When famous tigress ‘Collarwali’ was cremated in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench in January, a part of India’s natural library burned with her. With much pomp and show, Collarwali, an important Schedule I biological specimen, was burned down according to National Tiger Conservation Authority instructions. It did more harm than good to India’s understanding of wildlife. The incident offers yet another occasion to examine the law, and how not just tigers but insects are being destroyed too.
Cremating the Indian natural library
Over the generations, our map to understanding systems of nature has been drawn through studying various life forms. The process is ongoing. The cornerstone of this study has been the examination of natural specimens. The pool of knowledge generated through the examination becomes a body of reliable facts, which is referred to as science, that gets passed onto future generations as the cornerstone of civilisation. It is the transfer of this knowledge base via genes or language that guides the survival of any species or civilisation. When this knowledge base, which stands on preserved dead bodies of life forms and other aspects of our environment, is corrupted, civilisation begins to erode.
Natural history collections in India are far and few. In 2016, India’s National Natural History Museum in Delhi and its entire collection was lost to a fire. The collections we have are largely incomplete, difficult to access, over a century old, and mostly in poor condition. This explains not only why we can count Indian authorities in the field of nature without using much ink, but also our total reliance on international experts for identifying Indian specimens. Our knowledge then depends on international institutions that host specimens from around the world, including India.
So, on 16 January 2022, India plucked another chapter titled ‘Collarwali’ from its rich collection of natural library and cremated it.
A tigress occupying the forests of Pench in Madhya Pradesh died an unnatural death due to old age, something otherwise commonly heard from zoos. Condolences poured in from politicians to administrative officers and entertainers. Some highlighted how we pay respect to a departed wild soul by performing last rites — a sentimental public testimony to an escapist policy.
Also read: How a tiger is poached in India in 2019: Breaking down the supply chain
What is the forest department paid for?
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) directs all forest officials to dispose the carcass or body parts of tigers as recovered by burning them completely. Collarwali’s fate was no different, but it should have been. There are two primary reactions to the fate of the tigress — first, the scavengers of Pench have first rights over the body of the tigress, second, why should forest officials burn up the remains of an important Schedule I biological specimen? Specimens are the backbone of biology.
NTCA says its sole purpose for burning remains is to prevent them from reaching the illegal market.
There are two ways a tiger’s body or body parts will reach any market. One, theft, if it is stolen by poachers, and two, through the forest department, if the officials participate in trade. Both ways, the question is, what are we then paying the forest department for? The very reason we pay the forest department is to protect our wildlife. Imagine police knocking on your door tomorrow, asking you to burn or otherwise destroy your valuables in order to prevent them from getting stolen!
Also read: Don’t celebrate jump in tiger numbers just yet. All is still not well with big cat’s health
Butterfly effect — Collapse across species
The systematic collapse is not just with tigers and other important mammals, but expands to insects as well. Take, for example, butterflies. Butterflies appeared in the Schedule of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) in 1986 as a knee-jerk reaction to a campaign by international insecticide manufacturers to vilify insect collecting, blaming it for declining populations. The truth only came out recently, when overuse of a particular pesticide led to what is being called ‘Insectageddon’.
The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) furnished a list of more than 300 species of butterflies and assigned them a level of protection under Schedules I, II, and III. The basis on which the butterflies were assigned to these schedules were later understood and explained by Peter Smetacek, Founder, Butterfly Research Centre, Bhimtal. W.H. Evans created a list of butterflies for India in 1928. In 1932, the second edition of his book titled ‘The identification of Indian Butterflies’ was published. He used the terms common, rare, very rare, etc. to describe the status of each subspecies. On page 28, Evans noted, “The designations Common, Rare, etc. have been assigned as the result of long experience, but a butterfly may be very common in one area and very rare in another, rare some years, common others or perhaps only to be found commonly for a very short period in a very restricted locality.” The ZSI placed all the butterfly subspecies in Evans’ book under ‘very rare’ in Schedule I and all ‘rare’ in Schedule II. The protection extended to these species became law, with no scientific basis.
After Evans’ work in 1932, it was only in 2015—a gap of 83 years—when an India-specific catalogue was published and recorded 1,318 species of butterflies.
Lack of frequent surveys and regional resident monitors have resulted in communities of butterflies being wiped out due to habitat destruction rather than specimen collection. A regional survey was conducted in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh in 2019 that found species otherwise only known from Himalayan region and Western Ghats. We had no prior idea that populations of Fluffy Tits or Brown Onyxes occur in Jashpur. We could have lost the entire population before we actually knew they existed there. These surveys also need to collect specimens for conclusive evidence and comparisons, something which is barred due to an unjustified schedule list currently in place. We cannot wait for almost 100 years to update butterfly lists.
Years later, when the time comes for restoration, we have no clue of how a lost ecosystem needs to be managed and what the ecosystem was capable of hosting. So, millions have been spent on ‘planting’ new forests resulting in green deserts.
Also read: From January to June, wildlife board gave permits that can be ‘disastrous’ for protected areas
Indian students need laws enabling specimen collection
Generational prevalence of such self-harming laws along with an international wave from animal rights organisations such as PETA have ensured a majority of Indians grows with misplaced ‘love’ for animals across species and context. Specimen collectors and collections are frowned upon by a larger and louder mass with no experience in the matter.
When crop threats like wild boar are declared vermin, it is met with resistance on how every life is important while being imperceptive of the fact that these pests have damaged not only crops but lives of thousands of farmers. The outcry must be directed towards chemical pesticides, which are poisoning crops and human health, and habitat disturbances, which are wiping out ecosystems and pushing the likes of wild boar towards agricultural fields. Few years back, a tigress named ‘Avni’ from Maharashtra also gathered sympathy for being eliminated while the sympathisers could not sympathise with tens of humans who the tigress killed.
In such a scenario, any effort towards conservation will need preserving the specimen of a fresh carcass of a schedule I species to build up India’s specimen reference collection and bring the handful of existing ones in better shape. A greater number of specimens available would mean that the existing collection can be made richer, replaced with better specimens, or transferred to states so that financially underprivileged students need not travel to faraway places to access usable specimens and participate in science. It is the regional resident youth who will monitor species composition of their area periodically, and our laws need to empower them by providing a natural library. A two-dimensional graphic representation will not convey the reality of an actual specimen.
The destruction mandated by NTCA and WLPA (1972) demands scientific rationalisation because currently, it screams incompetency, surrendering to international animal love pressure and disservice to budding students of life forms in the name of theft prevention.
Anupam Singh Sisodia can be reached out at firstname.lastname@example.org. He studies forest dependent life forms. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)