Triple whammy

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Jay Mazoomdaar

If  loss of  habitat and tolerance was not enough, now hypocrisy is creating new fronts

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Unlike in the West where the bulk of potentially dangerous wildlife has been exterminated, India so far has lost only one major carnivore species, the cheetah, thanks to our traditional understanding of nature and its animals. We killed wildlife when they posed a threat but their mere presence around us never made us panic.

Our forefathers knew that, under normal circumstances, carnivores do not consider us food. In fact, wild animals fear us as much as we fear them. They crossed each other’s path only accidentally and, even during such chance encounters, offering safe passage was the mutually understood protocol. Casualties did occur when one or both sides lost their nerves and launched pre-emptive strikes for perceived safety. But those were aberrations.

People who traditionally used the forests as free grazing grounds for their cattle did not resent the occasional loss of livestock to tigers and other carnivores. That was considered a reasonable trade-off. Herbivores had limited opportunity to raid croplands because farmers had the sense and option not to plough too close to the forests.

Today, the population boom and demands of growth have made land the most sought after resource in India. The wild habitats are rapidly disappearing or getting fragmented. Simultaneously, rapid urbanisation has made the new generations of Indians, even in semi-urban areas, unfamiliar with the wild.

Squeezed for space, wild animals are now frequently running into people who have little understanding of their ways. Even the so-called village wildlife that always shared space with its human neighbours now finds them increasingly hostile. Today, “kill at sight” seems to be the default response to any wildlife outside protected forests. Leopards and elephants are the biggest victims across the country. An increasingly fragile sense of safety and competition over fast-depleting natural resources are fast changing the nature of human-wild interface from co-existence to conflict.

But since conservation has succeeded in pocket forests, wildlife, particularly herbivores, have become aplenty in those areas, threatening the livelihood of many poor farmers whose fields are routinely raided beyond recovery. In the absence of adequate compensation or effective mitigation, the survival of these farmers depends on lethal management of locally over-abundant wildlife within the legal framework. But such demands are vehemently opposed by a section of urban green activists who want the rural poor to bear the entire cost of conservation. Their resistance only encourages illegal and unchecked killings of wild herbivores across India.

Given our development rush, conflict is here to stay. Whether we rethink our defence mechanism or sacrifice the poor to the cause of conservation is the question.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
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