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by Sunil Gupta

I am not a Valmik Thapar, nor a Belinda Wright. I am not a scientist, nor am I an ‘expert’. I’m just an ordinary Indian and ordinary human being. And sometimes I wish I was neither.

Over the past few days/weeks/months/years, I have read with increasing hopelessness and helplessness the stories in our media that our natural heritage, especially our wildlife, which belongs to all of us, is being raped and looted with impunity, so much so that I fear that the only way our children will get to know about them is to read about them in the history books. Why should it be so?

After all, we are humans, and supposedly the most intelligent beings on earth. And our ability to reason (which we claim sets us apart from other ‘lowly’ beings), must tell us that what we are doing is wrong.

And still we continue the pillage and murder. The words ‘humane’ and ‘human’ derive from ‘human’. And yet, when one reads of the electrocutions, the skinning alive, the steel traps and the wire meshes that are used to kill animals in the wild; or when one sees, despite all sorts of legal and administrative restrictions, black bears ‘dancing’ with vicious hooks in their noses, far from their natural habitat in the heat and humidity of Agra, a stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal; and pictures of lumpen villagers with loutish grins trying to get into the photographer’s frame showing a leopard that was caught in a trap and died in excruciating agony, these words ring with a grotesque irony.

And when I see pictures of a tiger poacher in the Sunderbans, gun slung over his back, off for another jolly day’s work, I wish I had been there: I know what I would have done with the gun, and without a second thought.

What makes us better than the barbarians of the past where torture was a way of life? Would we accept this form of death if it happened to us and our families? If our children were abducted and made to dance on the streets with hooks in their noses, would we turn the other nose?

Animals are mammals like us. They too have a sense of family and belonging. They too weep and are tormented if their loved ones are hurt and killed.

But unlike us, they have no voice, no court of law to turn to for justice and protection, no elected representatives, no police. In the same way, I have nothing but the utmost disgust and contempt for those who tell with misplaced and ghoulish bravado of their ‘hunting’ exploits. Since when does shooting with lethal weapons at defenceless animals make us brave?

How can killing wildlife with unequal means of destruction be called ‘sport’?

The incisive and sharp-witted comic strip, ‘Calvin & Hobbes’, sums this up brilliantly. When Calvin boasts about how humans are the highest forms of life on earth, and hugely more advanced than tigers, all Hobbes says is: “What if we tigers had the guns?” Touché!

We Indians are the most hypocritical people on earth. We worship Durga riding a tiger; we call our goddess ‘sheran-walli’ (Lady of the Tigers); our national animal is a lion; and we persecute and exterminate them with impunity.

And most of us read of this extermination, ponder a moment (if at all), and go about our lives, singing our hymns to ‘sheran-walli’. Just like the good people of Germany did when there were whispers about the concentration camps, for what else is this daily butchery of our wildlife but genocide, which continues because of both our apathy and greed?

The parallels are clear for all to see, if only we have the courage to see them: -Hardly anyone spoke up for the Jews. Ditto for wildlife. -The administration was either in cahoots, or turned a blind eye. Ditto… -Jews died by the thousands. Ditto…

Yes, there are statutes and laws and wardens and… But we all know that in our beloved country, only the ‘danda’ (stick) works. Witness many of our esteemed MP’s and MLA’s who, as our highest representatives, break all laws without a thought, till the Supreme Court steps in, or the next election comes along. (D.P.Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Lallo Yadav, Shahabuddin, Judeo, Jogi et al, take a bow).

So if you agree that this pogrom against wildlife has to stop, (but how, you ask, wringing your hands, no doubt), then do consider this prescription. 1) Make the penalty for poaching or possessing/trading in banned animal parts, death. Proof of possession must be relatively simple if Mr Sansar Chand (a celebrated poacher), or the persons caught regularly with a ‘haul of skins’ etc (as reported in our newspapers) is anything to go by. And there is a further parallel: when the people behind the ‘Final Solution’ were hunted down, they were sentenced to death. 2) Drug trafficking is punishable by death. A courier of animal skins is as bad as a pusher or a grower of drugs. Parts trafficking is as heinous as drug trafficking and poaching, for it is an active accessory in eliminating our collective heritage, besides breaking the law, of course. In fact, convicting a courier should be even easier than convicting a poacher, for the evidence is there for all to see. If there’s a penalty for misusing the national flag, surely trading in the parts of the national animal should count for something. 3) Make national figures like Salman Khan and M.A.K. Pataudi do community service as penance for killing the endangered black buck, and ban them from working till that is over. After all, if one goes to jail for a crime, one cannot be dancing around trees in Bollywood or doing cricket commentary, can one? Make them do public awareness ads from jail. 4) Make it law to have small families. (Do I hear a sharp intake of breath?) Why should the planet be the preserve of us humans only? Our wildlife is in danger of being swept away forever by the merciless rise in our population. This is manifestly true, since the pressure of subsistence relentlessly eats away at the natural habitat, and makes co-existence increasingly impossible. From a 33% forest cover in 1947, we are down to less than 7% today. When man and animal meet, there is only one victor, and we all know who it is. (Just one small example: the continuing standoff between the adjacent villagers and the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. The villagers, besides diverting the canal/river waters for irrigation, thus drying up the sanctuary and converting the wetlands into drylands and drying up the migratory birds too, also send in their cattle to graze in this ‘protected’ area!) But more than that, what right do the Laloo Yadav’s of the world have to foist their broods (9 children) on us? Large families take a disproportionate share of all resources and thus usurp our collective heritage, which means they take from you and I who have the civic sense to keep our families small. True democracy means, above all, a sense of responsibility for the common good. But in our glorious land with 5000 years of civilization, we mistake liberty for licence. 5) Publicize those who keep animal skins at home. Make them figures of ridicule on Page 3. 6) I should add education to this list, but I fear that with our educational system being what it is, or rather what it isn’t, it’ll be a productive day in Parliament (an oxymoron if ever there was one) before the message gets home, and that probably means that our wildlife would ahev ceased to exist by then.

You’re probably saying (if not hyperventilating) by now: “But we cannot behave like animals!”

And my reply will be: “You’re absolutely right! For when I hear people say such things, I say that they are insulting animals! Humans are much, much worse than animals, for no animal kills for pleasure or greed.” In fact, it is us humans who have given a pejorative slant to the word ‘animal’. Going back to the Calvin & Hobbes column, if the roles were indeed reversed, would we as humans accept the fact that animals could weapons against us? No way! We’d shout the house down! So why the double standards?

In fact, the animals probably use ‘human’ as a pejorative term, e.g. Mother Tigress to cub (name borrowed from Winnie The Pooh): “Tigger, please do not behave like a human.” Listen to me. If we sit quietly and did nothing about this mass murder, we are accomplices too. We will be party to our children and their children losing their heritage.

Just as if we sat back and did nothing if we saw someone taking a hammer to the Taj Mahal. The other day, on a news story the other night on TV, I saw the Chief Forest Conservator (or some such grandly titled factotum) being interviewed about the missing tigers of Sariska. Quite appropriately, he had a framed picture of a tiger behind him as if to say “I know this is a story about tigers.” And quite appositely, it’s probably the only one he’s ever seen, and indeed the only way we’ll ever get to see one unless we get off our collective posteriors and give them a fighting chance of survival. For the barbarians are at the gates, and they are us.

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