BELINDA WRIGHT

India,

Belinda Wright has pioneered innovative and trans-formative conservation strategies using state-of-the-art technology, meticulous documentation, collaborative partnerships, education, and visual arts media. Belinda approaches the criminal trade in wildlife by addressing not just the poaching industry but strategically concentrating on reducing the demand for animal parts rather than an exclusive focus on preventing the supply. Her organization, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has enabled software-aided decision support systems and innovative technological applications to create a sophisticated database which can track levels of poaching, trade, and other wildlife crimes. WPSI collaborates with law enforcement agencies throughout India, as well as the Environment Investigation Agency in China and Tibet.

This profile below was prepared when Belinda Wright was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
RECENT UPDATES

Fellow Sketch

Belinda Wright is a wildlife conservationist who believes in tackling difficult environmental issues, such as working with the enforcement authorities in India to curb wildlife crime and developing mitigation measures to reduce human-animal conflict, using new technology, meticulous documentation and collaborative partnerships.

Apart from working to improve wildlife conservation policy issues in India, Belinda and her team have built up a large network of field staff and informers who gather information on wildlife crime. This is then analyzed and checked using a state-of-the-art database, and any actionable information is passed on to government enforcement authorities, which is responsible for hundreds of subsequent cases against poachers. Their team often assists with crime cases and their lawyers help with legal advice for investigations and prosecutions. Belinda and her colleagues have built up perhaps the world’s largest database on wildlife crime. It currently holds records of over 26,000 cases and over 21,000 accused and suspected wildlife criminals. Her team uses their knowledge to do wildlife law enforcement training – capacity building for forest, police and customs officers. Over 16,000 people have benefitted from this training. Furthermore, the organization that Belinda heads, Wildlife Protection Society of India, supports community programs in remote forest areas and develops mitigation measure on human-animal conflict issues. They currently have long-term projects in eight Tiger Reserves in India.

As a direct result of their work, people nationally and internationally are now better informed about wildlife issues in India, and in particular, wildlife crime and the negative impacts of the illegal wildlife trade. Of particular note is the information the organization has provided on the scale and methods of tiger poaching and the cross-border trade of tiger parts. Belinda Wright and her team have influenced new policies on anti-poaching and anti-wildlife trade measures, informed the Indian Parliament on wildlife issues and influenced India’s stand at international meetings under the world’s largest conservation convention, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Wildlife enforcement will remain a priority for Belinda and her team, but Belinda also hopes to focus more on how to reduce human-animal conflict, which will involve trying to stop the fragmentation and disturbance of important wildlife habitats. One of her objectives is to increase the community support, which includes providing better livelihood options to communities who live around important wildlife habitats.

NOTE: This section was updated in April, 2017. Read on for the ELECTION profile.

INTRODUCTION

Belinda Wright has pioneered innovative and trans-formative conservation strategies using state-of-the-art technology, meticulous documentation, collaborative partnerships, education, and visual arts media. Belinda approaches the criminal trade in wildlife by addressing not just the poaching industry but strategically concentrating on reducing the demand for animal parts rather than an exclusive focus on preventing the supply. Her organization, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has enabled software-aided decision support systems and innovative technological applications to create a sophisticated database which can track levels of poaching, trade, and other wildlife crimes. WPSI collaborates with law enforcement agencies throughout India, as well as the Environment Investigation Agency in China and Tibet.




THE NEW IDEA

Belinda approaches the criminal trade in wildlife by addressing not just the poaching industry (preventing the supply) but also on reducing the demand for animal parts (especially those of tigers). Prior to Belinda’s work in the late 1990s, knowledge of wildlife crime was limited. Consequently, she had to use covert and often dangerous methods to collect and disseminate information in her efforts to shift the system in favor of wildlife and against poachers. Her organization, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has enabled software-aided decision support systems and innovative technological applications to create a sophisticated database which can track levels of poaching, trade, and other wildlife crimes.

Building on this success in exposing wildlife crime in India, Belinda has worked to systematically reduce the demand for tiger pelts and other animal parts by involving community and law enforcement personnel, education and awareness campaigns, and political advocacy. She has created awareness and education programs that foster positive relationships between humans and animals in rural Indian villages, particularly in the Sunderbans of West Bengal. In Tibet, a crucial hub for wildlife trafficking in South Asia, the Dalai Lama has helped to spread awareness through local communities. Belinda’s dialogues with state forest departments, policymakers, and communities, have vastly increased the awareness of wildlife crime throughout India and other parts of the world and developed a shared sense of responsibility in preventing it. Today, Belinda is renowned for her ability to creatively pursue and achieve previously unattainable goals within the conservation movement




THE PROBLEM

In 1972 India passed the Wildlife Protection Act which outlawed the hunting and trading of wild animals and established sanctuaries for tigers and other animals throughout India. However, despite this legal protection, a relatively silent yet increasing demand for tiger pelts from China, combined with India’s rising population and subsequent demand for more land, allows poaching activities to slip through the system. Though hidden from public awareness, it leaves tiger sanctuaries in disarray. Since the 1970s, thousands of skins have been traded via ancient spice trade routes with the destination being first Tibet and then China. In the absence of effective law enforcement, the industry has grown rapidly in the last 30 years, with sellers continuously increasing orders for shipments. Only in the last 10 to 15 years has the extent of the poaching and illicit animal trade become apparent to law enforcement and the public.

Despite increased awareness however, wildlife crime is still a major problem, largely due to the enormous obstacles to policymaking and governmental action. Animal trade is currently the third largest illegal trade after narcotics and arms. Wildlife crimes in South Asia involve the smuggling of rhino horn; elephant ivory; tiger skin, teeth, and bones; Tibetan antelope hair; bear gall bladder, and others. These parts have been in high demand in Tibet and China, where the skins are used as ceremonial gowns and for luxurious home décor. Similar to other cross-border black markets, cooperation regarding enforcement from foreign governments is both essential and difficult to obtain, making eradicating poaching all the more difficult.

Additionally, although there is an increasing awareness of tiger endangerment and slaughter today, this awareness is countered in many Indian minds (and thus attitudes) by the perception that the human-tiger relationship is often a zero-sum game. In many communities, such as the Sunderbans, tigers pose a threat to human life, and as a result, many tigers are killed when they enter village environs. In 2005, India passed the Forest Rights Bill which returned forest rights and land back to thousands of forest-dwelling peoples. This removed much of the conservation oversight from enforcement agencies and left conservation efforts in the hands of the communities. While this is a laudable decision in some respects, it unfortunately also carries the potential to increase human-tiger conflict.

Forest and conservation officials have historically been unable to uphold the type of protection and conservation necessary to eradicate wildlife crime, while the Ministry of Environment and Forests has lacked the sufficient resources and training systems to adequately educate and empower forest staff. Managing wildlife is a difficult task, as their populations rise and fall, human populations grow, natural disasters complicate matters, and land is mismanaged. According to Belinda, the system would be able to save the tiger population if it was truly committed to doing so, but few with the ability and power to change the system have the necessary passion and drive to make wildlife conservation a priority.




THE STRATEGY

In 1989 Belinda discovered two large parcels containing hundreds of tiger skins abandoned in a Calcutta post office. After being exposed to such a blatant wildlife crime, she dedicated her resources and time at first to documenting what was taking place. In 1994, she founded the WPSI to combat poaching and the escalating illegal wildlife trade. In its infancy, Belinda and the WPSI focused primarily on exposing the extent and severity of the tiger trade throughout India. Their systematic documentation of wildlife crime activity throughout central India would eventually lay the foundation for WPSI’s future work.

Belinda also cleverly turned her European accent and Western heritage into an advantage: She spent the early 1990s posing as a buyer of exotic skins, thus, infiltrating poaching circles. It was at this point in her career that she was able to foster positive relationships with law enforcement officials, who began to cooperate with her out of respect for her dedication. After spending much of 1994 “undercover,” Belinda compiled all known wildlife crime data within a large geographic region of India into a report for the Indian government. The government proceeded to prosecute 23 cases of wildlife crime, a revolutionary step for conservation in India at the time.

In addition to documentation and awareness building, a core component of WPSI’s strategy is curbing the overall demand for wildlife trade. Since China and Tibet are the primary importers of tiger skins from India, WPSI chose to focus on eradicating the trade through these regions. In 2005 Belinda exposed the tiger skin trade in Tibet and China when she found 83 fresh tiger skins in only five weeks. She presented her findings to the Chinese government, but encountered indifference toward pursuing conservation or law enforcement. Belinda then sent the report to the Dalai Lama, who denounced the sale and use of tiger skins, which in turn led to widespread burning of tiger pelts in Tibet. Since most skins on their way to China are channeled through Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s intervention has been critical in reducing demand for the trade.

In the Sunderbans of West Bengal, WPSI is changing the attitudes of those living among tiger populations in favor of a more positive relationship between man and animal. The Sunderbans Tiger Reserve contains a population of 35,000 people that have historically viewed tigers as a mortal threat rather than an important part of the natural ecosystem. Along with its tiger protection efforts in the Sunderbans, WPSI introduced an outreach program that has provided the neighboring villagers with a microcredit scheme, mangrove and sapling plantations, a kindergarten, and an awareness and education program to help people learn about how to interact with tigers safely and to protect them. Not only has the Sunderbans project significantly improved the welfare of its residents, but it has instilled a sustainable understanding of conservation and created better opportunities to protect the residents’ homes and environment. At least 12 tigers have been saved by WPSI’s Sunderban activities. Today, when a tiger enters the village, the residents call WPSI, who in turn alerts the forest team, which tranquilizes and removes the tiger, instead of killing it on the spot.

Another critical component of WPSI’s success is its innovative and state-of-the-art technological systems which have compiled an extensive database of more than 16,000 records of poaching and illegal trade of hundreds of different animal and plant species. These tools include GPS and species mapping as well as GIS mapping, which analyzes the availability and depletion of forest resources. WPSI has developed incentive programs to encourage volunteers and officials to report wildlife crime when they come across it. The data collected on the wildlife crimes is passed along to law enforcement agencies and has been responsible for hundreds of subsequent cases against poachers. WPSI has established extensive training programs for forest and police officials throughout India’s states and has trained over 7,000 officials since its inception.

Unlike other environmental agencies, WPSI focuses on high-risk areas and delves into issues that others have been reluctant and fearful to pursue. Not only is the work with tigers dangerous from a wildlife standpoint, it takes place on a shifting battleground with armed poaching groups and other threatening individuals. But WPSI does not focus solely on tigers. In eastern India, it has worked successfully with authorities and mine owners to allow elephants to pass seasonally through land corridors that had previously been closed off by the presence of industry. WPSI’s efforts have been vital to the creation of elephant corridors, which are critical to their migration route and survival. WPSI also does important work with endangered olive ridley sea turtles on the coast of Orissa, the last nesting ground for this species of turtles in the world.

WPSI employs 42 permanent staff members, 23 consultant lawyers, and countless more volunteers and informants. It collaborates with law enforcement agencies throughout India, as well as the Environmental Investigation Agency in China and Tibet. Through WPSI, Belinda has set up a highly successful infrastructure to prevent wildlife crime. In order to build on this success, Belinda and WPSI will in the future focus on unraveling policy obstacles to conservation and improving the outreach and effectiveness of laws.




THE PERSON

Belinda Wright was born in Calcutta into a highly pedigreed conservationist family. Her mother, Anne, was one of the founders of World Wildlife Fund for Nature-India, and was commissioned in 1973 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to select nine tiger reserves for the launch of Project Tiger, India’s first foray into tiger protection. Belinda’s father, Robert, spent decades working for the East India Charitable Trust and managed the Kipling Camp. The Wright family’s ecotourism lodge on the outskirts of Kanha National Park in central India is one of the country’s premier tiger sanctuaries. Both Anne and Robert Wright were separately conferred with the prestigious Order of the British Empire (OBE) for their services to India. 

Raised entirely in India, Belinda grew up in a house full of wild animals, including a tiger cub and a leopard. She spent much of her childhood in the jungles of Bihar, saw her first wild tiger when she was three-months-old, and first photographed a wild tiger when she was 16. This launched Belinda on the path of the wildlife photographer, where she used her artistic talent as a medium to spread public awareness about wildlife. In 1974, she joined Australian photographer Stanley Breeden on an 18-month assignment to photograph Indian wildlife for a National Geographic Magazine story, published two years later. She went on to make wildlife films for the Time Life series, “Wild, Wild World of Animals.” Belinda’s work documenting tigers began in 1982 when she created, “The Land of the Tiger,” a film that won her two Emmy awards and 14 other international film awards. Belinda’s writing and photography—with its focus on portraying important aspects of different cultures, wildlife, and conservation—has been featured in books, exhibitions, scientific journals, and magazines including National Geographic. She has co-authored five books and won several other awards including the Kodak Award for “outstanding photographic achievement,” and the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award.

Through her media work, Belinda came to realize that she needed to focus on advocacy and systematic wildlife crime documentation to make a lasting difference for the future of tigers and other endangered species. On a quest to witness the great nesting of the olive ridley sea turtles, watching thousands of sea turtles make their way up the sand in the moonlight, a rare and incredible sight, Belinda found herself given the courage and determination to begin working exclusively on protecting endangered species and their habitats. In 1994, the year she founded WPSI, Belinda took time off from her media work and traveled around India, executing numerous sting operations that led to the arrest of hundreds of poachers and traders. She has put her life on the line to curb the tiger-bone trade, including staring down the barrel of a poacher’s gun.

While Belinda does not consider her life to be a success since tigers continue to be slaughtered, she has nevertheless succeeded in institutionalizing a permanent knowledge and awareness of the wildlife crimes that exist throughout India, China, and Tibet. In her own words, “At least now, no tiger dies in vain. Everybody knows who is killing them, why they are killed, and where their parts are distributed.” In June 2003 Belinda joined her parents when she too was awarded an OBE for her “services to the protection of wildlife and endangered species in India.”

Perhaps most notable about Belinda’s life’s work has been her ability to transform her artistic portrayal of the passion and spirit of conservation into a relentless entrepreneurial drive to protect wildlife—changing the environmental face of India today. Leading by example, Belinda has created ways for others to make the right choices and is a role model for conservationists everywhere.