“Wildlife in India is at a crossroads, walking on the razor’s edge. We are losing the battle.”

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Mike Pandey is an iconic film-maker, wildlife conservationist and cinematographer, who has through his documentaries, brought about legislative changes to protect wildlife in India. A man who means business, he earnestly tries to raise the level of your consciousness about the natural world around. He spoke to A. Radhakrishnan about his life, his concerns and his passion.

How would you describe yourself?
I am an environmentalist, a naturalist and a wildlife filmmaker working towards conservation of endangered species, mostly life forms that are on the critically endangered list. I use films as a tool to disseminate and share information, sensitise local communities, and hopefully make a difference.

How did the journey begin?
Africa is where it all started. I was born in Kenya, East Africa.We grew up surrounded by wild animals and nature. Evenings were often filled with sounds of the wilderness, with lions calling out to each other, and the distant sounds of jackals and night birds.

Are the laws related to wildlife and conservation being adequately implemented?
Indian wildlife is at a crossroads like almost everywhere else across the planet. We have an amazing diversity and a rich heritage, but it’s dwindling rapidly. Wildlife is losing the battle for survival.

How can poaching of endangered species and illegal trade in wildlife be stopped?
Sensitise the local people; address livelihood issues of communities living around national parks and forests and involve them as partners in the conservation efforts; let them be shareholders in the income generation of parks, followed by stricter enforcement and controlled ‘Eco Tourism’.

Apart from tigers and rhinos, which other little known species are going extinct?
Unfortunately, almost all the species you can think of are under threat and declining.The world is losing almost 10,000 species every year. To name a few in India, the pangolin, snow leopards, the blind gangetic dolphins, the vultures, are some of the critically endangered and on the brink.

Would recent initiatives by the present government help make a difference to wildlife in the current scenario?
Legislation is in place and the government is working hard to protect our natural heritage, but animals are still being killed and poached; critical habitats being fragmented, and corridors being fractured. The need is for stricter enforcement and severe penalties.
We urgently need an increase in number of forest guards and jungle patrol vehicles. But most important, political will is essential. We need to get our priorities right, if we are really serious about conservation.

How do you think documentaries really have an impact in saving endangered wildlife?
I assuredly believe that documentaries play an effective role in generating awareness, sensitising and making people comprehend the role each species plays in nature’s dynamic food chain, and the need to protect them. This is ultimately crucial to our own survival. Documentaries can carry capacity building information to the remotest areas in the shortest time and educate people.

What were some of the challenges of documentary film making in your journey?
We have had some great filmmakers in the country, with great films in recent times. A real tragedy however for us Indian wildlife film makers is that unlike abroad, here we have no adequate funding; absence of commissioning by the corporates or government agencies and unrealistic filming fees for those that may scrounge some funds to put together a film. The parks and sanctuaries are our national treasures and should not be considered the private fiefdom of a few in charge. Each park has its own set of rules and policies, and it’s still a struggle to get into a park and film in peace. The general attitude and restrictive conditions are not really conducive to wildlife or natural history filmmaking.

There are provision and waivers under the Wildlife Act which allow filming if the film is educational. But it’s often the field officer’s interpretative whim that determines the permission. This attitude needs to change. Having said this, rules do get bent if you have the right connections. Wildlife in India is at a crossroads, walking on the razor’s edge. We are losing the battle. It’s time to wake up before it’s too late.

Briefly elaborate on the documentaries you have made and are working on.
My major work has been on some of our critically endangered species and their conservation. Awareness generation and education is the other thrust. Repeats of my television series Earth Matters, have been going on 18 years after they started. The list is long, almost over 700 films, and most of them have made a difference.

Prime are films, Shores of Silence on whale sharks in India; The Last Migration on wild elephant capture in Sarguja; The Vanishing Prestigious Giants; Gymo: Queen of the Mountains, about snow leopards and Looking for Sultan…the Tiger.

Can you call yourself an entrepreneur, considering the patience and perseverance you show?
I don’t know about that. But I guess I do what I do best and enjoy doing…and that’s telling stories. But I was definitely the first wildlife filmmaker in the country to focus and concentrate on conservation films for critically endangered wild animals. Patience is one thing you need if you are out to make a good film and perseverance, your second nature. My life is tough, especially if you choose the wilderness as your playground, but it has its great moments and fulfilling moments. There are so many great lessons learnt every day. Worth every moment I guess.

How satisfied are you being a documentary film maker?
I feel contented. It’s a great feeling, being with reality and addressing issues close to my heart and mind. And the best part is exploring and discovering new dimensions and facets of life almost every day.

What is Riverbank Studios?
It is a Delhi-based state-of-the-art film and video production house, and the first fully integrated studios set up in Northern India. Involved in production of feature films, documentaries, commercials corporate films and television serials, we have moved into the digital domain including overseas co-production ventures.

Shores of Silence spoke about the slaughter of whale sharks. Why did this issue, more than any other, inspire you to make a film?
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Gentle marine giants being mercilessly slaughtered, their liver ripped out to make grease and boot polish was something both shocking and heartrending. For almost a year, I tried to stop it, but without success. No one believed that whale sharks existed in such large numbers on our coasts and the Arabian Sea. The logic was, if historically there are no whales in our waters, how are they being slaughtered. When no one believed me, I just went ahead and made the film. And the rest is history.

Did you expect the film to have such a massive impact, leading to legislative change?
I never expected such a huge impact. National legislation within three months! This was the first time a marine species was being protected under the Wildlife Act, 1972! The greatest surprise was yet to come. At the global protection for the world’s largest fish, by the U.N body the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at Santiago, Chile, India raised the motion for protection of the endangered whale sharks and got a measly three votes. My film was shown over three days to the delegates on laptops since no screening time was available. A re-vote requested by Indian delegates on the closing date received an overwhelming majority. The whale shark was thus protected globally by law thanks to the revelations and exposure by Shores of Silence, an Indian film!

What is the resultant status of whale sharks in Indian waters today?
The whale shark roams freely in Indian waters and not hunted by Indian fishermen anymore. Eco tourism, the way forward would not only help protect them but also generate additional income for the local fishermen, who could become guides and custodians of this enigmatic heritage. A marine national park too would be ideal. Gujarat could be the largest whale shark sighting destination in the world.

What do you feel of film festivals like Mumbai Internationl Film Festival for documentary, short and animation films (MIFF)?
MIFF is working out really well and a strong much needed platform for documentaries in the country. It needs to be turned into an annual festival.

Is documentary film making viable?
The market is opening up, with rising global demand and hunger for good content. With the digital age kicking in and proliferation of TV channels and networks, documentaries will be required for educational and training purposes. Schools of the future will be available on TV screens, tablets and mobile phones.

As President of Indian Documentary Producers Association (IDPA), for a second term, what do you see its enhanced role?
IDPA has managed to create a much needed platform on the DD National network in partnership with the public broadcaster DD National. A filmmaker’s film now reaches over 800 million people on the DD-IDPA Horizon slot. The film makers can now recover some of their investment, not possible hitherto.

We have proposed that a satellite be set up in partnership with the Films Division and the Ministry. A channel dedicated to preschool education, science programmes, play school, educational and training films and evening slots for regional cinema is part of our wish list.

As a conservationist, what would be your message to people in preserving wildlife and the common man?
We humans have destroyed this planet and we are the only species who can fix it. Education brings understanding, which brings respect and love, and that makes you want to protect. Common man needs to be informed about the role of flora and fauna.

The earth is in trouble and climate change is just one small issue that is triggering off greater calamities. The challenges facing us are more serious that most of us realise. Our planet is dying and that is the truth…the 6th extinction has set in, we are losing over 10,000 species every year and no one is talking about it.

Consumerism is a serious threat eroding our resources and tipping the delicate balance of sustainability. Be minimal. Lifestyles need to change. Plastic is dangerously overrunning our planet. Take only as much as you can eat. Do not waste. Don’t eat fish during breeding season or food which is out of season. Our water and food resources are dwindling. We are in a tail spin and need to change, stop the way we plunder the earth’s resources.

Are awards important to you?
In all, my team and I have won seven national awards and over 300 awards internationally for various films ranging from wildlife to educational films, commercials, industrial films on socially relevant issues, including the coveted global Green Oscars thrice, for spreading awareness about biodiversity and species conservation, including helping conserve and protect key species such as whale sharks, elephants, tigers, vultures and horseshoe crabs. Awards are great motivators and indicators that you are going along on the right path, with what you have created meaningful not only to you, but others as well.

Your message on the environment disasters looming large and your emphasis on the humble bee.
Bees in 14 countries are dying, afflicted by a condition called CCD – community collapse disorder. Whole communities are collapsing and millions of bees are dying across Europe and America. Five different viruses carried by a mite called Varrora, Monoculture, and immunity disorders are the main culprits. The bee, butterfly and a few insects and the wind are chief pollinating agents. If the flagship pollinator dies, mankind will not last longer than two years. We used to have two years of reserve food stock in store to meet any contingencies, drought or famine, but today the world has only 90 days stock in hand. One failed harvest in India, Russia or China, will trigger a crisis never seen before. It’s frightening, but a grim reality.

What future do you see for the world?
Unfortunately, a dismal picture. Agriculture and food have become industries. At the current rate of plunder of the oceans…where 130 million tons of fish is harvested every year and over 30 million thrown back as by catch. Seventy billion animals are slaughtered every year to feed 3.5 billion meat consumers. Almost 45 to 50% of the 70 billion slaughtered animals don’t get sold and are stamped “inconsumable and outdated”. The earth cannot sustain this mindless unsustainable plunder for much longer.

By 2048, all the fish in the world will have vanished. The oceans will be full of plastic. I don’t want to sound like a doomsday prophet, but this is the grim reality which no one seems to address in their mad rush towards “progress”.


A. Radhakrishnan

A.Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance journalist, poet, and short story writer.

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