Anyone scanning the headlines for the past month would conclude that India is in the throes of irrevocable human-wildlife conflict. In this time period, a tiger was crushed by a JCB machine near Corbett while a mob screamed on, a l eopard was burnt in Sariska by a crowd which also stoned forest department personnel, and a 33-member herd of elephants is being teased daily by a mob in Athgarh, Odisha.
In the encounters between a wild animal and a group of people, there are casualties on both sides. The question is, is conflict truly irrevocable? In several cases of conflict this year, it has been noted that groups of people have prevented the forest department from carrying out its duties. Rather than only focussing on a wild, snarling animal, a greater understanding of crowd dynamics is also called for.
A group of people is often defined as a mob if the group becomes unruly or aggressive. One must also consider if the mob has a collective conscience or whether it simply follows the cues by leaders within it. How it gets composed, and what it wants are also important.
After a leopard entered a school in Bengaluru last year , a group of about 5,000 people surrounded the school. The fact that it is dangerous to be in the vicinity of a panicked leopard is belied only by the absurdity of the fact that most wanted to see the animal and take pictures. In the case of elephants in Athgarh, conservationists have documented a mob of people attacking the elephants almost daily. Activists say this is a form of entertainment for the people concerned, as the elephants are not always harming people. While there is potential for serious conflict or injury, the mob also feels safe in its numbers.
Other mobs that have gathered around wildlife have clamoured for instant ‘justice’, gratification or resolution — in the form of killing the animal, beheading it, or parading it after its death. In Sariska last month, a leopard, blamed for killing a man, was burnt alive; the mob also hurt forest department officials. In a case last November, a leopard was bludgeoned to death in Mandawar, Haryana. The symbolic control of an animal by killing it and then parading the carcass has not escaped judicial attention. A December order of the Uttarakhand High Court said that if animals were (legally) put down, their dead bodies could not be displayed or shown in the media.
But in perhaps the most visceral and tragic human-wildlife conflict of recent times, a tiger was crushed by a JCB near Corbett after a mob demanded ‘justice’ for deaths. Two people from a labour camp working in forests near Corbett died after being reportedly attacked by the tiger. The forest department was caught in a human conflict situation — a crowd of people did not allow officials to do their difficult job of catching the tiger. The terrain was undulating. In its haste, the forest department brought in a JCB to capture the animal. The JCB attempted to ‘pick up’ the tiger, akin to sandpaper being used to snatch up a protesting butterfly. The results were gruesome — the tiger was hit repeatedly by the JCB, and crushed to death, all part of its ‘rescue’. In a video made documenting this, one can clearly hear a group of people around the animal, with a voice shouting “ dabao, dabao ” (press it down).
The Corbett story is telling. When going into an area inhabited by an obligate carnivore like a tiger, very few precautions are taken. Most labour camps are not provided with protocol, proper toilets, or monitoring to avoid work in the early morning or late night, and to move about only in groups.
Many cases of conflict or aggression towards animals are exacerbated by carelessness and existing human-human conflict or tensions. The question is also linked to control and which groups or classes are interested in being dominant. In 2012, when a tiger was spotted near Lucknow, members and volunteers of the Samajwadi Party declared they would catch it. This was framed as ‘public interest’. Needless to add, one needs training, not bravado, to catch a wild tiger.
The discourse around a wild animal, especially as it comes closer to people or human habitation, is that it is a criminal, a rogue, a stray, or a killer. There is, however, very little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal.
We need proper cordoning off of areas when wildlife comes close to people, with animal capture being done with full police involvement and not just with a helpless forest department. We need investigations and action against groups that deliberately incite a panicked wild animal. To not do so would be to allow future situations to become even more dangerous; and to privilege revenge over solutions.
A general mob mentality is on the rise in India. Mobs are involved in attacks related to race, food preferences, and various forms of moral policing. In the face of such ‘mobocracy’, does wildlife stand a chance?
Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal