Born and raised in Srinagar, Syed Farooq Ahmad Gillani spent his youth trekking the Himalayan mountains and skiing the slopes of his home state and never dreamed that he would one day be key to the protection of the forests, rivers, wetlands and wildlife of his precious Kashmir. An outdoors man whose father is an educationist, he spent his life defending the wild, as part of the J&K Forest Service. He met Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai where he came to present a Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award to Arun Gour, a young 29-year-old beekeeper committed to protecting the Himalayan ranges and people of Tehri Garhwal.
You speak with passion about how the agenda for J&K must incorporate the ecological restoration of a land that generations of Kashmiri children have believed was their heaven on earth.
Yes, I see that as the only way in which my people have any hope of living the kind of carefree, safe, and wonderful life my parents gifted to me when I was a child. The Himalaya truly represents heaven on earth, and I believe generations to come will find purpose and joy in the same mountains I have trekked and worshipped all my life.
You are a diehard mountain man. Was this love imbibed from your parents?
Every Kashmiri is a diehard mountain man or woman. The mountains are the breath we breathe. My father retired as a lecturer in the Education Department and I was schooled in Srinagar. My mother taught me love for nature and the ways of mountain life.
Did you choose the Forest Service, or did that just happen?
As you know, my purpose in life was to enjoy the mountains. That I ended up protecting the slopes that gave my life purpose has been my greatest blessing. Forests, rivers, wetlands, wildlife and snow are the very soul of Kashmir. I bless my father for nudging me in 1984 to sit for the competitive exams for the Public Service Commission, immediately after I had completed my degree in law from Kashmir University. I had two choices, the Kashmir Administrative Service and the Forest Service. I qualified for both, but my heart was in the forest and that was the best decision of my life. I don’t even know where the past 38 years have flown, serving at several locations and culminating with my post as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of J&K.
But all our forests are under threat today…
They are. Between climate change and the fact that human nature tends to make us all take clean air, pure water and fertile land for granted, we lost sight of how our living world was slipping away from us, degrading so slowly that we kept adapting to and accepting the ‘new normal’ when we should in fact have been fighting to prevent the steady degradation of our ‘heaven
Among the last of your responsibilities before retirement was the protection of the Wular lake as the Chief Executive Director of the Wular Conservation and Management Authority…
That is right. Wular is the lifeline, the lifeblood, of the people of Kashmir. It is now a shadow of what it was but restoring it will not only help to restore Kashmir, but also provide employment and better health to lakhs of people. I believe these communities must be the primary beneficiaries of the biodiversity renewal that will be the centerpiece of J&K’s development plans going forward.
There is more I would like to speak about Wular Lake, but for a moment let’s shift focus. You worked closely with one of J&K’s legendary conservationists Mir Inayat Ullah, right?
He was my mentor and I like to believe I was one of his favourites. He was determined to stem the destruction of our forests and with him I travelled across our state to regions like Baramullah and Bandipore, which had virtually been turned barren. He instructed me to work with local communities and while much was achieved, I believe now is when we need more people like Inayat saheb to emerge once more to weld the issues of biodiversity, climate change and human health. I see no reason why trees for fuelwood and construction should not be grown on farmlands, leaving our forests to regenerate naturally through nature-based solutions. This will create lakhs of jobs and will start the slow journey back to climate security.
But does ‘the system’ understand such connections and the adverse impact of monoculture plantations?
We can see the impact of climate change everywhere. But as far as the wildlife of J&K is concerned, while there has been some research, a lot more needs to be done to understand the short and long-term implications of climate change. The system is changing. Young persons in Kashmir are much more aware today of the consequences of biodiversity loss than we were as children, because we never dreamed that nature could take such a beating from humans. We know now that wild species will repair and recreate wildernesses more effectively than humans can and at a lower cost, with greater social justice and resource distribution through programmes such as the One Beat Guard, One Village programme. This seeks to green lands outside our natural forests by involving Village Panchayats, Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) and Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) with whose help simple strategies, such as creating ‘seed balls’ of local plant and tree species, can help kickstart our green renewal.
You’ve also worked in the cold deserts of Ladakh.
Yes, I have served in all three regions of the earlier state of J&K – Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir. I was the DFO and Wildlife Warden at Kargil. It was a life-changing experience. The cold desert needs totally different prescriptions. I worry about the impact of climate change there because glacial melt and rising temperatures will affect local biodiversity even more severely. The snow leopard, brown bear, the mountain goats, marmots and local alpine vegetation that are a part of the life support system of carnivores, are indicators of the health of our mountains.
What a long and illustrious career you have had. Was yours an easy ride?
Life is never an easy ride, Bittu, as you know. I have worked in virtually every department including Social Forestry, Wildlife, Territorial, Soil Conservation, and even as the Director of the Pollution Control Board. It can be heartbreaking when you cannot implement things you know will be best, but we live on the successful battles we manage to win. When I was Regional Wildlife Warden in 2006, we asked for and got a complete ban on the fur trade and worked to compensate furriers who could not understand why we were ‘ruining their livelihoods’. Nevertheless, we burnt huge stocks of skins and not just those found in J&K, but from across India, including that of tigers. J&K, like many mountain states, had become a route for the illegal wildlife trade. I even opposed those who wanted the skins used as exhibits in museums. We wanted to send out a message to the noxious trade that the party was over and wildlife was now totally off limits.
What about the shahtoosh ban?
That was a tough one. We had to save the chiru or Tibetan antelope Pantholops hodgsonii (Sanctuary Vol. 41, No. 2, February 2021). We issued possession certificates for all shawls and bulk stocks held prior to the ban on the shahtoosh trade, geotagged all the shawls owned by civilians, even from the highest echelons. The process took longer, and we worked on alternative materials like pashmina wool, so the art and craft of weaving was not lost. We also offered jobs to youngsters who wanted a different life.
Talking about tough, what about the human-wildlife conflict issues?
Sometimes I stay awake at night wondering how such problems will ever be solved. I am haunted by the incident where a Himalayan black bear was burned alive in Traal. The animal died, but that served to strengthen our resolve. The onus of reducing conflict lies on us, not on bears, or leopards, or even monkeys and birds that raid farms and orchards. It’s a common problem across India and I guess we will solve this problem by working on diminishing the root cause of such incidents, which is the slow human march into wild habitats. Tourism is one very practical way to reduce conflict by turning wildlife encounters considered inimical into potential sources of livelihoods.
Which brings us to Dara and the Sanctuary COCOON Conservancy project being worked on by the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities that you and NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Fund (WCF) and some of Kashmir’s finest government officials are helping us to implement.
This is a vital initiative. We must recognise the rights of locals to livelihoods and guarantee them pride of place in all our developmental plans. People in the union territories of J&K and Ladakh are not demanding right to land, but rather to access the productivity of lands that have been theirs for generations. Dara’s communities well know the importance of Dachigam, next to which they live. By making them the custodians of biodiversity and ensuring that they are the first beneficiaries of the wilderness through controlled and well-managed community tourism, not just livelihoods will flourish, but also the biodiversity that appears to be in retreat in J&K and across India.
How do you feel this can be done?
Well, ecotourism models that have delivered both justice to communities and helped restore biodiversity must be emulated. We have managed to do so in Ladakh and hope to amplify the idea, through ideas such as your Community-Owned Community Operated Nature (COCOON) Conservancies in Dara and also possibly the Overa-Aru and Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuaries. Ditto around many of our wetlands such as the Ramsar Sites of Hokersar (see page 108) and Wular, where local communities could cater to and guide the large numbers of birders in India and overseas through the havens that are ours. There are magical areas in Central Kashmir and North Kashmir that have not been explored at all, such as the Lolab and Bangus valleys and Keran, and Karna, which are so utterly beautiful that over-crowded destinations like Gulmarg will see a drop in numbers. The areas I mention above are, however, pristine and only very controlled visitation by prior booking for birders, trekkers, or just those who wish to experience nature should be allowed.
But will the big boys move in with construction and five-star tourism and what have you?
That would kill the destination and steal livelihoods from locals, who do not need jobs only as waiters and watchmen. Ecotourism in its true sense must be understood. Luxury facilities already exist away from Protected Areas. Take Sanctuary’s proposed Dara COCOON Conservancy for example. I have seen your plans and these involve tents and treks guided by Gujjars, Bakarwals and local experts. I believe this is the future of tourism across the world and not just in Kashmir. Young people could become community tourism professionals who offer rich, ethical experiences and memories.
Insha Allah your dreams and those of young Kashmiris will come true.
Insha Allah, this will become a reality. All my interactions with people, in Pahalgam, Wular, Hokersar suggest that all they want is to be able to live in dignity, with their children free from issues such as pandemics and violence. They are not averse to such ideas, which are all ingrained in the traditions passed down to them by their ancestors. They are not enemies of environment and conservation. But we cannot offer long-term dreams without short-term solutions. They must have sustainable livelihoods TODAY, if we wish to win their support for biodiversity and climate action tomorrow.
What are your thoughts about the kinds of livelihoods that can achieve the twin objectives of self-sufficiency of local communities and biodiversity regeneration?
This is not difficult, if the policies are well thought out. Lakhs of jobs can be created to regenerate the Wular and Hokersar lakes and even the more popular waterbodies such as Dal and Nageen. Several jobs would involve soil and moisture conservation works that are labour intensive, but a very large number would create opportunities for tourism, which the very hospitable Kashmiris understand from their marrow. Virtually every Kashmiri will have an opportunity to participate in welcoming guests and caring for their every need from transport and residential stays to taking back mementos and memories. Indirectly, the collateral benefits of restoring wetlands such as Wular lake would help control floods and droughts, sequester and store carbon and directly moderate the worst impacts of the climate crisis we are all grappling with. But, ultimately, before all other claimants, it must be the local people who are consulted and who benefit.
If you had a magic wand, what three things would you wish for to bring Kashmir back to its days of glory?
This is difficult to answer. However, I am glad that the government of the union territories of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are prioritising the environment.
So, my key first wish is for this to continue. The government has already issued a series of orders that will be beneficial to biodiversity protection.
My second wish is what we have discussed in this interview. I want local people to be consulted and to be involved closely with all conservation initiatives. No more token Forestry Day tree planting ceremonies… only very real involvement by schools, education departments, the judiciary, paramilitary, NGOs and more. We need indigenous species to regreen areas outside forests. The army too could play a major peacetime role.
My third wish, and I am glad that we are working toward it, is that the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and other organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society should revive and strengthen the same ties with Jammu and Kashmir that Sanctuary helped create in the 1980s, when I was a young man. I still remember the wonderful snow leopard on the Sanctuary cover, which still has pride of place on my book shelf. At the time, with Inayat saheb, Sanctuary helped with the International Snow Leopard Foundation meeting that was hosted by J&K, which saw several conservationists and government officials from so many states across India participating.
You ask for three, I listed three, but I have many more!
OK... one more! Getting young people involved not just in urban centres but also those living close to biodiversity is key for Sanctuary. You are honouring us by agreeing to advise us.
I want the young people of Kashmir, our future… people like the lawyer Nadeem Qadri and so many others who are doing such tremendous work to be encouraged and supported. The ambitions of our generation must give way to the imperatives and dreams of the young seeking peace, goodwill and a good life.
Personally, I commit that I will work with Sanctuary and young Kashmir to overcome the negative news cycle of the past two decades and return Kashmir to the status as global players in the protection of the biosphere, as we were 40 years ago.