The other side of Vantara

Possibly the first baby steps towards the conservation and rewilding of our diminishing natural ecosystems, including their wildlife

India has lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover since 2000
India has lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover since 2000

Avay Shukla

Amidst the extravagant obscenity of the Ambani pre-wedding in Jamnagar in March, there was, for me, one bright spot of hope. It was news of the establishment of Vantara, the ‘world’s largest private zoo’, spread over 1,000 acres, in which more than 10 million trees have been planted, in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

According to a very well-researched article by Ayaskant Das and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in Newsclick (‘An Amazing Zoo Story’, 29 February 2024), the facility is a personal venture of one of the Ambani scions, Anant Ambani, and boasts of 1,461 endangered and 3,889 non-endangered species of animals, some of them imported.

Vantara has a long history of litigation, objections and questions raised by animal activists. There are issues like: Is it (as it claims) an elephant rescue and rehab centre under the Wildlife Protection Act? Have wild elephants been shifted to the zoo in violation of the Act and rules? Have the rules been tweaked to accommodate the Ambanis? Are private zoos permissible at all?

These questions will no doubt wend their way through our tortuous judicial system, and I am not commenting on them because they are not the focus of this piece. What I find welcome is that, perhaps for the first time in India, a prominent corporate entity has taken an interest in a matter relating to the natural environment and in rehabilitating essentially wild species of animals. Even more heartening is the fact that this initiative is being partly funded by CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds which are otherwise disbursed on other activities.

This may be the first baby steps towards the conservation and rewilding of our diminishing natural ecosystems, including their wildlife. Rewilding is a concept and initiative which is gaining traction in many parts of the world, though it is yet to arrive in India in any meaningful way.

What it seeks to do is to revive degraded habitats and their indigenous biodiversity, which are being destroyed by mindless ‘development’ (think of Andaman and Nicobar mega container/ tourism/ township projects; the 20,000 acre solar plant in Ladakh; a train depot inside Aarey forest in Mumbai; four-lane highways through tiger reserves; and continued decimation of the green cover in the Western Ghats, just for starters).

Restoring these areas is no favour to Nature, it is in our own interest. For wildlands provide four essential ecosystem services that sustain all life on this planet: provisioning (timber, food, medicinal plants), regulatory (climate moderation, water flows, carbon capture), cultural (sacred groves, tourism) and supporting (nutrient cycles, pollination).

There is an urgency to the ‘wildlands philanthropy’ because forests and biodiversity are disappearing at an alarming rate. Globally, 10 million hectares of forests are lost every year, about the size of Portugal. As much as 30 per cent of the Amazon rainforests are gone. India has lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover since 2000, while 500 animal species have become extinct and animal populations have plummeted by 70 per cent in the last 50 years.

It is estimated that one million species of life forms are staring at extinction, primarily due to anthropogenic interventions, including climate change. Rewilding could be a means to reverse these trends.

The job is too big for governments to do, even if they had the political will or aptitude to do it (which, sadly, they don’t). In India, particularly, our colonial-minded forest departments, meagrely funded and poorly led, are ill-equipped to meet this challenge.

Just to provide an example, take our flagship conservation programme, Project Tiger: the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), which oversees 52 tiger reserves, has an annual budget of Rs 50 crore. Compare it with the Delhi horticulture department that is fed Rs 125 crore every year and you have the perspective. Ranthambore National Park has just about one fifth of the number of forest guards it actually needs. It is no different in other countries, which is why the initiative for rewilding globally is being adopted and pushed by individuals and corporate entities.

There are many dimensions to and models for rewilding, including creation of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and marine sanctuaries; removal of dams and allowing the rivers to flow freely again, leading to revival of fish populations and restoring livelihoods of people who have traditionally depended on them (European countries have removed almost 700 dams in the last two years, according to figures compiled by Dam Removal Europe; the USA has removed 2,119 dams since 2012); and creating nature habitats in urban areas as more and more natural and farming habitats are taken over by sprawling urbanisation.

Needless to say, India is an outlier and laggard in all these initiatives, except for the first perhaps. Our governments are content to trot out fudged figures of forest cover and tiger populations and to maintain that our forest area is increasing every year. Whereas the truth is that dense forests have been declining at an alarming pace and what has increased are open forests and scrub land, according to the Forest Survey of India reports.

To maintain this statistical charade, the definition of ‘forest’ is being regularly diluted — the current one defines any area of 2.50 acres with a tree cover of 10 per cent as ‘forest’. As pointed out by conservationist Aditya ‘Dickie’ Singh, by this definition, both the Bombay Gymkhana and the Delhi Golf Club are forests! (With the mandatory watering holes, of course, to cater to the wildlife that gathers there.)

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of Disappearing Democracy: Dismantling of a Nation and other works. He blogs at

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