Did the BBC Get it All Horribly Wrong?
The BBC is an iconic news organisation and is trusted across the world, precisely because it is not in the grip of special interests. This time though, it seems to have faltered by not recognising the ‘special interest’ that some individuals and organisations have against wildlife conservation per se and against agencies and conservation organisations such as the WWF in particular.
I saw the documentary Killing for Conservation earlier today. It cherry-picked quotes from extensive interviews conducted with forest staff who know little about the nuanced ways in which seasoned journalists can "get them to say" what they want said in order to move their pre-determined script along. Bottom line? The documentary shot itself in the foot when it projected that there are "shoot to kill" orders in Kaziranga. No such order exists. In due course, I imagine the BBC will have to apologise for this unforgivable fact-check error.
The only orders passed are under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) 1973, which stipulates that prior sanction must be obtained from an appropriate authority before any court takes cognisance of an offence alleged against a forest officer for any act performed in discharge of his or her duty.
Sophie Grig, Survival International, a globally trusted tribal rights organisation, inadvertently adds fuel to the fire by stating: "The park is being run with utmost brutality. I mean, these are extra-judicial executions. There's no jury, there's no judge, there's no questioning. People are being killed in these encounters and these are not just poachers, but they're also local tribal people, and the terrifying thing is that there are plans to roll out this shoot at sight policy across the whole of India."
Extra-judicial executions? Really? And the BBC let that heresy go through without fact-checking?
Dr. Bibabh Talukdar, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group, and Asian Rhino Coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation, explained the situation thus to Catch News
: "... the Forest Department knows Kaziranga better than these poachers, and sets up ambushes accordingly.... the poachers, if ambushed, fire indiscriminately and so does the Forest Department.... In my own house, I will have an advantage over others, and that is what usually happens.”
The above becomes particularly relevant when read in conjunction with Section 96 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) concerning action taken in personal defense. "Nothing is an offence which is done in the exercise of the right of private defense," it says.
Section 97 of the IPC expounds on the ‘Right of private defense of the body and of property’. It says “Every person has a right, subject to the restrictions contained in section 99, to defend -- First - His own body, and the body of any other person, against any offence affecting the human body; Secondly - The property, whether moveable or immovable, of himself or of any other person, against any act which is an offence falling under the definition of theft, robbery, mischief or criminal trespass, or which is an attempt to commit theft, robbery, mischief or criminal trespass.”
For decades now, every soul living around Kaziranga knows that it becomes a battlefield with armed poachers after dark. Even as a member of India’s National Board of Wildlife I would never, ever dream of entering the park after dark without being accompanied by an official.
Uttam Saikia, a local journalist with a keen interest in the people-park relationships around Kaziranga said to The Wire
: "Poachers usually come in groups of six or seven from the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Manipur. These outsiders don’t know the park landscape and approach the local communities to guide them through the difficult terrain. This ensures quick and easy money for the poor villagers, who are lured into working for poachers.” Such incidents, Saikia said, normally peak during the festive seasons when the need for money is greatest.
Shailendra Yashwant, a journalist with decades of experience writes
: “There are two kinds of poachers. The first is a poor tribal with some expertise in tracking animals, trying to get out of a daaru
-debt, marry his daughter off, buy his way out of a perennially bad state to a slightly better one. He gets a pittance and is hardly aware of Interpol or what his Rs. 5,000 bakshish
really means for the survival of a species. The other more lethal kind, is the professional, usually a tribal from Nagaland, Mizoram, or Manipur, who is an expert marksmen, or traditional hunter with no traditional restraint to staunch his blood lust. Such men are usually on the payroll of mafias operating from Dimapur, the epicenter of wildlife trade in Northeast India.”
The trouble is that in the dark, everyone is shooting blind. A local tribal boy acting as a guide might catch a bullet one day and an AK47 wielding tribal or a rhino protector the next.
Clearly members of the local community are caught between a rock and hard place. Abject poverty on the one hand and inducements from ruthless illegal networks and insurgents who lure them into risking their lives for a pittance. If only human rights and wildlife conservation organisations somehow managed to work together to the advantage of locals living cheek-by-jowl with vulnerable wild species and their habitats.
Meanwhile, across the world the wildlife trade is proving to be a lucrative source of funding for terrorists, insurrectionists and the underworld and a revolving door exists between operatives engaged in the ruthless, illegal global trades in arms, narcotics and human trafficking. Such determined cartels cannot be reasoned with. The cost of not dealing with them would end up harming the very communities that many human rights organisations rightfully defend.
A CNN report
states that: “…an 18-month investigation commissioned by the Elephant Action League in 2011, the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab generated between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from tusks. This vast sum of blood money accounted for about 40 per cent of Al-Shabaab's total operating budget. These terrorist poachers not only kill African Animals, but are accused of murdering 60 Wildlife Wardens in 2012 as well.”
Ironically, a significant number of Kaziranga's forest guards, who the BBC presenter castigates in the documentary, happen to be tribals from the nearby villages. What is worse, they are often victims of the armed gangs who work in the shadows, forcing impoverished young men to do their bidding.
My personal view is that the BBC was used. I am nevertheless opposed to demands that the "BBC be banned". This, after all, is the incredible organisation that gifted India and the world with David Attenborough and Living Planet. Down the decades the BBC has proved to be a credible truth-teller and a brave, professional one at that. Better by far would be to engage with senior BBC Commissioning Editors and/or the BBC Ombudsman, to rationally present Kaziranga’s ground realities and facts. This done we should leave it to them to consider whether publishing a corrigendum is appropriate. The press must be free to write what it considers to be the truth. But it must be held accountable by law for false reportage. It would lose the support of its own readers or viewers if its reports lost credibility.
It is this very credibility upon which conservationists such as this writer must rely in the years ahead if we are to have any chance of protecting our planets’ vanishing natural heritage.
On one thing we are all agreed. Forest Departments and local communities must find ways to work together to protect the biodiversity that is the lifeblood of the Indian subcontinent. For this to happen, a biodiversity renewal must palpably enhance the living standards and the dignity and well-being of local communities. Maharashtra state has shown great strides in changing the adversarial relationship between people and parks and this has resulted in reduced incidents of tiger poaching (but not eliminated it).
Equally, the protection of Kaziranga’s rhinos is not negotiable. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but one we must successfully negotiate, or neither rhinos, nor human will have much of a future to look forward to.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia