As we got dressed to have dinner with one of the most important people in conservation today, there was an overcoming feeling of excitement. We had been introduced to Bittu and his lovely wife Madhu Saghal, who have been on the forefront of Indian wildlife and nature conservation since the early 70’s. Let me start by saying that describing this amazing couple in a simple blog post is somewhat of an impossible task.
We pulled out the crinkled piece of paper where we had scribbled down the directions. Something along the lines of, go to this church, turn right after the large wall with flowers and then a left at the single yellow streetlight …mind you we are still in the sparkling city of Mumbai, a city where there are few street signs and a maze of alleys that could engulf anyone. With some help from our taxi driver who barely spoke any English, we arrived at Bittu’s 30 minutes later.
As we weaved through the last alleyways and turned the corner, we found Bittu playing lovingly with his grandson. We were greeted at the door with a room full of smiles and the famed Indian hospitality. Bittu is the founder of Sanctuary Asia, the first and leading environmental news magazine in India. He also has been closely involved with Project Tiger since its inception, has authored many books on wildlife, and produced more than 30 documentaries. He is in a constant, and mostly uphill, battle with governments, businessmen, unsupported forest officials, overpopulation and climate change. He has made more friends and enemies around the world than I can imagine. Bittu Saghal is not the kind of man to give up.
We first got to know about Bittu from The Wild Foundation due to his tiger organization “Kids for Tigers”, which educates and empowers Indian school children to stand up for the tigers. Kids for Tigers have programs in more than 650 schools and have reached over a million children. Children who live in close proximity to the Tiger reserves and children whose love for the Tiger, is an inspiration and probably the key to saving these amazing animals. It is important to mention that the focus is on preserving the habitats of the cats, “save our forest and you will save our tigers”.
Over the last few decades , he has had a lot of success due to his dedication and the programs he has set up. But there will of course always be setbacks as well. Bittu was very concerned with the fact that more than half a million farmers in the last decade had committed suicide due to climate change that destroyed their crops, because of never- before seen weather events like hailstorms. He also told us that in Kizaranga where we are headed tomorrow, 50 rhinos have been lost to poaching in just one year, something I have not been able to find much focus on in the media. This is the last remaining stronghold of the Indian rhinos, and few people know about it.
It is hard to decipher what the leading problem in India’s conservation efforts is. Bittu calls it “multiple organ failure”. Along with constant pressure from the coal and other mines that consume copious amounts of land and then release poison into the rivers and forests, a constant over-consumption of our planet’s resources, tourist hotels claiming to be “eco-friendly” are then building their resorts right in the migration corridors of elephants, and lack of funds for the locals who are expected to protect the parks on measley wages that leave them and their families starving. When asked if the solution was funds, Bittu expressed, “I wish It was funding, the tiger is the best brand in the world” . Despite all of the negatives and struggles that come with living as a conservationist, Bittu never loses hope. He lives life with a constant smile and a yearning to see more. He is driven by his love for the world.
I hope we can increase the focus on matters like these. Our trip is starting to get direction and we feel like this is becoming a mission with ever-increasing questions to answer.
Oh and the dinner. That would be a whole chapter in itself. An exotic variety of delicious appetizers followed by a mostly vegetarian plethora of Indian cuisine. All this accompanied by fine wine, local chilled beer, and a couple of single malts. What a great day!
Check out this very powerful video that Bittu produced.