Category Archives: conflict

Why shouldn’t it be a Blackbuck that brings Salman Khan down?

Bollywood actor Salman Khan was recently convicted by a Jodhpur court for poaching two blackbucks, a protected antelope species, in 1998. He has been sentenced to five years in prison and fined Rs 10,000. Before this, Khan had been acquitted for poaching chinkara in two separate cases, both for lack of evidence.

For many of his fans and other commentators, the Jodhpur court verdict is confusing. The most common argument has been that if people get away with murdering people in India, then it is ludicrous that a person should be jailed for killing blackbucks.

There are two fatal flaws in this argument. First: much of the frenzy is because Khan is a superstar. It seems the power of celebrity has lent a plasticity to the subject. Despite what this person, a certain power is arrogated to them through society granting some leeway or making the crime appear to be glamorous and creative.

The second flaw is in assuming that a blackbuck’s death can’t bring such a star down to his knees. This is even more problematic. It is a false equivalence to assume that poaching a wild animal is not ‘good enough’ to send a person to jail for five years, even if people kill people and get away with it – as Khan did in the hit-and-run case against him.

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Blackbucks sparring in Etawah. Photo by me

For example, the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai had suggested Khan should be assigned community service instead of being sent to jail, as have others. Is this because poaching is not considered a crime of public interest, or because the accused is a celebrity? At the heart of it is the fact that the focus of the crime is a non-human subject. For those rooting for celebrity poachers such as Khan, the fact that a non-human was killed – even if illegally – makes it an ‘acceptable crime’.

Rajdeep Sardesai


My take: Community service and a hefty fine a better way to ‘punish’ Salman Khan after 20 years: 

Salman Jailed: Maybe community service and hefty fine for wildlife protection is a better idea

Perhaps a tough message has been sent out to the rich and powerful that they cannot get away on the weight of their star appeal when the law explicitly prohibits killing an endangered species. But…

Siddhartha Basu


I believe active animal welfare & community service by a public figure sets a far better example to society than singling someone out for harsh retributive punishment simply because “people look up to him”, or gossip & speculation anyway condemns him as a “habitual offender” 

So it is important to unpack what poaching means. Poaching is not just the killing of an animal; it also stands for an attempt to kill. According to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, “The killing or wounding in good faith of any wild animal in defence of oneself or of any other person shall not be an offence” – but making the deliberate attempt to kill wildlife is illegal.

“Even if a person attempts to kill a wild animal protected under the WPA unsuccessfully – for instance, if he shoots at the animal and the animal escapes unharmed – this is considered poaching,” wildlife lawyer Saurabh Sharma told The Wire.

If you’d set out to kill an animal, you’d have prepared. You’d have acquired a snare trap, a gun, etc. You’d also have the intent, you’d make the attempt and you’d execute the killing itself, which may injure or murder of the animal.

Poaching a Schedule I animal (including blackbuck and chinkara) with chase and attempt will merit a higher level of punishment than animals in other Schedules, if convicted.

However, the conviction rate for poaching in India is poor, at least if the tiger data is anything to go by. The manner in which evidence is to be presented is tedious, especially when it’s easy to destroy the evidence (animal parts, corpses, weapons, etc.). So the question then morphs into whether Khan was caught because he was famous.

This is unlikely. Khan has been accused of multiple poaching attempts. He was spotted when he drove his vehicle close to a Bishnoi community settlement, where the vegetation cover was fairly open. Further, the Bishnoi community has shown enormous will in following through with the case. A Bishnoi man chased Khan down (Khan apparently attempted to knock him over while trying to flee) while the community hired a lawyer to represent them in court.

Finally, we need to address the question of what is to be done for an animal like the blackbuck, which has a stable population today. India is currently discussing whether certain animals, mostly those that appear populous and eat/damage agricultural crops, should be culled. While the blackbuck is not yet on the list of animals to be culled, another antelope is: the nilgai.

It’s unclear if public opinion about hunting blackbuck and chinkara would be different if these species were less visible. Both inhabit fairly open habitat, and the blackbuck is found in several Indian states. However, it is not rarity or restriction of range alone that engender protectiveness. For example, no one can hunt a tiger and get away with looking like a ‘hero’, and it’s not likely that tiger poaching in India will be seen as the killing of ‘just another animal’.

But the same doesn’t hold true for other Schedule 1 species in the WPA. The leopard, for example, is killed quite often by people or the state in an attempt to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. But the political ecology, glamour and public sympathy surrounding select wild species such as tigers, lions and elephants is certainly more than for other wildlife.

If we have to differentiate, it needs to be between offenders, not species. Natural justice should connote that there is a difference between people who kill a wild animal for self-defence or food and those who deliberately stalk and kill an animal for pleasure or trade. The Jodhpur court judgment mentions how Khan was accused of hunting just for pleasure.

On the other hand, several people poach animals for bushmeat or trap them to protect crops and livestock. Such offenders, usually eking out a meagre living, do not have influencers and society rushing to defend their ‘good hearts’ nor is any creativity attributed to what they have done.

Khan has tried to defend himself on the basis of his conduct after the incident, and his professional and financial clout. The judgment mentions how Khan’s defence argued that a soft stance should be because he suffered for 20 years after the incident, that he has always appeared in court on time, and because several families depend on him for their livelihoods.

But it is precisely because the convict is a popular star, and certainly not because he has a “good heart”, Khan should be punished according to the law to show that all are equal in its eyes – especially if this equality is about just two blackbucks.

This first appeared in The Wire, here.


Why are elephants at the centre of conflict in India?

Chased by people when trapped in fields, run over by trains, or hemmed in by walls – elephants are at the centre of a growing human footprint. Some elephant calves are like children born in conflict zones — insecure, aggressive, and unpredictable.

How elephants became refugees on the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city

What is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal.

In India, there are elephants we worship. There are elephants we beat for work. There are elephants we ignore. In India, we now also have elephants that are refugees. The calves of these elephants are growing up like children in conflict — confused, unpredictable and scared.

On the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city, a herd of elephants has become refugees. They left the intensely disturbed Chandaka sanctuary, and tried to move towards other forest patches. However, human activity has now surrounded the elephants. Videos show how people chase the hapless animals, who seem to be only wanting to cross roads and fields.

In a first for Odisha, a campaign, Giant Refugees, has been started to protect the elephants and grant them safe passage. Video documentation shows that in Khuntuni range of Athgarh forest division, people are harassing the herd of elephants for no good reason other than “evening entertainment”, say activists.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s office has said that the CM cares for elephants, but it remains to be seen what action will be taken.

elebd_030117024532.jpgSurrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied.

Meanwhile, two trends are emerging.

Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied. Estimated to have 2,000 wild elephants, Odisha has a robust pachyderm population. But all of that is under threat.

Apart from poaching and disturbance in sanctuaries, elephants are also getting killed by trains. For instance in 2012, six elephants — almost an entire herd — were mowed down by the Coromandel Express.

While a large population of the national heritage animal still remains in this biodiverse state, one of the biggest ironies is this: elephants are accorded the highest protection for wild animals under the law. While they have some measure of protection in sanctuaries, the same animals are barely protected as they step foot outside these parks. With time, parks are changing — and so are the landscapes around them.

Many herds have already left Chandaka sanctuary, as it has become surrounded on three sides by people and habitation. In the 1960s, tigers went extinct here, followed by the extinction of leopards.

Second, in this setting, non-traditional patterns are emerging. Across India, not only are elephants and other animals becoming refugees, they are also coming together in confusion. Usually, elephants stick to their natal herds. Now, new herds are forming with straggler elephants coming together, with the glue of confusion and bewilderment. In Alur in Karnataka, a major human-elephant conflict hotspot, a similar trend is seen — non-related males and females have come together to form “herds”.

Elephants have complex sociologies and are deeply affected by the fate of their herd members. Usually, herds only have females and young ones. In Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains, they have also died in trying to protect their calves from the incoming train carriages, earning the area the dubious distinction of being a “rail graveyard” for elephants. In Africa, studies show that elephants from herds which have witnessed trophy shooting become distraught and unpredictable.

elebd1_030117024655.jpgSeveral elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains.

“I have been observing elephants wandering in Odisha, having left the disturbed Chandaka sanctuary since the early 2000s. Entire herds of elephants have died in the press against people, mining, railways and habitat fragmentation. People say these are “nuisance animals” and “marauding jumbos” but the fact is that most of these elephants just want to have safe passage,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.

It’s not just elephants. If a refugee is someone who is evicted from its land, and thrown into conflict, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many species are being made refugees: captured and thrown out of habitat owing to poor decision-making and confused ecological initiatives.

Two “conflict” leopards were recently caught and castrated (though castration has no impact on aggression) in Sariska recently. Another leopard, which had no negative encounters with people, was picked up from Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi and sent to an undisclosed location. This leads many to believe that an animal, which is protected by law, and even if passive, is being treated like a thief, a criminal or a terrorist, and also subject to encounter killings.

The solutions are relatively simple, but need political will. And in areas outside protected sanctuaries, the solutions need more than the forest department’s involvement, as animals are being harassed, with objects or torches flung at them, opening the gates to potential fatalities on both sides.

“The state needs to send in policemen to stop crowds from harassing the elephants. As a long-term measure, better connectivity has to be provided between Chandaka and Kapilas sanctuaries and the Satkosia landscape. Prompt compensation needs to be given for crop damage,” says Panda.

The fact is, what is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal. This conflict needs to be addressed on a war footing before more lives are lost. It is estimated that more than 200 people have been injured all over Odisha in conflict with elephants in recent times.

The problem cannot be solved only by chasing elephants away, or provoking them from the apparent safety of a group of people. To give the animals passage, forest corridors, that CM Patnaik said he has identified, need to be notified and conserved.

What Patnaik and the state decides to do now, as the problem escalates sharply each day, will determine the fate of the wild and human citizens of Odisha.

This piece first appeared here

World Tiger Day: How Roads are Killing Tigers

On Saturday night, a young tiger was killed on a road near Dehradun.

You may think: are there tigers in Dehradun? Where was the tiger going? What were we doing on Saturday night – were we on a road, heading to a party, or on a leafy residential lane, propelling ourselves to a quiet, music-suffused evening at home?

The tiger, photographed while alive.

For the more imaginative among us, we could remember tales of animals and beasts that crossed roads in our parent’s time, or the joke about the chicken crossing a road. For others, it may seem odd; after all, how many countries in the world can say a tiger was crossing the road?

Tiger was later killed by a speeding vehicle.

There are many aspects that are amazing and diverse about our country. Those who use roads – or hate using them, is one of them.

The forests near Rajaji, Dehradun, where the tiger was run over and killed.

There are many among us who think that a set of gleaming, black-topped roads, winding for miles, visible from a plane, is a sure sign that the nation is on the right track, the path to prosperity – literally.

The ever-widening road which is cutting trees and shrinking cover.

And yet there are others for whom roads, built for cars – are not such good news. I have met tribal people who prefer cutting through forests than taking a road or a bus trip, because the walk through the forests, leeches et al, is shorter than traversing a dusty, noisy, pushy road.

The National Highway from Delhi, just before Agra, cuts a town in half, with a tall iron fence dividing the area into two. What do people do to cross the road? They run for their lives. Sometimes, they clamber over the forbidding fence in the mid-day northern heat. Sometimes they walk half a kilometre to find a crossing, broken apart forcibly, or at a red-light meant for cars.

Also read – Tiger is not the only animal that needs saving

In north Delhi’s Yamuna bypass, I often see women hitching up their sarees, sprinting wild-eyed across the road, denied dignity or safety. In Kolkata’s tragic flyover collapse this April which left 24 people dead, one of the most obvious lacuna in the much-delayed project was that the flyover was being made in an old, crumbling part of the city.

There was neither the passage nor the engineering rationale to build this gigantic structure, which was within arm’s length from century-old buildings. The purpose of this flyover, like many other roads, was to serve the car-using, motorised public, to the peril of all that was around this road.

Also read – What I discovered filming penguins in Antarctic’s icy wilderness

Now coming to wildlife. Wild animals do sometimes use roads. To be more specific, they are forced to use roads, as roads without speed breakers cut through national parks, tiger reserves, reserve forest, and eco-sensitive areas.

As in the case of Kolkata, the roads are built, widened and maintained oblivious to the ecosystem, human or animal, around it. On the Haridwar-Najibabad road, where the tiger was killed on May 8, three leopards also died earlier, after being hit by vehicles.

Also read – When wild elephants go on rampage and viral

A Facebook community “Roads to Nowhere” catalogues deaths of various animals on roads across the country. The species and individual animals may surprise you. The documentation of death includes tigers and leopards, known to be sure-footed and otherwise fearsome. Like all cats, indeed, like the metaphoric “deer in the headlights”, tigers freeze when light falls on them. The death toll also includes elephants, who move surely, slowly, and for long migrations, but are unable to escape a speeding truck or car. It includes birds, usually known to fly rather than walk – struck while flying low, or doing takeoff.

In April, this elephant herd was seen struggling to cross the Palakkad road in Tamil Nadu.

It includes endemic animals like the Western Ghat’s lion-tailed macaque, which spends its life on trees, occasionally coming on the road to cross over to another forest. It includes tiny butterflies which seek salt from roads, incredulously unaware of a huge vehicle charging forward. It includes ectothermic snakes and amphibians, who come on roads seeking life-giving warmth. Basically, the death toll includes all sorts of wild animals.

Also read – India is not a Republic for all species

As more roads come up on our maps and under our cars, and as forests and wild areas shrink, the deaths will only increase. Are we to continue turning a blind eye to what roads do to those who are not using motorised vehicles?

Nearly every *katte* in south India is built under a ficus. Birds & squirrels confer above, people confer below.

To stress the point, roads are used by many, and they mean different things for different people – or animals. For a cyclist, a road can be a death trap, if it has no speed breakers and motorised vehicles zip down. For a child, a road can mean looking at the patterns it forms on the ground – a mosaic of cobbles and gravel in one part, a pugdundee in another.

We could have highways that connect not just cities but citizens. It is a choice we can make, like everything else.

For villagers living close to natural ecosystems, markers and milestones are usually a fruiting tree, a holy Banyan, or a big rock. For many, roads are what is around the road rather than on it: a meeting place, a tea-stall, a place to sit.

Roads take us to places. Roads are memories. A road, a lane, a path, a walkway, is an essential part of man’s existence. Roads join people; they also displace them, as in the case with the Mumbai-Delhi Industrial Corridor. Roads take us to tiger reserves, and they also kill tigers. All over the country, roads are being thoughtlessly widened, slashing down acres of forests, thousands of trees, homes and refuge for birds, animals, and shade for people who use these areas.

Also read – Why does nobody talk about intolerance towards wild animals?

Like every Indian, I want India to have good roads. No one should live in poverty and deprivation because there is no road to his home or to a hospital. But roads have to be built according to what is around them. They can’t just be planned in conference rooms and executed in isolation.

We must decide, for instance, to have roads with speed breakers in protected areas and sanctuaries. Here, the purpose is wildlife conservation; speed has to be regulated. In our ever-growing country, these reserves are minority land use; they seem invisible while decisions are being taken.

Also read – Inky the Octopus’ prison break reveals it’s smarter than you think

We must decide how many lanes we need in these areas- are two lanes not enough, going through forests? Do we need six? As car traffic goes up, as it inevitably will, shall we require sixteen lanes one day? We love the Fast and Furious, and every car ad shows a racing car. But what of the slow and guileless; that non-motorised vehicle, that troop of walking villagers, that elephant herd, that once-fearsome tiger?

The time has come to stop our obsession with cars, and build roads that don’t just encourage speed and width, but also suitability.

The road to prosperity is a long one. But prosperity also needs thoughtfulness. We don’t need more dead tigers and imperilled pedestrians to show us that roads need to adapt to those who are forced to use them; not just those who choose to use them.

This first appeared in the DailyO.

Great Beasts III: how WE are driving Human-Wildlife conflict

What causes a gentle elephant to die on a railway track or go on a ‘rampage’? What stops the tiger from crossing the road?

Little-understood environmental clearances (roads, railways, highways), pigheadedness (making expensive walls elephants can break to keep them in) and an exclusively human-centric approach is increasing human-wildlife conflict throughout India.

Earlier this month, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore, injuring three people who tried to catch it. A few days later, an elephant tore through Siliguri town, breaking walls and smashing vehicles. Both incidents involve animals creating havoc where it was least expected: in places where people lived. And headlines suggest that we are in the deep throes of a human-wildlife conflict that consistently puts human lives at stake.

Other animal encounters are imperilling people’s livelihoods as well. For instance, in high-altitude villages in Ladakh and Spiti, snow leopards eat people’s livestock while posing no threats to the people themselves. “The snow leopard has eaten my donkeys which are crucial for my income,” says Nyamgal Lobsang, a villager who lives in Rumbak village in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park.

And the last few months have seen many moves by the government to declare species that impact livelihood as vermin: the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has asked states to report on which animals should be declared as such and culled. Many states have also named wild boars as pests; the state of Goa is considering declaring these animals as well as peacocks as vermin. In several instances, leopards, elephants and tigers have been forcibly caught and relocated away from places of conflict.

The clashes are rampant and often serious. Studies by Barua et al (2012) suggest that such interactions with wildlife entail direct financial losses as well as hidden costs, including the toll of fear, lack of social standing, loss of sleep, missed school attendance, and so forth. When Lobsang first lost his donkey, for instance, he recalls his utter frustration at not knowing whom to blame.

So, is successful conservation and the persistence of species leading to more conflict with people? “Certainly,” says Qamar Qureshi from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the MoEF&CC that works on wildlife research and management. “But the fundamental problem is not an increase in species numbers but the fact that we still do not have any policies to deal with animals outside protected areas,” he says. “We do not think about their dispersal, or the wider landscape. We manage protected areas and forget about the animal once it leaves the sanctuary.”

The human dimensions of conflicts

Blackbucks (shown here in a field in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh) often feed in cultivated fields, causing crop damage. Credit: Neha Sinha

The Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh is a good example. It serves as a hub between the Kanha, Pench, Satpura and Bor reserves. WII released a report on tiger corridors and detailed those used by tigers to move between these reserves, calling for their especial protection. But a proposal for widening National Highway 7, which bifurcates this area, has been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF&CC without even acknowledging the presence of tigers. Specifically, the FAC report says “no tigers” were found in the project area.

The ‘human’ in ‘human-wildlife conflicts’ suggests that many drivers of conflicts are the result of poor management, misguided clearance decisions and apathy. One of the worst recorded conflicts between elephants and people occurred  in the Alur area of Karnataka, where a herd of elephants killed several people in July 2014 and ate their crops. Genetic analyses of their droppings suggested that the animals were a non-traditional herd, with many of its individuals unrelated among themselves. The inference was that non-related females and males had colonised the herd and that the herd itself was created under high conflict situations. Following the deaths, twenty-three of these elephants were caught and relocated. Was the problem solved?

Far from it. “After the elephants were taken away, there is still loss of crops by other elephants. We look at the elephants as the problem and consider that taking away the elephants will solve the problem,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). But instead, we may be creating more problems. “The elephants that are there now have not killed people. So, the area is no more under the scanner. But what have we left the local people with?” he asks. “Who will address the other dimensions and reasons for conflict?”

If we looked beyond the allegedly offending animals, there lie other factors determining the context of people’s encounters with the animals. For example, the people in Alur had asked for better lighting and school buses to transport their children; a casual night-time stroll is capable of surprising both humans and elephants. But none of these demands have been met.

Apart from conflicts involving one side having gone ‘rogue’, the data suggests that there are hotspots that are spatially specific as well. Numbers put together by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO, on animal mortality as a result of collisions with trains showed that between 2011 and 2015, tigers, bisons, elephants and nilgai, and even birds like vultures, were killed. Topping the list were elephants. In 2011, trains had mowed down 13 elephants; and then 20 in 2012; 29 in 2013; six in 2014; and 11 in 2015. However, a majority of these deaths were on a single railway line: the Jalpaiguri broad-gauge. There are reports that 48 elephants have died on this line alone since 2004.

Trying to dismiss the problem

People track an elephant along the Jalpaiguri line in North Bengal. Credit: Aditya Panda

The behavioural ecology of the elephant is such that it needs to be able to move to its sources of water and food. And because of their tendency to move around in herds, more than one elephant is injured or killed in accidents. And as highways and railway tracks fragment habitats, herds are also trapped within pockets.

In Odisha, a herd of elephants is currently trapped between the Chandaka and the Kapilash wildlife sanctuaries. The elephants started venturing out of Chandaka in 2002, but the corridors since then have been eaten away by roads and factories, leaving the elephants with no means of reaching Kapilash. Meanwhile, authorities started the construction of sturdy stone walls around the same time to prevent the animals from leaving. One such wall on the northern side has actually prevented Athgarh’s stranded elephants from returning into the sanctuary. Only this year, with parts of it broken, have they managed to return temporarily.

The problem once again lies with treating the symptoms and not the disease itself.

“Watchers have been employed to chase the elephants when they come too close. The forest department appears to have decided that Chandaka should not have elephants again,” remarks Aditya Panda, an Odisha-based conservationist. “The real solution is habitat restoration but this is unglamorous and no one wants to do this. Thus, chasing off elephants temporarily is paraded as a solution. Here, a sanctuary, protected on paper by law, is being lost to apathy. In other places where government wilfully diverts wildlife habitat, what does one do there?” he asks.

The reason the elephants left Chandaka in the first place was human disturbance. “Chandaka was encroached by five villages from northern Odisha. Till 2002, there were about 85 elephants. By 2006, all but 15-20 were left. The herds have dispersed to other parts of the state that are inhospitable. Many have perished.” And those that have survived are now refugees repeatedly coming in conflict with humans. Additionally, according to Panda, the calves born into such herds have a higher chance of growing up like children do in war-zones: confused, traumatised, and likelier to participate in future conflicts.

Operating in denial

A closer look at the way environmental clearances are granted shows that the impacts of projects on wildlife have been consistently ignored. Despite the Jalpaiguri elephant deaths, the Sevoke Rangpo line, to be laid in the same area, was cleared in 2015. It will cut through the Chapramari-Kalimpong-Mahananda elephant corridor. Clearance for coal mining in the Parsa Kante-Basan coal blocks in Chhattisgarh, densely populated by elephants, was also given by the MoEF&CC, with no mention of mitigation strategies for elephants (but was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in 2014). While authorities refused to accept the presence of elephants in the area, it was eventually established by examining records of compensations provided in the aftermath of human-elephant conflicts. “Under the Environment Impact Assessment process, even studies done by institutes of repute, wildlife is just not considered,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “If a wildlife sanctuary is involved, then the animal will be mentioned. Otherwise, in most cases, there is complete denial of the animal even being near the project site.”

Simply put, denying the existence of a potentially dangerous animal leads to conflict, even if solutions exist and have been mooted. In 2010, the report of an Elephant Task Force was submitted, while a background paper for the National Board for Wildlife was submitted in 2011. Both recommend that trains should slow down while passing through known animal corridors and that sensors should be installed. These recommendations have not been implemented – and elephants continue to lose their lives in these areas, hit by trains. In Jalpaiguri, seven elephants were killed by a train travelling at 80 kilometres per hour in 2013, following a similar incident two years prior.

An important issue that causes humans and animals to become proximate to each other is food – rather, its availability and sources. Garbage attracts animals and is a determinant in conflict. The dog population has exploded due to more garbage. Leopards (and even tigers) have been known to eat dogs that forage on garbage. So, to prevent leopards from coming into cities, garbage has to be managed better. A collaborative project around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra educates people on how to avoid leopards and what to do if the cats are indeed encountered; this includes keeping dogs well protected, decreasing open garbage dumps and not crowding around the animals.

In our environmental decision-making landscape, there are various technicalities related to environmental indicators but no proper wildlife impact assessments. “We keep encountering EIAs that do not mention species. Instead of pretending there are no animals in the landscape, let us start by acknowledging their presence,” says Dutta. “We need to create staging areas where animals can safely cross railway lines, highways, etc. And we need to look at the landscape and how it is used in its totality.”

Something for the people

Tourists in Rumbak village, Leh. Credit: Neha Sinha

Another important aspect is focusing on the problems that people have. “Different state governments want to cull wild boars and other animals that may be declared vermin. In Uttarakhand, they may kill the boars for a year, but then what?” questions Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. “The focus is on the animal when it should be on the people – we have to develop proactive methods of preventing livestock loss and crop loss using traditional knowledge and new technology.”

People also suffer due to other synergistic factors, sometimes dubbed ‘human-human conflicts’. In Rumbak, a village in the Leh tehsil of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, the issue of donkeys being occasionally killed by snow leopards exacerbates the already hard life of the villagers, which includes battling the elements and cultivating stony, hard soil for the barley grown in the area. By way of compensating for snow-leopard kills, an NGO called the Snow Leopard Conservancy set up an eco-tourism initiative in the village from 2003 (and which the forest department took over in 2008). The department extended help by providing solar panels, popularising the initiative in the area and by setting up home-stays. After first getting off to a rocky start, villagers like Lobsang recognised that the efforts were to offset the losses in livestock. The initiative seeks to address people’s aspirations and not just incidents of conflict. “The animal will still eat my donkeys,” he says. “But tourists come to see the snow leopard.” Lobsang now makes some extra money through home-stays and leasing out his donkeys to tourists for carrying provisions.

As more natural habitats get usurped by human activity, conflict is likely to increase. The ‘Make in India’ programme will be creating hundreds of kilometres of highways and roads in addition to those already stumbling through reserves and sanctuaries – so it’s only fair that wildlife impact assessments should be done at least in biologically rich areas, a longstanding demand by conservationists.

This piece first appeared in The Wire.

Great Beasts I: is it us versus the ‘Beasts’?

A close-up, contested look at the debates and implications around a first for India: wide-spread, state-sanctioned shooting and culling of animals like Nilgai, wild boar and monkeys. Next up: peacocks and bison?

What are your thoughts on shooting or culling wild animals in India? Leave them in the comments below.

This is the first part of Great Beasts; the next will appear shortly.

The fate of Himachal’s monkeys are sub judice. Maharashtra and Telangana have killed hundreds of boars. At the moment, it seems innovative and long-term solutions will only be found after this year’s gunfire.

Nilgai feeding on crops. Credit: Neha Sinha

A war of ideologies has broken out between women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi and her counterpart at the environment ministry, Prakash Javadekar. Gandhi, a well-known animal rights activist, has accused Javadekar’s ministry of having a “lust to kill animals” after his ministry asked states to come up with lists of wild species which can be declared “vermin” and be killed.

Wild species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 – all except vermin. These vermin include animals like rats, crows and insects like termites. In the case of damage to human life, protected wild animals, like ‘man-eating’ tigers or leopards and ‘rogue’ elephants can be killed or removed, while individuals of others species with lower levels of protection, like nilgai and wild boars, can be killed or removed on specific orders even if they damage property. Moving from the occasional act of removing individual animals toward the more active decision to declare entire species as vermin has been seen as populist, and as coming at the cost of good management. Javadekar says he is helping farmers, while Gandhi questions the human-centric move of shooting the animals. A series of broad orders by states now allow animals to be killed, implying that they can also be trapped or tortured without the need to report back to the state.

Wild boar are now vermin in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar, Nilgai are also declared vermin in Bihar and can be killed. Maharashtra and Telangana have given orders to kill wild boars; Telangana can kill wild boars state-wide, while other states have specified districts for the culling. The orders range from six months to a year.

In fact, the culling of animals is one major issue on which the global environmental movements of animal rights and wildlife conservation diverge. The first focuses on individual life while the latter is about sustaining wild animal populations, even if that means the culling or removal of individual animals. The case of Ranthambhore’s tiger Ustad (moved from Ranthambhore to a zoo on charges of man-eating) was a case in point of these two ideologies diverging. The animal rights lobby wanted Ustad to be free while wildlife conservationists argued that Ustad, who had become unpopular with forest guards, should be captured for the sake of the sustaining the tiger population in Ranthambhore. But the new orders have wildlife conservationists up in arms, who say the orders are sweeping and encourage random killing.

The first issue is the sweeping nature of the orders, which may lead to a killing spree.

For instance, the orders for killing wild boar in Telangana stated that the animals could be killed anywhere in the state, but those that appear to be ‘running back to the forests’ should be spared. “This order was full of loopholes. We already have reports that other animals, such as spotted deer, were being poached, after the wild boar culling order. Snares and traps were being laid, which do not discriminate between animals. The entire exercise is random and unscientific,” says Nimesh Ved, a representative of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations. Responding to a petition, the Telangana high court then made the culling orders more specific. It said that protected areas would not be in the purview of the boar culling, and other animals should not be killed. However, the problem of who checks this and how poaching will be curbed still exist.

In other parts of India, there are other moral and social complexities to killing animals. “Himachal’s order on culling monkeys reduces a monkey to something like a louse. Anyone can kill monkeys,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who is fighting a case in the Himachal Pradesh high court against the order. “Additionally the orders are broad enough to stipulate that you can actually torture the monkey, trap it, and beat it.” Monkeys have for long been fed by people who believe it is a form of the Hindu deity Hanuman. “In Shimla, it is a fact that tourists feed monkeys. First you feed them, then you want to kill them,” Dutta adds.

Hunting in India

The second problem, conservationists say, is that states will allow any citizen to kill animals because vermin by definition implies that anyone can do the exterminating. This could mean a change in attitude for the worse toward wildlife, and it may complicate the protection of other species that are still deemed protected. In Bihar, the state government first announced that people with licenses can kill nilgai, three years ago. But no one came forward. The reason? Hindus don’t want to kill an animal that resembles a cow. Further, if the Muslims in the area kill Nilgai, this could lead to communal tensions. How then would the new orders, which allow anyone to kill nilgai, sit with these traditional values – the sort ofreligious or spiritual values that have aided conservation?

“Nilgai are a real problem in Bihar. Their numbers have gone up exponentially because they have been feeding on crops,” says Arvind Mishra, a member of the Bihar State Board for Wildlife. The particular landscape that Bihar has – a floodplain – also means that the animals are far from forests, and unlike Telangana, can’t always be chased into forests. “The particular sociocultural beliefs of the state mean that most may not actually want to shoot nilgai. Thus it is best if outsiders come in to shoot them,” Mishra says. Thus, Bihar has employed the services of ‘Nawab’ Shafat Khan, who has been widely seen as glorifying hunting. Consequently, in Mokama taal in Bihar, 200 nilgai have been shot.

Outsiders shooting animals for pleasure or game forms the basis of trophy-hunting, followed prominently in many African countries as well as in the US. With crop damage by wild animals having come down, others ask if it is a hunters lobby that is behind the move. “Many farmers in Uttarakhand actually are abandoning their farms and moving to cities to find work. It is possible that this pro-hunting move is actually coming from a completely different lobby – the upper-class hunting lobby, which wants hunting to start in India again,” says Vidya Athreya, a scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society of India.

But if animals are to be killed, only state authorities should do it, and not individuals, others stress. “All laws, policies and guidelines in India suggest that whenever a conflict-animal needs to be eliminated, the forest department or police or paramilitary personnel are the ones who must do it under authorisation,” says Odisha-based conservationist Adtiya Panda. “This disturbing trend of favouring a particular lobby of trigger-happy shooters is very suspicious. Why is the law being bent to indulge them in state sponsored shikar [hunting] holidays in this day and age?”

The central dilemma still holds: by banning hunting in the 1970s, India has privileged certain wild species, particularly large mammals, and culling will change these attitudes. Thus, while generations within the country consume domestic animals like chicken (which, for instance, animal rights groups will not tolerate), we have balked at the thought of having Asian bear-paw soup, which comes from a ‘big, wild’ animal. The charge that we are misusing animals and subjecting them to our whims also stands; there was a massive criticism when media reports suggested that Goa mulled declaringpeacocks and endangered bison as vermin.

Post-culling solutions

Ultimately, culling offers revenge, but not solutions. “We cull animals for a year. Then what happens? We still need to find solutions to crop-raiding by animals,” Athreya says. Panda adds, “Given the population dynamics of India and the minuscule proportion of our land area remaining under wilderness, it is never a case of too many animals here, it is always a case of too little habitat. Shooting animals like this is just random and not solution-oriented.” In fact, he suggests moving Bihar’s nilgai to Jharkhand.

“Bihar may complain of an excess in nilgai but neighbouring Jharkhand’s Palamau Tiger Reserve is practically bereft of sufficient populations of large prey species and could easily have taken in Bihar’s ‘excess’ nilgai. The 200 Nilgai that Bihar culled could have technically formed the prey base to sustain two tigers for their lifetime!” Such experiments – of restoring populations of large animals by translocation – have been done before. For instance, Indian bisons – towering, one-tonne animals – were translocated from Kanha to Bandhavgarh in 2012. Other solutions that have been used have been crop-insurance against animals, and strip-cropping to avoid planting large swathes of edible crops.

At the same time, other problems that create conflict between animals and people remain. These include vanishing forests and fragmentation of habitat; 14,000 square kilometre of forests were cleared in the last thirty years for industrial projects and artificial feeding of animals either by people or unattended garbage.

Mishra says Bihar can consider having a holding facility for nilgai, and the state will be open to innovative solutions. The fate of Himachal’s monkeys are waiting for the court’s decision. Maharashtra and Telangana have killed hundreds of boars already. At the moment, it seems innovative and long-term solutions will only be found after this year’s gunfire.

This first appeared in The Wire.




Leopard in an Indian school: leopard yes, attack, no!

Last Sunday, a leopard skulked into a school in Bangalore. This was not a back-of-beyond place, or an unheard of school. This was the heart of things: a leopard in a school, located in prosperous Karnataka’s capital, the hub for many of India’s conservationists.

The leopard was unable to leave the school, Vibgyor school, and the ‘rescue’ lasted 10 hours. Following this incident, it is reported that more than 100 schools shut in Bangalore, all of them seeing or fearing leopards. In Vibgyor, three people were injured, and what of the leopard? By the end of the day, there were 5000 people gathered there. Some press reports called it a ‘ten-hour leopard attack’, but is that fair?

Last Sunday, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore; was trapped in it, surrounded by people.

Now let me change the narrative.

Last Sunday, a wild leopard entered a school in Bangalore; went on a frenzied rampage and attacked people.

Leopard attack
Wildlife conservationist Sanjay Gubbi being attacked by the leopard during the rescue op in Vibgyor school.

Both statements have totally different interpretations. The first says that a leopard entered a school and could not leave because of the number of people; the second suggests the leopard did not want to leave, that it purposely wanted to attack people.

This is what happened: on Sunday, a leopard presumably from Bangalore’s Bannerghatta forest, entered a school, Vibgyor International. Knowing there was a leopard on the premises, people gathered, and by the end of it, there were scores of people, and tv and press cameras on the spot. The forest department sent in a rescue team.

The disoriented and cornered leopard was rescued after ten long hours, and in the process at least three people were injured.

Where did we go wrong? In the absence of the animal not knowing what is wrong and right, authorities went very wrong in not controlling people from getting in on the site. Wildlife conservationists had suggested just giving the animal safe passage so it could leave. They also suggested imposing Section 144 which prevents more than ten people from assembling. This, however was not followed.

Several amateur videos of the leopard have emerged, because so many people were allowed in to the sight, watching the leopard with the curiosity of a circus spectacle.

Here are some of the national and international headlines:

‘Leopard rampages through school, attacks six’- The Express Tribune

‘Wild leopard wreaks havoc, mauls six in Bangalore school rampage’-Sydney Morning Herald

‘Leopard attack in school’- CNN

Others say, “wild leopard breaks into high school, mauls 6”, “leopard attacks” and so on. The word “rampage” is commonly used. Any person reading these headlines would be convinced the leopard is a hardened, fastidious criminal, with a forceful intent to attack. It decides to break into a high school to unleash a rampage. It’s bloodthirsty, lean and mean.

A bit like the “jaws and claws” beasts which land starring roles in “creature feature” films: the ones that feature ravenous, sky-darkening vampire bats, furious sharks, mad-eyed mammals, and crocodiles on chase.

A bit like this:


But we can’t choose a criminal without understanding its drivers. Catching a leopard is like a military operation. It requires training, presence of mind, secured perimeters, and privacy. Just like people would not be allowed to clamber into an Army op, for the sake of both man and beast, only professionals – in this case the forest departments team of experts – should be in a capture site.

The leopard was cornered, people with no knowledge of leopards (including press people) were shouting, several tranquiliser gun shots were missed, and the drama continued for an entire day. The results are headlines and stories that show fear, terror, drama with little reflection on human interference during the day.

While this episode is over, and the leopard and the people are safe, this teaches us two lessons. One, rescue operations need to be done with equipment, standard operation procedures, and with the complete absence of a watching, shouting, untrained crowd.

Two, headlines and narratives need to stop criminalising animals, who are often victims of our bullying behaviour and habitat encroachment. Animals really don’t know better than to attack when surrounded, and they have not read our laws. Surely, the leopard deserves alternate headlines?

Twitter had a few:


Perhaps the most telling impression, that the leopard is not actually a murderous criminal, comes from Sanjay Gubbi, the conservationist who sustained grave injuries during the operation. Gubbi has released a statement on the incident, and not once does he blame the leopard.

“To all my friends, family, media and well-wishers. Since yesterday evening I have received hundreds of messages and calls enquiring about my health. I have had multiple bite marks – nearly 30 on right thigh and arm. There is a chipped bone in the elbow, muscle tear in triceps. I have had the first step surgery last night and have moved out of intensive care unit. However I have to spend few days in hospital with a further surgery planned later this week. I am unable to use my hands to receive phones or text you. I am grateful for all the support given by friends, family, well-wishers and media. This is typed by my wife at my request. Hope you all understand. Many thanks..”

And perhaps the most “biting satire” comes from this cartoon by Satish Acharya:


Can we give the leopard, and many of India’s leopards an alternative narrative?

But we are the same country that arrested a goat as a “repeat offender” for snacking on a District Magistrate’s lawn. It would help if we would stop playing cops and robbers and let the forest department do its job. Also, job applications for Common Sense without Sensationalism are invited.

(This first appeared in DailyO)

I also did a TV interview on the issue, which you can watch here:

What do you think of this entire incident? Please leave your comments below.


White tigers and Gir lions. Republic Day thoughts: are wild animals citizens?

A giant filter coffee tumbler, white tigers, wild lions, forests, coffee plantations, human progress: the state and ministerial tableaux presented in India’s 67th Republic Day parade ranged from colourful to fantastic, from beautiful to downright bizarre.

Mind-boggling or not, all tableaux have one thing in common each year: they showcase what defines the state/agency best. A lot of this is vitally regional symbolism: arts and craft (like Uttar Pradesh’s rich zardosi showcased as a giant tableaux this year); a particularly fine custom (Bihar in the past has showcased a village that plants trees when girls are born); economic achievement (Kodagu’s coffee production shown this year); and occurring with great regularity: wildlife. This year, while many states showcased forests, Gujarat presented lions; and Madhya Pradesh showed off white tigers.

Madhya Pradesh tableaux showing white tiger on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

The fact that Madhya Pradesh showed its tigers as white, not golden, is an interesting choice, a choice tied to a statement the state is trying to make.Tigers are not normally white, and their colours vary from amber-orange to deep yellow. But regional exceptions – with more or less melanism – do exist. Thus, certain tigers in Odisha’s Satkosia area are blacker than others, and many tigers from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa are a pale, bony white. Similar to Gujarat using the lion as badge of state honour – and an honour it refuses to share with any other Indian state-Madhya Pradesh is asserting its own “brand” of tigers.

 Gujarat tableaux showing Gir Lion on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

This leads us to an important issue. It is clear that wildlife is symbolically important; and it informs our citizenship.

If wildlife is part of the way we perceive our natural and regional pride, then a related question is: are wild animals citizens? As essential as they are to our nation’s experience, could you think of a tiger as Mr Khan, or a lioness as Miss Gir?

And then: do animals have citizen-based rights?

The courts have been trying to answer, at least partly, this second question. The Gujarat High Court has said that birds have the “Right to Fly” and thus should not be kept in cages. Similarly, this year, Supreme Court decreed that Jallikattu entailed cruelty to bulls and has put an interim ban on the practice. In 2013, the Supreme Court in its “Lion judgment”, said that we need to act in the best interest of species, particularly endangered species.

Thus, at least according to the courts and certain laws, wildlife appears to have rights; this implies they could also have some sort of recognition or allied citizenship. Perhaps then, tigers and lions are akin to second-class subjects, catered to when human needs are not so pressing. But like other human disadvantaged groups, not all animals are equal.

Many are more threatened or fragile than others; they need special attention, conservation action, and budgetary outlays. The Red List of species, which identifies critically endangered, threatened and vulnerable species is the basis of action on many wild species. The Red List for wild speciesflags off which “subjects” or “citizens” need more action than others, some requiring affirmative action and creation of new protection regimes, others getting by without much help.

Animals’ rights can’t be neglected any longer at the altar of human-centric development.

But within this understanding, a huge stumbling block is vision.

Most vitally, the manner in which development and wildlife is consistently positioned is antagonistic. “Development” and “wildlife” are pitted, teeth gritted, against each other. A case in point is the Supreme Court’s recent observation that roads are more important than tigers (the case was regarding the widening of National Highway 7 through the Pench-Kanha tiger reserve corridors). There are scores of other examples, wherein environmentalism – even if while voicing clearly, the ecological needs of an animal – is shown as obstructionist and downright stupid in much of public decision-making.

Whether animals are citizens, or even second-class citizens, is a matter of further understanding. Perhaps it is even a question that is only rhetorical. But in reality, we need to stop pitting wildlife against development, as our overarching understanding. Instead of assuming hostile, antagonistic positions, we need answers that are case-specific.

Animals do not ask for charters of independence, voting rights, or parliamentary representation. Tigers are too otherworldly and cool for that, even if they do end up as pulp under railway lines, and as prisoners in jail. While animals can’t be expected to fulfil responsibilities against humans (even if granted rights), the opposite is true for us. An Argentinean court, for example, said chimpanzees are non-human persons. Within our complex democracy, the fact that animals have only occasional rights, could either be folly or fool-proof. Because ultimately, it is up to voting humans to act for the non-voting.

Whether we want to extend citizenship, or second-class citizenship, to animals or not; whether we laugh at this or will give it a think; at least we can agree on this: animals deserve more than the battle-lines that speak only and repeatedly from the “environment versus development” trenches.

In short, a tiger or lioness deserve more than being decorations on tableaux.

(This first appeared in my column for DailyO)