One mid-morning in the 1980s, a caller on telephone confronted me in earnest haste, “Am I speaking to the Additional Director General, Military Operations?” Noticing my reticence, he continued, “A common friend has advised me that you are best placed to help with the crisis I am faced with … please join me for lunch at the India International Center.” Rather than be seen lunching in uniform with a person I had never met before, I settled for a meeting at our home.
That was the start of our lifelong friendship with Dalip Mathai, who headed the recently constituted Wastelands Development Authority, an initiative of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. However, the purpose of his visit was related to his being the founding trustee of WWF-India and his concern of the moment was that the last surviving population of about 300 blackbucks upon an isolated patch of scrub-land on India’s east coast was on the verge of being exterminated altogether!
Dalip went on to elaborate that the 17 sq km delta of Cauvery river at Point Calamere (midway between Chennai and Kanyakumari) was among the smallest wildlife sanctuaries in the country. In the absence of natural predators, over a period of time, the population of ungulates (blackbuck, cheetal and wild boar) had increased exponentially. For instance, in 1967, blackbuck numbers were pegged at 750. But by 1986, their head count had mysteriously plummeted to 320. The Bombay Natural History Society ruled out epidemic and even poaching as the cause of the sudden decline because the sanctuary was small and The watch-and-ward infrastructure was both adequate and so well motivated that poachers simply could not go unnoticed.
The mystery deepened but remained unravelled until one among Dalip’s wide circle of conservation enthusiasts learnt that the LTTE cadres had set up a guerrilla training facility inside the Point Calamere sanctuary. And that probably at the point of the gun, they had neutralized the watch-and-ward staff and were now wantonly shooting all animals, especially the blackbuck. Could I help prevent the massacre? As luck would have it, I was to take a brief to the Chief that very afternoon and knowing his indulgent nature, I was hopeful that he would react to the crisis positively.
I shared the grim news from Point Calamere with Gen Sundarji with special emphasis that India has been the one and only home of blackbuck on planet earth! Without a moment’s hesitation, he told me to accompany him to a meeting to the PMO Secretariat late that evening. Once there, he led me to a gentleman and said, “He is your man.” The meeting got delayed and the Chief turning to me said, “Baljit, if you have conveyed your concerns, you may hand the brief to me and go home.”
Four days later, “my man” gave me the news that the LTTE cadres were indeed shooting blackbuck but not for venison; Rather, the blackbuck running at full stretch over the pale sandy sea shore presented the perfect, regulation bull’s-eye target for honing the skills of their sharp-shooters! My heart sank at this. In the next breath, he told me that he had got a firm assurance from the LTTE that henceforth they would neither target the blackbuck, nor other wildlife species in the sanctuary. Indeed, they kept their word. And the blackbuck numbers gradually began rising once again.
A couple of months later, Dalip dropped by and in a very apologetic asked for a “personal favor”. He loved passenger pigeons and maintained a coop of over 500 in his backyard. One of the young officers, a pigeon fancier, had brought a few dozen birds from Bangladesh as war booty! Dalip had known of this flock and wanted me to trace the whereabouts of the officer so that he could go and purchase a few. When I managed to contact him, he laughed: “Sir, please tell your friend that he can pick up four pairs as a gift.”