Tag Archives: conflict

Man-eating tigers, marauding leopards: the role of people in Human-wildlife conflict

We often talk about man-eating tigers, marauding leopards, rogue elephants– but not of the role people have in creating conflict with wildlife.

In human-animal conflicts, there is little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal

Anyone scanning the headlines for the past month would conclude that India is in the throes of irrevocable human-wildlife conflict. In this time period, a tiger was crushed by a JCB machine near Corbett while a mob screamed on, a leopard was burnt in Sariska by a crowd which also stoned forest department personnel, and a 33-member herd of elephants is being teased daily by a mob in Athgarh, Odisha.

Close encounters

In the encounters between a wild animal and a group of people, there are casualties on both sides. The question is, is conflict truly irrevocable? In several cases of conflict this year, it has been noted that groups of people have prevented the forest department from carrying out its duties. Rather than only focussing on a wild, snarling animal, a greater understanding of crowd dynamics is also called for.

A group of people is often defined as a mob if the group becomes unruly or aggressive. One must also consider if the mob has a collective conscience or whether it simply follows the cues by leaders within it. How it gets composed, and what it wants are also important.

After a leopard entered a school in Bengaluru last year, a group of about 5,000 people surrounded the school. The fact that it is dangerous to be in the vicinity of a panicked leopard is belied only by the absurdity of the fact that most wanted to see the animal and take pictures. In the case of elephants in Athgarh, conservationists have documented a mob of people attacking the elephants almost daily. Activists say this is a form of entertainment for the people concerned, as the elephants are not always harming people. While there is potential for serious conflict or injury, the mob also feels safe in its numbers.

Other mobs that have gathered around wildlife have clamoured for instant ‘justice’, gratification or resolution — in the form of killing the animal, beheading it, or parading it after its death. In Sariska last month, a leopard, blamed for killing a man, was burnt alive; the mob also hurt forest department officials. In a case last November, a leopard was bludgeoned to death in Mandawar, Haryana. The symbolic control of an animal by killing it and then parading the carcass has not escaped judicial attention. A December order of the Uttarakhand High Court said that if animals were (legally) put down, their dead bodies could not be displayed or shown in the media.

But in perhaps the most visceral and tragic human-wildlife conflict of recent times, a tiger was crushed by a JCB near Corbett after a mob demanded ‘justice’ for deaths. Two people from a labour camp working in forests near Corbett died after being reportedly attacked by the tiger. The forest department was caught in a human conflict situation — a crowd of people did not allow officials to do their difficult job of catching the tiger. The terrain was undulating. In its haste, the forest department brought in a JCB to capture the animal. The JCB attempted to ‘pick up’ the tiger, akin to sandpaper being used to snatch up a protesting butterfly. The results were gruesome — the tiger was hit repeatedly by the JCB, and crushed to death, all part of its ‘rescue’. In a video made documenting this, one can clearly hear a group of people around the animal, with a voice shouting “dabao, dabao” (press it down).

Human-human conflict

The Corbett story is telling. When going into an area inhabited by an obligate carnivore like a tiger, very few precautions are taken. Most labour camps are not provided with protocol, proper toilets, or monitoring to avoid work in the early morning or late night, and to move about only in groups.

Many cases of conflict or aggression towards animals are exacerbated by carelessness and existing human-human conflict or tensions. The question is also linked to control and which groups or classes are interested in being dominant. In 2012, when a tiger was spotted near Lucknow, members and volunteers of the Samajwadi Party declared they would catch it. This was framed as ‘public interest’. Needless to add, one needs training, not bravado, to catch a wild tiger.

The discourse around a wild animal, especially as it comes closer to people or human habitation, is that it is a criminal, a rogue, a stray, or a killer. There is, however, very little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal.

We need proper cordoning off of areas when wildlife comes close to people, with animal capture being done with full police involvement and not just with a helpless forest department. We need investigations and action against groups that deliberately incite a panicked wild animal. To not do so would be to allow future situations to become even more dangerous; and to privilege revenge over solutions.

A general mob mentality is on the rise in India. Mobs are involved in attacks related to race, food preferences, and various forms of moral policing. In the face of such ‘mobocracy’, does wildlife stand a chance?

This first appeared in The Hindu.

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Trains are killing elephants- and so is our Apathy!

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

On Monday, four elephants died in Odisha after being hit by a train.

There is perhaps no large wild animal that dies unnaturally in such large numbers in single events as do elephants due to collisions with trains. Most of the deaths are in Central and Eastern India. Thirty elephants were killed after being hit by trains between 2013 and 2017 in West Bengal. One of the worst incidents was in Jalpaiguri in 2013, when six elephants were killed in a rail collision. In December 2017, five elephants died in Assam while crossing a railway track. An elephant and a fortnight-old calf also died in a similar way near Ranchi in 2016. On the last day of 2012, five elephants (including one that was pregnant) were killed in Ganjam in Odisha after being hit by a train.

One reason why elephants die en masse is that the herd tries to save other members from the train.

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Young elephants die very often on collision with trains and vehicles on highways. Here: forest department elephant in Central India

The National Board of Wildlife recently announced that all projects in sanctuaries, national parks and eco-sensitive zones around these sanctuaries should have a funded mitigation plan to prevent mortality due to linear projects such as roads and railways. However, a more immediate need is to identify mitigation measures in all conflict hotspots, not just near protected areas.

letter drafted in February 2018 by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation (to which the author is a signatory) to Piyush Goyal, the Union railway minister, states, “Elephants are impacted in the East-Central India belt of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh because of devastation of elephant habitat and corridors by iron ore and coal mining and industrial development.”

As a mitigation measure, the letter suggests levelling steep mounds along railway lines, which can otherwise hinder escape attempts, and clearing vegetation around bends so train drivers and guards can see elephants moving.

There is evidence that this kind of mitigation can work. It takes two forms: built mitigation, such as underpasses or tunnels, and preventive mitigation, such as patrolling and clearing escape routes. A railway line through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand had killed several elephants until some basic measures were installed. A patrolling team looked out for elephants, warning signs were erected, embankments were made less steep and vegetation was cleared.

Mortality hotspots can also be identified; this is important because the presence of a hotspot indicates that trains might be moving faster through that area. A study published in 2017 noted that “broad gauge allows trains to reach higher velocities, making it harder for elephants to avoid a moving train,” and that, “after gauge conversion, the maximum speed of trains increased from about 60 kph to over 100 kph.” Apart from hotspots, the study found that most accidents happened at night, suggesting that limiting train operations after sunset and making underpasses or tunnels for crossing could reduce casualties in the area.

In practice, however, the only institutions paying attention seem to be the courts. The National Green Tribunal had directed the Assam government to curb highway roadkills, and the state recently said it had dedicated Rs 11 crore for mitigation in Kaziranga. Among other measures, a sensor system installed in the park now throws down a barrier in the path of a train when a large animal like an elephant is crossing.

However, the real danger lies in elephant passageways outside protected areas. This month, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to find a solution to reduce elephant deaths in corridors. “We cannot tell the elephants where they should go… they must have a corridor,” an apex court bench observed.

The other immediate challenge is posed by the fact that the number of railway lines and other linear infrastructure is set to increase in the country. On the question of built mitigation to help animals cross railway tracks, we need to build build overpasses and/or tunnels as well as install monitoring systems to see if such mitigative measures actually work.

The upcoming Sevoke Rangpo line in Sikkim will go through Mahananda sanctuary and elephant corridors in the area. So this line should not be built without accompanying mitigation efforts, and hotspots for elephant activity will need to be identified beyond protected areas.

Linear projects also take a toll on other wildlife. ‘Roadkill’, a new crowd-sourced citizen’s science project, documents wildlife deaths due to linear projects. In the last 100 days, apart from elephants, as many as 25 leopards and one tiger have been reported killed after being hit on roads and railway tracks.

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Roadkills India@RoadkillsIndia

20 elephants, 25 leopards, 1 tiger due to linear infrastructure in a span of 3 months. @SanctuaryAsia @BittuSahgal @ParveenKaswan @prernabindra @bahardutt @dipika_bajpai @nehaa_sinha @prernabindra @anishandheria @WCT_India @GargiRawat @NGhanekar @aathiperinchery

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

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

@sardesairajdeep

My take: Community service and a hefty fine a better way to ‘punish’ Salman Khan after 20 years: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/video/salman-jailed-maybe-community-service-hefty-fine-for-wildlife-protection-is-a-better-idea-1205843-2018-04-05 

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…

indiatoday.in

Siddhartha Basu

@babubasu

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” https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/981908747567190022 

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.

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.

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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.

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 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.

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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)