Wildlife & Biodiversity

India’s wildlife needs its people’s empathy, not just sympathy

The trend of shooting animals declared as ‘man eaters’ is taking a toll on our wildlife, our precious natural heritage

By Saikat Kumar Basu
Published: Thursday 18 April 2019
A leopardess. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Indian subcontinent is home to five majestic cat species, namely the lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard and the clouded leopard. The cheetah became extinct in 1951-52; else India would have been the only country that was home to six majestic big cat species. In addition several small cat species like leopard cat, jungle cat, fishing cat, rusty-spotted cat, Asiatic wild cat, Pallas cat, marbled cat, caracal, Eurasian lynx and Asian golden cat live and thrive in different ecosystems across the country.

However, I am quite worried regarding the conservation of felines in India. This is because all of them suffer from the risks of endangerment due to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, poaching and wildlife trafficking, illegal encroachments into forested areas, overgrazing, forest fires and lack of suitable prey base for their survival. In 2018, the World Wide Fund for Nature released a special poster commemorating the sorry state of big cat species across the planet.

Let me give examples to back my statement. Recently, a female leopard was dubbed as a “potential man eater” in remote Uttarakhand by professional hunters. The poster had clearly stated leopards across the globe have a “Vulnerable” status and that the animal has become extinct in six countries across Africa and Asia. The Indian or South Asian leopard is the most abundant of all the leopard subspecies across the continent of Asia and is severely impacted by habitat loss and human-leopard conflict across Asia.

I would like to raise the question as how it was ascertained that the leopard in question was a man eater? Has any wildlife trap camera snap and/or CCTV footage identified it, based on spot patterns or provided any credible evidence for being a man eater? Has any direct coprology analysis of the leopard scat been made in the laboratory to identify human remains or any credible advanced DNA test done on the leopard scat to make sure there is human DNA in its scat? Why couldn’t the animal be tranquilised with powerful and prescribed sedatives and retained in a wildlife rehabilitation centre or a zoo for further inspection and observation? Why couldn’t this animal be captured and transferred to a secured zoo where it could spend its last days; instead why killing it is considered the only option when numerous other alternatives are available? What kind of wildlife management practices do the state and central governments have when they cannot even protect an endangered species?

Another recent incident that caught the attention of global media and wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists was the hunt for a Bengal tigress Avni, technically named as “T1” in the Yavatmal area close to of Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in south eastern Maharashtra in western India.

A massive tiger hunt employing 200+ personnel, five elephants, two specialised search dogs, drones and a paraglider had been pressed into service to either tranquilise her; and if not possible, put her down based on a court order released by the Supreme Court of India. T1 had been charged guilty of being a man eater and tentatively connected to the death of 13 locals. The tigress had two young cubs accompanying her and the order directed the Forest Department to collect the two cubs in case the tigress was killed.

Again, there were claims and counter claims suggesting that the tigress was a true man eater or that it was being wrongly implicated in the crime. Unfortunately, the Forest Department went against public sentiment and got the unfortunate tigress shot and mercilessly killed under dubious circumstances.

Wildlife veterinarians, conservationists, ecologists, foresters and wildlife enthusiasts across India and abroad are suspicious that no attempt to tranquilise the target animal was ever attempted and a cold-blooded murder was conducted with government approval. A tranquiliser dart was later stabbed onto the foot of the animal to address public concern. The post mortem report on the dead tigress was not also made available to the public. There is also no press release from the Forest Department to indicate the fate of the two helpless cubs that are destined to die in the absence of their mother. No information has been made available for the public indicating that the two defenceless cubs may have already died and the government is attempting to hide this information. The whole incident is shrouded in mystery.

It is sad that helpless wildlife is always at the receiving end of any human-animal conflict. We, therefore, need to introspect our own weaknesses and compulsions in failing to accommodate the plight of helpless wildlife in this equation; being pressured by ‘playing to the gallery’ kind of cheap politics.

Mostly, the evidences are grossly circumstantial and this particular case had moved through several courts and corridors of administration and finally, a death sentence was ordered without any water tight evidence.

The other alternative was that an animal would have been killed as the Indian Forest Department is completely incapable of administering proper dosages of tranquilisers even after 70 years of independence. In the past too, in life threatening incidents, both, the Forest Department and zoo authorities across the nation have failed to find a dart gun, load it and administer proper dosage of the correct tranquilisers designated for specific animals based on their body weight. In most cases, targets were missed or the animal died to due to tranquiliser overdose as very little training is imparted to forest personnel to even know these simple facts. The complete lack of skills, training and standard operating procedures for the management of wildlife in India has been paid heavily by innocent and defenseless wildlife in this country.

It is therefore, important to ask as why we are failing to understand the basic tenets of humanity and taking a toll on precious wildlife without comprehensive investigation and compelling evidences.

It is not just the question of a simple tiger or leopard or snow leopard or a rogue elephant, but a broader question as to who we are and what do we represent. We have destroyed the forest habitats of many species and pushed them so hard that they have now ventured into our life as we have left no space of choice for them. We have overturned their rights to live for our own selfish benefits and when the helpless wildlife has turned back towards us in the modern platform of human-animal conflict, our only solution has been killing, eradication or complete extermination.

This is also not just the case with India as it is being repeated in different forms across all major continents around the planet. Accidental falls or deliberate venturing of mentally unstable or heavily drugged individuals or unattended children inside the natural enclosure or cages of aggressive wildlife like tigers, leopards, lions, bears, hyenas, elephants, primates have been reported around the globe. In addition to the unfortunate human victims, who else paid the price for such debacles? The answer is obviously helpless and defenceless caged animals. Such incidents have not only been reported from developing and under-developed nations, but, also from highly developed western nations too.

Why should innocent animals have to pay the price always for our own self-mediated, unfortunate disasters? Why we are always so under-prepared with tranquiliser-based dart guns but, instantly ready to pull the triggers of real firearms directed at helpless animals? Why cannot we develop proper operating procedures in dealing with wildlife under life-threatening conditions?

A few years back, a drunk animal owner in the United States released his huge personal collection of live wild animals (tigers, lions, wolves, black bears, grizzlies) from their cages before shooting himself and committing suicide. The released animals turned into a huge security threat for local human settlements and were ultimately killed to secure the lives of the citizens. Why couldn’t they be captured or tranquilised and transferred to suitable animal retention centers, veterinary hospitals or zoos? There is no credible answer from any corners.

This is not the only case reported in recent times. Several states in India consider killing unfortunate wildlife like tigers, leopards, elephants, hyenas and gaurs as the only viable option when these unfortunate animals stray into human habitats Both, state and central governments need to take timely action and develop a comprehensive conservation policy to protect helpless wildlife of a mega-biodiverse nation like India.

Lastly, I strongly criticise the media too for publishing images of wildlife trophy hunters with dead animals lying at their feet. It is quite unfortunate that mainstream media is often consciously or unconsciously promoting the ambiguous killing of wildlife with pride and honour! This only promotes poaching and illegal hunting among those who are always bent upon exterminating defenceless wildlife across India. This is also a negative image imprinted on the minds of young kids who will look for wildlife news in your esteemed daily. Responsible media should refrain from glorifying and highflying the brutal killing of defenceless wildlife and instead become a strong voice to protect them.

In a developing country like India or in any countries from Asia, Africa or Latin America, an ordinary citizen may ask why should we spare the local wildlife or try to conserve them in their natural habitat, when it is a threat to our existence and livelihood. But we need to understand that we were the first to deprive the helpless local wildlife in surviving peacefully in their natural habitats for our own selfish needs for achieving shinning economic growth and so-called prosperity. Now that they have no place to go but to turn back to us being forcibly pushed towards the wall, we are targeting them as enemies and looking for opportunities to lawfully eliminate them. If we do not leave any space for wildlife to exist today, we will jeopardise our own existence in the not so distant future.

India being a mega-biodiverse country, has been a champion of numerous successful conservation programmes that include saving several critically endangered species from the clutch of certain extinctions over the past seven decades post-independence. Species like tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceros, snow leopard, clouded leopard, red panda, wild buffalo, bats, brow antlered deer, black buck, gibbons, monkeys, wild ass, Indian and Tibetan wolves, striped hyenas, sloth bear, Himalayan bear, Great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, Himalayan monal, various species of vultures and raptors, snakes, crocodiles, freshwater and marine turtles, tortoises, frogs, toads, salamanders and newts, indigenous fishes, birds and rare insect fauna and flora have been protected due to the rigid conservation efforts of several local and regional agencies as well by the monumental contributions of the state and central governments. Credit goes to them for the awesome job they have done in the past and are still doing to make sure that we could preserve these natural resources and heritage of this honourable nation.

However, much needs to be done to protect the last remaining forests, majestic wildlife and spectacular biodiversity of the nation with the joint effort and contribution of all stakeholders, including Parliament, state assemblies, lawmakers, bureaucrats and the judiciary.

It is important for us to protect and preserve this unique natural heritage with sincerity and enthusiasm. We should not be too reactionary once a ‘man eater’ animal is randomly pointed at without direct as well as indirect credible evidences. Modern science and technology has provided us with numerous tools and techniques to provide proofs beyond any element of doubt. We should explore all these tools and techniques and opt for several viable and judicious alternatives related to wildlife management and care. It is important that we do not jump to conclusions and make our decisions in exterminating suspected man eaters unless we have clinching evidences to link that animal both directly and indirectly to the crime for which it is being punished. Our wildlife needs our empathy, not just our sympathy.

Saikat Basu works as a freelance journalist and is passionate about issues related to ecology and environment that impact and influences the global conservation of forests, wildlife and biodiversity

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