Vivek Menon
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Vivek Menon: on establishing Wildlife Trust of India, the current status of India’s wildlife and more

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Back in 1998, a group of three members led the initiative to protect and conserve the rapidly declining wildlife of India. This renowned organisation came to be known as the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and has achieved great heights in the field of wildlife conservation under the leadership of Vivek Menon.

Over his journey of more than 30 years, Vivek has carved a niche in wildlife conservation and has led several initiatives to protect the fascinating world of animals. WTI is one of the leading conservation organisations of India, which over the years has not only taken initiatives to protect wildlife, but also to restore their associated habitats, corridors and surrounding ecosystems.

On the occasion of World Environment Day, The Weather Channel India interacted with Vivek Menon to get insights on the present status of wildlife and its conservation in India.

What was the main idea behind the establishment of the Wildlife Trust of India?

Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) was formed on November 16, 1998, in response to the declining state of the country’s wildlife and natural environment. WTI stands strong on the bedrock of values installed by its founders and carries forward the legacy of our late Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus—my mentor and friend Ashok.

Many years ago, he gave me my first conservation job after reading one of my articles published in the Indian Express on bird trade. We ended up co-founding the first wildlife trade monitoring program for India called TRAFFIC-India. While working for TRAFFIC-India, we organised several wildlife trade seizures among which was the biggest seizure of illegal wildlife artefacts in the history of India at the time, confiscating a cache of 300kg of tiger bones, eight tiger skins and 60 leopard skins in Delhi.

Eventually, we both established the Wildlife Trust of India with Mrs Tara Gandhi and Mr Thomas Mathew and expanded the organisation from one project and three employees in 1998 to one of India’s leading nature conservation organisations.

On its official website, the WTI has mentioned its top priorities under nine big ideas. Please tell us about them, along with some of the key priorities the organisation is working on.

WTI’s approach to wildlife conservation is best expressed through our nine strategies that we describe as our Big Ideas: WildAid, Enforcement & Law, Species Recovery, Protected Area Recovery, Wild Rescue, Conflict Mitigation, Wild Lands, Right of Passage and Natural Heritage Campaigns.

All of our projects are based on a combination of these Big Ideas. Under their umbrella stands everything that we do or aim to do. Our fight against the illegal trade in wildlife and its derivatives. Our attention to the welfare of individual animals as well as conservation of entire species. Our belief in local communities contributes to long-term conservation success. Our understanding that true conservation happens through the securement of neglected wild habitats.

We believe that it is this multi-pronged treatment of wildlife conservation that defines and differentiates us. We measure our impact in very tangible terms. Our work has demonstrated, for example, that not a single elephant was killed by trains in Rajaji National Park for over a decade after we stepped in. We helped the effective area of Manas National Park triple its area as Greater Manas through policy interventions.

We have trained almost 20,000 frontline wildlife staff of over 150 Protected Areas, and covered them under an ex-gratia assurance against death or injury on duty, and now even death due to COVID-19. We are working to give the right of passage to elephants in 101 corridors enabling a safer life for people in these areas.

We run over 40 conservation projects across 23 states—from the Pir Panjal Mountains in Kashmir to the mangrove forests of Kannur, Kerala; from Himalayan black bear forests in Arunachal to whale shark pupping areas off the Gujarat coast. Over the course of our 22-plus years in service of nature, we have learned to be agile in our response to exigent issues (providing emergency aid to distressed wildlife, for instance), while embracing the grind of long-term goals (such as securing wildlife corridors).

We have forged vital partnerships working with community members, tribal council leaders and union ministers alike to achieve desired conservation outcomes. Increasingly, we have leveraged technology, developing apps to mitigate conflict, creating automated systems to prevent wildlife train hits, and using military-grade surveillance to disrupt wildlife crime networks. Our approach is undergirded by science and shaped by empathy.

What is the current status of wildlife in India? Where do you think India still lacks in terms of supporting and conserving wildlife?

India has been blessed with immense natural wealth. The country’s wild landscapes encompass four of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, 26 of the world’s most important wetlands as defined by the Ramsar Convention, and seven natural World Heritage Sites as defined by UNESCO. Its ten biogeographic zones are home to more than 400 mammal species, 1200 bird species, 500 reptile species, 300 amphibian species, 3000 fish species, 80,000 invertebrate species and 50,000 plant species.

However, this natural heritage is under severe threat. The illegal wildlife trade has adversely affected a multitude of species, and as you see now, humans too with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. The anthropogenic pressures exerted by a billion-plus population are also taking their toll on the nation’s biodiversity.

We are a country of 1.2 billion people sharing space with 60% of the world’s Asian elephants; 65% of the world’s tigers; 85% of the one-horned rhino and 100% of the Asiatic lion.

The sustained destruction, deterioration and fragmentation of wild habitats have led to the disappearance of several ecosystems. This is accelerating the effects of climate change and forcing humans and wildlife into closer contact, causing conflict and raising the spectre of zoonotic disease.

Asian elephants, already beleaguered by the indiscriminate slaughter of bulls for ivory, suffer the increasing impairment of traditional migratory corridors. Precisely, the biggest threats to wildlife are: Habitat loss, alteration & fragmentation; Poaching and conflict killings and Natural calamities and disease epidemics.

Is there any single animal species in India that requires the most urgent attention? Why?

I should say, humans! Humankind needs to change their attitude to consumptive behaviour and respect the natural world.

Some endangered species, like the Kashmiri stag or the Nilgiri tahr, tend to not receive much spotlight in the conservation efforts. Why is that the case and what can be done about this?

Yes, our country and policy has been more focused to drive resources towards tiger conservation, but states also assert the need and take initiatives to save iconic wildlife endemic to their state. Just as Assam has made the rhino its pride, other states need to act quickly before they lose their flagship species.

We at WTI have been working for more than 10 years to save the wild buffalo, the state animal of Chhattisgarh, and success will not come overnight. It needs sustained efforts—both from policy and the public—to make conservation a success.

There have been reports that Cheetahs may be reintroduced in India this year. What will be the impact of this reintroduction?

WTI was involved in this project at its inception and we prepared a thorough habitat assessment of areas where reintroduction can take place with the Wildlife Institute of India. I was part of the team that first went to Africa and firmed up the cheetah exchange.

We also coordinated the first international meet to discuss this in India. Then it turned a little political and the government took the lead in this. We took a backseat. I don’t believe this project is bad at all. It was well conceptualised. If carried out in its true intent, we should have back the only large mammal that we have lost in over 200 years from mainland peninsular India.

What has been the most standout moment in your journey of wildlife conservation?

My work has taken me to the most incredible places and moments aplenty. Whether it was working out new ways to conserve elephants or handing over keys to a new house to a villager who gave his old one for securing an elephant corridor, or nearly getting killed during an undercover ivory trade enforcement operation.

I have travelled to over 100 countries, trained parts of the conservation agencies in over 50 of them, written over 10 books on wildlife and helped India at the UN in three different capacities save wildlife. So to pick any one moment or anecdote is such a trivial pursuit. I have enjoyed every moment of my 35 years of conservation.

If you have to pick one, which accomplishment of WTI are you most proud of?

I have started five NGOs. Little did I expect WTI to reach this level of growth when I started this with INR 1100 and three people on board. Our values, people and commitment to save India’s natural heritage has been steadfast despite two phases of economic slump and two years of the pandemic. What makes me most proud is our field team—almost 100 of them did not stop working in the field when the world was working from home. Because our work needs people to be out there, saving animals and standing with local communities.

If I have to pick one I would pick two! That’s the sort of person I am. So it is creating the first scientific rescue and rehab centre in India at Kaziranga, which has put back over 5000 animals so far including elephants, rhinos and bears, and equally making the conservation of corridors part of the Indian conservation scenario. So individual animal welfare and habitat conservation. One cannot exist without the other.

On the occasion of World Environment Day, what is your message to the readers?

My message, especially in this terrible time of the coronavirus as well as the omnipresent threat of climate change, is simply NOT TO LOSE HOPE. Conservation, in my experience, has had so many victories that we can’t afford to be pessimistic in our lives. Conservation is the art of the possible and when non-possible, it is the art of MAKING it possible. So, shut out the dark pessimistic thoughts and do something positive. Each of those actions do have an impact!