The Others – Blame, Accountability And Action In Conservation
It is not just the number of humans that is causing havoc on Planet Earth, but our lifestyle choices, says Swati Thiyagarajan.
Photo Courtesy : Wildlife SOS.
I can say that my first wildlife experiences included watching Brahminy Kites swoop and glide over the breaking surf, recording frog calls in the monsoon, counting slender lorises, rescuing injured birds and going on turtle walks with the Student Sea Turtle Network. Having grown up reading Gerald Durrell, David Attenborough, Diane Fossey, Dr. George Schaller and others, I was convinced my future would involve me being a naturalist, biologist, wildlife filmmaker or wildlife vet. So, of course, I went on to become a conservation journalist – I could be a bit of everything without the expertise of anything.
When I first started out I was very much an ‘anti-people, for animals’ journalist. I believed in inviolate spaces, the removal of people from parks, the expansion of wilderness areas and was righteous in my belief that it was the “other” people who were the problem and not me. I loved animals, I loved the wilderness, so how could I actually be the biggest problem?
That came to me much later. It started at first with a series of reports I did on dancing bears. The practice was beyond cruel. Hot rods piercing the bears’ noses and upper pallets, rough ropes strung through to force them to ‘dance’ with every pull, and the horrendous poaching that slaughtered the mother bears and allowed the cubs to be acquired. I wanted the practice stopped and I wanted it stopped yesterday. Why are the people not being arrested I asked, why were the bears not being seized and rescued?
Then I spent a day with a kalandar family who had one bear and an owl. I sat in their home, I watched the family, I spoke to them. I observed as the old grandfather tore his last piece of bread in half and fed it to the bear. I saw the young wife throw scraps to the owl, I watched the children’s eyes hungrily follow the food, and it hit me then, this was not cruelty but livelihood for people who had nothing and knew nothing else. They loved their animals, they had no choice. It was all that they knew. My whole world view turned upside down that day. Yes, I still felt the practice had to be stopped but not at the cost of people. The people had to be given viable long-term alternatives that made them want to stop the practice on their own and give up their bears. That would be the only way to bring about change.
It made me look closely at my life. Just because I spent a lot of time in wildernesses lamenting and reporting on degraded forests and vanishing species, it did not mean my footprint on this planet was light. In fact, it was downright ruinous. My house, my car, my lifestyle was simply the biggest threat facing the wilds I love so much and wanted to save. I had to save it from me. It was not the people living in and around forests but the various development projects cutting swathes through pristine wilderness that were the problem. All these development projects, from highways, to dams, to mines, were out there for me and others like me in the city.
It starts as innocently as a cup of coffee in the morning. Coffee and tea estates dot our wilderness landscapes cutting through elephant corridors, ruining leopard habitat, destroying tiger forests, and poisoning streams with pesticides and pulp wastes. That is just one example. Lamenting over coal mines destroying tiger habitat meant stopping to think about all the power I consumed. Fuming over highways meant not driving the car I have, and taking public transport. The immediate effect of all this, the heavy price is being paid by the people who live in and around the forests. They are the ones left dealing with rampaging elephants, leopards and tigers.
Yes, human numbers are a problem. As the population of people living in and around forests grows, the issues increase, but it is a case of livelihood versus lifestyle. Livelihood is a matter of survival. Whether it’s collection of forest produce, firewood, poaching of prey animals for meat, or cattle grazing, livelihood issues have solutions. Involve the people instead of alienating them. Make the wildlife and wild spaces lucrative for them to make conservation worthwhile. Nurture the already existing bedrock of love and respect for nature because in the 20 years that I have been a journalist, I can tell you that if anything has survived in this country it is because of the innate tolerance that people have shown. Lifestyle however is a far trickier beast. Lifestyle is how you and I live and the choices we make. We are not happy with any changes to our lifestyle at all, yet demand that people who have nothing change their livelihood.
A few years ago I spent 10 days filming elephants and people in Kheonjhar, Odisha. Tribal villages were being ravaged by elephants, people were killed and elephants were slaughtered in retaliation. In one village, out of the 25 homes, 23 had elephant-sized holes in them. The terrified people were sleeping in caves. I watched a young wife scream over her husband’s dead body and I watched a baby elephant scream over its dead mother. Older people spoke to me in bewildered voices, not understanding why an animal they have loved, revered, and co-existed with for years had suddenly turned on them. I knew why. Ten years of extensive mining had ravaged these forests, destroying elephant corridors and feeding grounds. Odisha’s mining companies were laughing all the way to the bank while its people and elephants in Kheonjhar killed each other in a war not of their making. The Forest Department squarely blamed the mining. The mining minister squarely blamed the people and the Forest Department, stating that mining was good for the future of the country. The Chief Minister who had not even visited the affected areas insisted that all environment precautions were being taken by the mining companies.
I have stood in rich old growth forests, small under the spreading canopy. Thunder and rain over head, falling in steady drops with the forest breaking the deluge. The thicker the tree canopy, the better the water trickles down leaves and massive trunks, to be absorbed by the rich soil and root systems. Only the excess flows out as small streams and rivulets to form mighty rivers. Yet, these forests if not under the umbrella of national park or sanctuary status, are open game for exploitation… exploitation for resources used by cities.
I have poled a boat through beautiful wetlands rich with life, natural barriers to floods and natural aquifers for sweet ground water, and then come back years later to find agricultural fields or an industrial park because there is no mandate to protect them.
I have stood on the beaches of Chennai, watching shark fins pile up on the sand sans shark. India is the second biggest exporter of fins, and Chennai alone sends out an estimated two million tons. I think of all the writhing, wounded sharks thrown back into the ocean to drown and bleed and die, with gaping wounds where their fins once stood.
In my lifetime the weather has gone from being a polite conversation filler to “the” conversation. In my lifetime we know that climate change is here to stay, we know that we are in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction, the oceans stand at tipping point, and we know population numbers are unsustainable and will keep growing.
Jane Goodall has said that the greatest threat facing the planet today is apathy. That apathy is yours and mine. It’s a lifestyle factor. We live in a time of great knowledge and yet behave like ignoramuses. Here lies, I suspect, the biggest challenge whether one is a biologist, vet, filmmaker or journalist. What can we do to change apathy to action?
It has famously been said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” Maybe that is why I do what I do, as do others in this field. That’s been my biggest learning curve.
Author: Swati Thiyagarajan, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXV No. 8 August 2015.