Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

George Schaller: Everyone's Environment

Conservation is not just the job of biologists and officials, nor is it a goal. Rather, itís a never-ending process in which all of us must take part

Published: Jun 1, 2010 09:24:46 AM IST
Updated: Jun 15, 2010 07:42:08 AM IST
George Schaller: Everyone's Environment
Image: Beth Wald; Illustration: Malay Karmakar; Imaging: Sushil Mhatre
George Schaller, Senior Conservationist, Wildlife Conservation Society and VP, Panthera Foundation

George Schaller, 77, is recognised by many as the world’s pre-eminent field biologist. He has studied wildlife in Asia, Africa and South America for more than 50 years. National Geographic conferred it’s Lifetime Achievement Award upon him in 2007; he is also the winner of several other prestigious awards. His studies have helped protect animals as diverse as the mountain gorilla, giant panda, lion and the Tibetan antelope. His work inspired the foundation of over 20 parks and preserves worldwide. Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Shey-Phoksundo National Park in Nepal, and the Chang Tang Nature Reserve in Tibet are some of them.

We are all aware of the basic environmental problems affecting our small planet. These range from habitat destruction, water shortage, and extinction of species to pollution of air, water and land to climate change. Governments and news media serve the economy and tend to forget that everything we make, buy and use is wholly dependent on nature. The Earth is a living organism with soil, sea, air, life, sunlight and others all interacting in a way that makes us wholly dependent on natural systems for survival. Yet we have been destroying our environment at an ever-accelerating rate. We have been living off the earth’s capital rather than the interest. Therefore, as Al Gore noted, “we must make the rescue of the environment the central organising principle for civilisation.”

This must involve everyone. Every personal act is also an ecological act, whether we drive a car, plant maize, write an essay on paper or computer, flick on a light. “When drinking a glass of water, think of the source,” states a Chinese proverb. Why save some species, insignificant or otherwise? We know that nature remains a supermarket for new foods, just as it is a pharmacy for new drugs. Every species is a genetic storehouse for the future. We still know little about ecology, about the function of individual species. We have no idea how many species you can lose before the whole system collapses. Human survival — even if promoted by self-interest — seems like a good argument for saving our biological diversity, for leaving future generations with options.

Population growth is a critical issue for the world, but consumption of resources has a much steeper upward curve. However, it should be remembered that globalisation was already active in the 1800s. The British exported wheat to the UK for profit during the great Indian drought of 1890-1910 while thousands of people there starved to death.

Certainly all countries are now fully aware of issues, but environmental concerns remain peripheral to most. Denmark has made a major effort to reduce its carbon footprint, China has had a logging ban in effect since 1998 and has established many nature reserves, Costa Rica has good forest management practices involving local communities, and Rwanda has done a superb job of protecting its mountain gorillas. There are many success stories, large and small, but certain issues — such as the related one, climate change and depletion of fresh water — have barely been addressed. About one-third of fresh water in irrigation canals is lost mainly to evaporation. Over 2,000 years ago, the Afghan civilisation had the sense to cover the canals they built.

We have treated clean air, clean water, fertile soils as free public resources to do with as we want, pollute, degrade, destroy. There is no free lunch. We now have to pay the price. If we want to protect a watershed to assure clean water to those living downstream, those who give up some resource for the common good will have to be paid. If we set up a reserve to protect wildlife, the communities who have traditionally used the resources for fuel, roof thatch and others will have to be paid. It is called “payment for ecosystem services”.

Similarly, companies that pollute air and water must pay. Money? If governments spent a fraction of the billions that they do on armaments and unnecessary wars, there would be ample funds to pay for truly keeping our planet healthy, beautiful, and productive. Industry and agriculture must become far more innovative, productive, and efficient. In addition, the task is to shape new attitudes and create a new design in the strategy of surviving on a crowded planet and still maintaining the full diversity of life. Gandhi said, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

We know that small reserves cannot preserve widely roaming species, and, in fact, all species — plant and animal — are at risk from inbreeding or catastrophic events such as hurricanes. There is need to think of conservation on a landscape basis with areas designated for human use, core areas strictly protected as reservoirs for plants and animals, and corridors connecting core areas. To manage such a landscape will take the co-operation of government, scientists, industry, and importantly, the local communities. It is a difficult task. If solutions in conservation were easy they would have been adopted long ago.

Field biologists cannot do conservation: They can mainly gather knowledge, try to educate, and prod governments to enact policies and implement action. Furthermore, conservation is based to a large extent on values other than economic — on religious, aesthetic, nationalistic, and other moral values, depending on the culture. It comes from the heart. People don’t preserve the giant panda or tiger because these animals represent biodiversity but because they touch the emotions.

The Hindus have sacred groves and sacred animals. Buddhist principles include respect and compassion for all living beings. Islam says, “Allah loveth not wasters.” All cultures have a feeling of goodwill toward the environment, but the ideas have to be rekindled. Most leaders have been lax about that. Indira Gandhi was an exception, and among today’s religious leaders His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a forceful voice for conservation. There are two major reasons for killing animals — for subsistence and for profit, the two often going together. Why were tigers lost from India’s Sariska and Panna reserves? Because of underpaid, indifferent, and negligent guards. That is relatively easy for the government to correct if it has the interest to save this iconic animal.

Much of the poaching and smuggling of tiger skins and bones to China is now by organised gangs. India is notorious for its slow legal system and minimal fines for wildlife crime. China, by contrast, is quick and strict in its legal procedures, one reason panda poaching was greatly reduced. The killing of Tibetan antelope or chiru — for its fine wool that is smuggled to Kashmir to be woven into expensive shahtoosh shawls — carries often a jail sentence of about five to 15 years. With more rigorous protection, the killing decreased after the 1990s and the numbers are now on the increase. A good guard force is the key to wildlife protection. Tigers and leopards will prey less on livestock if the forest contains ample natural prey, a good reason for reducing poaching of deer and other species. Villagers could modify herding practices of their cattle to reduce predation, barriers could be constructed to deter elephants, and in certain instances there could be compensation for damages. Conservationists are still grappling with such issues, trying to find solutions that benefit both the wildlife and the livelihood of people.

Having done wildlife field research for nearly six decades, I don’t deal in optimism and hope but in persistence. I have fought on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (whose heart the oil companies want to destroy) and mountain gorillas for half a century, and have spoken up on behalf of tigers and pandas for three to four decades. Conservation is not a goal but a never-ending process, one in which everyone has to be involved. As Gandhi noted, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.”

By using all our wisdom, knowledge, passion, perseverance, dedication, and ever-lasting commitment, we can retain the beauty and health of our planet.

After all, it is the only home we shall ever have.

(This story appears in the 04 June, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)