'Many miles to go before the tiger is safe in India'
New Delhi, May 17 : Latika Nath was just seven when she decided she would dedicate her life to the conservation of wildlife. Along the way, she became India's first woman wildlife biologist and spent a quarter of a century working at the grassroots level for tiger conservation but laments that though much work has been done, "there are many miles to go before the tiger is safe"."I have worked with several dedicated and extraordinary forest department officials over the years. These men have dedicated their lives to wildlife conservation and particularly that of the tiger. The government has been working on tiger conservation and you can see results. Numbers are on the rise.
"Having said that, there are many miles to go before the tiger is safe. We need the political will and support to help turn the tide for the big cats in India," Nath, who has a doctorate in tiger conservation and management from Oxford, told IANS in an interview.
If she were given a chance to do things differently on the conservation front how would she go about it?
"I think the most essential thing for wildlife conservation today in India is the political will to ensure the sanctity of our wilderness areas and the habitats of species.
"Indira Gandhi (when she was the Prime Minister) showed the world her commitment to wildlife conservation and is responsible for much of what is protected in India today. We need a similar commitment from our leaders today.
"We also need a more stringent method of law enforcement and a better equipped judiciary with special training in handling wildlife and environmental cases," said Nath, whose breathtaking images perfectly complement cousin Shloka Nath's text in the just-released book "Hidden India".
How did this book come about and how long was it in the making?
Noting that sometimes things happen that change your life, uproot you and shake your soul, Nath replied: "I faced a whole series of events between 2012 and 2015, including my divorce and the loss of my cousin Kaveesh Nath. At these times it is easy to want to hide and hurt. I chose to stand up and throw myself back into the mountains, oceans and forests -- to look for the peace and understanding that eluded me in cities.
"At this time, I picked up my cameras after a gap of almost 12 years. All the photographs in this book have been shot between 2012 and 2017," added Nath, whose life and work has been featured on National Geographic TV in a documentary titled 'The Tiger Princess' and on Discovery Channel's 'Wild Things'.
She contributed to films like 'Sita's Story' and a 'Tale of Two Tigers' on the BBC, as well as the cover story on tigers for the 'Year of the Tiger' special in 2000.
How did the photography bug bite? Is she self-trained or did she receive any formal training?
"I have always taken photographs since I was a child and later as a biologist to record animal behaviour. Over time I began to use my cameras to record the conversations I was having with animals, my experiences when I travelled and to tell the stories of my adventures.
"Photography is something I taught myself and again my inspiration was my father, who has been an ardent photographer ever since I can remember," Nath explained.
In fact, Her father, Prof Lalit M. Nath, an ex-Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, played a major role in helping her find her calling.
"My father was special advisor to the Prime Minister on wildlife and the secretary of the IBWL (Indian Board for Wild Life) for 19 years. All holidays were always based on the outdoors and I grew up meeting either doctors or stalwarts of conservation in India, including Indira Gandhi, Dr Salim Ali, Dr J.C. Daniel, Dr Ranjit Sinh, Dr H.S. Panwar, Kailash Sankhala, Billy Arjun Singh, Fateh Singh Rathore and Dr Charles McDougal.
"This sparked an early passion for ecology and wildlife conservation and I decided at the age of seven that this is what I wanted to dedicate my life to," Nath said.
What has been her experience photographing the cat species around the world?
From the tigers of India to the Jaguars of Brazil, Nath said, each species fights against the loss of habitat to development and human pressure.
"The issues are different and yet the same. Every time there is a battle between humans and any other species, humans always win. And yet every time, the majesty, beauty, resilience and tenacity for survival of the species allows one to hope that they will manage to carve a little niche for themselves in the Planet of Humans and survive.
"Photographing the great cats has taken me from the highest places on earth in the Himalayas to the rain forests of the Amazon, the dense jungles of the northeast of India and the savannah plains of Africa.
"Each adventure has been life changing often leaving me in tears of joy at finally being able to be blessed with sightings and time with the great cats," Nath said.
She has worked with numerous international organisations including IUCN, UNDP, UNFPA and ICIMOD on many species including the Asian Elephant, the Gangetic Dolphin, the Arna or Wild buffaloes, and high-altitude mammals in the Kanchenjunga area.
Her areas of interest include landscape ecology and the resolution of human-wildlife conflict.
Nath is the recipient of scholarships including the Chevening Award from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Oxford and Cambridge Society of India, the Overseas Research Student (ORS) UK, and the Wildlife Institute of India. She has also been awarded for her work in the field of Eco Tourism by the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOI).
(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at Vishnu Makhijani@ians.in)