George Schaller Interview

An interview with legendary conservationist and field biologist extraordinaire, George Schaller. This interview I did of him appeared in the Indian Express in 2008

George B. Schaller is an award-winning conservationist and field biologist who has been working on conservation issues around the world since 1952. Here in India in the wake of the tiger census, Schaller — currently vice-president of the Science and Exploration Programme, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx — advocates the protection of the Indian tiger through the protection of tiger landscapes — areas where contiguous habitats are a possibility. The first westerner to be allowed into China’s Chang Tang region in 1988, Schaller is currently working on a transfrontier reserve spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. He shared his views on US environmental policy and the Indian tiger in a conversation with Neha Sinha

George Schaller

Photo: from here 

Does the tiger count 1,411 cats left in the wild in India — surprise you?

For me, the issue is not if there are 1,400 Indian tigers left in the wild or 1,800. The issue is that the tiger in India needs immediate and focused conservation. The Tiger Count has conducted the census by dividing the country into six landscapes (Western Ghats, Central India, Eastern Ghats, Shivalik-Gangetic, North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains, Sunderbans) and this should be the approach to save the tiger. The focus has to be on preserving the landscape as a contiguous habitat.

The US has the largest number of captive tigers in the world. How do you respond to that?

My main concern is with tigers in the wild.

Do you believe the Forest Rights Act, which allows tribals to live in forested land, might lead to further deterioration of the situation?

Environmental education is very important. If the community is very remote, most people in it like to move out. Local communities can be stewards of their land. Ecotourism is a good idea, because the same locals will keep outsiders out. Landscape conservation can only exist with community participation. In Tibet’s Chang Tang area, we have involved local communities to help preserve their wildlife like the yak, the bear and the Chiru antelope. There, we have involved the local llamas in spreading the message. We can also make a set of moral values part of conservation. In the Buddhist faith this is easy to do. It’s possible also to involve spiritual leaders from Hindu and Islamic faiths to spread the conservation message, as the holy texts in both faiths have extensive passages on protecting wildlife and the environment.

At the same time, for India’s future and its tigers, we do need certain tracts or areas, which are not degraded by people. We need to make sure out grandchildren will be able to see the Indian tiger.

Has India done enough to save her wildlife? How has the US fared?

The Indian Supreme Court has really made some unprecedented decisions in favour of wildlife and the environment. For example, the decision to not collect deadwood from natural sanctuaries is a good one. India has endless problems but there have been efforts. It’s highly unusual for the courts to intervene in environmental areas as the Supreme Court has done. It’s unprecedented. I wish America had a similar body.


People here and there don’t really care about conservation issues. They need laws and education to guide them.

The American courts are not doing enough. George Bush is the worst president for the environment the US has ever had. The Congress is so divided. The Republicans always vote for Bush. Over 400 executive orders, and additions to bills have been passed or are being passed which will impact the environment. For instance, the government wants oil drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. They are okay with putting roads through reserves and timber cutting, violating some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Why is the US silent on the Kyoto protocol?

That’s because we have an uneducated president who thinks that saying ‘no’ to everything will make the US a powerful state. It’s frustrating. In the ’60s and ’70s, people looked to the US for guidance. India, China and the US will not fight together for climate change but working together is required.

When will things change?

The situation will change with the change in the White House.

What are you working on now?

We are working on a transfrontier reserve, an International Peace Park, through Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. The reserve will be for nomads and wildlife. We are also looking at a lot of scientific exchange, and capacity building. We are working with communities and the local mullahs.

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