Sanctuary Nature Foundation honours conservation hero S Theodore Baskaran with Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award 2020 for his role in wildlife conservation and his continuing legacy of writings in Tamil and English to the conservation discourse
Writer, historian, naturalist, and activist, S Theodore Baskaran sounds hopeful as he gets talking about conservation. “There is more awareness among people, which is a good thing. Tigers and leopards have been protected, peacocks have multiplied and we have hundreds of sanctuaries providing a safe haven for wildlife,” he says, and hastens to add, “But, there is no denying the fact that the disruption of environment has been happening in a systematic manner.”
Theodore is the winner of this year’s Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award, instituted by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Sanctuary Wildlife Service Awards, for his dedication to wildlife conservation and his writing prowess in English and Tamil that contribute to the conservation discourse. And, for inspiring young naturalists along the way.
He believes that for any conservation initiative to gain momentum as a people’s movement, the discourse has to be in the local language. Theodore is prolific in Tamil and some of his Tamil works include Vaanil Parakkum Pullelam (The Wings that Measure the Skies, Uyirmmai Padippagam, 2012) and Kal Mel Nadandha Kaalam (When I Walked Along the Rocks, New Century Book House, 2017) .
“In rural areas, people live much closer to wildlife than city dwellers and it is vital for this discussion to be held in their language,” he explains and gives an example: “ In Chennai, the estuary of the Adyar river that attracts thousands of migrant birds, including flamingos, every winter was dredged to facilitate boating. And, no one seemed to notice. This motivated me to write in Tamil on issues surrounding Nature conservation. Think of the Save Silent Valley movement. It was successful largely because the entire discourse was in Malayalam.”
For his nature writings in Tamil, Theodore was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award (Iyal Virudhu) by the Canada Literary Garden in 2014 at Toronto. His books in English include The Dance of the Sarus: Essays of a Wandering Naturalist (Oxford University Press, 1999); The Book of Indian Dogs (Aleph, 2017) and more recently, in 2020, A Day with the Shama: Essays on Nature (Zero Degree Publishing, 2020). Besides conservation, he has written on art, history, and films, in both English and Tamil.
Theodore says it was his time on the Madras Christian College campus (a 400-acre scrub jungle that supported an amazing diversity of wildlife, including birds) that sparked his interest in bird watching. So did his childhood in Dharapuram, near Coimbatore. He elaborates: “At dusk, the orange sky would be dotted with birds returning to roost. Nature was part and parcel of our lives. We knew which snakes to avoid, and which birds and animals lived around us. That is how I developed a bond with the natural world.”
His interests in birds and wildlife eventually led him towards conservation. “The conservation movement has taken a backseat in the globalised era. Mining projects, river interlinking and dams disrupt the environment. River Amaravathi, the longest tributary of the Cauvery that flows through Udumalpet, Dharapuram and Karur in Tamil Nadu, thrived with freshwater crocodiles, the endemic mahseer, and freshwater prawns. Where are the species now? Construction of dam blocks the flow of river. Tourism has never been good for wildlife,” he says with a tone of disappointment.
From land to land
He says his years in the Civil Services are memorable. He was posted to various parts of the country, the Northeast, Gujarat, Bengal and explored wildlife havens across India.
“In 1985, I did a one-year course at the National Defence College and that carried me to Mauritius and the USSR. At Blackwood Forest, a patch of original forest in Mauritius, I spotted the Mauritius kestrel that was almost extinct with only 10 or 15 birds left. I sat in a bush patiently and the bird showed up. It was unforgettable. I also undertook a two-month course in Japan and in 1996 got a United Nations assignment in Kenya, where my wildlife dreams came true,” he recalls.
He recollects travelling in Mizoram in the 1970s: “I saw a troop of Hoolock gibbons. The apes resemble grey langurs, but with small tail and longer hands, and were jet black in colour.” He wrote a short note about it in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. It attracted the attention of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in North Carolina and he became their South Indian representative, a position he held for 10 years.
Theodore is 80 now, and says he is still short of time. “I read and write and give talks. We have to invest in conservation. Look at what surrounds you, trees, birds, butterflies… it’s an incredibly beautiful world. There is Nature right inside your house in the form of jumping spiders and lizards. We have no right to destroy any tiny creature.”