Praveen Bhargav never lived his life in a restricted circle. Unlike those who, of the whole body, get into a habit of using only their little finger, Praveen's purpose in life has always been clear - to conserve wildlife - and he has never forgotten this one errand.
Marshalling all his resources in pursuit of a big dream and an ambitious goal when it comes to conservation, for Praveen, eternal vigilance is the only mantra. According to him, one cannot relax and sit back on past successes as wildlife conservation and its management continues to be a big issue.
An accomplished wildlife activist who has been at the cutting edge of strategic conservation and research in Karnataka since 1979, he has spent most of his life in Bangalore. The co-founder of Wildlife First, a Bangalore-based advocacy group that went a long way in convincing the Supreme Court to wind up the environmentally harmful open-cast mining practiced by the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited in the Western Ghats, Praveen and his team's effort directly benefited a number of endangered species including the tiger and lion-tailed macaque.
Speaking to City Express on the issue of tiger deaths in the background of the forthcoming tiger census in Karnataka, Praveen says, "All tiger reserves must maintain eternal vigilance. This is best achieved by having in place a multi-tiered protection system comprising foot patrols, routine and intelligence based mobile patrols, anti-poaching camps at carefully selected locations and manned check posts along public roads that cut through many reserves. This calls for careful planning and sufficient infrastructure. There are instances of unreported tiger deaths too as the penalties and consequences of hushing up tiger mortalities in the forest department are not severe."
Training is key
Coordinating the Karnataka Tiger Conservation Project in 1998 and leading various anti-poaching training programmes to impart skills to forest guards, Praveen has also helped train forest staff and amateur naturalists to conduct line transect surveys, crucial for wildlife management. "One vital component is to ensure quality leadership to frontline staff for this time-tested protection system to work effectively 24x7x365. In tiger reserves, where rangers and park directors have led from the front and focused on this challenging task and not drifted towards softer and ‘lucrative’ civil works and eco-development kind of activity, protection has dramatically improved. The illegal transnational trade in wildlife is reportedly second only to narcotics and estimated to be in excess of 6 billion dollars. There are organised mafias involved who will not fade away and will continue with illegal hunting and trade in animal articles and trophies. The only way to control this is to first prevent hunting in the first place. Since hunting cannot be totally eliminated, every case of illegal hunting detected must be effectively pursued."
With the state witnessing 12 tiger deaths this year, followed by the slow pace of investigations, he explains, " It must be recognised that criminal investigation is a highly specialised skill that every officer does not have and which cannot be mastered on completion of induction training. Therefore, continuous refresher training, quality supervision of investigations and a thorough understanding of the Code of Criminal Procedure apart from the Wildlife Act is very essential to thoroughly investigate each case of mortality due to hunting and diligently take it to its logical conclusion - which is conviction. There are huge gaps even in relatively better equipped states like Karnataka which calls for an exhaustive review by senior officials."
He states that innovative mechanisms like identifying and empowering knowledgeable officers to conduct investigations and having motivated and skilled public prosecutors to handle important hunting cases of Schedule I species including tigers, right from the time of detection to build a water tight case, is called for.
Regarding the continuing problem of poaching, Praveen says, "It would be hazardous to generalise and pass a judgment across spatial and temporal scales. However, in specific Reserves like Bandipur, Nagarahole and BRT in Karnataka, protection appears to be relatively better. This is reflected by the fact that these reserves together with other contiguous reserves in the landscape have the largest meta-population of tigers," he concludes.