Meet one of India’s most reputed wildlife filmmakers and conservationists7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
When we’re young, there are so many different passions and interests we develop as we start to explore this vast and wonderful world of ours. We may choose a different profession every day, or be fixed on one only to change it as we get older, or figure out what we want to do much later in life. But that’s not Shekar Dattatri.
Dattatri, a pioneer of wildlife and conservation filmmaking in India, knew very early on in life that he wanted to dedicate his time and efforts to studying and protecting wildlife. His very first film — A Cooperative of Snake Catchers — won him the National Award back in 1987. Since then, he has worked with National geographic, Discovery Channel, BBC and more, before turning away from the spotlight.
To celebrate International Tiger Day, we caught up with Dattatri to talk about some important issues. Here’s what he has to say…
We read that you turned your back on a lucrative career making wildlife films to focus on conservation issues on the ground. What changed in you?
Although I really enjoyed making wildlife films for television, I came to realise that television programmes rarely lead to action or change. So, since the year 2000, I’ve been making short films on specific conservation issues. These are targeted primarily at decision-makers because they are the ones with the power to change things.
Your film, Mindless Mining, brought about tangible impact. What can you say about the challenges of making smaller-budget films when faced with more commercial projects?
More views, likes, or spending more money on a film are no guarantee that they will lead to the right action. On the other hand, even a low-budget film that succinctly and honestly portrays a conservation issue – and suggests knowledge-based solutions can be very effective if it is seen by the right people. Mindless Mining, a 11-minute film that I made in 2000 to highlight the destruction of a rainforest by iron ore mining, was very effective in changing hearts and minds, and helped put a stop to the destruction.
(Watch Mindless Mining below)
Today, many with professional tools call themselves ‘wildlife photographers’. Social media has aided this greatly. What can you tell us about the state of ethical wildlife photography in India?
Ethical wildlife photography is based on the principle that the welfare of the animal always comes first. While many photographers are ethical, there are, unfortunately, others who lack a genuine love for, or understanding, of nature. Driven by likes on social media, they sometimes disturb animals or harm their habitat in pursuit of the perfect picture. This is not in the spirit of true wildlife photography and needs to change.
Talking about social media, can you comment on its (positive or negative) impact on conservation? Instagram, especially, has become a tool for photographers and conservationists to spread awareness.
Like all things, social media can be a force for good or bad. When used thoughtfully and with the right knowledge, it can be a powerful tool to bring about positive change. Unfortunately, people often rush to post things without learning enough about an issue or consulting with experts. As a result, despite their good intentions, this sometimes hurts conservation. So, like with all tools, we must train ourselves to wield social media sensibly.
You were an avid reader as a child, and that knowledge helped in fueling your passion for conservation. Can you share some of the books/authors you read when you were young?
When I was ten, I read a book by Gerald Durrell that completely captivated me. His Corfu trilogy, in particular, taught me about the joys of observing nature in my own neighbourhood. Authors such as Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson stirred the thirst for adventure in me with their hunting stories, while books by biologists such as Konrad Lorenz, George Schaller and Jane Goodall, helped me understand ecology and animal behaviour.
You’ve written three children’s books. Can you tell us about writing for children and making conservation engaging for youngsters?
All three of my books for children are heavily illustrated – The Riddle of the Ridley, Lai Lai the Baby Elephant and Ira the Little Dolphin. I believe that pictures combined with succinct text can convey a lot and keep young readers engaged.
What can you tell us about the status of environment education in India?
My fascination for nature was fueled equally by field trips and reading, and I think this combination is absolutely necessary. Schools should invite experts to conduct frequent workshops on nature. Textbooks should incorporate interesting essays on the importance of conservation.
International Tiger Day: It’s been more than a decade since you made your film, The Truth About Tigers, do you see efforts in protecting the big cat improving?
Overall, the tiger in India seems to be doing better today than at any other time in my life. However, many of the conservation deficiencies that I pointed out in my film still remain and need to be addressed. Only this will ensure success in the long run.
(Watch a short film by Datattri called 25 Years with Tigers, which is about leading tiger expert Dr Ullas Karanth)
Your thoughts on how zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 could be on the rise due to man-animal interaction/conflict.
As we destroy more and more wildlife habitat, or encroach deeper and deeper into the last wilderness area, we increase our chances of coming into closer contact with species that we were not so likely to encounter earlier. The viruses they carry could then infect us, leading to more pandemics.
(Trailblazers 2.0 is a bi-monthly column where we feature inspiring adults who are doing great things, in their own way)
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