TALKING TO DR GEORGE SCHALLER

Dr George Schaller (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr George Schaller (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

`GS’that was all I knew of Dr George B. Schaller.

GS was the finest field biologist in the world, one of the founding fathers of wildlife conservation and author of several books. He was additionally Vice President, Panthera, Senior Conservationist at Wildlife Conservation Society and Adjunct-Professor, Centre for Nature and Society, Peking University.  He had also received many awards.

Early October, 2010, as I awaited my chance to interview him on the sidelines of the Mussoorie International Writers’ Festival, Peter Matthiessen’s book `Snow Leopard,’ about a journey to Crystal Mountain in the Himalaya with GS, was all I had for reference.

I explained my position.

The man didn’t disappoint one bit.

He kept the conversation simple.

Excerpts:

Conservation and the problem of over-consumption

Conservation basically from our selfish standpoint means human survival on this planet. The last century in many ways was easy. People thought in terms of reserves, as for instance with the tiger. But remember population growth. There are three times as many people in India today when compared to the early sixties when I was first in India. All of them want to make a good living. So it is not just population growth; the consumption has grown at a much more rapid level. Where do the resources come from? If you are talking about sustainability – don’t use more than what can be replenished – it has been calculated that the world is already at minus thirty per cent. In other words, the environment is going down steeply because of over-consumption of everything. What can you do? You need to be more inventive; you need to be more efficient, you need to be more productive, so that you don’t waste resources. Which state in India has a decent land use plan? People develop, develop, develop and nobody thinks of what it is going to be like at the end of this century. It is thinking ahead and planning that is the responsibility of governments, corporations and communities.

I get so frustrated when I see the lack of planning, the lack of care – for example in the United States. How much money has been raised for wars and armaments that could go for the benefit of people and environment; for the long term good of the country? I consider it highly patriotic to think of the future of one’s country and not fritter away money and resources because you are greedy now. The question is – how can you change the perception of wanting to consume more and more of things that you don’t need?

The finite system we know little of

People think that technology will solve their problems. Well, it can solve various problems. But you have a finite system of which, we know very little. We don’t know much about the ecology of rainforests, woodlands and so forth. How many species can a system lose before it collapses? We don’t know how all the species in a forest – from the microbes in the soil, little worms to big trees – interact to function as a system. We don’t know that. If it collapses because we killed too many species, directly and indirectly….then what happens? This concerns me because yet again, looking at it from a selfish human perspective – we need medicinal plants. At present we know only a few. What plants are out there, which in the future can produce food for a starving planet? The way things are going now we have famines somewhere in the world all the time. The countries that grow a lot of grain like Canada and others – they don’t have enough to feed the world, they have to feed their own people. Countries have to seriously think now what to do. China has a good logging act. No more big, commercial logging of forests because the watersheds are being depleted causing huge floods that kill thousands of people. Alright, the country needs wood. Where is it going to get it from? You go to Congo in Africa; you go to Indonesia – get timber elsewhere. So to keep a good lifestyle countries are pillaging each other. The United States is the principal culprit. The United States has five per cent of the world’s people and it uses roughly 25 per cent of the world’s resources. Is this morally acceptable? It isn’t for me. I don’t know what to do about it.  Now China is expanding, India is growing rapidly and expanding – but unless countries co-operate more; become self sufficient, waste less – what to do? 

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Big worries; small solutions

Conservation in the final analysis is politics. I can go to China, I can come to India, I can co-operate with local scientists in studying the issue. From the information that we collect, we write reports, we make suggestions – those go to government. Then it is in the hands of government if they want to do something or not. You can prod a little bit but I cannot do conservation myself. I can go to a community, hold a community meeting, listen to their problems and make suggestions, may be even find funds so that they can start – but again it is up to the community and the local politics to implement something on their own behalf.  I can’t come into a country and say you have to change your agricultural practices, you have to stop polluting. That is too big an issue for an outsider. The government and the corporations have to get together and handle that. Personally, I set my own limited goal where I feel I can do something positive for the environment. Everybody should work together on this. If you have a serious land use plan, retain it – then you have a goal. But the only economic measure you see right now is our Gross Domestic Product grew by eight per cent, four per cent etc! What kind of measure is that? It doesn’t measure your environmental loss. You have to measure – to gain that (GDP growth) how much have you lost as resources? You can put economic values on resources lost and I guarantee you that every single country would be in the minus column. They are worse off than they were. If you look at it in economic terms, the world is living off its capital rather than the interest. How many businesses can do that for long? So I have big worries but I focus on trying to do something small and useful.

His message to future conservationists

In one word, that would be – persistence. If you see that something is essential for the good of society, humankind and you have set yourself a goal – keep at it. You won’t necessarily get results immediately but keep emotionally involved, scientifically involved. Learn the politics to some extent because unless you have the backing of the local forest department or whatever that you are dealing with, you won’t get anywhere. And that – being an environmental politician, is something one has to learn whether one likes it or not.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in February 2011.)

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