Thursday, October 11, 2012


My friend, the struggling illusionist, has this story he bandies around to impress the ladies, and as a prelude to his tricks – magic tricks, as he likes to call them. The story is about Khoko, or some such gent, from the land and days of the pharaohs. Bored with climbing pyramids and swimming the crocodile infested waters of the Nile, Khoko came up with an idea to entertain his fellow villagers. So, on a pleasant winter noon, Khokho trudged up to the village square with a chicken trussed under his arm. The square was bustling with activity… hawkers selling their wares, the elders trading smokes and tales and children playing tag.

Nobody paid Khoko and his chicken much attention until he stood at the centre of the square and declared “I will break this chicken’s neck and wrench its head off before your very eyes and then you’ll see this magical chicken grow a new head, like the celestial Hydra”. Khoko paused for effect and as the crowd looked on, with a great flourish, he took both his hands to the bird’s head and neck and while the right hand yanked and pulled, the left held on to the neck. Suddenly the right hand pulled free… and a jet of crimson shot out of the neck and streaked the earth red as the right hand flailed the bleeding head around and then flung it on to the square… While the audience gasped in shock and gawked at the bloodied lifeless head and the half closed eyes, Khoko’s left hand kept the chicken’s real head tucked in carefully and once the audience had recovered enough to look at Khoko again, the illusionist baited the audience with a few magic words and then removed his hand and let the chicken’s head bob about freely…

The village square erupted with spontaneous cheering and invocations to the gods that be, for this ‘resurrection’ seemed nothing short of a miracle. Khoko, my friend tells me, went down in history as one of the first practitioners of that spectacular principle of magic called ‘misdirection’ – where the magician deceives the audience by making them focus on one thing while distracting them from another, potentially a more significant aspect of the act.

Over the last couple of decades, environmental agencies, the ministry and even the media have been both perpetrators and victims of one such misdirection. After our independence, when realisation dawned that the country was rapidly losing its natural heritage and wildlife to the social anarchy that followed the exodus of the British and the local potentates, laws were passed to protect and preserve all that remained of our forests and its denizens – laws that were comprehensive but were executed by a weak willed and toothless administration. A few decades later, the country’s minders realised that they had been far too apathetic a little too long. Now one of the most visible symbols of this country, its spirit and its wild places – the Royal Bengal Tiger, was standing at the very edge of that chasm called extinction and something would have to be done about it and soon…

Here’s where the first misdirection was set up. Project Tiger, a programme committed to protecting the tiger and its habitat was designed and executed and it even encountered a fair degree of success, or so we were told. Then in 2004, Sariska Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers to poachers, and in 2009, Panna National Park followed suit.

The environmental machinery responded with another misdirection – it narrowed its focus and resources even further by setting up a Tiger Task Force that attempted to outdo Project Tiger and plug the conceptual gaps in the latter. And while wildlife activists, corporate do-gooders, media houses and protection agencies and officials busied themselves with plans of protecting the tiger, and as an after thought, the rhino and the elephant, poachers busied themselves with hunting musk deer for its pod, black and sloth bears for their bile, claws and cubs, otters and snow leopards for their pelt, Tibetan antelope for their fur, parakeets and mynahs for the pet trade, bustards for the pot and their feathers, and most of all, leopards for their organs, bones and pelts, as a substitute for the relatively better protected tiger.

Recently released reports by TRAFFIC suggest that a leopard a day was killed or poached over all of this year. There have been counter suggestions of setting up a Leopard Task Force to monitor and stem this carnage. But that’s a case of missing the woods for the trees. Task forces might sound like fun, but evidently, they don’t seem to be working.

Tigers and rhinos continue to be poached with impunity and the task force has come a cropper. As for the lesser denizens of our forests, whole populations have been decimated and we will never know how many we have lost already. This is so because except for the three flagship species, no one’s ever bothered with a census for any other species.

So fixated has the conservation mechanism been on the tiger, the rhino and the elephant, that even in protected reserves hunting of other species has gone on unchecked.

A winter or so ago, I was in Ranthambore and while out driving with one of the field guides, I started talking to him about the possibility of finding bush meat (wild game hunted for the pot) in the area. He was cagey about it initially and said he did not think it was a very good idea, but there were people around who could procure it. There was nothing very romantic or sportsman-like about the methods either. Tribal hunters in the region would lay wire nooses or steel jawed traps along well-worn jungle paths and return every three days to check the snares for catch. Others would stuff little bombs in balls of jaggery and corn. Animals like deer, antelopes and wild boars would try and gobble these balls, thus triggering an explosion that would result in internal hemorrhaging or the lower jaw being blown off. The hunter would just follow the blood trail to the carcass and carry it home.

Tomorrow that same route that is used to transfer bush meat could be used to transfer bones and skins .

If caught by forest guards, sharing a little of the profit or the meat is all it takes to get the officials to look the other way, said the guide, as long tigers, elephants and rhinos were not involved. This practiced apathy and selective focus is at the root of India’s wildlife woes.

More task forces and such ‘misdirections’ will serve no real purpose. All that state and non state conservation agencies need to do is ensure that the reserve or national park – not just one animal but the whole biosphere – is protected, and the letter of the law is respected. Independent species within the park will be a lot safer when park rangers are not using their individual discretion with respect to poaching and are equally committed to saving both the tiger and the honey badger.

It is frustrating and even hypocritical to just sit on the sidelines and merely preach about what ‘should have been’. Therefore, next week, I will ask around and return with the path that you and I could take, within our own limited means, to try and make a difference to these bleak lives in the wild… until then we all remain very concerned, for these wild lives that have been getting by, on a broken wing and a quiet prayer…


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