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Let’s burn our wildlife policy, not leopards

Mob attacked a leopard and killed it(WPSI)

n Wednesday March 23, a leopard entered Dhamdhar village in the Kalagarh Forest Division, Corbett Tiger Reserve. Sighting the cat, a crowd gathered and began pelting stones at it. The leopard fled and took shelter in a cowshed, and in the chaos, three people were injured — though none too grievously. The forest department tranquilised and captured the leopard, but by then mob frenzy had peaked. They attacked the leopard — trapped, terrified and helpless in the cage — with iron rods, sickles and stones, before finally dousing it with kerosene and setting it ablaze.

This particular leopard had never hurt a man except when cornered by an angry mob. Yet, it paid a heavy price for the mere sin of being alive and wild.

The picture of the leopard's charred body made it to one or two spots on TV and was vaguely mentioned in print (with cricket, 2G and WikiLeaks, there was little scope). I am unaware if it made ripples either in the corridors of power that define wildlife policy, or in the collective conscience of a society that calls itself humane and is proud of its ahimsik traditions. To me, the charred visage, frozen in agony, represents the face of the accelerating conflict in the country and the degeneration of our attitude towards the wild.

Revering nature is part of our heritage. Most ancient religions in India don't differentiate between the soul of a human and that of an animal. We pray to the elephant God Ganesha, the monkey God Hanuman and the vulture God Jatayu. The tiger symbolises fertility, and in some cultures newlyweds seek its blessings. It is this veneration and values that have stood wildlife in good stead.

Think about it: India has about a dozen large animals — carnivores like tigers, leopards, lions and wolves as also elephants and sloth bears — all capable of harming humans, living amongst its teeming millions. We have leopards living on agriculture fields and on the fringes of expanding towns, wolves and hyenas residing in villages and tigers clinging to their shrinking habitats on the fringes of forests. It must be added here that given the proximity, conflict is minimal.

It is truly amazing — and laudable — that an underdeveloped (then) India with its booming population and many pressing concerns kept aside land and funds for Project Tiger, a movement that revived the prospects of the almost-extinct animal while most of Europe and the US persecuted their carnivores to extinction.

But the tide is turning.

he problem is complex. At one level it is about our fraying relationship with Nature. At another, it is about development and growth, and its 'face-off' with the environment and ecology. India's expanding middle-class has a ferocious appetite for consumption — and the direct impact is on our natural resources. Does this India, hurtling down the fast road to economic superstardom and with its growing aspirations, have room on its land and in its heart for Nature?

As a nation, we are losing touch with our roots and with Nature. A child growing up in a box — read apartment — has little concept of climbing trees and chasing butterflies. Nature, at best, is a manicured park.

The milieu has shifted even in rural India. While there is huge dependence on forest resources for sustenance and livelihood, better means of communication and the growing economy have raised aspiration levels.

The mix of shrinking, fragmented natural habitats, pressed in by villages and towns is lethal. Conflict, especially when fatal, fuels further conflict. Tolerance has sustained wildlife in this overpopulated landscape, but for how long? The reverence is fading.  This particular leopard had done no wrong unless you count venturing into human habitat as a crime. It was fear and intolerance of the 'intruder' that lit the fire. The leopard died but the fire has not yet been doused; its flame has engulfed many species, including the tiger and the veneration that we once had for animals.

This is not the first time a leopard has been burnt to death, nor will it be the last unless we take the gravity of the situation on board and work with communities who bear the brunt of conflict, work out strategies to manage wildlife (more importantly around protected areas and rural landscapes), and nurture and hold sacred the values of venerating nature.

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