Dr. M.R Desai, from Yadahalli in Karnataka’s Bagalkot District, comes from an illustrious family of political thinkers, legislators and social workers. 75-year-old Dr. Desai is a qualified medical practitioner. However, his main interests lay in the well-being of rural people, and he has dedicated his entire life in their service. He is a Gandhian by thought and action, and his social work reminds one of how the Gandhian way of life can contribute to people’s well-being while also protecting and fostering nature. His initiative of working with people in a traditional co-operative method has yielded rich dividends.

Dr. M.R Desai is instrumental in the declaration of the Yadahalli Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary and the recent Almatti Conservation Reserve. His work is focused on studying and protecting the wildlife of the eastern plains of Karnataka. A fine wildlife photographer, he has documented the return of chinkara (Indian Gazelle) and leopards in Bagalkot District. He has served as the president of the National Federation of Co-operative Sugar Factories. He has also served multiple times as the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Bagalkot District.

Dr. M.R Desai, photographing rock owls.

Q1. When and how did you start taking interest in nature and wildlife?

The root of this movement goes back to the late 1970s. I inherited the love for forests from my parents and their families. I believe it is natural for children to love nature and wildlife and show curiosity to learn about it. I was fortunate to have elders around me who were keen outdoorsmen. So naturally, I knew the status of our forests and the wildlife in it during the 1950s, in my early school days.

I had to stay away from home for my education for almost 18 years, although most of my holidays were still spent at home. Even after this long period of city life, my strong urge to be closer to nature dragged me back to my small village – I came back for good and settled down in 1975. I noticed that in two decades, there had been considerable deterioration in the habitat as well as wildlife; it dawned on me that we must do something to preserve and restore it. That was also the time when the importance of nature conservation was heard in the media.

In those days, we had very few resources to study nature in a scientific way. In 1965, I came across an advertisement in a magazine, for Bombay Natural History publications: ‘Book of Indian Birds’ and ‘Book of Indian Animals’. I ordered both and received them by VPP in April 1966. That was a small beginning to attain some basics of nature and wildlife. Such books and reading gave me some base to argue and challenge the wrong conceptions my elders had about nature and wildlife. So ultimately, my tryst with nature turned from a hobby to a mission.

Supporting villagers in conservation, with Bilgi Ex-MLA J.T Patil.

Q2. What have the main changes been, in the forests and wildlife of Bagalkot District?

Till the early 1960s, the forest was in good shape: we had leopards, wolves were seen even in packs of up to 12 individuals, and hyenas used to sneak around the villages at night. A cow was even killed by a leopard right in front of our school. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a huge disturbance along the whole length of the forest due to the construction of the south branch of the Ghataprabha left-bank canal. This stretch of forest in Bilgi Range is long and narrow, so the canal running along the entire length had a great impact on the habitat as well as wildlife. Leopards vanished and were not seen for fifty years.

In some parts of the forest, small areas of about 50 hectares were fenced with barbed wire. This had given good protection to vegetation, and trees, bushes and undergrowth thrived. This in turn provided good nesting places for ground-nesting birds and small animals. Birds like peafowl, the sightings of which had become a rarity, became common. There were many other signs to show that even these small, protected areas had a positive impact on wildlife. In 1981, I observed that in some places, the wooden poles used for fencing were rotting, and the wire was falling. I expressed my concern that the ground would be trampled by livestock, destroying the nests, eggs and chicks. When I met the new DCF, Bagalkot, and explained the proposed scheme, the construction of a stone wall was started, with on-the-spot available materials.

Q3. Please tell us about the long battle for the conservation of Yadahalli Chinkara Sanctuary and its outcome? 

Yadahalli Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka’s first chinkara sanctuary, established in 2015, had a very small and simple beginning – it was initiated by the locals with the intention of rejuvenating the local forest. In the course of five decades, its horizon went on broadening at different phases. We are happy to say that our efforts have given good dividends, as the habitat has recovered considerably; some portions have bounced back to almost early 1900s levels.

The status of wildlife, though not entirely satisfactory, is definitely improving. Activities like trapping, dog hunts, ritual hunting etc. have stopped, as have gum collection, firewood poaching and stone quarrying. Constant efforts by the forest department in coordination with the excise department have curbed illicit distilleries. All these were doing great harm to the plants and trees. Since heat produces more exudate and gum, dry vegetation used to be intentionally set on fire in summer. Of course, the tables have turned now, but it took some time to shift the forests from the credit column to the debit column, financially.

Since the vegetation has grown well, providing ideal nesting places to ground-nesting birds and small animals, there is remarkable improvement in peafowl, francolin, hare and other small creatures. The most important change we have achieved is the awareness about the necessity of protecting and preserving our natural habitats. Although people’s active participation is not as much as we desire, there definitely is positive attitude and cooperation.

Landscape of Yadahalli Sanctuary in the dry season.

Survey work in Yadahalli for chinkara, in 2014.

Q4. How do you think the Karnataka Forest Department has responded to wildlife conservation in recent times?

Like anywhere else, even in the forest department, one comes across different kinds of people. I am happy to say that most of them have shown very good response, co-operation and dynamism. But even the daredevil kind find it difficult to get things done in a lethargic government machinery. The important thing is that one must have a lot of patience and never get disheartened.

I have observed that very few people would willingly come to work in these dry regions. But fortunately, things are changing for the better, with more graduates arriving who grasp the subject and take initiatives. I have come across many highly qualified youngsters among the trainees from Gungaragatti Forest Academy, who visit our sanctuary during their field trips. We have more youngsters in the field today, and many of them take keen interest and try to learn the ropes. Although the sanctuary management at field level is quite good, the administrative side at mid and higher levels need to gear up.

I am happy to say that many of our field staff have become devoted naturalists. Working with them, I can see how they perform their duties with zeal and concern for wildlife.

Orientation for KFD staff at Yadahalli.

Q5. What are the main species of conservation importance in North Karnataka, especially Bagalkot?

North Karnataka has many species specific to these ecosystems, which are rare to come across anywhere else. Of course, chinkara is one – earlier it was commonly found up to a little south of Krishna River, and in Bagalkot district, roughly up to Malaprabha River in Badami Taluk. We know for sure Badami harboured a good population of chinkaras. And Badami and Hunagund Taluks have some of the prime scrub forest areas. Sadly, they are in a bad shape, but with local will, they can be rejuvenated.

Wolves and hyenas are still present but need protection. Since they share a similar habitat to the chinkara, they will benefit from the chinkara programme to an extent. However, currently, their activity is found in small pockets away from the present chinkara area. Wolves are mainly found around Jamkhandi, with many good sightings from the west of Jamkhandi. Hyenas are found at the fringes of Bilgi Range towards Bagalkot and at the eastern part of Jamkhandi. Once common everywhere, now because of the lack of suitable shelter, hyenas are restricted to where small caves and den-like shelters are available. Camera traps in chinkara areas have recorded the presence of both.

Otters were commonly found in River Krishna. A few years ago, a gang of professional trappers caught and took them away. I am afraid they have now become extinct in this part. I feel we must translocate some from other areas and reintroduce them; they have an important role to play in balancing their native habitat.

Wolf at Jamkhandi fort.

Chinkara, at waterholes developed by KFD.

Q6.  How do we integrate nature and wildlife conservation with people?

In a democracy, nature conservation can only succeed with the help of common people; this is my observation and firm belief. In India, 80% of people are rural based, living in and closer to nature. Most of them have been, for generations, accustomed to depending on forests for their daily domestic needs. But today’s drain on forest resources is not for domestic needs alone – the mammoth scale of commercial drain is unimaginable, and no forest can sustain this drain!

Unless we create awareness about the necessity and urgency of nature conservation, there is no hope. My contention is that the people living in dryer zones, away from high forests, need this education more than the people living in high forests, who already have some concept of the importance of its protection. Dry zone residents, including their elected representatives, don’t have an iota of knowledge about the role of scrub and thorn forests and other non-specific ecosystems in maintaining a balance in nature.

I think today’s youth, especially the educated, are well informed and aware of the importance of conservation, and I don’t expect much direct harm to nature from them. I must hasten to add that it is a different story when it comes to indirect harm due to our modern lifestyle, and I will elaborate this further in the last question.

Q7. The linkage of conservation with the cultural ethos of people is often spoken about. How does this work on the ground, especially in North Karnataka?

Cultural and religious activities have two aspects. One is festivals – I can say with confidence that as long as we understand and stick to the true spirit behind each festival and practise accordingly, there can be no harm from them, as they teach us to live in harmony with nature. The second aspect is religious functions – they are doing harm to nature by twisting the true spirit behind them, with their misconceived extravaganza.

I must mention that some spiritual gurus are doing commendable work, helping conservation on a very broad-based vision; sadly, they are very few. Most gurus, under the garb of nature conservation, are doing harm – since they have misconceived ideas about nature, even their so called “conservation activities” are of no use. Many also encroach upon forest land and illegally use forest resources, while influencing innocent locals. These followers must be persuaded to not support such illegal activities, by creating awareness; there are instances where it has made an impact.

Q8. What memories of forests do you have, which you cherish till date?

It is said that smell and sound, more than sight, bring back old memories. During my primary school days, our teachers used to arrange picnics to the forest. We had regular rains, and the forest was much denser, and every year, natural springs used to feed streams. The lush vegetation and a variety of blossoms filled the air with the heady scent of blooms. Streams were truly crystal clear, alive with aquatic life – it was like looking through the glass at an aquarium, only that it was natural, and we were looking at free creatures.

On one such picnic, we went quite deep into the heart of the forest. It was 1954 or 1955, and it was raining. We, a small group of children, got separated and lost our way. We came to a clearing with a stream flowing through a rocky bed. A shepherd, with only a traditional sheep wool blanket protecting him from the rain, was sitting there. This picture is etched in my mind. We got directions from him and found our way out. I was merely eight years old.

In a valley at the head of a stream is a waterfall with the ruins of an old Shiva Temple. A little higher up is a small waterhole surrounded by rocky cliffs and ledges. This waterhole now dries up in summer but was perennial in those days. Some of my nostalgic memories were the evenings spent in a hide near this waterhole. One could watch jackals and foxes – the care and time they took to approach and have drink was a lesson in wildlife behaviour, and a display of tremendous patience despite thirst. Sandgrouse used to come in flocks of fifty to hundred. The waterhole was small, enough only for a few birds at a time, so any new arrivals used to land a little away and patiently await their turn.

In the rainy season, the scrub forest used to be lush green with water everywhere. But one must learn to appreciate all phases of nature – these scrub forests are an entirely different story in the drier summer months. But if we open our hearts and try to be one with our surroundings, even that dry, hot breeze has a message for us. All cultivated land was rain fed, with hardly any additional irrigation. So in summers, farms were barren, with deep cracks in the black soil – nature’s way of ventilating and enriching the soil. At the first rain, water gushing through these cracks reached the bottom layers, even in scanty rainfall. Even in the hottest season, there was life to be found in these lands, taking shelter in scanty bushes and these cracks.

My father used to drive us through these lands in an old, open tourer: the hot breeze on our faces, the hot floorboard of the car, and the petrol fumes are stored in the hard disc of my brain, never to be erased. You can take a man out of the forest, but you can never take a forest out of the man.

The team takes a break in the hot summer, during the monitoring of wildlife in Bagalkot.

Q9. What are the future plans for the conservation of areas surrounding Bagalkot?

I have been proposing to declare Bilgi Range as a wildlife range and I understand it has been sanctioned but not yet implemented. Under this plan, parts of Bilgi Range outside the notified sanctuary area are to be merged with Bagalkot Range on the east and Mudhol Range on the west. There is some hyena activity in the eastern area, so we had requested to either add it to the sanctuary or notify it as a conservation reserve. It definitely helps to add it to the sanctuary. One objection raised was that there is a major highway passing through these two areas. But frequent road-kills occur on this stretch, proving that there is wildlife movement between these areas and needs to be protected.

Looking at the two surveys conducted for chinkara, it needs further study. The male:female ratio and the number of fawns, both don’t seem to be satisfactory. Another important thing to take up on priority is to acquire some private agricultural lands inside the notified area.

We also want to intensify awareness campaigns and widen our sphere of activities to other areas of the district. We need to complete the long-awaited Nature Awareness Facility at Yadahalli to help conduct programmes, including chalking out trekking routes and training some staff as guides. Field staff training programmes too are required. Lastly, LPG distribution and similar schemes must be completed as early as possible, because LPG distribution has made a great impact on resource drain.

Conservation planning for Almatti Backwaters, with officials.

Q10. What would you like to convey to young people who want to work in conservation, as well as to anybody who want to make a difference?

We must keep in mind that an old person who plants a fruit tree knows they can’t enjoy its fruit, but they still plant it. Are we not eating and enjoying the fruits of trees planted by our parents or grandparents? Similarly, we are doing nature conservation for future generations. For a serious conservationist, protecting nature becomes a way of life.

To most of us, nature conservation begins and ends in nature – everybody talks of protecting the forest and wildlife, planting trees, conserving energy, etc. However, to succeed in this endeavour, we must take a closer look at our entire lifestyle, beginning at home. Unless we reduce the drain on natural resources, our efforts will fail. So, it is important to think about the impact our daily activities are making on nature, including the use of electronic gadgets, consumables etc. Adding to this problem is modern consumerism. In our youth, industries produced goods that could be family heritage items – we have seen watches, cycles, torches, fans, and cars changing hands between generations. Today, thinking twice before switching over to new gadgets is needed, to make a difference. We must avoid consuming for showing off, false prestige, or whims and fancies.

My humble request to all is to please listen to the voice of nature. Let us do what nature wants, not what we want.