The death of the pregnant female elephant in Kerala due to explosion injuries in her mouth has stirred emotions across India. There has been a unanimous expression of outrage and a demand for punishing the guilty. While I understand the outrage among people, I am equally convinced that we are all asking the wrong questions and demanding solutions that will have very little positive impact on wildlife conservation. It is a clear case of us missing the forest for the trees.
This is not an isolated incident. And this is also a case of selective outrage. There are complex forces at play. It is easy and probably also lazy to pass comments without trying to understand the ground reality.
Selective love for animals
Some are now saying that the explosives were probably meant for wild pigs, and not elephants. To lay baits with explosives in an attempt to kill any wild animal is not only illegal, but also indicative of the levels of depravity we have sunk to. How can it be acceptable to kill wild pigs using this technique? Will the pigs not suffer and die a very painful death? It is unfortunate that the charisma (cute quotient) of a species often determines how humans collectively respond. We have to learn to move beyond this, and realise that in nature, there is a web of life and for any species to thrive, this web needs to be in place and functional.
The attitude of Indians towards nature and animals, spans a wide spectrum. It swings from an innate reverence, especially towards certain species of plants and animals to a pretty strong sadistic streak on a routine basis. Instances of crackers being tied to animals like donkeys, wanton stoning of dogs on the street, or killing of snakes abound.
Conservation cannot be episodic and has to be planned and practised over long periods of time, ideally on a multi-decadal time scale. For nature (including elephants) to thrive, vast stretches of natural habitats, which are inter-connected and cover a variety of eco-climatic zones, are required. India’s wilderness has been fragmented, degraded and destroyed over the past several decades by our actions that have resulted in local extinction of numerous plants and animal species. In other places, we have literally rendered them homeless. This trend of destroying wilderness areas, including in and around our protected areas, is continuing unabated and needs to be confronted.
Protecting ecological integrity
The fate of individual animals is always predetermined. Death is guaranteed. It is the cause and circumstances of death that we need to keep an eye on. For conservation to succeed, habitats and their ecological integrity need to be protected over the long-term, which, in turn, will allow populations to thrive and persist.
It is vital that this nuance is understood, and we, as citizens, do not remain mute spectators, allowing the continued destruction of wilderness in India. Halting such destruction and ensuring ecological restoration has to become a national priority, and a path to real and sustainable development. Closely linked to conservation is the environmental impact of our lifestyle and consumption patterns. Each of us has to act much more responsibly, take action to reduce our environmental impacts and not pass the buck.
Thin line between animal and human rights
The circumstances under which humans hurt animals also vary. While I make a strong case against deliberate breaking of law to poach, we also have incidents where farmers, desperate to protect their crops, end up hurting animals.
Human-wildlife conflict is an everyday reality for many Indians, especially as conservation of specific populations of large mammals succeeds. Given the relatively small size of our protected areas, a significant number of large mammals are living outside protected areas in human-dominated habitats. These are the people paying the real cost of conservation, which is often not appreciated.
If conservation is to succeed and be sustainable over a longer period, we have to adopt models that are much more inclusive of local communities. We need mechanisms that do not compromise on justice when it comes to dealing with the local communities. We don’t need rules that project conservation solely as a sacred activity (which it is in its own right) while making it acceptable to deny rights, displace families and destroy the lives of people. This is not conservation. Conservation, especially in a democratic country like India, has to be law abiding and accountable. There can be no reason to make exceptions for conservation when it comes to respecting and honouring the rights of people.
It is my hope that more and more Indians will approach these complex issues with an open mind and advocate for varied models of conservation, which are inclusive and just. Models which are developed on local conditions and knowledge systems rather than on a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.
The author is CEO, Metastring Foundation. He has worked with the Wildlife Institute of India, UNDP, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, WCS – India Program, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, Foundation for Ecological Security and Greenpeace. Views are personal.