me, prerna bindra, with Dr George SchallerMist envelops the verdant forests of Corbett, swirling around the grasses and trees, and I huddle deeper in my layers of warmth, as the Gypsy trundles slowly up the dirt path on the Bijrani road. We are just a bare mile or two down the entry gate of the park — George Schaller and I — when we see a herd of cheetal run: A blur, a wave of brown and white… A lone langur perched high on the haldu tree has set the deer in motion — I can see, nay, sense — his vigilant eyes dart back and forth, ear twitching nervously as he barks, in alarm, to be joined — rather raucously — by the peacock.

Lingua franca of the forest: Be warned… here be tiger. We halt. We wait. Patiently. Impatiently. Expectantly.

A sound then, a faint rustle, a movement — dare I say ‘feel’ him — before we see, sense his presence in the air, in the forest, suddenly still and alert. And in walks the tiger. No, tigress… a flame of gold and ochre alighting from the forest of green… not unlike a star striding onto a stage-inviting awe.

She walks, glides toward us — velvet paws landing ever so softly on dirt roads. Halts. Looks up — her golden eye locks in mine — holding my gaze. Compelling, powerful, beautiful…

How does one describe this moment… make it last forever?

She steps forward, pauses, ponders — as if contemplating the wisdom of meeting the man who has devoted his life in saving her kind (there is no doubt in my mind that the tigress has stepped out to the ‘busy’ Bijrani road to meet Dr George Schaller), but not-too-happy at seeing other company — and vehicles gathered for her darshan, she turns back. Calling softly… aaanuungh, aaungh… in farewell.

For me — in whose life pioneering wildlife biologist and conservationist Dr George Schaller has been an inspiration, a guiding force — this is a defining moment.

We look at each other, overwhelmed — tears hover in my eyes. And George? He may have seen tigers many times before — after all, he is the one to whom we owe the first and the seminal study on tigers in Kanha in the 1960s in the form of the book, The Deer and The Tiger. “But each (time) is like the first. Extraordinarily moving, a blessing… India is fortunate,” muses George, “to have over half of the world’s remaining wild tigers and extensive forest tracts. It is the only country which still has all options open for saving the tigers and its habitat on which many thousands of other species, plants and animals and humans also depend for survival. But then,” he ponders, “you are not concerned about the tiger only because it’s biodiversity. You care because it’s beautiful and it stirs your emotions and it hits your heart.”

George believes that the future of the big cat rests with India, with a fairly stable population of about 1,700 tigers. “In almost every country, the tiger (population) is going downhill. It is gone from North Korea, and recently also from Cambodia. There are only remnants in Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. China has perhaps 15 to 20 tigers left in the wild (but 5,000-7,000 in captivity!).”

“India is the ray of hope…”

If you are involved with wildlife, your life has to be touched by Dr George Schaller, whose work encompasses species, continents and generations. Here it is suffice to say that wherever you go (in the world of conservation science), Dr Schaller has been there before — studying species, working to save them, urging Governments to establish reserves.

with Dr George Schaller at NSTR
with Dr George Schaller in NSTR with field director, Shri Rahul Pandey and other NSTR staff…

It is November 2011, and I have the good fortune to meet and travel with Dr Schaller (“call me George”) on his India trip. He is here to speak at the Global Buddhist Congregation, and also in his capacity as the vice-president of Panthera, a US-based organisation that supports wild cat conservation across the world. I accompany George to Corbett. His next stop — after winning the Lifetime Achievement Award from Sanctuary Asia in Mumbai — is Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR). In between, we talk. Go back in time.

“Why wildlife?” I ask George. Was this a conscious decision? No. “It was something I drifted into. I’ve always enjoyed wandering the forests, watching birds or keeping lizards and snakes — that sort of thing. In high school I was told that I was not university material and should become a mechanic! That had to be the last thing I wanted to do. Luckily, I joined the University of Alaska, on a cousin’s advice. It was a small university, basic, sitting in the forest, where students were pursuing a master’s in wildlife management. They went out into the countryside studying wolves or caribou and I thought hey, I can make a living out of my hobby! One day, my professor (at the University of Wisconsin, which he joined later) asked me if I wanted to go study gorillas and that’s where international work started.”

Since then, George has led seminal studies on, and helped protect, some of the planet’s most endangered and charismatic animals, ranging from the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, snow leopards in Mongolia, jaguars in Brazil, giant pandas in China, African lions in Tanzania and wild sheep and goats of the Himalayas. Most of his works have been translated into many scientific papers and over 16 books.

But he is not a scientist qua scientist… decoding animals down to statistics and DNA. Scientific knowledge is a means to conservation. “If you want to do conservation, the basis is knowledge of natural history. You can’t protect tigers if you know absolutely nothing about how far they move, their reproduction cycle, when sub-adults separate from their mother, what are the threats they face. But that’s part of it. I am convinced,” adds he, “that an appeal for conservation must reach the heart.” George has “an almost antiquated pleasure of patiently observing animals. I like to write biographies of different species. I also feel a very strong moral obligation to help protect what I study.”

That’s George Schaller for you: Fiercely committed, amazingly humble, tireless in his efforts, “I strive to protect something that will outlive me…”

He’s 78, but George’s years sit lightly on him. It has been a long trek through the forest, the NSTR, but he is as sprightly, or even more, than the rest of us. We halt as the staff is waiting, eager to receive visitors — unusual in a land that has seen over 15 years of insurgency, bullets, destruction and death. The park is on the road to recovery over the past five years. Testimony to this is Vellugodu Protection Camp, one of the 127 camps that dot the reserve and the adjoining GBM sanctuary, contiguous to NSTR, and in the process of being declared as an extended core of this tiger reserve. The Beat Officer produces a register and a simply drawn map of his beat, pointing out the vulnerable points, tiger paths, leopard areas, places which sloth bears frequent — simple, yet effective methods to monitor wildlife. The tiger tracker, a Chenchu (a local tribe) flexes his bow and arrow, his only defence and weapon against timber smugglers and poachers. He is proud of the work he does; it has given him a status. “People from my village are keen to join and become tiger trackers,” says he. George smiles, “Involving local communities and wining their support is critical to any conservation programme.”

NSTR, to him, presents a microcosm for the country’s effort to protect its tigers.

George admires India, which has conserved wildlife despite its booming population, growth aspirations and against tremendous odds. “Tigers will exist, provided there is a strong political will and strict enforcement of laws,” says he. “India showed its commitment 40 years back, when it started Project Tiger, and the credit must go to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It shows you that a leader can have a huge impact.”

“India has been working very hard to protect tigers. Tigers face continual threats — poaching for bones that is sold for medicinal purposes to South Asian markets, conflict, habitat loss, fragmentation.”

“A country has to decide what part of its natural heritage it wants to save, and has to be serious about it, and put in all efforts possible to protect it. I know it’s difficult, extraordinarily difficult. But,” he avers, “there are certain natural treasures in each country that should be treated as treasures. You can always argue that there are a lot of homeless, so let’s open up the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Taj and make apartments for the homeless. They are cultural treasures, but it’s the same when you are talking about pristine forests. And with all due respect, the Taj can conceivably be built again, but the tiger lost, is lost forever.”

“I find it very worrying that we don’t talk about nature anymore. We talk about natural resources as if everything had a price tag. You cannot buy spiritual values at a shopping mall. An old-growth forest, a clear river, the flight of a golden eagle, the howl of a wolf, the vitality of a tiger, space and quiet without motors, TVs, mobiles — these are intangibles. Those are the values that people need, that uplift our spirit.”

So, does he lose hope? “No,” but for an answer I borrow from his book, A Naturalist and Other Beasts. Writes he, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories, that one must retain connections and remain involved with animals and places that have captured the heart, to prevent their destruction. I am sometimes asked why, given a world that is more wounded and scarred, I do not simply give up, burdened by pessimism. But conservation is my life, I must retain hope…”