In 1998, a three-member group led the initiative to protect and conserve India’s rapidly declining wildlife. This renowned organization became known as the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and reached great heights in the field of wildlife conservation under the leadership of Vivek Menon.
Over the course of its more than 30-year journey, Vivek has carved out a place for itself in wildlife conservation and has led several initiatives to protect the fascinating world of animals. WTI is one of India’s leading conservation organizations, which over the years has taken initiatives not only to protect wildlife, but also to restore associated habitats, corridors and surrounding ecosystems.
On the occasion of World Environment Day, The Weather Channel India interacted with Vivek Menon for information on the current state of wildlife and its conservation in India.
What was the main idea behind the creation of the Wildlife Trust of India?
Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) was established on November 16, 1998, in response to the decline of the country’s wildlife and natural environment. WTI builds on the core values ââestablished by its founders and continues the legacy of our late co-founder and president emeritus, my mentor and friend Ashok.
Many years ago he gave me my first conservation job after reading one of my articles in the Indian Express on the bird trade. We ended up co-founding India’s first wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC-India. While working for TRAFFIC-India, we organized several seizures of wildlife trade including the largest seizure of illegal wild artifacts in Indian history at the time, confiscating a 300kg cache of tiger bone, eight tiger skins and 60 leopard skins in Delhi. .
Eventually we both established the Wildlife Trust of India with Ms Tara Gandhi and Mr Thomas Mathew and expanded the organization of one project and three staff in 1998 to one of the leading nature conservation organizations in India.
On its official website, WTI has listed its top priorities under nine big ideas. Please tell us about that, as well as some of the key priorities the organization is working on.
WTI’s approach to wildlife conservation is best expressed through our nine strategies which 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 great ideas. Under their umbrella is everything 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 the conservation of entire species. Our faith in local communities contributes to long-term conservation success. Our understanding that true conservation is about securing neglected wild habitats.
We believe it is this multi-faceted treatment of wildlife conservation that defines and differentiates us. We measure our impact in very tangible terms. Our work has shown, for example, that no elephant was killed by trains in Rajaji National Park for more than a decade after our intervention. We have helped the effective area of ââManas National Park to triple its area as Grand Manas through political interventions.
We have trained nearly 20,000 frontline wildlife staff in over 150 protected areas and have covered them free of charge against death or injury in service, and now even death from COVID-19. We are working to give elephants the right of way in 101 corridors allowing a safer life for people in these areas.
We run over 40 conservation projects in 23 states, from the Pir Panjal mountains in Kashmir to the mangrove forests of Kannur, Kerala; from the Himalayan black bear forests in Arunachal to the whale shark calving grounds off the coast of Gujarat. In our 22+ years in the service of nature, we have learned to be nimble in our response to pressing problems (providing emergency aid to wildlife in distress, for example), while embracing the drudgery of long-term objectives (such as securing wildlife corridors).
We have forged vital partnerships by working with community members, tribal council leaders and union ministers to achieve desired conservation results. Increasingly, we have leveraged technology, developed applications to mitigate conflict, created automated systems to prevent wildlife trains, and used military-grade surveillance to disrupt wildlife crime networks. Our approach is underpinned by science and shaped by empathy.
What is the current wildlife situation in India? Where do you think India still lacks in terms of wildlife conservation and support?
India has been endowed with immense natural wealth. The country’s rugged landscapes encompass four of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, 26 of the world’s most significant 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 species of mammals, 1,200 species of birds, 500 species of reptiles, 300 species of amphibians, 3,000 species of fish, 80,000 species of invertebrates and 50,000 species of plants.
However, this natural heritage is seriously threatened. The illegal wildlife trade has harmed a multitude of species, and as you can see now, humans too with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. The anthropogenic pressures exerted by more than one billion inhabitants also have negative consequences on the biodiversity of the country.
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 continued destruction, deterioration and fragmentation of wild habitats has resulted in the disappearance of several ecosystems. This accelerates the effects of climate change and forces humans and wildlife to come together, causing conflict and raising the specter of zoonotic diseases.
Asian elephants, already besieged by the indiscriminate slaughter of bulls for ivory, are suffering from the increasing degradation of traditional migratory corridors. Specifically, the greatest threats to wildlife are: habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation; Poaching and killings linked to conflicts and Natural calamities and disease epidemics.
Is there a single animal species in India that requires the most urgent attention? Why?
I should say, humans! Humanity must change its attitude towards consumer behavior and respect the natural world.
Some endangered species, such as the Kashmiri deer or the tahr Nilgiri, tend not to receive much attention in conservation efforts. Why is this the case and what can be done about it?
Yes, our country and our politics have focused more on resource management towards tiger conservation, but states are also affirming the need and taking initiatives to save the iconic wildlife endemic to their state. Just as Assam has made the rhino its pride, other states must act quickly before they lose their flagship species.
At WTI, we have been working for over 10 years to save the wild buffalo, the animal of the state of Chhattisgarh, and success will not come overnight. It takes sustained efforts, both by politicians and the public, to make conservation a success.
It has been reported that cheetahs could be reintroduced to India this year. What will be the impact of this reintroduction?
WTI has been involved in this project from its inception and we have prepared a comprehensive habitat assessment of areas where reintroduction may take place with the Wildlife Institute of India. I was part of the team that first went to Africa and strengthened the cheetah exchange.
We also coordinated the first international meeting to discuss it in India. Then it got a bit political and the government took the lead. We took a back seat. I don’t think this project is bad at all. It was well conceptualized. If this is done with its true intention, we should find the only large mammal we have lost in over 200 years from mainland peninsular India.
What has been the highlight of your wildlife conservation journey?
My work has taken me to the most amazing places and times. Whether it’s finding new ways to conserve elephants or handing over the keys to a new house to a villager who donated his old one to secure an elephant corridor, or getting killed during a ivory trade enforcement stealth operation.
I have traveled to over 100 countries, formed parts of conservation agencies in over 50 of them, written over 10 books on wildlife, and helped India at the UN in three different capacities save the wildlife. So choosing a moment or an anecdote is such a trivial quest. I enjoyed every moment of my 35 years of conservation.
If you have to pick one, which WTI achievement are you most proud of?
I started five NGOs. I didn’t expect WTI to reach this level of growth when I started with INR 1100 and three people on board. Our values, our people and our commitment to saving India’s natural heritage have remained steadfast despite two phases of economic recession and two years of pandemic. What makes me most proud is our field team: almost 100 of them kept working in the field while the world was working from home. Because our work needs people to be there, save animals and stand with local communities.
If I had to choose one, I would choose two! This is the kind of person that I am. It therefore creates the first scientific rescue and rehabilitation center in India at Kaziranga, which has so far reinstated more than 5,000 animals, including elephants, rhinos and bears, and also incorporates the conservation of corridors into the scenario. Indian conservation. So individual animal welfare and habitat conservation. One cannot exist without the other.
On World Environment Day, what is your message to readers?
My message, especially in this terrible time of the coronavirus as well as the ever-present threat of climate change, is simply DON’T LOSE HOPE. Conservation, in my experience, has won so many victories that we cannot afford to be pessimistic in our lives. Conservation is the art of the possible and when it is not possible, it is the art of MAKING it possible. So, shut yourself off from gloomy pessimistic thoughts and do something positive. Each of these actions has an impact!
This article is part of a series called ‘EcoGuardians’. Here is the last interview in this series:
This man quit a job at Google for environmental conservation! Here is his background