Cool Cats & Angry People

machali road 1

A frail 16 year old Machali

India’s recent economic growth, coupled with rapid technological advancement has had an interesting effect on its wildlife.

Camera trapping, drones, advanced communication and surveillance systems, satellite maps etc. have allowed scientists and forest officers to better monitor and administrate the National Parks and one cannot help feeling that the natural resources are safer than they were in the past, despite growing threats on many fronts.

There has also been a dramatic societal change. People now have more money and more access. Good cameras and lenses are easily accessible and people can afford them. The Internet and the mobile phone boom allows for millions of pictures, videos and conversations  to be shared exponentially by passionate communities of enthusiasts. What is happening in Ranthambore on a day–to-day basis can now be shared ‘real-time’, with an enthusiast sitting in New Zealand, for example.

This constant flow of visual information, news and gossip is responsible for the rapid growth of this online community, which is gradually becoming a lobby for ecological awareness and responsibility. Its sheer numbers and unity of purpose is making it a force to reckon with. Their 24X7 focus on the animals is also a powerful policing force of the forest. There is a strong sense of familiarity with almost each animal in the tourist zones. Sometimes when these animals go missing for a few days, all hell breaks loose. If an animal dies, everyone is a suspect and there are relentless petitions for enquiries and probes. This phenomenon has added to the overall safety of the forest, to some extent. Unauthorized grazing or any surreptitious mining or timber activity is also almost certain to be caught out, at least in the tourist zones, by somebody who will immediately put a picture of the incident on the internet.

All this is wonderful. But..

machali2

I notice an interesting offshoot of this relentless scrutiny. I notice people getting very emotionally attached to the animals that they see or have experienced on a regular basis on these channels. This attachment almost seems to mimic our feelings towards a favorite zoo animal, or even a household pet.

There is a raging debate about Ranthambore’s most famous tigress Machali being hand fed and kept alive beyond her natural lifecycle, because of her fame and notoriety. Passions are inflamed on both sides of the argument, which often get abusive.

Recently, another legend, the Kankatti tigress of Bandhavgarh was found dead, along with her cubs. The cause of death is not confirmed, but it is most likely a male tiger. In the monsoons, territorial markings get washed away and tigers can to run into each other unexpectedly, violently. The picture of the dead cubs, posted on the Internet, was heart wrenching. None of this is particularly unusual tiger behavior, but predictably, passions are inflamed, again. In yet another  ill-informed overreaction to ‘saving the tiger’, a forest officer got killed in a National Park when he tried to separate 2 male tigers during a territorial battle- something tigers have been doing since longer than we’ve been standing on two legs.

T24 sleeping ©

Tigers have been around for more than 2 million years. That’s a lot longer than man. We have been around for only about 200,000. Such tiger behavior is a part of their natural selection process, which is also millions of years old.

But today, we face a dilemma. Nothing is more threatened than the natural world. It is the repository of some of the earth’s most precious resources, which is constantly under attack by the greed of vested interests and by the exploding human population.

ranthambore water scene © 2

Therefore, should man interfere? and by how much? Is he already interfering by destroying the natural world at an unnatural rate? Is it still a natural world? Or just small pockets of disconnected forest land? Is the proximity of humans already an unnatural environment for the animals? And therefore do we have a responsibility to exercise greater control?

Therein lie all the questions and dilemmas. For example, should Machali of Ranthambore be fed? Kept alive? Is she being kept alive at the cost of the young cubs being born in Ranthambore? Is her life ,as a well known and much loved tigress, more important than the lives of the anonymous cubs that have just been born- and might get killed because new territories haven’t been vacated in natural life spans. Should we leave nature to nature or is it already too late? Serious issues to reflect upon, I think.

I don’t have answers to any of these questions. All I know is how I feel.

ranthambore landscape ©

History tells me that even a little tinkering with natural balances has created huge devastations in the past, the world over, be it tigers or lions, birds or insects or even vegetation. To mess with it is to cause disease, loss of wildlife, vegetation and topsoil, desertification and floods. For example, even a seemingly simple consequence of too many herbivores in a particular area (because there aren’t enough predators) causes the flattening and hardening the ground by their hoofs, because of which the earth cannot absorb the rainwater, because of which the rainwater rushes out carrying rich topsoil with it, because of which vegetation dries out, because of which animals and birds which are re-pollinating agents move away, because of which the entire jungle starts to die when it fails to regenerate, because of which there is nothing to stop the rush of water, because of which there are flash floods.

Just connect the dots, from the absence of tigers to the loss of human life and property. Everything is truly connected in this delicate web of life.

The industrial age in Europe killed off its entire natural ecosystems. All of Europe’s existing forests have been re-forested decades later, when realisation dawned. – and even then all of them couldn’t fully recover. Man made imbalances in inter-species ratios has wiped entire populations. Not too long ago there were lions in Palestine, Egypt, Syria,Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece. Lions were seen in Southwestern Iran as recently as 1910.

According to a recent scientific study,  today all populations of large mammals across the globe are dwindling in total numbers.

We need to draw wisdom and learning from past mistakes to influence our forest policies. Even the lovers of wildlife, who can be such a  powerful force need to understand that our national parks and tiger reserves are more than just large ‘natural looking’ enclosures that house their ‘favorite’ cats.

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