Remember the Titans

In an ideal world, perhaps, along with drug-free rock n’ roll and slimming fast foods, the term ‘poaching’ might be solely concerned with an egg.

Since the beginning of the new millennium alone, almost 500 tigers have been killed in India, and their bones and claws used for clandestine trading with South-East Asian countries. The Wildlife Protection Society of India also has records of a large number of tigers that were “found dead”. To reach an estimate of the magnitude of the poaching of tigers in India, it’s interesting to note that the Customs authorities multiply known offences by ten to estimate the size of an illegal trade. With their hands tied behind their backs, it’s a wonder they’ve managed to keep count at all. The Gir Wildlife Sanctuary made headlines when eight Asiatic lions were killed by poachers. Suddenly, the Gujarat government was thrust into the spotlight, and subsequently decided to employ additional guards and security personnel. To not much effect, I might add. A notice was sent to the state authorities of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh in the wake of a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Himalayan Chipko Foundation (HCF). According to the petitioner’s plea, round about 125 elephants were killed by poachers since the state of Uttaranchal came into existence. The matter eventually had to be resolved by the Supreme Court. The fact of the matter is, most illicit poaching and trading activities are under the radar. And unless the existing system is revamped drastically, it’s going to stay that way.

Here in India, poaching has never seemed like a better, or easier, career option. You just have to look at what you might be up against. Forest department officials and guards, the keepers of the peace, have to use open toed footwear, while some of them don’t even have shoes to wear. These men are supposed to inspect every centimetre of vegetation and trail, but lack even simple facilities like torches, jeeps, wireless sets or guns. When they are posted in anti poaching camps in the desolate interiors of the forests, they lack both sanitation and protection against elements and wildlife. Forest guards often get their salary in arrears, and they live far away from their families. Now, the bright gentlemen in charge of the budgeting for the forest department obviously haven’t thought it through very carefully. In a bureaucracy fuelled by the promise of incentive, honest or otherwise, these men have none. Nothing is made easy, or easier, for them, and they receive virtually no support from higher authorities. Compared to the pittance that officials are paid, they can make more money off facilitating poaching, rather than preventing it. Most have families to feed, and for many of them, it’s just another job. Officials are overworked, underpaid, elderly on an average and unmotivated. Not quite the makings of a crack force, you’ll note. Last year alone, the budgeting for Corbett National Park was a piffling 60,000 rupees. There are some who would argue that forest officials should be paid on the same scale as the average defence personnel, because safeguarding our ecological diversity is equally important. Curiously enough, letters with reference to the same never quite seem to make it as far as the original addressee.

So what we have is a classic case of high expectations and restricted ability. It’s like playing the guitar one handed. Not happening. Life is unique. Look at us, we say. What were the chances of life even existing on our planet? About the cosmic equivalent of finding a single ‘Bob Smith’ in a New York telephone directory. Yet here we are. And then we look around, and all we see are other human beings, all going about the process of living. And we don’t stop, not even for a fraction of a second, to think about what we have brought to this world. The slavery, and the cruelty, and the defilement. Our collective conscience is stained with the blood of the innocent. So what if they’re not human? Does that justify their killing and their maiming? I don’t think so. This land is not ours alone, to do with it as we would. We share it with the humblest of creatures and the mightiest of beasts. The least we can do is acknowledge their existence. What better way to do that than to keep them alive?

There are a few ways that can hep provide that guarantee. Superior funding for beleaguered officials is very essential. Mass media, as always, plays a crucial role as a conduit between those in power and the public. Advertisements and awareness programs are, of course, time-tested classics. Tapping the tremendous potential that is in modern-day social networking can be instrumental in raising awareness levels and provoking a reaction amongst the youth. The Forest Department ought to be advertised more as yet another viable career option for the young and restless. We can make a tangible and timely difference to the fate of these species by taking the initiative now.

If we’re not very, very careful, our children are going to grow up in a world where school trips to the zoo will not include tigers, or lions, or elephants. These creatures have been immortalised in our stories, weaved into our culture, sung into our songs, and painted on our walls. They even sit on our mantelpieces. If we’re not careful, they will fade into myth, and become the dust that will coat the pages of a history that will be written before its time.

To quote the Pall Mall Gazette, August 1888:

“The Roman public, jaded and ennuyed, found life not worth living without the stimulus of the sight of death”.

Let’s not become that. Let’s not make a sacrifice out of the only neighbours we have in this universe.

Shrey Byala

[Image courtesy:]