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| Last Updated:17/03/2020

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'Uncontrolled dolphin tourism is a big problem for Chilika Lake'

 Shekar Dattatri is a well-known wildlife and conservation filmmaker based in Chennai. His award-winning documentary, Chilika — The Jewel of Odisha, talks about the dying lake which was later restored to life by the Chilika Development Authority. In an email interview, he talks about the importance of conservation and much more.

Why Chilika Lake? What were the reasons for a documentary on this lake?

The impetus for making the film came from the government of Odisha's Chilika Development Authority (CDA), which was keen to have a well-researched, high quality film that would showcase the biodiversity of the lake and highlight its conservation. The fact that this was once a dying lake that was restored to life was a further motivating factor, as I believe that it's very important to also document conservation success stories.

What can be done to protect the biodiversity of Chilika Lake? 

I think the most serious problem facing Chilika is over-fishing. In any exploited ecosystem, it is important to have catch limits and open and closed exploitation seasons to safeguard biodiversity. Right now, fishing goes on without limits throughout the year.

In your documentary, boat propellers are shown to disturb the endangered dolphins in the lake. According to you what will be the best solution to protect the dolphins and to ensure the livelihood of the villagers around Chilika Lake? 

One of the big problems in Chilika is the uncontrolled growth of dolphin tourism. This has led to a competitive spirit among tourist boat operators and many of them chase and harass the dolphins to satisfy their clients. In many other countries, tourism of this sort is carefully monitored, with strict regulations on how close boats can approach marine mammals. It is imperative that such limits are imposed to make dolphin tourism sustainable.

What collective initiative do you suggest to conserve the environment?

Even seemingly benign tourism in wild habitats can have severe negative impacts when thousands or tens of thousands of people visit such places. Those who make wildlife tourism a habit should be sensitive to this problem and try to give something back to nature, such as contributing to conservation NGO or taking up initiatives that will help safeguard our vanishing wilderness.

Shekar Dattatri 

Did you face any difficulties while making or shooting this film? If yes, then what were they? Please specify. 

Making an ecosystem film is always challenging because it's hard to keep an audience engaged and interested in a film about a place. This is especially so when there are no 'dangerous' species involved. Apart from this, shooting in Chilika posed quite a few practical problems. Most of the 'action' is limited to the winter months, when thousands of migratory waterfowl arrive. And getting close to the birds isn't easy in most parts of the lake. To make matters worse, the light was hazy most of the time, making it quite difficult to get great looking footage. The only mammals that could be filmed were Irrawaddy dolphins, but they are quite shy and show very little of themselves outside the water. Filming them underwater wasn't an option because of the turbidity of the water. So every day in Chilika was a quest to find something interesting and film it successfully!

The audience for documentaries is limited but the message is universal and valuable. How do you feel can a documentary reach out to more people? 

The best way of propagating documentaries these days is online, where they can have a permanent presence and be seen by anyone from any corner of the world.

What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Are they necessary?

Most documentary films makers work quietly on their own, and film festivals are a great opportunity to interact with other filmmakers and see their work. Sometimes, film festivals can also be a place where one can market one's films and meet executives and producers from television channels. Major wildlife film festivals such as Wildscreen in the UK were very important in the days when I was producing films for international television channels.

What films/documentaries have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why? 

Wildlife documentaries by veterans of yesteryear, such as Alan Root, Jen and Des Bartlett and Dieter Plage were extremely inspiring when I first started making films nearly three decades ago. They were well researched, painstakingly shot and incredibly captivating. I'm still blown away by the quality of those early films.

Would you like to make a full-length feature film someday? 

Every year, I try to make films that are shorter! Full-length features are not my forte.

Can social media play a role in promoting documentaries or short films? 

Yes, social media can play a role, but there are so many people promoting so many things out there that things can also get lost in all the white noise!