With four national awards and several international prizes to his name, Shekar Dattatri is certainly one of India's most celebrated wildlife and conservation filmmakers. Dattatri's powerful, hard-hitting films are extremely well-crafted and display a profound understanding of conservation issues. He is also the co-founder of Conservation India.

With From Killer Roads to Humane Highways, a 17-minute film about the impact of roads and highways on wildlife, Dattatri hopes to bring some much-needed awareness to this vital conservation issue that is posing a huge threat to our wildlife.

We talk to him about his work and career, his hopes for the future of wildlife filmmaking and of course, his new film, From Killer Roads to Humane Highways (watch the full film below).

You were one of the earliest wildlife filmmakers from India. But you moved from making generic wildlife films to conservation and issue-based films. Why this shift?

Yes, I started my wildlife filmmaking career in 1985, when such a profession was almost unknown in India. I loved making natural history films, and that’s what I would still be doing if there weren’t so many problems with the planet! However, in the year 2000, after I had successfully completed another wildlife documentary for international television, I began to question whether these lavishly produced ‘Blue Chip’ natural history films had any impact on conservation. Convinced that they did not, I shifted my focus to conservation filmmaking and started making issue-based short films.

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A photograph of Shekar Dattatri during a filming session out in the field. Photograph courtesy Shekar Dattatri

What do you hope to achieve by focusing on conservation films?  

My main goal is to try and bring about some tangible change through my films, wherever possible. 18 years ago, my first conservation film, Mindless Mining – The tragedy of Kudremukh’, which was made to support a campaign by Wildlife First, helped pave the way for the closure of a massive and extremely detrimental mining operation in the Western Ghats. A few years ago, a three-minute video on the Amur Falcon massacre in Nagaland that I put together for Conservation India, with footage shot by Shashank Dalvi and Rokohebi Kuotsu, not only galvanised public opinion but also convinced key bureaucrats and politicians to put a decisive end to the slaughter. My short film, India’s Disappearing Beaches – A Wake up Call’, made in collaboration with the Pondy Citizens Action Network (PondyCAN), has been extensively used by them to educate coastal communities about man-made beach erosion.

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The endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. A still from Dattatri's film 'Chilika - Jewel of Odisha.' Photograph: Vasanth Asokan

‘From Killer Roads to Humane Highways’, the title of your latest film clearly suggests what you hope India can achieve. But how far away is that milestone?  

Thousands of animals are needlessly killed on roads running through protected areas and wildlife corridors every year. Today, there are a number of measures that can be adopted to eliminate or minimise these deaths. By-pass roads, as well as scientifically designed, site-specific mitigation measures such as animal underpasses, overpasses, canopy bridges, and vehicle flyovers can make a huge difference. While it is heartening to know that these matters are now being discussed at the highest levels of government, progress has been slow on the ground. Hopefully, this film can encourage this process to move forward more rapidly. 

What do you think is the best way to communicate conservation issues to people at large – the ones who are not tuned in to wildlife conservation?  

I believe that a short, well-researched and well-made film that portrays a problem and offers pragmatic, science-based suggestions is an exceptionally powerful tool of communication. However, merely putting such films on YouTube will not help. They must be used to sensitise decision-makers in government, who are ultimately the ones with the power to effect change on the ground.

What are your expectations from the current and future league of wildlife photographers and filmmakers?  

Wildlife is in dire straits all over the world, and I personally believe that ‘consuming’ nature while contributing nothing to its conservation is irresponsible. So, all of us who enjoy photographing or filming nature must give something back to ensure its conservation. How we do it is up to each of us.  

In this context, I’m delighted to say that a large number of photographers from all over India readily came forward to contribute their images to this video on the impact of roads and highways on wildlife. I hope they will derive satisfaction from knowing that their images now serve a higher cause. Conservation pictures may not be pretty, but they are vitally important in our efforts to bring about change. 

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When highways cut through forests, they create a gap in the canopy, which forces animals such as the Lion-tailed Macaque to take to the ground, leading to such roadkill incidents. A still image used in Dattatri's new film 'From Killer Roads to Humane Highways'. Photograph: Kalyan Varma

Images for the film were also sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the WikiProject Nature and Conservation in India, which is a wonderful initiative.

In closing, I would like to thank NiF for its assistance in the making of this film, which was produced under the aegis of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) project titled, ‘Landscape Connectivity in India’, led by Dr Krithi Karanth and Dr Ullas Karanth from the Centre for Wildlife Studies, in partnership with Dr Ruth Defries of Columbia University. This is an excellent example of a scientific project using the medium of video to communicate its core concerns to a larger audience.