Kartick Satyanarayan—often referred to as the Bear Man of India—has already spent a remarkable 25 years of his life (and counting) for the conservation of wildlife in India. From spending full moon nights on a tree looking at wild animals as a child to being a saviour of injured wildlife across India, Kartick’s journey is a tale of inspiration for every nature lover. A fascination for nature from a very young age inspired Kartick to become a wildlife conservationist. Along with Geeta Seshamani, he founded the Wildlife SOS in India—an NGO that works for the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals like elephants, bears and leopards from across the country.
At Wildlife SOS, the team not only rescues animals but also provides them with medical facilities and natural living settings. For this valuable and relentless work to protect wildlife, Kartick has been bestowed with several awards like the San Diego Zoo Global Conservation Medal for Conservation in Action and the Maharana Udai Singh Award in 2019.
On the occasion of World Wildlife Day, The Weather Channel India spoke to this ‘EcoGuardian’ in an exclusive interview, wherein Kartick takes us through his journey as a champion for nature.
What inspired you to start Wildlife SOS back in 1995? Please tell us how it began and how the initial years were.
I spent a large part of my childhood in the midst of nature. While growing up, I never missed an opportunity to spend time watching birds and animals in parks and wooded areas near my Bangalore home. I was awestruck by the beauty of the natural world and the wild animals around us. Butterflies, snakes, tigers, bears, frogs, leopards—all fascinated me equally.
Eventually, I found myself sneaking out of my house to spend full moon nights sitting on trees overlooking a water hole in the forests on the outskirts of Bangalore. This is where I would conceal myself to observe wild elephants, bison, leopards, bears and other wildlife come to the water hole to drink. These were my biology lessons growing up, which also created my most memorable experiences, inspiring me to become a wildlife conservationist to protect India’s endangered wildlife.
While I was lost in the beauty of our natural heritage, I was also appalled at the severe intolerance that people exhibited to the presence of wildlife in their surroundings. These animals were losing their homes and habitats to rapid urbanisation, and their forest homes now stood fragmented with railway lines, roads, buildings, electric lines, etc. What alarmed me most was the poaching of wildlife and habitat destruction that was doing irreversible and widespread damage to India’s fragile ecosystems.
It felt like an emergency situation, a real SOS for India’s forests, for wildlife and for me. That’s what pushed me to start Wildlife SOS with co-founder Geeta Seshamani to help India’s wildlife.
Have there been any notable experiences that have stood out from the rest in this 25-year-old journey? We would love to hear some!
My experience with the ‘Dancing Bear’ project left a lasting impact on me in this long journey. Every single successful conservation practice till date has worked only if community and stakeholder participation supports it.
We realised right at the beginning that if we wanted to help implement India’s wildlife laws to eradicate the illegal and brutal practice of Dancing Bears, we had to work with the nomadic community that depended on the bears for a livelihood. The practice of bear dancing was being handed down from generation to generation, thereby preventing youngsters in the community to access education. We wanted to ensure a bright future for younger generations while ensuring sustainable protection of bears.
What seemed like many insurmountable obstacles were more like lessons for us. Geeta and I investigated the illegal practice of dancing sloth bears from 1995 to 1997. We travelled for weeks spending days on railway platforms and in fields, stayed with families in their makeshift shelters and learnt all we could about them and the endangered sloth bears that the Kalandar community were using to gain insight into their lives.
Our report was published in 1997 and submitted to the Govt. of India. This got us support and cooperation from the govt. and started us off on the path to establish the world’s largest rehabilitation center for sloth bears in Agra. We eventually rescued over 628 bears while providing livelihood and education support for over 3000 families.
The approach of Wildlife SOS was to empower women, educate children and create alternative livelihoods for the Kalandar community so they would never have to go back to exploiting wild bears ever again. We helped over 7600 children access education, which helped change the future of the community. We also employed youngsters from the community in our projects.
These numbers aren’t just statistics, but absolute proof that anything can be achieved as long as the problem is approached with persistence, passion, compassion and a broad-minded approach that includes community and stakeholder participation.
You have established several rescue centres across India—centres that even take care of wild animals like elephants, leopards and bears. How does the rescue process take place?
Every rescue operation usually starts with a phone call on the Wildlife SOS hotline, following which we rapidly gather data on the situation, location and species. Often, the Forest Department or Police contact us when they receive a call from local villagers. Following this, a Wildlife SOS Rapid Response Unit team consisting of veterinary doctors, para-veterinary staff and rescuers is dispatched to the location with the necessary medical and rescue equipment in hand.
There isn’t much time to react because the animal is in a life-threatening condition and the window to save the animal and get it out of danger is very small.
Because of the immense stress on the animal, they can be defensive, which means our rescue team has to be prepared to deal with an angry hyena or a cornered leopard in a calm manner.
Crowd control is also a major part of our rescue efforts. We request the Police, Forest Department and law enforcement agencies to help with this.
When we receive calls in our Delhi, Agra or Gurgaon hotlines, such as snakes being spotted inside residences, we dispatch rescuers to the location based on the availability of the team members. Wildlife SOS Rapid Response unit contact in NCR Delhi is 9871963535.
And are the animals sent back to the wild post-recovery?
It is the objective of Wildlife SOS to return every wild animal back in the wild after rescue, treatment and recovery. Countless animals we have rescued over the years have been released back in the wild post-recovery. That said, in some cases, if the animals are not certified by the veterinarians as fit for release in the wild, then in those unfortunate cases, we try to rehabilitate such animals in large forested enclosures at Wildlife SOS rescue and rehabilitation centres.
What is the most challenging part of the overall rescue-rehabilitation process?
The most challenging aspects of the rescue and rehabilitation process is dealing with human beings—crowd control at the rescue location or dealing with an unruly mob that is hell-bent on bludgeoning an injured hyena or a snake while we are battling to save its life!
Other challenges include funds to buy medicines, medical equipment, animal ambulance vehicles, land to help rescue and provide treatment to rescued animals.
We also face frustrating moments like when poachers and wildlife criminals use loopholes in the law to escape punishment for their crimes.
Shortage of veterinary equipment, vehicles, medicines and resources for educating the public about wildlife is a challenge that is there constantly. It’s also extremely challenging to run a non-profit organisation and to find people committed to the cause. Creating public awareness is another trial.
Animals in India tend to face harsh treatment and even abuse when used for traditional or religious practices of sorts. Is there a way to stop this from happening?
It is rather appalling to see animals being abused in a country where they are also revered and prayed to. Animals are associated with Gods in Indian mythology, yet it is shocking to observe traditional practices being misinterpreted by people. Owls sacrificed during Diwali, Bear bile and gall bladders being used in traditional medicine, genital organs of crocodiles, tigers, snakes used as aphrodisiacs! The list is long and, quite frankly, disgusting! Superstitions coupled with ignorance is killing our wildlife.
One way to address this is with education and awareness. People need to be made aware of scientific facts. Myth-busting will help bring these barbaric practices to an end. Of course, this is easier said than done. The path ahead is challenging, but at Wildlife SOS, we will not rest until we have made a difference.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest threat to wildlife in India at present?
The biggest threat to wildlife in India is the exploding human population and human greed that is causing rapid development, fragmentation and erosion of forests, and natural habitats leading to severe conflict. Poaching is also a severe threat combined with public ignorance of laws and how important these green spaces are.
What has been your biggest learning in this journey so far? Is there any wisdom or message that you would like to share with our readers?
My biggest learning is that we must never take nature for granted. She is generous with what she gives, but we will suffer her wrath if we continue to be ungrateful and abuse nature and her resources.
People must learn to coexist in harmony with not only other humans, but also the trees, animals and all the elements that exist around us in nature. We must learn to value them as gifts of Mother Nature for what they bring to our lives, instead of thinking of them as competitors for nature’s resources, or worse still as something to be manipulated, exploited and utilised. Over time, as natural habitats and forested lands have been encroached upon by humans, wild animals have been driven to survive on more restricted territories. Their forest base has decreased, and their prey base has shrunk due to urban development and destructive agricultural practices.
Individual acts of compassionate conservation are extremely important during these tough times. To prevent further situations like these, all of us have to work together. The key is to remain connected to nature. What are we giving back? Volunteering at wildlife rescue centers, animal shelters, helping to plant trees, protect forests, putting compost back in the soil, helping to conserve water are some of the ways to give back to nature. These things will help us stay connected with nature. One can take up hobbies like bird watching, hiking, visiting wildlife sanctuaries to see the beauty of nature and appreciate the wildlife wealth we have in India.
The thing about nature is that she is not greedy, and she wants us to be respectful of her and her creatures. Wild animals just want to be left alone.
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