T-24, the tiger in the news

SUPPORT FROM COMMUNITY: “To generate an emotional connection with tigers, animals in some reserves have been given names.” Picture shows T-39, female partner of T-24, at Ranthambore National Park. Photo: Anurag Sharma  

An unprecedented drama has just been played out in the forests of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan over the fate of tiger T-24, also known as Ustad. T-24 reportedly killed Rampal Saini, a forest guard in early May in the reserve. Even as details of what had happened were emerging, there was news that he had been tranquilised and moved 400 kilometres to the Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur. Events unfolded at a brisk pace, allegations were seen flying thick and fast, and there was a clear lack of clarity, certainly agreement, on what some of the basic facts of the case were, or should be.

While the Forest Department and a number of experts opined that the tiger had become overtly aggressive and dangerous and should, therefore, be removed from the forests, a group of the public started a campaign, mainly through social media, asking for Ustad to be brought back. There were complaints that the decision to move him had been hurriedly taken and that there was no transparency in the whole episode. There were allegations that the tiger had been moved because of the pressure of the tourism lobby in Ranthambhore. The forest guards, meanwhile, threatened to boycott work if the tiger was allowed to remain. A group of tour guides were seen asking for him to be brought back.

The public’s role

Going into the details of the matter or judging the veracity of any of the claims and facts is not the purpose here. The matter has, in any case, been settled with the Jaipur High Court ruling that there was no case for Ustad to be taken back to Ranthambhore. The main thrust here, therefore, is analytical in nature and with a focus on the role of one key player in the controversy — the tourist or what might be called the ‘urban conservation public.’ It is, in fact, the role of the conservation community itself in the creation of the ‘urban conservation public’ that needs to be understood here.

One of the major efforts of the conservation community over the years has been to enlist the interest and support of the general public to the rationale of conservation. The question of what is a ‘public’ and how an amorphous, unconnected set of people with varying interests and backgrounds come to constitute a ‘public’ with a common agenda has been the subject of much research in the social sciences. One can discern clear trends in this context in the case of wildlife conservation efforts.

In rural and tribal communities that inhabit landscapes along with the wildlife, one line of effort has been to try and show the communities the benefits through the lens of livelihoods — that protecting the ecosystems (and therefore, the wildlife) has direct implications for resources that their lives and livelihoods depend on. In the case of the urban public, the effort has been mainly operationalised through the lens of tourism: the argument of connecting the unconnected urban folk with untouched wilderness and nature, through the argument that tourism supports local people financially and by arguing that tourists can be the eyes and ears of conservation and protection — that poaching, for instance, is unlikely to happen in an area visited by tourism. To generate an emotional connection with tigers, individual animals in reserves like Ranthambore have been given names; legends and mythologies have been created around them and their family histories, giving them a human-like identity and valence. All this had been mobilised to support conservation and protection.

Idea of conservation

The hope has been that this urban public will become a wildlife defender and a defender of the entire idea of conservation. The attempt, one might argue, has also been quite successful with this section having aligned itself firmly behind the idea of wildlife conservation. This ‘urban conservation public’ — which is broadly middle, upper-middle class urban India — has over the years been in sync with the ‘expert conservation community’ that is mainly constituted by wildlife and environment NGOs, the community of researchers and scientists, a section of the press and also the State.

Tiger T-24 is perhaps the first significant case in which we see a rupture in this alignment — for once, the urban conservation public was seen aligned on one side of the divide, and the conservation community on the other. It is noteworthy that the key challenge to the decision to move tiger T-24 into captivity has come from this ‘urban conservation public’ that has catalysed into becoming a single, vocal and effective community through social media.

There are two related points that this leads us to, both of an analytical nature. Social studies of knowledge have shown convincingly that controversies are very important in a better understanding of situations because they create the theatre where competing claims over authority, expertise, knowledge and facts play out. A controversy also allows for a certain transparency, and decisions that might have occurred backstage have to now be performed before an audience that is listening and watching. Justice needs not only to be done, but also needs to be seen as done. The T-24 case is a good illustration of this.

A lot of opinion is emerging from the expert conservation community that this is an unruly, unreasonable, emotional public that is opposing the incarceration of T-24; that its attitude is problematic, the facts fudgy, and its understanding incomplete and incorrect. Even if there is a reason to accept this, it would be very useful to dwell for a moment on who created this urban conservation public, how and why?

The dust may have indeed settled on the T-24 case for now, but it may not be long before another such case hits the headlines and the public begins to make a difference. There is a huge stake in conservation that has been created around this public and only part of it is about the economy.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental NGO, Kalpavriksh, and Trishant Simlai is an early career conservation biologist working as a consultant with the Foundation for Ecological Security. Views expressed are personal.)

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 4:43:58 PM |

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