World Tiger Day special: Amit Sankhala says docus like Ross Kauffman's Tigerland create awareness in society
Tigerland, a documentary by Academy-award winning filmmaker Ross Kauffman, tells the story of two remarkable men who dedicated their lives to alter the fate of the Tiger. While one of them is Russia’s Pavel Fomenko, Director of Rare Species Conservation at World Wildlife Fund, another is India’s Kailash Sankhala - the naturalist and conservationist who was also famously known as the Tiger-Man of India. Ahead of the release of the documentary on World Tiger Day, Indulge speaks to Amit Sankhala, grandson of Padma Shri awardee Kailash Sankhala, about the present situation of tigers in India, the challenges they face, the role local communities and tourism play in the conservation process and if documentaries like Tigerland can help in changing the situation. Excerpts:
Q: Tell us your early memories of seeing a tiger. Was it with your grandfather?
Amit Sankhala: My earliest memory with a tiger was when I was probably a toddler who would go out with my father and grandfather. Another time that I saw a tiger was during my early teens when I spent about 20-25 days of my summer holiday with my grandfather at Ranthambore National Park. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was 12 years old and I didn’t spend too much time with him but with my father, I spent a lot more time going to the wild. Since he was in the tourism industry, we would go to every national park throughout the country for either tourism projects or finding new areas.
Q: What made you walk on the same path as your grandfather and father - conservation of tiger?
AS: The idea is ingrained in your head when you have a grandfather who is a Padma Shree awardee for his contribution to the wild. Growing up in a family where wildlife is an essential part of life, you fall in love with nature very easily. Since you have been following the tiger or lion around since a very young age, you notice so many things like how within a year, cubs would grow up and form their own territory and this process of growing up with them makes it easier to fall in love with them and then you can’t help but work towards its conservation.
Q: What are the challenges that tigers face today? How different are they from those that were faced by your grandfather while working for tiger conservation? And, how do you address these challenges/threats?
AS: The challenges are very different! Because my grandfather was a government man and a man who has studied science, he did as many research studies as possible on how many tigers were there before we started working towards their conservation. And, everything he did - Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and the studies at Delhi Zoo - turned into Project Tiger. This was done so that we can’t kill tigers anymore so that there are national parks and there can be no commercial enterprise in those areas. But today, it’s the Forest Department who handles it and they do a great job. Today, I am a part of NGOs who work in this direction or I work with communities who can drive this or tourism that can aid this conservation. Things have changed a lot. Back then, people didn’t know that their conservation is an issue but today everybody has access to a national park or a desire to visit them. The awareness is also high towards the environment and not only among adults but also among children. Today, we have started demanding modernisation in a sustainable manner. The Tiger, as we say, is just a poster but we need to see the bigger picture - the ecosystem and other wildlife. We need to modernize conservation!
Q: Recent reports point to a rise in tiger populations in India. What brought this change?
AS: The age of social media has played a big part. People see pictures of national parks and of tigers there on social media and if anything goes wrong, they ask questions. Children in schools who go to national parks for vacations develop an emotional connection with the tiger and if it goes missing, a dialogue begins. The forest department is doing an amazing job in raising the tiger population in India by preventing poaching and we have many more amazing core areas that have developed in making the tigers feel more comfortable with growing their own litter and having three to four cubs. The Pench’s Collarwali National Park has reached the Guinness Book of World Records for a tiger who has raised the maximum number of cubs to adulthood. She has over 25 cubs, she gave birth to them in that park and continued to stay there because she feels safe in this park.
But, we have destroyed a lot of corridors over time with development. In a city like Mumbai, we are seeing leopards in buildings and we complain about it but it is us who have gone to their land. Our need continues to grow but the forest space is limited and it is on us to save that.
Q: How can tourism aid in the conservation process? Tourism induced stress is affecting the reproductive health of tigers in India, claimed a recent report. What steps can one take to ensure that the tiger habitats are preserved and not damaged by tourism?
AS: When we go to a National Park in India, throughout the country, we are only allowed to visit 20% of the land, which is allotted by the forest department. And, over 50% of tigers are present in this portion of the land and they continue to live properly here because we have patrolling going into these areas and keeping a close eye on any suspicious activity and thereby making sure that they are safe, no matter what. I am not talking about zoos, I am talking about national parks which are massively funded to keep personnel to watch over these areas. With tourism, we can take charge of smaller parts of these areas by acting as watchdogs. And, if we can bring the villagers and the communities together by educating them and hiring them, they will not only fend for themselves but also play a huge role in protecting the tigers and maintaining the peace while protecting the reserve.
Q: What role do you think documentaries such as Ross Kauffman's Tigerland play in the bigger picture?
AS: Awareness. I think it is important that I don’t make my grandfather a celebrity but put forth his passion for the tigers – we need to create that as a success story. And, Tigerland was created for that exact purpose, to bring conservation to the forefront. The idea is not that it can be done but about how we do it with the help of our future generations and the government while including our nature and its components, while accepting the development and getting through to every person and politician of our country and telling them that it can be done in a sustainable fashion and that’s what the documentary is all about.
Q: Lastly, what’s next from your end towards the conservation?
AS: I am working on a project with a community in Jamtara. It is on how we can bridge the communities with corridors for wildlife. I feel it is the local communities who are the real caretakers of nature and we can help conserve the tigers around by involving these communities. These projects are around the reserves and thus it is convenient for local villagers to understand how they can mutually benefit from these projects especially because they would know how to best assess the situation.
Tigerland will premiere in India on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and Discovery World HD on 29th July 2019 at 8 pm IST