B K Singh & R S Tejus:

Globally, the Media’s contribution to the Cause of Conservation has been dismal. In the background of Climate Change, the Visual Media specially has utterly failed to highlight the enormous ecological damages committed by successive governments under the guise of development across the world.

Further, they have failed to bring in a change in the attitude of people towards “Saving the Planet Earth” or even be sympathetic towards people who are striving to protect the forests day in and day out. In India, even the educated class have no idea of the existence of a department to protect forests!

This clearly shows how the media has failed to play a responsible role in ensuring that the “Protector of the Forests” or the “Conservation of Forests” has to take a front seat. This does not mean that it is the obligation of the media to highlight but we feel it is their duty. Using forest resources for each and every development purpose and not talking about it or the plethora of violations, is inexcusable. 

Let’s talk about the contribution of the movie world be it Bollywood, Sandalwood or others towards forest and conservation. Unlike the Police and the Armed Forces, movies on forest officers and forest field staff are just a handful. In fact, not even a single movie has been made or covered on the 24/7 TV channels regarding their yeomen contribution in protecting forests.

The work life of a Range Forest Officer is by far the most formidable and challenging as they deal with Wildlife Crimes sans any clue, vested interest as also inordinate political pressure to bury the cases. In short, protecting India’s natural wildlife habitat is not an easy task, it is an uphill journey.

The involvement of forest officers is the deciding factor for many things. The change in the societal perception of the forest department as a whole is very crucial. People should know what is protection of forests and wildlife and the life around the protectors of the same.

It is only then there will be more impetus for conservation. If you take the data of the past 50 years, movies on forest officers are minuscule. The famous Kannada blockbuster “Gandhadagudi” 150th movie of Dr Rajkumar, is probably the first-ever movie made in the history of Indian cinema on a Range Forest Officer. The film highlights various challenges a ranger faces and talks very highly about conservation.

Similarly, “Jayasimha“, starring Dr Vishnuvardhan who played a Range Forest Officer, highlights many aspects of protection. And to some extent, ” Mrugalaya“, starring Ambarish and the movie “SP Sangliyana“, starring Shankar Nag too, highlighted the aspect of elephant hunting for ivory and other trophies.

Coming to other languages, there have been a few, and in recent times Sherni (Hindi movie), starring Vidya Balan took up the subject of a forest officer’s fight to save a tiger (Avni). However, these efforts to make films are just a flash in the pan.  Even print and electronic media can highlight this issue as it will boost the morale of the foot soldiers and forest staff who are in the frontline of protection duty.

I have worked in Karnataka Forest department from 1976 till I superannuated in June 2013. In this long span of more than 37 years, I have witnessed the changing role of the media. Initially we came across very few reports in print media on forests and wildlife matters, however, these have increased with the passage of time.

In my initial days, news reports on assault on forest officers, illegal tree felling, forest encroachment, grazing and fire were submerged in some corner of the page in national dailies. There were hardly any editorials on forestry matters. Most action of the forest officers whether it is planting of eucalyptus or booking offence cases against encroachers, illicit tree cutters were lambasted in print media.

If some forest officer’s reaction (not more than 100 words) in the form of letter to editor was carried in the national dailies, we used to be very happy, thinking that we have put our version in the public domain and the society would understand us and appreciate our action. The attitude of the sister departments like Revenue, Police, PWD, Social Welfare etc has been quite unfavorable to us.

Further, courts also did not have any sympathy for the forest department. Several faults were found with our action to draw a panchanama on the spot of a forest offence. When we got an independent witness from a village located several kms away, the Court would reject the panchanama saying that it is concocted. In fact, panchanamas drawn without independent witnesses too did not survive.

Once an offender is acquitted in serious cases, it emboldens many others to commit similar crimes and plunder the tree growth. These difficulties were never highlighted in the print media. Those days, courts also did not favor us in the removal of encroachments from forest lands. All our attempted action to evict encroachers were stayed by the courts and we were left high and dry. This was the area in which we needed the support of the media.

Only in the last two decades, scientists have said we have released enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which has sufficiently warmed the planet. So now, the importance of trees has been realised. Trees have the potential to sequester CO2 and it is one of the cheapest methods to mitigate climate change.

Print and Digital Media have now been highlighting every case of destruction of forests. The print and social media are responsible for highlighting unsustainable projects where trees are to be sacrificed and therefore, requires public consultation.

Several projects are now in intense public glare; Hubbali-Ankola railway line project which has been tossed between various Courts, Central Government and State Government is being debated among the public for more than a decade. Thanks to the wonderful support provided by the media.

Unlike in the past, media is also focusing on forest offence cases and the disposal of cases. This makes the public alert, who in turn question the authorities for delay in investigation, delay in filing charge sheets and consequent reasons for the failure of the case in the Court of law. Often shabby works of the departmental officials are brought out by media in public domain that helps forest officers to introspect and carry out course correction.

Forest fire has been a double whammy for environmental degradation. It releases CO2 in the atmosphere and increases the load of greenhouse gas emissions. It burns trees that have carbon sequestration potential. Forest fires in high value biodiversity areas like Bandipur, Nagarhole, BRT, Bhadra, Anshi-Dandeli etc inflict even greater damage.

Sometimes, it has taken several days to put out fires in these protected areas. Media has been highlighting it and bringing additional pressure on forest officers and Government to act more decisively. There are instances where fires have raged and remained uncontrolled for 4-5 days and the Government had to provide assistance of helicopter sorties for spraying water to put off fires.

The role of the media in such circumstances is quite critical. Media reports can alert people and government so that quick and effective action is taken thereby, increasing the chances of conservation.

(Authors:  B K Singh, Retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force) Karnataka and R S Tejus, wildlife conservation enthusiast)