An interview with Amit Sankhala
In a world that seems dominated by harrowing news, especially when it comes to the natural world, the fact that tiger numbers are on the rise is a much-needed glimmer of hope. In India, Amit Sankhala stands at the fore of the tiger conservation effort, both as a trustee of the Tiger Trust organisation and in overseeing three wildlife lodges in Madhya Pradesh. Here, we spoke to Amit about his work and inspiring optimism in the face of one of the great conservation challenges of our time.
For Amit, passion for the tiger and the environment quite literally runs through his veins. He is third in a line of eminent conservationists: his grandfather, Kailash Sankhala was known as ‘the tiger man of India’, while his father was a pioneer in local eco-tourism. The film TIGERLAND, which was made by Academy Award-winning directors Ross Kauffman and Fisher Stevens and premiered at Sundance festival 2019, was based on the Sankhala family and their heritage (you can watch the film on Amazon Prime or Discovery). Today, Amit works in Madhya Pradesh, a central Indian state with a significant tiger population.
Despite the upturn in tiger numbers in the last few years, the species remains endangered. “At the turn of last century there were 40,000 tigers in the wild,” Amit tells me. “Now, there are just 4000 in the world.”
What are the major threats to the tiger population today? Despite the fact that it’s illegal to kill tigers across India, poaching is a problem. Poaching occurs for reasons Amit describes as “illogical”: for bush meats, for selling skins, for the belief that tiger bones can be medicinal and even cure cancer. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that poachers have a conviction rate of just 4%.
Nevertheless, Amit says that while poaching is still a problem, it is nowhere near the level of 10 years ago. Nowadays, threats such as deforestation are equally significant for tigers in Madhya Pradesh. Vast swathes of jungle are being cut down to make space for highways and other development. Equally, Madhya Pradesh is a mining district (it is home to Asia’s only active diamond mine, and is rich in numerous other minerals) which leads to natural habitat destruction.
Despite the existence of poachers, tigers are revered by most of the Indian population. “There is a public outcry over the death of a tiger,” Amit says. This is especially true among villages visited by wild tigers. Often, local people will give their neighbourhood tiger a name and will think of it affectionately, even though it poses a significant danger to their livelihood.
What is unique about Amit’s work is that he is just as passionate about the plight of the tiger and as that of the communities for whom tigers raise a threat. He takes an active role in educating villagers in how to protect themselves from tigers and advocates schemes in which they are rewarded for citing tiger viewings to the authorities – this way, they can earn an income while also helping conservationists and protecting themselves. In his words, he “speaks both for the Tigers and the people who live near them.”
Even in the face of these obstacles, Amit manages to remain optimistic about the tigers’ future. “Tigers are fast-breeding mammals. One tigress can breed 24 cubs in 12 years.”
Amit is also positive about the effects of tourism on protecting the tiger population. National parks are run by the government and provide a safe haven for tigers. Tourism helps provide a watchful eye on the last remaining tigers in the wild in that the highest concentration of tigers exists in the areas where tourism has flourished. Indirectly, the safari vehicles are patrolling areas of the park. Amit also lauds the benefits of social media in spreading awareness for the tigers and provoking a productive emotional response from all over the world.
CURIOUS TO KNOW MORE?
To find out more about Amit’s conservation work, please head to the Tiger Trust website.
For more on the Sankhala family, we highly recommend the TIGERLAND documentary.
Want to spot a tiger on your own holiday? Get in touch with one of our travel specialists today on 0207 924 7133 or fill out an enquiry form here to chat about wildlife holidays in India (and please say if you’d like the chance to stay in one of Amit’s lodges!)
Alternatively, you can head to the Experience Travel Group website to explore our holidays in a little bit more depth.