Wild Ways

Why does nobody talk about intolerance towards wild animals?

A tiger was jailed just for existing, and another leopard will now be caught for the 'crime' of being spotted.

 |  Wild Ways  |  6-minute read |   26-11-2015
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It knew I was there before I knew of its presence. It was watching me, like a ghost etched in the real world in water colours - the edges slightly blurred, and perfectly camouflaged. Its eyes were fixed on me, shining in the night. The mouth of the Indian leopard was open in a half snarl. A warning, to stay away. A warning served hot with the knowledge that it was there - in that place in time - before me.

***

Other leopards are not so lucky, and don't get to serve people with subliminal warnings to stay away.

There's a lot of talk these days about intolerance in our country. Most of the discussions are on politics and society - intolerance towards differing food habits, customs, religion, political beliefs, and mindsets. But many of us have also become more intolerant towards wild animals. Consider this: a tiger was jailed just for existing, and another leopard will now be caught - for the "crime" of being spotted. This follows many instances of other government-run or government-affiliated bodies using influence to get permission to capture rare animals and sentence them as they see fit.

Leopards are everywhere in India, and especially where they are least expected: such as the great metropolitan sprawls of Delhi and Mumbai. The Mecca of wildlife in print form - the National Geographic magazine - has just paid homage to Mumbai's leopards by releasing a series of stunning pictures and a detailed report. It is amazing, the report notes, that so many leopards live close to Mumbai's people, without much conflict.

But while the world marvels at our urban wildlife, the authorities, conditioned on the idea that wild animals should be NIMBY - Not be In our Backyard - are catching animals and sentencing them to lives of captivity.

Also read: How a golf course in Assam’s forests is the elephant in the room

In Dadri, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has a huge campus. On that campus, a leopard occasionally comes visiting. As is the case with many wooded areas, tea estates, and villages across the country where leopards pass through silently and without incident. NTPC has managed to get permission to catch this leopard, and dump it somewhere else. The reason - the leopard was found walking about. In three simple words, the reason is: it was seen. Catching a leopard because it exists is like jailing a man because he could possibly, perhaps, maybe, be a thief.

It is also reported how forest officials have called the leopard "deceitful" because despite all attempts to catch it, this leopard does not get caught. A slow clap here, for all those attached to this project - and the manner in which they have received permissions to catch an endangered animal. Leopards, of all big cats, are perhaps the most elusive. While tigers are slightly more flamboyant, leopards hate being spotted. They hide, take refuge, duck, and slide into shadows. Rarely are they spotted, and it would be a foolish leopard indeed, who would let itself be seen. Even more foolish, to let itself be trapped. It is this ability to morph into nothing that saves leopards from larger tigers, from packs of carnivores like wild dogs, and from people who make working plans for these animals.

The fact that the Dadri leopard is not being caught easily, is proof that it is a leopard that does not want an interface with people. Yet, many such "deceitful" leopards, that have existed in wooded or natural areas like campuses of the Forest Research Institute, the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy and the Wildlife Institute of India - have been sentenced to death, capture or relocation.

Why just leopards: the intolerance extends to tigers too.

A couple of years ago, Bhubaneshwar's Nandankanan zoo had a rare visitor - a fully grown, wild male tiger. The tiger wanted to get pally with a tigress in the zoo and came to sniff at her enclosure. He was there for more than a month in the zoo's vicinity, eating free ranging wild animals. He never had any encounters with people and didn't harm anyone. Conservationists, aware that Odisha has a dwindling wild tiger population, mooted the plan of catching the tiger and putting it in Satkosia, where it could populate the reserve in a safe environment. Instead, a pseudo-brilliant plan was followed - the tiger was captured and put in the zoo, so the tigress could have cubs, and for the zoo to get visitors and eyeballs. The wild tiger, never having been in captivity, in red hot rage and desperation, escaped his enclosure when he was first caught. He was caught again. He was put back in the zoo, to spend his life behind bars.

We have become so intolerant of animals in cities and semi-urban spaces that two things are happening. One, government-affiliated organisations (such as the Nandankanan zoo and NTPC) are receiving permissions to carry out "plans" without logic or foresight. Two, the real brunt - or danger - of wild animals is being borne by villagers who have no reach or influence, and no means of contacting ecologists. Should permission be granted then, to every person who wants a wild animal to be caught, or should we work on solutions of coexistence?

Also read: The white tiger is not a terrorist

It has been proved time and again that trapping and relocating big cats, especially leopards, is not a good idea. Leopards, even if moved a hundred kilometres away, follow the homing instinct of a true cat, and end up in the place they started from. If disturbed, they can be dangerous and jumpy.

Instead of raking fear, government-affiliated bodies should help allay fears using science. Fear and superstition that every wild animal will attack people is fed in large doses by intolerance. Leopard biologist Vidya Athreya stresses, "These institutions, instead of using science to address the fears of their community - which are reasonable because they do not know any better - put a lot of pressure on the forest department to trap animals, which is against the law as well. In many of these instances we have seen that it is the presence of badly disposed garbage, usually affiliated to the canteens: and dogs are attracted to this food source, attract the leopard."

The answers are in managing garbage and dog populations, or keeping dogs indoors. The answers are in controlling reasons why leopards or tigers come close to people, keeping in mind the behaviour of the particular wild animal. And all wild animals are not the same, and indeed leopards have traditionally lived close to human settlements without skirmish.

But our intolerant vision leads us to believe that just because we see a tiger, a wolf, a leopard, or any other wild-what-have-you, it is dangerous. The animals warn us to stay away. But who will warn us against each other and our "vision" and planning?

Writer

Neha Sinha Neha Sinha @nehaa_sinha

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist, and lover of the weird, wonderful, wordy and wild. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society and her views are personal.

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