Belinda Wright on state of India's wild spaces and the impact of lockdown

Belinda Wright | Founder & Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India
A two-time Emmy Award-winning wi­ldlife filmmaker, a firebrand activist who risked it all to go undercover in one of the largest markets of tiger parts in Tibet, and parent to an elephant that somehow labours under the delusion that she’s actually a dog — Belinda Wright wears many hats. As I wait in my Zoom meeting room for her to log in, I read about some of her exploits over the years — mapping the shadowy world of animal trafficking and dealing with informers, tribal people and the powers that be with equal aplomb. Just then, she appears on my screen with a beautiful Pichwai painting of a tiger behind her.

We start by discussing the obvious: The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on wildlife and wild spaces. “On the ground, we find that bushmeat poaching has gone up, quite understandable given the impact of the lockdown on the local economy,” she says.

“While tiger poaching doesn’t seem to have gone up significantly, we are seeing more unnatural tiger deaths.” This is likely because the big cats, emboldened by the reduction in human activity, have stayed into farmlands and injured by barbed wire, traps etc. What’s more disturbing, she says, is the environmental clearances which have been issued left, right and centre for mining and other industries. Under the proposed amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act, a company could be granted an ex-post-facto environmental clearance, essentially legitimising its action of not having taken the green go ahead before starting a project in an environmentally sensitive area. Further, she tells me, in a breathtakingly misplaced show of trust, violators might soon be relied upon to self-report on violations: “If these changes go through, they could ring a death knell for many of India’s wild spaces,” she says somberly. “That too at a time when it’s clearer, more than ever before, that a healthy environment is imperative for our long-term health.”

At this juncture, the arrival of Wright’s lunch breaks the melancholy that has descended upon both of us. A beautifully set table awaits her and on the menu is the curry of a solitary egg with green peas and rice. As my husband arrives with my lunch, she tells me about how she came to found Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) in 1994.

“I started off as a filmmaker and photographer to get stories of wildlife across to people,” she says. A distressing encounter with a gang of poachers caused Wright to change path. “My Baiga tribal friends had informed me that there were people in the forest looking for tigers,” she recounts. “Days later, they managed to find a tiger I’d known particularly well.” The incident compelled her to start WPSI and delve into the secretive, murky world of illegal wildlife trade. The market in China for poached animals and animal products was huge and poachers had established several routes to get there from India. Wright and her team tracked the arduous high altitude routes wildlife traffickers used to get poached wildlife products to China. She also famously went undercover to Tibet to document a huge number of big cat pelts and a thriving underground trade in poached animal parts.

I can only imagine how that must have felt, I say. “Often, when I’m feeling down about the state of India’s wildlife, I remember what a friend once said to cheer me up,” Wright responds. “It’s largely because of WPSI’s efforts that people now know where, how and why big cats are being poached and more importantly, the people behind their killings.” Today, WPSI’s wildlife crime database is considered one of the most comprehensive in the country. Since 1994 when it began, it has helped the government to prosecute over 500 cases and has identified over 1,300 poachers and wildlife traders. Wright and her team in WPSI have also successfully set up a network of informers and field investigators who track wildlife crimes. “En­forcement can only be carried out by government agencies,” she tells me. “Civil society can merely provide intelligence.”

Although Wright has been richly recognised for her work (she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2003 for services to the protection of wildlife in India, the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award in 2005 and was elected an Ashoka Senior Fellow in 2009), I sense she’s too deeply troubled about the state of India’s wildlife to rest easy on her laurels.

“I often feel conservationists like me have failed to convince more and more individuals about the critical state of our animals and wild spaces today,” she says moodily toying with the Mother Dairy mishti doi placed in front of her in a lovely old pudding cup. “People react to individual stories like the recent death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala, but somehow they just don’t react as strongly about much larger issues such as habitat degradation and poaching. Why haven’t we been able to convince them that man eaters, crop raiders and stray wild animals are created by us, they’re not born that way?” By sacrificing forests, rivers and wildlife corridors at the altar of “development”, she believes, we’re killing our living heritage, which is unparalleled in the world.

Wright describes her brand of activism as pragmatic conservation. She’s consistently engaged in dialogue with the government and shares WPSI’s database of wildlife crimes and criminals. She has also worked closely with communities with traditional links to the forest and forest produce. And every now and then, she takes a break from it all and retreats to Kipling Camp in Kanha, the wildlife conservation lodge developed by her parents Anne and the late Bob Wright, to her beloved dogs, elephant Tara and the forest she’s allowed to grow all around it. As our lunch draws to a close, I cast a final covetous look at the tiger Pichwai, thinking that if it weren’t for champions of wildlife like Belinda Wright, this might be the only way generations ahead would see India’s magnificent state animal.

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