“A Memento of a Lifetime”: An Excerpt from Wildlife Conservationist MK Ranjitsinh’s Autobiographical Account of Wildlife Conservation in India

29 May 2017

In the history of wildlife conservation in India, MK Ranjitsinh stands out as a prominent figure. He joined the Indian Administrative Services in 1961. In 1967, Ranjitsinh was posted to Mandla, in Madhya Pradesh, where he helped save the central Indian barasingha from extinction. Having served as the collector in Mandla, he was later appointed as the secretary of forest and tourism in the Madhya Pradesh state government. During this appointment, Ranjitsinh established 14 new sanctuaries, eight new national parks, and doubled the area of three existing national parks. He served as the country’s first director of wildlife preservation under the environment ministry from 1973 to 1975, a position that he later held for a second spell as well. He is currently an emeritus member of the board of trustees of the Wildlife Trust of India, a leading conservation organisation in the country, in which he previously occupied the position of chairman. One of his most notable contributions to wildlife conservation in India has been his role as one of the prime architects behind the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972—the first and foremost central legislation on wildlife conservation in India.

In his book A Life with Wildlife, Ranjitsinh traces the evolution of wildlife conservation in India from the era of princely states and British colonial rule to the present. He writes about the changing nature of conservation efforts, from the times of shikaris to the various conservation efforts he initiated such as Project Tiger, which identified the first tiger reserves in the country. In the following excerpt, Ranjitsinh recounts an experience from 1960, with the fauna of the Kashmir valley.

In the early years of the twentieth century, an event occurred that changed the faunal history of Kashmir and of India. The city of Srinagar was growing and needed a sufficient supply of potable water, not the polluted plenty from the River Jhelum and the Dal Lake. The nearest perennial stream of adequate size was the Dagwan, debouching from a valley above Harwan, adjacent to the famed Mughal gardens of Shalimar. But the valley had ten villages situated on the stream and hence the name—Dachigam. If the source of drinking water for the capital of Kashmir was to be pollution-free, these villages had to be relocated, and that is what Maharaja Pratap Singh did from 1910 onwards. The last resettlement occurred during the reign of his successor Maharaja Hari Singh in 1934, when Dachigam had already become a royal reserve. These were the first cluster of villages ever to be moved out of a protected area in recent history, and served as a constant inspiration to me when I was attempting to move out the first village from a national park or sanctuary in independent India—the village of Sonph, from Kanha National Park, in 1969.

The shifting of those ten villages not only provided safe water for Srinagar, it also helped secure the survival of the Kashmir stag, the only member of the elaphus family of red deer to now exist in the Indian subcontinent and is today endemic to Kashmir. The barasingh or hangul, like a true montane cervid, requires undisturbed upland pastures to feed, and forests for cover and safety and to bear their young. Unlike other montane mammals that move vertically up and down the slopes of a valley with the changing seasons, the hangul moves diagonally up or down the length of a valley, sometimes from one valley into another. They follow known paths and during the autumn rut, known in Kashmir as the awaz ki wakht (calling time), they make their presence known by their eerie, shrill calls. In winter, they need to go to the lowest valley bottoms, where the snow is the least and temperature the highest, to procure forage, as they neither have the underwool of the wild sheep and goats nor the tubular hollow hair of the musk deer.

Thus, to save the hangul, one must save the ecosystem. How does one achieve that in an insurgency-ridden, heavily populated, democratic set-up where all the available grasslands are grazed by a vote bank of Gujar shepherds, where a deer is the most sought-after wild meat of an almost 100 percent meat-eating populace who have been provided—the cruellest joke of all—weapons to ostensibly safeguard themselves, and the state, from insurgents? Today, only one valley, one ecosystem provides the needs of the hangul, and that too only partially—Dachigam. Around 1940, when the hangul population in Kashmir was between 5,000 and 6,000, Dachigam held about 3,000. Twenty years later, they were down to less than 200 in the rakh. Today, between 140 and 170 survive in Dachigam, with the total population in the Kashmir Valley—indeed in the world—not exceeding 200. This is despite the fact that the hangul is the state animal of Kashmir. The Dachigam ecosystem is this deer’s only hope now. Outside of it, the scattered few would, perhaps, number less than ten. Upper Dachigam, which was their traditional summer breeding ground, is now occupied by the Gujar shepherds and their dogs in the summer.

MK Ranjitsinh is a leading wildlife conservationist in India. He played a central role in the drafting of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and is the author of several books on the Indian wildlife, including The Indian Blackbuck (1989), Indian Wildlife (1995), and A Life with Wildlife (2017).

Keywords: conservation wildlife