Dr Asad Rahmani
The writer is an ornithologist and conservationist; former director of BNHS and now the scientific adviser to The Corbett Foundation as well as the governing council member of Wetlands International, South Asia
Recently I read a news in the Indian Express titled “Chhattisgarh jail turns safe shelter to terrified villagers against marauding wild elephants”. For most people, there is nothing wrong with the terminology, but is it right to use this strong word for normal animal behaviour? Do the elephants know that they are not supposed to eat the paddy crop that has been planted on their traditional migratory route?
During the monsoons, we often read newspaper stories about the “flood fury” of the holy Ganga and the noble Brahmaputra. We forget that we have built houses, mostly illegally, on the floodplains; we have tilled the floodplains close to the margin of the rivers or on temporary islands; we have built barrages; and constructed long bunds on the normal river courses. When natural floods occur in these rivers and remove obstructions in their course, we call it ‘flood fury’ or other imaginative terms like “Brahmaputra ravages”. The terminology that is more apt for humans, we use it for natural processes.
The dictionary meaning of marauder is someone who roams around looking for things to steal or maraud, in short, a raider, plunderer, pillager, or looter. Can we label the gentle giants, whose family and social life will shame us, with these negative dockets? Do elephants know that they are not supposed to eat human-grown crops, least they are called raiders? Do elephants know that they are not supposed to react to people who are throwing crackers or stones when they cross their traditional routes where humans have built their homes? A small kick by an irritated elephant to the tormentor would kill him, giving another opportunity to people and newspapers to label the harassed animal as a “killer beast”.
Another term, now an integral part of the conservation lexicon, is Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC). Conflict means a fight or an argument, or a difference between two or more ideas, wishes, etc. I checked many dictionaries but could not find the term ‘conflict’ in the context of humans and animals. Animals have conflict within a species for space (territory), food, and sex. We do not call a cheetah chasing a gazelle a ‘conflict’! The conflict between two parties occurs when they want the same resource and they consciously know what they are fighting for. In the so-called human-wildlife conflict, does a sambhar or a wild boar know that eating a crop will lead to a conflict with the farmer? I think it is better to say human-wildlife interactions, instead of human-animal conflict.
For gaining conservation support, public perception is extremely important. For example, if we write ‘development versus wildlife conservation’, or ‘employment versus mining ban’, most people will prefer development and employment. For them wildlife and Nature conservation become hindrances. However, if we rephrase this to development and conservation, the perception changes. There is very little difference between development and Nature conservation. We all need clean air, clean drinking water, and greenery around us -- water that is so polluted that fish cannot survive is also unfit for human beings. Cleaning our cities, rivers and protecting forests, grasslands, and wetlands is a development and works towards accomplishing human welfare.
Good advertising helps in creating an audience, as well as reaching out to pre-existing ones. This yearning for Nature is exploited by wily real estate developers through their glossy advertisements, showing shiny new buildings surrounded by tall trees, luxurious gardens, and birds flying all around. If we add a golf course, the price of the apartments goes up. I have not seen an advertisement for apartments surrounded by fume-laden factory chimneys, polluted streams, and congested roads. Who will purchase such flats?
Healthy Nature is a part of development. I remember, a few years ago, a cabinet minister mocked conservationists for forcing him to develop long elevated roads passing through a tiger reserve in Maharashtra, till the scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India proved through photographic records that for the normal movements of wild and domestic animals such elevated roads are essential. The same minister now claims it as his ‘achievement’. Now building elevated roads or animal pathways has become an integral part of the DPR (detailed project report) which I think is a good development.
Another term that is widely misused, even by scientists and educated people, is ‘feral dog’. What we have is free-ranging stray dogs, not feral dogs. The scientific meaning of feral is a 'domestic animal becoming totally wild’ and behaving as a wild animal. We have feral horses in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam, and Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. The most famous feral dogs are the dingoes of Australia, which were brought by humans, 40 to 45 thousand years ago, or the feral pig in Andaman & Nicobar which were brought by ancient sea-fearers around the same time. Where do we have totally wild, freely breeding ‘feral’ dogs in India?
During my travels in the last four-five decades, I have seen free-ranging dogs, some showing wild characteristics, hunting wild animals but still dependent on human beings for a major part of their diet. In Ladakh, Thar desert, Deccan in Maharashtra, rural areas in Uttar Pradesh, and Assam, these so-called ‘feral’ dogs hang around villages, and unlike totally wild animals, some are not even afraid of human beings. It is high time conservationists use the correct terminology. If we say that a ‘feral’ dog has killed a chinkara, people tend to accept it as a part of ‘natural predation’. However, once the correct terminology is used, the reaction will be different. Free-ranging stray dogs have become the biggest menace to wildlife. I call them the new exterminator of wildlife. I will write separately on the menace of these stray dogs.
As I said earlier, perception is everything. Wildlife needs public support. Let us start using the correct terminology in our articles, research papers, and lectures. We cannot expect an elephant not to enjoy juicy sugarcane or the Brahmaputra to stop annual flooding. Let us use the correct terminology to highlight our follies.
People who talk of conquering the mountain peaks, cannot connect with Nature. People who talk of taming the rivers, do not understand the value of the natural flow of the waters. People who talk of “civilizing” the tribals, do not know the value of sustainable living. What we need to conquer is our wrong ways of thinking, what needs to be tamed is our greed for natural resources, and what needs to be civilized is our mindset.
(The article first appeared in ‘Saevus Wildlife India’, and is being re-published in TreeTake with its CEO & Editor-in-chief Rtn Sree Nandy's consent)