Bittu Sahgal – 36 years of saving more than just Tigers

I remember being captivated by an image of a majestic feline on a magazine cover in my school’s library. I was too young to know which species it belonged to, and it took me several more years to learn that the issue was not of a foreign publication. Sanctuary Asia – India’s pioneering nature magazine is proof that when Indians put their heart into the subject of conservation, we can be top of the notch.

It is a privilege to bring to you an extensive interview of the visionary behind Sanctuary Asia – Bittu Sahgal, the magazine’s founder and editor whose courageous fight to preserve the tiger population and restore environmental balance started 36 years ago when the cause was considered way ahead of its time. 

1. Global warming was hardly a topic of discussion back in the 70s… how much time did you speculate it would take for people to see from your perspective?

“I learned about the consequences of burning fossil fuels and hacking down forests in the late -1970s and early 80s. The evidence of accumulated carbon in the atmosphere from oil, coal, gas and destroyed ecosystems was so obvious that I just presumed world leaders would act, particularly since we really had time to reverse the warming trend. I did not factor in the oil, coal and gas lobbies, and their employees, the politicians and policy makers. Like the cigarette lobby before them, the carbon lobby dragged things out for decades using scientists as the shield against all and sundry. First their objective was denial, then doubt, now its delay…  so they can continue to squeeze the last cent of ill-gotten profit from their foul enterprises.”
2. Did you not have any qualms about leaving a corporate job to start something maverick like a nature magazine, given that the latter did not have the promise of being as lucrative as the former?
“I started out at the age of 17, selling large 220 litre plastic buckets for the chemical industry in Calcutta, then at 19 I joined a Bombay ad agency pushing soaps and toothpastes and even selling ads for Debonair – a magazine aimed at titillating men. I was married, had a lovely wife and daughter and did what I could to survive until my heart was ready to break. My trips to forests did nothing to repair the heartache until in 1981, without a business plan, no capital and no experience, I started Sanctuary Asia. It was tough, but that was a decision that saved my soul and I have not regretted it for a single day in my life.”
3. How is saving tigers related to global warming? 
“Here is what we tell 10-year-olds and Parliamentarians: “We cannot save tigers, without saving their wild ecosystems. When we do that we save every creature in the forest and each of these species, plant or animal, works in unison to maintain the forest without wasting a single thing.
From the tigers’ forests over 600 rivers are fed with pure drinking water, critical to every land-living creature. And, in the process, when any animal, butterfly, bee, bird, monkey or elephant, drops, or transports, a seed new plants and trees emerge. When a one gram seed turns into a ten tonne tree, half its dry weight is made up of carbon snatched from the atmosphere. So… save the tiger… save the forest… save the forest and it gifts us water and, in doing this the entire edifice helps stabilise Earth’s climate on which everything including our food, health and economic security is dependent.”
4. I have heard that Sanctuary turned down several advertisements from companies that leave a footprint in nature. How have you been able to profitably run the magazine for 36 years while being selective of the advertisers/investors?
“We do not claim to be pure as driven snow. Like others we too have our contradictions. But yes, we do filter out ads from some companies whose basic business model is driving climate change, or which produces chemicals and pesticides that are aggravating the problems Sanctuary is sworn to solve. But I repeat, we are not as pure as driven snow ourselves.”
5. Was Sanctuary Asia a hit from the very start? If not, when and why did it see an upturn in popularity?
“At the very start we were strongly supported by a very tight group of friends and supporters. They sent in subscription money in droves. We received a surprising number of ads (we were less picky when we started!). But equally, we were villified by thousands so angrily asked: ” Are you people are CIA spies? This nation has starving children, no employment, and we are so ‘backward’ and you want to save tigers and elephants? You are elitist and anti-national.”
That was the dominant message we fought for two decades. We never responded angrily. Never fought with individuals, just agreed to disagree on issues. And we persisted. We seriously persisted. Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, and Environment Ministers came and went. We worked with some, opposed some. We respectfully stayed our course.
Today, 36 years after our first issue was published, we take no credit for ‘altering’ our nation’s mindset. Public opinion and mindsets were altered by the reality that hit people in the face…. deforestation-related floods and droughts. Carbon-related climate vagaries. Toxic chemicals and pollution and their handmaidens… failing health. We highlighted these, be stayed principally focused on the positive… that this was a wonderful world, populated by beautiful creatures, sparkling seas, clean air and productive lands… and it made no sense to dirty our own and our only home. And we realised three decades ago that our best investment was the young. We were right then. We are right now.
My generation will soon be phased out (the sooner the better) and I can only hope that lessons will have been learned and that wiser national and global leadership will emerge.”
6. Since running a magazine is not an easy job, what are the things one should keep in mind to not lose motivation as an editor if the venture is not immediately profitable?
“As I said, we had no business plan at all when we started, so I am not the right person to give anyone advice on profitability. But I know a bit about motivation. If you have the will… the means will follow. I know from experience that no one EVER loses until they give up. And yes, stick to doing what you enjoy and you will never need a motivational speaker or advisor in your life.”
Bittu Sahgal by Abir Jain at Pench
7. As a member of the National Board for Wildlife of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, what isight can you give on the efforts being taken by the government to improve environmental conditions in the country? 
“In the 1970s and early 1980s we had the support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Office for the protection of wildernesses and the tiger… which we convinced here was litte more than a metaphor for all of nature. But even then we were battered, sometimes abused, for coming in the way of development from hangers-on who had learned to twist national development objectives to private profit. We were a small, varied, but determined lot. How I wish we had been more successful. Today when I speak to my real constituency, children, I start with an apology: “I am sorry that my generation (the Budda Party) has been so selfish and ignorant. We destroyed most of your (the Bachha Party’s) natural heritage, but nature is self-repairing. Just trust her and work with her and your world will be fine.”
8. How can we as city dwellers do to help with the efforts to conserve nature and wildlife? 
“1. Accept that our lifestyles (mine included ) are unsustainable and try to consume fewer things.
2. Study the issues involved and convince yourself that it is in your own interest and those of your children to stop trashing this planet.
3. Don’t try to be what you are not. Like the diversity of nature, we need a diversity of defenders. So… if you are a poet, change hearts using poetry. If you are a lawyer use the law. If you are a businessman, set a good example by intelligently working for success while doing the right thing. Be an example your competitors would like to follow. If you are young, remind your elders that it is your planet’s future they are playing with. If you an elder, examine whether your financial investments, job, or actions are harming or helping the young and have the courage to change course. 3. Consider joining or supporting a group, organisation or individual working to conserve nature and wildlife, or the mangroves around Mumbai, the beaches of Chennai or the closest river, lake or even the city in which you live. If a lot of us to a little, a lot gets done.
I’m sure your readers know all this already. We don’t own this planet, we are caretakers. Those of us in the “Departure Lounge” have no right to trash the “Arrival Lounge”.
9. What is the importance, and chances, of including a subject entirely dedicated to the conservation of forests and wildlife into school curriculums? 
“Do we really need that? Every single subject studied should be infused with Earth-care. Not just botany, or biology… but even Hindi, English, mathematics, science, art and history. Our current curriculum is hopelessly misdirected. It teaches kids to think uniformly… like bricks in a wall. We should actually be teaching them to think as individuals… out of the box. A uniform curriculum only helps myopic developers from reinforcing outdated, destructive ideas of development into impressionable young minds who we are literally brainwashing into believing that dams produce water, when in truth the water comes from our forests, glaciers and aquifers… all of which are being destroyed and polluted in the name of that false god ‘development’.”
10. How do you juggle the tasks of being the editor of a hugely popular publication, a conservationist, an author, and as well as a member of a government ministry?
“The Dalai Lama came to my rescue. Serendipity led me to share a podium with him at a meeting that had a delayed start in Mumbai just under two decades ago. For 15 minutes or so we exchanged not-so happy-stories of forests vanishing in India and the Tibetan plateau, of tigers being killed and human values eroding faster than soils. When the bell rang for the meeting to start I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and a soft voice said to me: “Remember… it is your DUTY to be happy everyday of your life.” His Holiness gifted me what money cannot buy… an attitude that helped keep anger, depression, anxiety and frustration at bay. That is how I learned to deal with most government ministries. Being involved with conservation, writing and editing Sanctuary? That was no effort. It was what helped me wake every morning with a smile.”
11. Of the many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries covered by you over the years, which ones have thrived best and which ones have seen a steady decline? What are the factors that have caused these results?
“There is not one single national park or sanctuary in India that I can sit back and say: “Perfect… all is well.” Every single one has a Sword of Damocles hanging over it even today, despite all the lofty claims that India is doing such a good job of looking after wild nature.
This is not to say there were no successes. Or moments of pure joy. And many successes. I saw my first tiger in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh where the wisdom of the ages was lavished on me by the late Manglu Baiga who taught me more about nature than any text books could.
Ranthambhore is a fragile success story. It was here that my love of nature turned into a lifelong obsession to protect the planet. That was thanks to a man who taught me to the gift of the fight… Fateh Singh Rathore.
Dachigam in Kashmir is another tentative success story. Here I learned from the late Qasim Wani, forester from the time of Maharaja Hari Singh, that the best river was one in which you could swim while drinking its water. Corbett where Project Tiger was born was where I learned to trust elephants, but respect them thanks to Brijendra Singh who succeeded in working with the system to keep the park alive against all odds.
There is no clear line of rise or decline. The survival of a forest depends on a combination of many factors. Given the right policy-makers and politicians, the right Field Directors, decent Chief Wildlife Wardens and couple of courageous rangers (such as the ones that protected Kaziranga in the 1990s and early 2000s and virtually anyone with common sense can convert a damaged forest into a recovery zone inside of five years. But such combinations are rare. Very rare.”
12. We are constantly shown images of wildlife in the wild (which of course is a tremendously positive thing). However, I can’t help but feel that another arena where wildlife is seen – the zoo – is hardly spoken about. What’s the purpose of maintaining zoos, ad isn’t it about time the existence of this establishment was abolished?
“Zoos were created for the entertainment of bored humans. The fig leaf was (still is) nature education. That logic is as absurd as taking kids to a jail to teach them why crime does not pay. Zoos underscore the misleading notion that humans are smarter than nature. That we were born to dominate all other life forms.
If my writ ran, every single zoo in India would be phased out and turned into a vibrant nature interpretation centre. The sprawlng campuses would be managed to invite birds and other species in. Opens spaces in cities should be designed such that children and parents are afforded unparralelled nature experiences through guided walks through leafy, shaded havens. The finest technologies in the world are on hand offer audio visual experiences to citizens in ways that reveal the mysteries of the universe and our place in the universe.
Young and old should be encouraged to climb trees, roll around in the mud. Walk in the rain and learn to appreciate wild nature as the other face of freedom and joy.”

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