“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Why They Suffer: The Human/Animal Conflict

Since the establishment of human settlements large enough to be called civilisations, and in many instances even before that, the idea of 'development' has had a conspicuously narrow scope of definition. In most existing civilisations, the definition of development still resists change on one front: the anthropocentricity or human-centredness of its nature.  

In most of the world the situation is such that development, along with economic prosperity, has become the centre of all political discourse. Nation-states focusing on this form of development are revered, while those lagging behind are condemned without thought.

It seemingly escapes the notice of development's proponents, however, that their idea of development has failed to satisfy the needs of many humans, and of all those beings who are not human.  

The tangle of skyscrapers, flyovers, highways and tunnels, in other words the tangible manifestation of that long cherished dream of development, is built on the destruction of many homes, of billions of living beings.

Disregard for animal homes or habitats, indifference to the coming ravages of global warming, and even denial at times, sets up a conflict that would not have existed in earlier settings, at least not at the existing scale and spreading speed.

Although animals face neglect, abuse and alienation equally in urban spaces and where forests stretch, I focus here on the confrontations between humans and animals of the wild, and this conflict's repercussions on the survival of species.  

The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that human-wildlife conflict occurs "when animals pose a direct and recurring threat to the livelihood or safety of people, leading to the persecution of that species."  

Non-human animals do sometimes directly threaten humans- but the threat we pose to other animals is not only direct but also intentional. We threaten their survival on a much larger scale. Many of our actions, not performed for survival, have led to the extermination of a species as a whole. The earth has seen five mass extinction events; many scientists argue that our current epoch, the Holocene or Anthropocene, is witnessing a sixth due to our civilisation.

Here the love-hate relationship between India and its national animal the tiger is a case worth studying.

With humans pushing the boundaries of tigers' natural homes ever inwards, our fellow animals tend to come out of their shrinking dwellings, and consequently come into contact with landscapes dominated by humans, mostly in search of prey- poultry and other animals of economic importance, and in rare cases, humans.

Often these desperate attempts to survive lead to our vilifying the 'beasts'. For instance in November, 2018, a tigress named Avani, officially known as T1, was shot down in Maharashtra by a shooter appointed by the state forest department. The state government's minister of forests at the time, Sudhir Mungantiwar, said the animal was killed as the last resort, after attempts to tranquilise her failed. The case attracted the wrath of many activists and advocacy groups across the world.

Institutional killings of this sort are less common when compared to the number of animals executed by small human communities living in close proximity to the wild. In July 2019 a video surfaced online which showed a tigress being beaten to death by a group of people. Over 40 men could be seen beating the tigress with sticks and clubs. The killing took place near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh, where the animal had apparently injured a couple of field workers. The divisional forest officer, Naveen Khandelwal, told the press that the tigress had attacked humans because she was alarmed when a child came too close to her the animal for unknown reasons.

At the beginning of the twentieth century some 100,000 tigers had a home in India. This number plunged to 1,700 as per the 2011 India Tiger Census, their decimation attributed largely to illegal hunting, commercial poaching and the rapid destruction of natural habitats.  

The tiger population has suffered not just in numbers, but also in terms of genetic diversity. A 2013 study found that genetic variation in India's tiger population amounted to 93% less than it was 100 years before. The mass killing of tigers led to increased in-breeding, making the population more fragile less immune to external stresses as a whole.

The population plummeted to an all time low in 2008 when the number stood at 1,400 and finally set the alarm bells ringing. The heads of government of 13 tiger-range countries including India set the ambitious target of doubling the population by the end of 2022. The target, as per the official data, was met much before the deadline. In 2018 the government's All India Tiger Estimation Report said the number of tigers in India stood at 2,967 representing a 33% increase over the recorded population in 2014. However, many experts criticised the report for using lax methods that led to double-counting. Conservationists also say the improvement has been essentially quantitative rather than qualitative in nature. The tiger population is increasing as a result of state conservation measures, while the spaces required for these animals to live freely are shrinking with every passing year.

The tiger which is a highly territorial organism requires an area of about 60 to 100 square kilometres (males) to find prey, mate and thrive. But the total area under all fifty notified tiger reserves in India comes to just 71,027 square kilometres, amounting to 24 square kilometres for every tiger. The fact that the tiger population is unevenly spread, being largely restricted to small pockets in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, brings down the area available to each individual even further.  

A 2018 report by the union environment ministry titled 'Management Effectiveness Evaluation of Tiger Reserves' shows that about half the country's tiger reserves have been or will likely be infringed by roads, highways, railway lines and other such linear infrastructure. The ever growing footfall of pilgrims to shrines inside the reserves amounts to yet more pressure exerted on the reserves and its inhabitants. Poaching, illegal hunting, human settlements inside the reserves or in their vicinity, a lack of trained professionals, the construction of hydroelectric power plants, mining activities, unchecked pollution and unbridled global warming are some of the other factors it identifies as a major threat to the species' survival.

Since at least the seals of the Harappan period the tiger has been recognised by human activity. Tigers too see a home in India, and as official figures tell us, they have responded positively to the measures we have put in place to help them live and thrive. The need of the hour is the creation of adequately large, contiguous areas of land protected from the most destructive human activities, lest the animals should pose a threat to humans, and to their own very survival.

It is probably time that we see animals and plants in close association with their basic survival needs such as space, food and water, a way of seeing that may transform the larger narrative of our industrial civilisation, so they can do more than exist as totemic numbers or tokens of national pride. They should be allowed to live to their fullest potential alongside us, without falling prey to our own peculiar ideas of prosperity and development.


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