No Space For The Wild
In what is not really a shocking incident any longer, a leopard was chased and killed by villagers at Kanu Lukhurakhan village near Sonari in Upper Assam’s Sivasagar district on January 18, 2013. I’m not sure if any national media covered the story. In edit meetings at various media houses, this piece of news would probably not even have been discussed. But somehow if a video of the barbaric killing was recorded and made available, the channels may have taken note and called it “good footage”. And then, someone with a reasonable pretence of environmental consciousness would wake up and declare, “we must take it” and “play it up” for the day bulletins.
The adult leopard was not just killed, its meat was consumed by locals. The villagers took away its teeth, nails and tail and severed its head as well. They claimed that for weeks the leopard was attacking livestock and that is what provoked them. The cat apparently took refuge on a tree when it was chased by a group of villagers. Two people went up the tree with sticks and machetes and hit the leopard till it fell. Two persons were injured when the leopard tried to escape.
Human-animal conflict had reached a frenetic phase years ago in Assam and many other states of the country, but like most conflicts the victims continue to be people who don’t qualify to be mourned by staged candlelight vigils where often the candles are provided by the television channels. In this conflict however, the victims are both human as well as animals.
The leopard and the elephant have been the worst victims, and it is now common knowledge that pressure of a rising population which results in the loss of animal habitat is the obvious reason for this conflict. Elephant corridors have vanished and leopard habitats encroached. Entire reserve forests have disappeared and land flattened for real estate sale (there is one not very far from Guwahati). Yet, for all the sensitivity toward wildlife conservation, these stories have failed to excite the brand managers of news.
What is interesting is that whenever such news has been carried it was never because the leopard or the elephant were endangered, but because of the manner in which people attacked or killed the animals. “Violence attracts eyeballs and has some recall value” is how wise newsroom intellectuals explain the phenomenon. Why is it that media devotes so little time and invests even lesser on wildlife and environment which has great stories, political scams, global concern, underworld trade, better visuals and all the masala that makes for “good TV”? If my memory serves me right, in the last decade not more than ten studio discussions have covered this topic. The tiger has dominated most of the discussions. Events and campaigns have focused on the tiger, but even then the ground stories from threatened tiger parks have hardly been the prime time anchor’s choice of news. A major campaign on saving the tiger dropped my report from Sunderbans to accommodate Bollywood celebrities.
Specialisation is seen as a medieval concept by upstart TV dictators. And just as rural reporting is an extinct idea, wildlife and environment is also something that is covered by general reporters. Over the years I have trekked through forest reserves with a regular news camera completely unsuitable for wildlife filming, and have posed as someone who knows and understands the subject with superficial information which was good enough for TV coverage. I can hold drawing-room conversations on wildlife trade and how we have failed the “Big Five”.
While the human-animal conflict has been claiming more and more leopards, tigers and elephants, the lucre of wildlife trade has led to unabated poaching. Six rhinos were poached in the first month of this year and 21 were poached last year in Assam. Illegal wildlife trade is estimated at $10-20 billion annually, but lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation has led to gross under-reporting of wildlife crime. It is unlikely that the coverage will be adequate anytime soon and that news junkies will change their stripes.