Shaping wilderness

August 23, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:39 am IST

The use of technology is challenging long-held ideas about conservation

pankaj sekhsaria &naveen thayyil

pankaj sekhsaria &naveen thayyil

One of the most significant trends visible in wildlife conservation and management today is the increased use of ‘technology’. Camera traps, for instance, have provided new evidence of tiger presence in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and of the Asiatic wildcat in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh; radio collars have helped solve the mystery of tiger deaths in Bandipur in Karnataka and Chandrapur district of Maharashtra; and satellite telemetry promises to provide new insights into the behaviour and movement patterns of the Great Indian Bustard in Gujarat, which includes its journeys across the border to Pakistan. New software and sophisticated surveillance technologies are being operationalised to keep an eye on developments across large landscapes and the use of contraceptives has been suggested to contain runaway populations of animals ranging from the monkey in large parts of India to the elephant in Africa.

Within easy reach

We may not be able to escape such a technology-based framing, but is it possible that the current set of technologies, like those mentioned earlier, are profoundly different from those of the earlier era? And is the change that we are seeing, therefore, a more fundamental one?

What these innovations appear to do is increase our proximity to the subject of our interest and of our investigation. Surveillance technologies are bringing distant and topographically complex landscapes right into our homes and offices so that they can be observed and monitored without moving an inch. More individual wild animals are perhaps being caught and handled today than has ever happened earlier. And then there are various levels of physical intrusion that these sentient beings are subjected to — be it a microchip in the tail, a radio collar around its neck or a contraceptive injected into its body, not to mention the sedation that most of these individuals are forced into to enable such intrusions.

Technology has always allowed us deeper access into and control over our environment; in many ways it has been key in the human conquest over nature. And yet there are some things — a ferocious large cat or a free flying bird or a deep-sea mammal — that had still seemed out of reach. They were wild, defined as an animal ‘living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated’. They were wild and therefore inaccessible or inaccessible, therefore wild. Technology is closing that gap and it is the very idea of the ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ that comes into focus in important public initiatives such as conservation and protection of biodiversity. How wild or natural, for instance, is an animal that cannot perform its fundamental biological function of procreation because it has been sterilised by human intervention? Is a tiger that has been sedated multiple times and now carries a radio collar as ‘wild’ a tiger as one that has never been photographed, sedated or collared? How wild is a wilderness where everything has been mapped, where everything is known and where all movement is tracked in real time?

Aesthetic and ethical issues

The matter here is both aesthetic and ethical. The basic pleasures of enjoying the wild are essentially technology mediated intrusions (think binoculars and cameras) into the private lives of animals that the human species does not allow in its own case. Aldo Leopold pointed out, for instance, to the role of the automobile, and the dense construction of roads to accommodate them, as central to the emergence of wilderness areas in 19th century United States. Does the radio collar go only a step further, or is there a fundamental shift here? One could argue that this collar is a signifier of further human dominance and authority over the wild animal if not complete control. A photograph of a collared tiger is unlikely to win an award in a wildlife photography context just as an encounter with a collared animal is unlikely to evoke the same experience of thrill because the element of surprise will have been removed. The issue is one that goes to the very heart of the notion of the ‘wild’ and of ‘wilderness’, marking as it does a paradigm shift in our relationship to and understanding of wildlife.

This is not an esoteric matter because it has a direct bearing on the agenda of conservation; it is the conservation of this ‘wild’ life that we are talking about after all. If we agree that technologies and technological interventions are bringing about fundamental changes in the identities and essence of wild subjects, it follows that current ideologies and methods of conservation will also have to change.

Are we willing to characterise wilderness areas as glorified theme parks? Are attempts at conservation then just routes to manage these slippery slopes? If this is not an appropriate aesthetic or ethical stance, then how do we think of the ubiquitous use of high technology to shape wilderness, and to intrude into ‘wild’ bodies, even as they are used in the name of protecting them?

Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil are researchers at the DST-Centre for Policy Research, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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