Dr George Schaller has worked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, lions in the Serengeti in Tanzania, snow leopards in the Himalayas, jaguars in Brazil, pandas in China and the last few remaining Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. The living legend in wildlife biology, considered one of the finest field biologists in the world, also has a close connection to India. His first visit to the country in 1963, when he worked with tigers in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, revolutionised wildlife research in India. Schaller, now 84, has been frequenting India since then and continues to inspire new generations of wildlife scientists and conservationists.
During a recent visit to Bengaluru, in a characteristically energetic talk with Scroll.in, the Vice President Emeritus for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organisation, discussed how India has changed over 50 years, why scientists need to to engage with governments and what keeps him going. Excerpts:
What changes have you observed in India since the first time you came here in 1963?
I was fortunate [that] in 1963, when I came to India, I visited many reserves all over the country and I was impressed the country was making an effort to protect the wildlife. But changes have been sudden, the governments have far too casually allowed development to invade the precious reserves and this goes on and on. Suddenly, the government decides they are going to build a canal through Panna [tiger reserve].
It’s shocking because India has maybe 5% of its land area in reserves – that’s far less than any other developing country. China has about 15%, Nepal has 25%, and the health of your future depends on a healthy environment.
One thing people tend to forget is that everything you have, need, want comes from nature. You can’t say we are going to have GDP of 8% forever – endless growth is impossible. So, your economists are a century behind in their thinking if you don’t protect your nature. Growth doesn’t measure destruction, the pollution, erosion, loss of plants and animals and so forth, so you have a figure but then what? It will ultimately go down.
What should India do to preserve some of its last remaining wild places?
You have to have educated politicians to know what it means to protect nature and you have to have corporations that have some moral standards. In my experience, anywhere in the world, particularly the mining, oil, timber companies, seem to lack moral standards. The only moral for them is more money and that is a serious concern, because ultimately things run on money and I see it all the time, somebody in essence is paid off to do something.
Scientists are not known to get their hands dirty. They often don’t get involved in lobbying, policies, etc. You’ve been an exception, was that a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision. Look, I got into this business because I like to sit quietly somewhere and watch animals. So I had an opportunity to go to Africa to watch gorillas, here I watched tigers, watched lions in Tanzania – these were all already national parks.
But then I started working more in the Himalayas, in Brazil and particularly in China and I said hey, the science is nice, it’s fun but you have a moral responsibility to protect what you study, you don’t want to study a species and write a nice scientific paper and 10 years later it is gone. So I started in a conscious way to pick projects where I can have an impact in saving the area.
I don’t save but governments save. My habit has been to make a survey in the country and always take local people with me – scientists and biologists – and present the information to the government with suggestions on conservation, on saving an animal, an area. Every country has some very good high-level people that realise something should be done and often they have.
How is science important to conservation of animals? What do you think of the new breed of scientists?
It is essential otherwise you make decisions without having a clue of what that decision entails. You can’t make decisions about animals without knowing something about them and all too often, decisions are made by somebody sitting in an office who has never been out.
There is a huge difference from the time I first started in India. There were naturalists like Salim Ali, EP Gee who wrote notes or accounts of visiting this area and that area. But since mid -1980s there has been a large number of people trained in biology. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s program here trains excellent people, so you can get good data.
The big issue with all of this is the concern of government departments about what we should conserve and talk with the scientist about how we can improve things. But all too often, all over the world, different groups of people don’t talk to each other.
How did you come to study a variety of animals?
I am restless – I am not the person to sit for 35 years in a place and do it, that’s a different kind of mentality but I’ve also been fortunate for some of these projects. I was asked if I wanted to study gorillas, pandas – obviously you don’t say no, its exciting. But lot of the countries I work in from my own choice. Here is a situation that needs somebody to look at so I go and look for a few months. Some situations I can’t do much about. Others are receptive and I can do something so I keep going back.
What keeps you going?
One, I enjoy it. Two, I see progress and if you work in countries, I often revisit places that I’ve worked in before. I check on gorillas, I check on tigers, I check on pands, I check on Arctic and Alaska where I started in 1950s and some of these places are in good shape. There are good officials, departments and dedicated people that keep it going. There are some dedicated people in mountain gorilla for example, in an area that has seen terrorism for 50 years, yet the guards are still out there protecting them.
If you spend enough time in an area the people trust you, they understand you don’t have an ulterior motive to run away with whatever you’ve found. That way I’ve been able to help in China quite a bit.
Have any of the places you’ve worked in left an impression on you?
You begin to be more introspective of how can you help nature. Nature becomes religion. You really feel the moral responsibility on behalf of your environment and that includes people, they have to have a livelihood. It’s not a Christian concept which says subdue the earth, you are not subduing but trying to be a member of the ecological community and that is the hard part.
Look at India, in not too many years you will need 50% more food yet the cultivable land is declining. It takes a combination of the media, politicians, everybody pushing till it gets in the mind of people that they are part of the ecological community and can’t separate themselves although they might try.
How do you go about educating politicians on the need for conservation?
I mostly deal with politicians whom I can talk to on an informal level rather than shouting against this politicians or that one. That is for the media to do because politicians don’t like to be criticised. When I work in another country, I am still a foreigner and so I do it informally. I say to them here is the information, it could be good if you could use it because it would be good for you. Lot of politicians are receptive if they could do something about it and things have worked well in China and Afghanistan although they have their own problems.
Your comments on the current new government back in the United States.
That’s what the world is asking. If you went by what Trump said before he was elected it scares you. But what he will ultimately manage to do, I’ve no idea. But given some of his background it is cause for concern especially when he has a Congress that has spent last years trying to stop anything good that President Obama wanted to do. So now I rather work overseas.