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: 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…


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” 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.


On the dilemma over the Rhino Horn

This first appeared here.

Discussion: protecting Rhinos is bloody and tiring business. The battles are not fair, with the poachers being better armed. Should India move towards de-horning rhinos, in order to give the animal a fair shot at life? I argue no, as this sets a wrong precedent for both the rhino and other animals (would we consider de-tusking elephants, if we are de-horning rhinos?). What are your thoughts? Leave them below.

On the dilemma over the rhino horn


SAVING THE RHINO: While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Hindu: SAVING THE RHINO: While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Intervening to remove a rhino’s horn, in response to a patently illegal activity, may set a dangerous precedent

In the luscious wet forests and golden grasslands of Assam, a keratinous debate is brewing. The debate is about the Rhinoceros unicornis, the One-horned Rhino of India, and its single horn. The rhino, short-tempered and evolutionarily ancient, is an animal with enigma: one which writer Rudyard Kipling described as wearing a suit of armour, a great beast which survived the Pleistocene Mass Extinction of animals, and whose single, mounted horn is both a mystery and a product of exceptional evolution. Tragically, this defining characteristic is also the reason for the rhino’s continuous decimation: rhinos are poached for their horns, with mounted, gunned battles leading to losses of forest guards, conservation effort, and the very lives of the animals in our states.

The Assam government now has a proposal to take away the ostensible source of death and illicit trade: the rhino’s horn itself. An expert committee has been constituted by the State to consider the ‘feasibility and necessity’ of de-horning rhinos, in a move to ‘save’ them. At the moment, the proposal suggests that the horns of rhinos that ‘stray’ outside protected areas, or rhinos that need to be translocated, should be ‘trimmed’ (‘Assam Government awaiting expert opinion on trimming rhino horns’, The Hindu, February 13). Comments on this issue are open till the end of the month.

At one level, this move signals the desire of the State to address a long drawn out and exhausting battle. In Assam itself, rhinos are poached every few weeks, and 11 have been killed this year. Poachers are known to carry sophisticated weapons like AK-47s, and are ruthless. Yet, in the protection of rhinos, the forest department’s role is legendary: Assam became the first State in India to issue ‘shoot at sight’ orders for poachers in Kaziranga National Park, boosting the rhino population.

Of one horns and poachers

However, the battle to protect the rhino, whose horn is seen as nothing less than gold or cocaine in the illicit market, only starts with healthy populations. Poachers strike opportunistically. Being a high stakes and high-risk trade, it is unlikely they will stop until the last rhino is gone forever.

And here is where the decision to de-horn rhinos needs to be put into broader perspective: the ecological role of the horn, the open question of addressing poachers as an audience, and the very ethics of intervention.

Unlike the African rhino, the Indian rhino has a single horn. This horn is made of keratin and if cut in a way that includes the skull, it will not grow back. If cut in a manner which excludes the skull it is likely to regrow. While the Assam government stresses that the proposal being considered is only for temporary trimming, I don’t believe the most significant question is whether the horn is removed temporarily or permanently. Rather, the essential question is: who is the audience for this exercise?

The rhino is considered the most coveted animal in the illegal trade. By removing its horn, we assume that there is perfect complicity between demand and supply of this product, the horn. But this is not the case. Evidence suggests that poachers kill anyway, being part of a violent, and ultimately dangerously illegal occupation.

In African countries, where de-horning has been tried as a measure to protect rhinos, poachers have killed dehorned rhinos out of vengeance. In India, poachers have killed female rhinos for their horns, even though they have horns significantly smaller than those of males. In a nutshell then, poachers trap, shoot or kill opportunistically, and the size of the horn (or even its presence) may not be a deciding factor.

The second, much more complicated problem to mull is that of protection of rhinos that don’t get dehorned. This is on the same lines as the first question: if the audience for the dehorning exercise is the poacher, then we cannot assume he will leave poaching altogether because stray rhinos (which are technically easier to poach) don’t have horns. In fact, this may victimise regular rhinos more, and it is most likely that rhinos with horns inside protected areas like Kaziranga, Pobitora and Manas may be attacked with greater gusto.

The ethics of intervention

The debate surrounding rhino conservation in Assam today is a direct response to the social reality of rhino poaching. The ecological consideration of the role of the horn for rhino reproduction and feeding may not have been the primary deciding factor in this debate. Indeed, the role of the rhino horn has been poorly understood.

But field observations confirm that successful males are also those who have large horns, and the horn has been seen as used in foraging for food. Even if we consider a deficiency of data on the role of the horn — while the animal possesses it — it will be difficult to consider the answer to the opposite question: can the rhino lead a normal life without the horn?

Here is where the most difficult question of all comes in: the very ethics of our intervention. Intervening to remove a rhino’s horn, in response to a patently illegal activity, may set a dangerous precedent. There are several species which are highly prized in the poaching trade, and these include tigers, lions, tokay geckos, and elephants. Tigers and lions are killed for their skins, nails and bones, tokay geckos for their body parts, and till recently, elephants were slaughtered in India for their ivory.

Dehorning rhinos may or may not stem poaching of rhinos. But it may set a precedent for similar such exercises, which are seen as a management tool, but have unknown impacts on the actual life and ecology of the animal. If we dehorn rhinos, we may at some time also consider de-tusking elephants. Finally, the impact intended on the ‘audience’ of poachers itself is unknown. In the absence of rhinos, will poachers pack their bags, or will they move towards capture of other species?

Animals do not live in the boxes or bestiaries we make for them. The rhino’s horn has been seen as a symbol of power, and in our human imagination, the horn has pride of place, as in the symbol for Assam Oil, and many other Assamese metaphors. In effect, the rhino did not ask for its horn to be understood as power, and transference of this power to humans, whether as a sheath for a dagger or under Traditional Chinese Medicine.

While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. These are forces which we should not buckle to, for reasons both logical and ethical. The answers will lie in demonstrating seriousness in solving the actual problem: through higher conviction rates for poaching cases, enforcement, vigilance and carrying forward the commitment the Assam government has already shown. There is no other means of saving the unfortunate rhino.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal. Email: n.sinha@bnhs.org)

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