EML and Interview with Shekar Dattatri


By Patanjali and Surya Suresh

It might seem sometimes, especially with the doom and gloom perpetrated by the media (not to mention scientific reports and dystopian novels), that the world will never stand up and take notice of its deteriorating environment, let alone take steps to remedy it. Amid all the general pessimism, the EML held on October 3rd by Mr. Shekar Dattatri, one of India’s leading wildlife and conservation filmmakers, felt like a breath of fresh air.

Mr Dattatri had been invited as part of the ‘Wildlife Week’ celebrations and was welcomed warmly by an enthusiastic audience. He admitted that he was in a dilemma as to whether he should be happy about the celebration of ‘Wildlife Week’, when it ought to be celebrated throughout the year.

At the outset, Mr Dattatri stated that there were several success stories of environment conservation in India and across the globe. However, these stories remain largely out of the public eye resulting in the resigned attitude of people today. According to Mr Dattatri, people need to adopt an evangelical attitude towards nature and strive for an ideal society which is in harmony with its environment. He explained that nature was like the money we inherit; our future prosperity depends on how we choose to utilize the resource. Mr Dattatri went on to say that we have not just an ethical obligation to protect nature, but it also imperative for our survival.

Mr. Shekar Dattatri being presented a memento by Prof. Preeti Aghalyam

Following this, his short film ‘The Race to Save the Amur Falcon’, was screened. It dealt with the massacre of the Amur Falcons in Nagaland by local fishermen, resulting in an estimated 120,000 deaths in a single season. However, 3 years later, thanks to the effective intervention of a small group of conservationists who worked with the government and the local community, the migrating falcons are now being protected, serving as a testament to the power of a few people to make a great change. The film ended to a huge round of applause from the audience at the IC&SR auditorium.

Note: We have provided a brief summary of the documentary below this article for those who are interested in learning more about the story of the Amur Falcon.

The film was followed by an interactive Q&A session in which Mr. Dattatri emphasized the importance of sustained efforts saying that in environment conservation, “All failures are permanent; all success is temporary.” He also stated that he felt obliged to provide a voice for the animals and emphasized the need for more wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists.

The T5E team got the opportunity to interview Mr. Dattatri and we bring to you excerpts from the interesting and eye-opening conversation that followed.

How did you first get involved in wildlife film making? What is your approach to this medium?

When I was growing up I didn’t even know that such a profession existed. I used to observe squirrels and rose ringed parakeets in my garden and that got me really interested in nature. When I was 13, I joined the snake park in Guindy as a student volunteer. I started out by helping the keepers, educating the public and then slowly they gave me more and more responsibilities. I started doing small reptile surveys in various forests in South India. As I was doing this I picked up still photography; an elderly friend of mine lent me a Nikon camera and I started practicing. In the early 80s, I met a couple from America who were in Chennai to film a documentary on snake bites. They wanted me to assist them and I kind of picked up some elements of film making from them. After that, it was a process of trial and error. After 30 years at it, I am still learning.

Credits: http://www.shekardattatri.com/
Credits: http://www.shekardattatri.com/

Wildlife film making is an extremely specialized field, with few practitioners. When I started 30 years ago, there were very few people doing it and even now, there are only a handful of people who are practicing it professionally. So next to being an astronaut, being a wildlife filmmaker in India is one of the rarest professions! The reasons for this is that it needs a lot of passion and patience. Making money can’t be your primary goal and you must be so obsessed with doing this that you should be willing to overcome all sorts of obstacles. You also need specialized equipment and long periods of watching animals, observing their behavior and then spending months in the ecosystem where you are filming, understanding the place and then conveying that properly to the viewer. After you have shot everything, you have to come back and put it all together with a good script and editing.


Given your depth of experience in wildlife film making, do you believe that these films are changing the way people think about wildlife conservation?

It is hard to quantify the impact of films on an audience. Authors of books don’t get asked the same question! Any good work you do obviously makes a difference and sometimes that difference might not be measurable. I have had a lot of parents tell me that their kid has gotten hooked onto the films I made and students have come up to me and said that they have heard me talk in a lecture and hence took up biology, zoology or wildlife conservation. My job is to only sow the seeds and hope that they make an impact. Some of the short films I have made on particular issues have been used to educate policy makers and stakeholders about the field realities. For instance, I made a film on the negative impacts of iron ore mining in Kudremukh in Karnataka, which was submitted as evidence in a PIL in Supreme court. Because it was visually presented, people could see and understand issues easily.


There have been reports of some wildlife filmmakers deceiving audiences and harassing animals. How should a filmmaker balance corporate and advertising goals with his own conservation goals?

In every field there are rotten apples, and my field is no exception. Unfortunately, it is true that, there are a few people who put their own interests over those of the subject. However the majority of the wildlife filmmakers I know do not indulge in such practices.


What would be your advice to the new generation of wildlife filmmakers?

My advice would be to learn about the animals before going and shooting them on film.  Sometimes it requires several months of observation before you actually start shooting. Study of animal behavior or ethology is a vast subject and I believe that every wildlife filmmaker should have some knowledge of this subject. Learning the behavior of your subjects helps you better understand them which translates to better results.


Given your work with the Government of India, could you share your opinions on the country’s achievements and shortcomings in wildlife conservation?

Before 1972 we had no laws protecting wildlife in India, so deforestation and poaching were rampant. In 1972, the government introduced the Wildlife Protection Act and in 1980, the Forest Conservation Act. These acts are two very important pieces of legislation in conserving wildlife in India. Today, India has more than 650 protected areas owing to these acts. However the total area of these reserves account for only 5% of our land area, which is a very small percentage. We need to expand our protected areas and work towards keeping wildlife safe in them. Deforestation and poorly planned development are still massive problems that we face. Development is necessary for the progress of a nation but we need to be careful not to eat into the 5% of the protected areas that we have. In fact destroying the 5% will be detrimental towards our progress as they are immense storehouses of biodiversity resources, which are yet to be explored.


Given that India is a growing economy, industrialization, and as a consequence encroachment on nature, is inevitable. What are your views on industrialization and conservation co-existing? A typical example is: the need for more engineers means that some parts of IIT Madras have to be sacrificed for newer departments and newer hostels, thereby causing some damage to the flora and fauna.  How do you suggest we balance industrialization and conservatism?

No mature conservationist would oppose industrialization and we in fact need industries. However we should also realize that we need forests for sustenance. Industries don’t produce water. Desalination, a good technique for producing drinking water, will not produce enough water for irrigation. We need to conserve the environment, both for ourselves and for our future generations. We need to ask ourselves if we can afford to do the kind of development that needlessly overruns nature. If we can’t achieve our industrial goals in 95% of the landscape, do you think we are going to achieve it by destroying the remaining 5% that constitutes our protected areas? We need proper land use that incorporates clever ways of efficient industrialization. This is where engineers like you come in. I believe that industrialization and nature can co-exist.


You have two identities: one is that of a wildlife filmmaker, the other is that of a children’s book writer. Which if these identities would you prefer?

I don’t believe that they are separate identities. Everything in my life is interconnected, just like in nature. Whatever I do is connected to nature. I am a communicator for nature, and use various ways of reaching out to the general public, through talks, books and films.


In the past, you have stated that wildlife tourism is having an adverse impact on nature. What are the regulations in place? Where in your opinion is the bottleneck in getting them passed?

We have a lot of wonderful laws in India. The problem lies in implementation. This is true in all sectors, ranging from traffic laws to wildlife tourism. All the places where people go for wildlife tourism are the few remaining habitats of animals. Overcrowding of these areas, and construction, pollution and littering cause the destruction of these habitats. We need systems of ecotourism similar to what is being followed in more enlightened parts of the world, and even in a few places in our own country.

Credits: http://www.shekardattatri.com/wild-journey.html

With regard to policy making: policies are generally made by those in urban centres. However, the people who are most affected are those in rural areas. What steps can be taken to ensure accountability?

It is not about rural or urban people. Both urban and rural people have flaws in their knowledge. The most important factor that must be kept in mind while making decisions is science. Policy makers should heed scientists. There are very well thought out scientific solutions for most problems.


What are some of the challenges you face in your work? And can you tell us some of your memorable experiences in the forests?

The main challenge for a wildlife filmmaker involves getting permits for filming. There is a lot of red tape in India and sometimes the process of obtaining permissions can be very tedious. Secondly, one needs sufficient funding to embark on a wildlife film. Thirdly, nature does not behave according to a script. One needs to spend days, weeks and months tracking animals. As for experiences, any time I spend in the wild is always extremely memorable to me. Some of my best moments include watching the fascinating features of the red crabs in Chilika lake. Once, while filming for National Geographic, I witnessed a cobra laying her eggs. As they emerge, the eggs are delicate, almost translucent, with the embryo inside clearly visible. But within seconds, even as you watch, the shell solidifies and turns opaque. It was an amazing sight.


A brief summary of the short film, ‘The Race to Save the Amur Falcon’

The film dealt with the massacre of the Amur Falcons in Nagaland. The Amur Falcon is one of the smallest birds of prey and feeds exclusively on insects. Every winter, these birds migrate from Northern China and Southern Russia to South Africa, stopping in Nagaland to rest and feed. However, until recently, these birds were hunted by local fishermen in Nagaland, and sold. An estimated 120,000 falcons were being killed in a single season.

Rumors of this organized commercial operation reached the ears of a few birders and conservationists who were concerned about the survival of the falcons. They set out to stop this slaughter and save the Amur Falcon. The group took pictures and videos of the massacre and reported the matter to the authorities. India had recently signed the Convention on Migratory Species and the mass slaughter of Amur Falcons led to national and global pressure on the Indian government. The conservation team worked closely with the authorities and local communities to stop the hunting. They also started an initiative called ‘Friends of the Amur Falcon’ to create awareness among children and adults.

Today, 3 years later, the film showed that the local population of Nagaland is actively involved in protection of the Amur Falcon. This story serves as a testament to the power of a few people to make a great change.  As the late Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

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