Our friend of the month for November is Vivek Menon from India. Vivek is the founder and executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India and also Chair of the IUCN’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group. We asked him how Asian and African elephant conservationists can work together.
Could you please tell us a little bit about where you grew up, and whether wildlife was important to you as a child?
Although I belong originally to southern India with it's elephant forests (perhaps giving me a genetic predisposition for the gentle giant), I spent a substantial part of my youth in the northern plains of Punjab, in the shadow of the Himalayas. We went on school treks in the mountains. This is where my enduring love for nature took root, as well as my desire to protect it.
You’ve been a prominent figure in Indian conservation for some time. At the risk of generalising, would you say popular attitudes towards conservation have changed in India over recent decades? Yes, I have spent close to three and a half decades in conservation. Interestingly, popular attitudes to conservation have not really changed. The India where I grew up had a strong conservation ethic, and though it may have frayed a bit (what does not in 35 years?) it has not dulled at all. Popular sentiment in favour of wildlife and nature is still high. During this time, I have seen an increasing will to save nature in the West, but a declining trend in many parts of the Global South. Even in India the political will has declined. But I wouldn’t say the popular will has declined. Africa and Asia have both enjoyed successes and setbacks in efforts to save their elephants. Can you suggest ways in which they can learn from each other in elephant conservation? I think South-South collaboration or cooperation is so important in nature conservation. Africa, Asia and Latin America have so much to learn and share with each other. When I took over as chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist group, the first thing I did was call the African Elephant chairs to the meeting. They reciprocated when they met. It is important that we meet at all levels, to strengthen this sense of brotherhood. Habitat loss, commercial poaching or Human-Elephant Conflict; which do you worry about most when it comes to Indian elephants? Well in India, it’s currently HEC which troubles me the most. 400-500 people are killed each year by elephants, and 100-200 elephants are killed by people. Habitat degradation and loss is one of the main reasons for HEC and so the two are joined at the hip. Poaching is in no way comparable although it has to be continually monitored so that it does not rear its ugly head, as it did in the mid 90s. Tigers, rhinos, lions and elephants; will they still live in the wild in India 50 years from now? Of course. Without a doubt. We have 65% of the world’s tigers and going up, 65-70% of Asian elephants and holding steady, 85% of the greater one horned rhino and going up and 100% of the Asian lions. I can stick my neck out and say that these will be there in a 100 years from now. I am not as confident about unknown species, less charismatic species and those that are great specialists. Three out of four of these are generalists that are hugely charismatic and even for the rhino, which is a prehistoric specialist, the portends are good in India. Finally, Vivek, I’m not sure how much you’ve travelled in Africa. But could we ask you to tell us about an especially wonderful place you visited in Africa….and, also, perhaps one place in Africa you’ve not yet been to... but most want to visit? I have travelled extensively in Africa and spent some time in Kenya in 1996 working with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) on the elephant census with Iain Douglas-Hamilton. My memories of Kenya - discovering Samburu with the Douglas-Hamiltons, Tsavo (to which we moved rhino) and Amboseli (the long drives with Cynthia Moss and her elephants, and snow-capped Kilimanjaro) - will always be special. I would love to spend more time in west and central Africa with the forest elephants. That is my dream for now.