AS THE bonfire crackled at Jogi Mahal, a fort located in the heart of Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, Bittu Sahgal found a cause to chase down. “This was way back in 1980 when I was there for a tiger safari and was spending time with Fateh Singh Rathore, the Field Director of Ranthambhore,” says Sahgal. “I realised that while I was having a jolly good time, people like Fateh were struggling to protect wildlife,” he adds. In the conversation that ensued, Rathore encouraged Sahgal to start his own wildlife magazine to spread the message of conserving our flora and fauna. “He told me there were so many magazines on politics and sports but none on wildlife, and the message needs to be spread,” says Sahgal. And so, Sanctuary Asia was born. In October 1981, Sahgal took the first copy of the magazine and presented it to Rathore, much to the latter’s surprise.
Wildlife conservation and starting a magazine on the subject were never part of Sahgal’s plans. “I studied chartered accountancy and was working as a salesman for many years, selling plastic buckets to toothpaste to soft drinks,” says the 71-year-old, adding, “We used our magazine as a platform to spread the message of conservation in a simple language that a 12-year-old would understand, even as we hoped politicians will understand as well.” The magazine that started out as a quarterly, is now a bi-monthly, with subscribers all over the world.
Sahgal has always been vocal about his opposition to the coastal road project by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), on which the Bombay High Court (HC) last week passed a restraining order, instructing the civic body from reclaiming any more land. “The project should not go through,” says Sahgal, “It is basically a dam that will stop water from exiting during high rainfall. I do not know if those making this road are even thinking of the future. There will not be space for excess rainwater to exit if this road comes up and Mumbai will turn into a bathtub,” he adds.
Running a conservation magazine has its own issues, as Sahgal has discovered over the years. “People accuse us of being spoilsports all the time, but they are turning a blind eye to nature,” he says, adding, “I predict that the next generation of politics will depend on clean air, clean water and survival as by then we will have exhausted everything nature has given us.”
Speaking on tigress Avni, who was recently killed in the forests near Yavatmal, Sahgal says, “The cat should never have been shot and certainly not by a hired killer. She should have been tranquilised, and rehabilitated along with her cubs. She had to undoubtedly be removed as she was 35 km away from the nearest protected area. There was no prey base, so she survived on cattle.”
He adds, “She also killed several humans. Had retaliatory killings started, we would have lost many more tigers and humans. There was a well-defined holding area where her cubs could have been looked after. The whole affair was murky and I would like the shooter arrested.”
He firmly believes that saving the tiger is in people’s self-interest. “Saving the tigers means saving the forests and rivers,” says Sahgal, adding, “The tiger is the best chowkidar for our forests and its presence shall stop activities such as deforestation and save our species from dying.”