Co-founded Wildlife Trust of India
NEW DELHI, India––Ashok Kumar, 81, the quiet man of Indian wildlife conservation, died on August 19, 2016, after a lifetime of undercover and behind-the-scenes work on behalf of tigers, elephants, and every other iconic, rare, or struggling species on the subcontinent.
Co-founder and president emeritus of the Wildlife Trust of India, Kumar was also a former Vice President of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the first director of TRAFFIC India, the trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund.
Used common name to advantage
Only one of thousands of Indians to bear the name Ashok Kumar, many of them much more famous, Kumar the conservationist was so little recognized that for decades he did undercover investigations of poaching, corruption in wildlife sanctuary management, and wildlife trafficking under his own name, without a disguise.
“The nature of his work tends to keep Kumar in the shadows,” wrote Bittu Sahgal for Sanctuary Asia in October 2013. “One of his life’s preoccupations has been to checkmate people like Sansar Chand,” as the detective Sherlock Holmes to Chand’s role as the arch-villain Professor Moriarty.
As flamboyant as Kumar kept himself obscure, Chand became involved in wildlife trafficking at age 13, and was first charged with poaching tigers and leopards at age 16, in 1974, when he was found in possession of 676 animal pelts altogether.
Working with at least five close relatives, Chand was reportedly convicted 15 times of wildlife offenses before serving any significant prison sentence, eluding punishment even after he was caught with 28,486 contraband pelts in 1988.
Repeatedly beat the rap
Wanted for poaching in connection with 57 cases in nine states, Chand was sentenced to five years in prison in 2004, but was released on bail three months later and disappeared. He reputedly poached the last tigers at Sariska, one of the oldest and most renowned wildlife sanctuaries in India, as an act of vengeance.
Apprehended again, Chand in 2008 won dismissal of charges pending since 1992 that he had been in illegal possession of 28 leopard skins and two tiger skins. In September 2009 the Supreme Court of India suspended the five-year prison sentence Chand had received in 2004.
Imprisoned at last
But Kumar and others at last brought Chand to justice in August 2010, when he was sentenced to serve six years in prison for a 1995 conviction in Rajasthan state for possession of leopard skins. The Supreme Court of India upheld the sentence in October 2010.
Chand was not again released from prison until March 2014, when he died of cancer at the Sawai Man Singh Hospital in Jaipur.
Recalled Kumar to Sahgal, “Once in court for a Sansar Chand case, in earshot of me he said to a wildlife official that ‘I have put a contract on his head,’ and in jest I replied, ‘I, too, have placed a contract on his head!’”
Mother was freedom fighter
Kumar told Sahgal that his lifelong inspiration was “My mother, the late Urmila Shastri. She was a freedom fighter,” who worked closely with Mohandas Gandhi during the struggle for Indian independence from Britain, “and was jailed twice during the freedom movement,” in 1930 and 1942.
“We lived in Meerut,” Kumar remembered. “She was a firebrand youth leader who used to deliver speeches about India and how it should be a free country. They jailed her for that. It was a brutal era that most young persons today barely even know about. My mother became unwell, and she died young,” at age 33. “She fought for India’s freedom and I fight for the forests and wild animals that make India… India.”
Kumar’s father, he recalled “was a simple soul. He was a Sanskrit professor, and a very principled man.”
“The Man of Steel”
Kumar himself enjoyed economic success working for the Tata Steel empire. But through travel in connection with Tata Steel business, Kumar “used to visit Similipal often,” he told Sahgal, “and those forests with their elephants had me totally captivated. That was where I met the legendary Saroj Raj Choudhary, the field director of the Similipal Tiger Reserve. I fell in love with everything wild.”
Reassigned to Dubai, Kumar helped launch the Dubai Natural History Society, but returned to India in 1991 after then TRAFFIC International Director Jorgen Thomsen offered him the opportunity to start an Indian branch of TRAFFIC International.
From TRAFFIC to WTI
“The TRAFFIC office in which we began was a tiny little room in the basement of the World Wildlife Fund India building in New Delhi,” Kumar remembered. “Here I was soon joined by Vivek Menon and Mohit Aggarwal. The three of us ran TRAFFIC India,” eventually orchestrating seizures of wildlife parts, including tiger pelts, which demonstrated that Indian animals were anything but safe, despite a national ban on sport hunting introduced in 1973.
Feeling a need for a stronger indigenous Indian voice for wildlife conservation, Vivek Menon, Tara Gandhi, Thomas Matthew and Kumar in 1998 cofounded the Wildlife Trust of India. At Kumar’s death the Wildlife Trust of India employed more 150 people to manage a variety of programs nationwide.
“Champion for every living thing”
Recalled Debbie Banks, tigers and wildlife crime campaign leader for the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency, “Ashok was a champion for tigers, elephants, rhinos, Tibetan antelopes and every living thing.
“My abiding memory of him is a critical debate at the 14th Conference of the Parties to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in The Hague in 2007. On stage were the rabid proponents of tiger farming and legalization of trade in farmed tiger parts. There was a heavy contingency of government and non-government delegates from tiger range states in the room. Loud booming voices from India and Nepal in particular were bellowing back at the speakers, arguing why tiger farming is a conservation threat, not a conservation solution.
“It was Ashok, however, who strode cool as a cucumber to the front of the room and lambasted those on stage. Their arguments fell to pieces in front of everyone.
“The all-important CITES decision that tigers should not be bred for domestic or international trade in their parts and products was adopted,” Banks finished, noting that “Ashokji left on the same day as Ranthambore’s famous tigress Machali, she at the grand old age of 19.”
Believed to have been the most photographed tigress in the world, Machali was featured in Tiger Queen, a 50-minute documentary aired on the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels, and in Queen of Tigers, a BBC’s Natural World episode broadcast in 2012.