Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal: “Young people want to protect the environment, but don’t have their hands on the wheel”

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An interview with Bittu Sahgal. Institutionalised conservation efforts in India started with the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and the launch of the Project Tiger – to conserve the apex predator and its habitat – in 1973. The then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, had already laid the foundation for these by hosting in Delhi the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1969 and participating in the United Nations Conference on the Environment at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. 

As a young man in the 1970s, Bittu Sahgal, was attracted to conservation from its leaders such as Kailash Sankhala and Salim Ali. He started participating in the Project Tiger activities. Nudged by forester and conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore to do something more enduring, Sahgal started the Sanctuary Asia magazine, which continues to be published even today.

In addition to his schooling by the greats in the conservation field, Sahgal’s exposure to environmentalists and development activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte and Shivaram Karanth anchored his social concerns. Thus after years of championing the conservation cause, he talks about the need for conservationists and human rights activists must come together and “stop this bickering.”

To put words into action, Sahgal established the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, and has initiated projects such as ‘Kids for Tigers’ and ‘Mud on Boots’ to initiate the younger generation into conservation.

Mongabay:  I have with me pioneering environment journalist, editor, activist, conservationist, Mr. Bittu Sahgal. You have been publishing Sanctuary Asia since 1984 and environment journalism has gone through lots of changes. How has the environment journalism field changed over the decades? 

Bittu Sahgal: Well, the field has changed considerably, because our knowledge of the biosphere and our knowledge of human nature has suddenly changed. When we started out quite honestly, all we were looking to do was to save the large animals as an excuse to save large spaces. Project Tiger, for instance, it wasn’t the tiger, the tiger was just a metaphor. We knew that. I’ll never forget sitting down in a meeting where Kailash Sankhla was talking to us and said, look, don’t ever count tigers. You just see whether the water that used to dry in the month of November and December continues to run full. The streams run full till January, February, and March. And when they run full till June, then you know that everything is okay, the tigers will come back.