Our attitude to wildlife conservation is flawed. We endorse a “not-in-my-backyard” conservation perspective, while simultaneously pushing for humans and wildlife to be neighbours without fences, writes Divya Vasudev
Somewhere in the rice fields of the Assamese plains, a scream pierces the night. The scream merges into an inharmonious chorus and flames light up brighter than the moon. Tempers flare, releasing pent-up frustrations and fears. As the dawn breaks, the shouting dies down, the crowd disperses back to their homes. Left behind is a once-tall pachyderm, a father of many calves trotting beside their mothers, guardian of the multiple elephant herds that range the area. Now reduced to his knees, his blood has run dry, and what catch the eye are the words etched onto his side. They shout out the feelings of the villagers towards this once symbol of holiness, our recently declared National Heritage Animal. Burnt on the flanks of the elephant are the words ‘bin Laden’.
Weeks later, I’m sitting in front of my computer, browsing the latest blog related to wildlife when I come across an article in Tehelka (A Time to Cull by Jay Mazoomdaar, 18 February) suggesting the culling of problem animals. With the image of ‘bin Laden’ in my mind, it was hard not to appreciate the merits of the author’s arguments. He bemoaned the loss of goodwill towards raiding wild pigs and deer in many parts of our country, caused by the loss of forests and the lack of success with government compensation programmes recommending preserving the erstwhile benevolent perspective towards wildlife conservation by getting rid of conflict animals. Mazoomdaar discouraged the over-sentimentality displayed by animal rights activists in posing as an obstacle to culling programmes previously initiated by the government. The author is not alone in his opinion. The newspapers, of late, have been strewn with reports, often less balanced in view than Mazoomdaar’s, of “marauding wildlife” and animals “on the rampage”. And while we do not allow the killing of endangered animals except in extreme cases, culling has been used in other countries, including the US and southern Africa, as a strategy to control wildlife population.
In effect, culling is a strategy to consider if our intention is to ‘control’ wildlife population. So is this our intention? To preserve wildlife, but in small enough numbers to be a negligible factor in our lives? Visible on safaris, while unseen otherwise? Why preserve them at all? Do we want to ‘control’ the number of these species to effectively silence the nagging voices of conservationists and animal rights activists? Or perhaps we are trying to ‘manage’ population of species in the forest that may be of use to us Medicinal herbs, trees that we use for timber, firewood and fruits? Or, are we trying to save wildlife so we do not have the blood of a species on our hands; because we believe in our heart of hearts that these species have a right to share these lands with humans? Potentially we could believe, to some extent, what Doomsday environmentalists claim. That saving the tiger and the elephant is going to ensure a healthy earth; one that can sustain us for much longer than a weakened de-greened planet can.
It has often seemed that it is the ethical reason that has spurred conservation interests among many Indians. In all sincerity, we do not want to be the ones who push species off the cliff. Our culture has ingrained in us tolerance rather than territorialisation of our lands. People in villages adjacent to forests, albeit not in that small paddy field in Assam, still speak of elephants with great respect, and when crops are raided, sadly speak of the shrinking homes of these animals rather than take to their spears. Indian wildlife biologists hold these values in esteem and do not hesitate to tout them in the eyes of the world. We talk about the fact that the only large mammal we have lost for many years now is the cheetah, a distinction not shared by many countries. The fact that animals enter our fields, eat our produce, and yet often get away unscathed is truly commendable and we do not lose a chance to point this out to our more trigger-happy cousins in Europe and America. When conservationists around the world state that economics alone will save tigers for the morrow, it is the Indian hand that is raised in dissent.
However, for a few years now, there has been an increasing trend of poisoning elephants and bludgeoning leopards. And I begin to wonder. I proudly claim to be from a culture of tolerance. But the world has become small and our culture has encountered many global forces of change. We wear jeans while visiting temples and listen to Carnatic music accompanied by guitars. Where do our perspectives pertaining to other animals stand in this milieu?
It is in the face of this quandary that I question culling as a strategy. The same holds with translocation, labelling animals as ‘problem’ or naming elephants after terrorists. We could cull a wild pig and assuage the bitterness of one raided farmer, but what we are losing is another length of the fibre that runs through us; the fibre that allowed us to accept wildlife as part of our daily life.
If newspapers are to be believed, the question of Indian perspectives surviving the tide of global forces is answered. I have already spoken of elephants on the rampage, wild pigs pillaging villages and leopards prowling our streets. We feed monkeys in our cities and towns and indirectly provide for their supper through our open garbage cans, while simultaneously cursing the growing ‘menace’ of these animals. Snakes are killed on sight, no questions asked. No matter that only a small proportion of Indian snakes are venomous enough to cause humans serious harm.
On the ground, however, I would have some hope. People are at crossroads. The pull of cultural strings that allows them to accept as part of life the occasional visit from animals is still non-negligible. But the strings are fraying, and we aren’t saving our forests from getting thinner. We suspect wildlife comes out into our fields due to the lack of food in the forests, while at the same time wielding the axe that lops their trees. We have in place a government compensation scheme to offset financial difficulties of living adjacent to wildlife. As it stands, few people receive compensation they are entitled to. However, given that we are amongst the few countries that have initiated such compensatory schemes, it is surprising that most conservationists are more inclined to dismiss it as a strategy rather than ensure a greater degree of competence in its implementation.
There is no doubt that there is competition for space and resources between humans and wildlife, especially certain species such as snakes, leopards, monkeys and elephants. And there is little doubt that this conflict needs to be addressed. We could find solutions like culling and translocation that only serve to further weaken the cultural bond with wildlife that we are trying so hard to preserve. But if this is the perspective we want to foster, let us do it in all honesty. Let us not label the elephant our symbol of heritage and of global terrorism in the same breath. Let us forget about declaring community and conservation reserves, do away with eco-development programmes and put aside our whimsical notions of harmonious co-existence. Let us relocate all humans from regions where they may be in danger of encountering wild animals and house wildlife in inviolate areas large enough to hold their populations. As of now, our attitude to wildlife conservation is fundamentally flawed, where we endorse a “not-in-my-backyard” conservation perspective while simultaneously pushing for humans and wildlife to be neighbours without fences.
The road ahead looks dismally unpromising, the only hope being either to promote inviolate areas or a more inclusive perspective to conservation. And by inclusive, I don’t mean more humans in wildlife programmes. I’m advocating that we humans should once again allow our lifestyles to become more inclusive of wildlife. They are not marauders of our lands; they are not problem animals to do away with whenever they happen to enter our vicinity; they do not prowl our streets with the intention of decimating any human that catches their eye. They are, as we are, caught in a whirlpool of human development, looking for food to fill their stomachs and a place to sleep in a world they rightfully share with us, the world we humans claim to be our own.
Divya Vasudev is a wildlife biologist