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Animals under attack
If animals could congregate in a place of worship, what would they pray for? Good health? Decent food? Liveable surroundings? Or, perhaps the extinction of the human race — so that they may stand a greater chance of survival? The arrogant human species is on the rampage and animals are feeling the heat like never before. Poaching has wiped out some of the most majestic creatures of India’s animal kingdom; several others are on the verge of extinction. They are fighting a losing war against our trains and highways, mines and rampant urban encroachment. In the name of progress, we’ve decimated their natural habitat, and left them with no place to call home. Exactly a month ago, on a clear, moonlit night, seven elephants were hacked down by a speeding train in a designated go-slow zone in north Bengal. Imagine an India without tigers and lions, elephants and rhinos. We’ve already lost the cheetah. Time isn’t on their side anymore.
Even as they frantically tried to save their calves, seven elephants were mowed down by a train speeding across Jalpaiguri’s Totopara forest. Three black buck were killed after drinking adulterated water inside Delhi Zoo. Three elephants died eating grass poisoned by chemicals outside Kaziranga National Park. A grim harvest of recent disasters is forcing many to wonder what exactly is happening with India’s animals. The statistics are disturbing. A Parliamentary Committee Report notes just 359 lions now exist in India. Under 1,000 tigers abound, of which 17 were lost in 2009 to poaching. The same year, as poachers killed over 12 rhinos, India lost 43 elephants to electrocution. We have already lost the cheetah. Today, its slower compatriots could also be headed towards extinction.
India’s animals are under serious attack. The challenges they are battling range from the deeply complex to the ludicrously simple. Our animals are no strangers to either. Through India’s rich history, its animals have been treated as objects of awe, utility and novelty, venerated and baited simultaneously. The elephant, lion and monkey are worshipped across strands of religious belief. Paens of poetry have been written admiring the peacock dancing in monsoon rains, the elephant swaying across blue-green hills, the horse valiantly carrying a warrior to victory.
Numerous snake-charmers made a historic buck with cobras dancing to their tunes while mighty maharajas and colonial officers demonstrated their fitness through shikars of tigers and leopards. Sticks of incense with sticks of violence have been a routine
part of Indian animal life. The tests they face today, however, are truly of life and death.
Perhaps the most serious threat to India’s animals comes from its progress. As the nation develops, it is crushing some of its most fascinating residents literally underfoot. A lack of planning seems to mix with callousness. Roads are being built in territories densely inhabited by animals. In some cases, existing roads are being widened to multiple-lane entities, impacting multiple species. National Highway Number Seven passes through the Pench tiger reserves in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It claims 90 animal lives annually including tigers, leopards, birds and cubs. The scenario repeats itself on the Coimbatore-Kerala border where the Nilgiris Mountain Railway cuts across elephant territory. When the pachyderms try reaching the banana by the tracks, trains hit them. At times, they get trapped inside narrow tunnels with no room to hide before an oncoming train.
Similar cases exist across India. In 2008, forest staff in Uttar Pradesh’s North Kheri woods discovered a tiger hit by a train, caught between its wheels, dragged 600 metres, its body ripped apart. The lack of learning from such experience is startling. Over 600 vehicles pass daily on the ten roads cutting across Gujarat’s famed Gir lion sanctuary. Former principal conservator of forests and member of the National Wildlife Board, GA Patel, comments, “Sariska’s sanctuary has a highway passing through it which may have helped poachers. Several roads now pass through Gir. There is no political will to curb this traffic.” Human traffic on land and sea severely impacts wildlife. While intensive trawling using fishing nets already causes 10,000 endangered Olive Ridley turtles to die annually on Orissa’s coast, massive dredging operations have now commenced here for a port based at Dhamra. Despite conservationists protesting, new port proposals at Astaranga and Palur, near turtle-nesting sites, have emerged.
There seems to be a determined effort to attack animals in their habitats or force them to enter ours. In 2007, shoppers in Guwahati’s Panbazar area were stunned to find a leopard inside an ATM enclosure. The leopard, driven by sheer hunger from its shrinking jungle habitat, eaten into by ever-expanding tea gardens, was more stunned. Listed under Schedule I of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, these endangered animals are usually killed by mobs finding them in urban locales eating into forests. PETA’s Sachin Bangera says, “Urbanisation in India is hurting animals terribly. Development needs to be balanced with protection.” That doesn’t seem to be happening though. In 2009, 15 leopards were killed in Jorhat and other Assam districts; in 2010, that number already exceeds eight. Wildlife conservationist Vikramjit Singh comments, “Development means someone gets hurt. Animals will lose out in the long run. People get angry with conservation. They feel that despite animals attacking them or destroying their crops, more attention is paid to animals over humans.”
In rural habitations too, tensions run high. According to Honorary Wildlife Warden Raja Raut, in north Bengal, illegal forest settlements have led to elephant habitats and food supplies drastically shrinking. Even the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary has 5,000 people living within it. “The ancient elephant corridors have been disturbed. Forests are fragmented. No wonder the man-elephant conflict rate here is the highest in Asia,” says Raut. The clash of species becomes manifest with villagers poisoning or electrocuting elephants who sometimes maraud in retaliation.
At times, sheer ignorance drives assaults on animals. Diesel-fuelled tourist boats coursing Orissa’s Chilika Lake, housing 158 of the world’s 900 Irrawaddy dolphins, are fitted with propellers projecting six feet into the water. Tourist boats surround dolphins, drivers paid extra by visitors to get close. At times, up to 40 boats surround the mammals. Panic-struck, the dolphins try escaping the cordon, sometimes getting hit by propellers. Environmental activist Biswajit Mohanty comments, “During peak season, October to March, the 600-plus tourist boats, fitted with noisy, polluting engines, cause great distress to dolphins.
Ineffective implementation of regulations has endangered these rare species within Chilika.” Every propeller hit creates a serious loss; the rare mammals produce only one calf every three years.
However, some are occupied with making a killing through animals rather than worrying about losing them. Greed drives a host of assaults upon animals. Professor Cliff Flynn, sociologist at the University of South Carolina Upstate, told TOI-Crest, “The most
important factor explaining institutional animal abuse is economics. Corporations make tremendous profits on the suffering of animals. In America alone, approximately 10 billion animals are killed annually in factory farms for food.” In India, PETA’s Sachin Bangera describes chickens crowded in cages, suffering from crippling bone disorders. To stop them pecking each other, farmers use hot blades to cut off their beaks. Many die of shock, some starve as eating becomes painful.
Vivisection or testing upon live animals is another legalised attack upon animals. Bangera says, “Many vivisectors come to India from abroad because in their own countries they cannot get away with the testing they do here. Countless monkeys, dogs, rats, etc., are burned, blinded, cut, poisoned, starved and drugged. Such tests are cruel and inaccurate because of physiological differences between species. However, in India, things continue as always. Circuses are another example; animals are beaten and starved into riding cycles or jumping through fire. These are extremely cruel practices with few legal safeguards.”
On the other side of legality lies poaching, a great concern of forest administrators whose efforts often fail against black market forces pricing one kilogram of leopard bone at Rs 9,000. There is also a ‘grey’ animal market, such as around pedigreed dogs. Gita Sheshmani of the animal welfare NGO, Friendicoes, says, “Breeders often use bitches to the last possible point, then dump them. We have found many pedigree-producing bitches with collapsed uteruses.” Bangera comments, “India has the rules to protect its animals, but where is its will to do so? Anyone can get away paying a fine or bribe. There is very poor implementation of laws. That is why, compared to the West, India treats its animals so badly.” Sheshmani remarks, “India also has a culture of complacency. We sit back and feel proud of venerating animals in our religion. And we feel that’s enough.”
Cruelty to animals has more disturbing implications than the acts themselves, horrific enough as reports from Mumbai, Cochin and Delhi abound, of stray dogs being beaten, poisoned and having acid thrown on them. Professor Flynn explains, “Most animal abuse is committed by males. Gender plays an important role. Growing up experiencing violence can lead one to commit violence against others, including animals.” Sheshmani comments, “Changing lifestyles in India are causing many frustrations, leading people to lash out at the weakest. People start by kicking a dog, hitting a child, then beating a woman.” Singh says, “Indians do not like confronting truths. We are comfortable sermonising while our tigers die out and we destroy natural habitats and foodchains. It is high time we adopted a scientific attitude to animals over a purely emotional one.” Fighting to live, our animals too might be grateful.
Srijana Mitra Das with inputs from Vijay Pinjarkar, Radha Venkatesan, Neha Shukla, Himanshu Kaushik, Naresh Mitra, Vijay Singh, Pinak Priya Bhattacharya, Sandeep Mishra, Sonali Das and Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay
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