Karnataka.
- Spotting endangered river otters chasing fish in the Brahmaputra River.
- Seeing a fishing cat hunting in Kaziranga National Park.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
We have only one planet and humans have put it in severe danger. The presence of wild animals, birds and reptiles keeps our forests alive and that’s the only way humans can breathe and live. We inherited this planet from these wild animals who were here long before we came. It is our absolute responsibility to leave the place intact.
We must do everything we can to make a difference to protect our future, by ensuring the safety of our wildlife, forests and rivers. Soon, it will be too late. Please become a part of an organisation like Wildlife SOS and volunteer with us to help make a difference.