The historic town of Meerut, especially its famed Cantonement, has been making headline news across India and the globe in the past few days. The area is playing host to a completely uninvited and very unpleasant guest.
On Sunday, a leopard appeared in the city, at a warehouse...and has been the cynosure of all eyes ever since. The animal, described by one wildlife expert ‘to be the longest and biggest leopard I have seen in my fifteen years of work’ has been captured on film and CCTV wandering across the town, leaping across under-construction buildings, in hospital rooms and in a hole in a wall. The entire town has been under a ‘curfew’ of sorts since Sunday.
Newsmen from across India and even the world have swooped upon the town to capture the cat ‘in action’. Even as wildlife experts, the police and the Army make frantic and harried efforts to capture the leopard, the media and mobs of onlookers are accompanying them everywhere across the city. It is truly, a circus of sorts.
The way the media and the people of Meerut have behaved in this entire affair is shameful, to say the least. True, the appearance of a wild beast in a large town or city has novelty value. But, it is by NO MEANS unique, and does not give the media the licence to cover it in the sensational manner it has.
Frankly, neither the leopard’s appearance, not the resulting media tamasha is a first. Such events have become common across the vast swathe of our country in the past two decades. As the human population has grown, wild habitats in India are shinking faster than we can imagine, bring wild animals in greater conflict with humans.
Big, large carnivores like tigers, leopards, wolves, hyenas, sloth bears, Himalayan black bears, marsh and saltwater crocodiles besides large herbivores like elephants have been frequently straying into rural, semi-urban and even urban areas. Leopard and Himalayan Black Bear attacks in the Vale of Kashmir, muggers straying into cities like Vadodara, Kota and Trichy, especially during monsoons, saltwater crocodile attacks in Odisha and the Andamans, the wolf attacks in eastern UP in the 1990s, depredations by elephants in Bengal, Jharkhand and the Northeast, tiger attacks across the length and breadth of India and last but not the least, leopards straying into cities like Mumbai, Thane and other cities in India, all of this has occurred in the past 20 years.
Man-animal conflict is not unique to India. Such conflicts take place in developed, western nations as well as Africa too. Grizzly and Black bear sightings and attacks in Canada and the US, Moose straying into cities in Canada and Scandanavia, crocodile and shark attacks in Australia and lion attacks in Africa are very well-documented.
But the main difference between such interactions in India and the rest of the world is the way it is perceived by the media and the general public. In the West and in Africa, you would not find a huge mob of onlookers collecting on the scene where a wild animal has been spotted and impeding efforts to capture it. Neither would you find news crews making a beeline for such spots in order to get the perfect story.
To be fair, Western or African nations are not as densely populated as India is. But fact also remains that Indians, especially urban Indians have a long way to go as far as sensitivity towards wildlife is concerned.
In my own observation of popular perceptions towards wildlife in India, I have come across three major types of mindsets. The first is viewing wildlife through a stereotypical, urban prism. Such people have never been to a wild place, they are too involved in their work and their only exposure to wildlife is through granny’s tall tales and folklore. This view is seen in the Bollywood films of old such as the Shashi Kapoor-Rakhi starrer ‘Jaanwar aur Insaan’ where myths about animal behaviour are frequently peddled on screen.
The second minset is of the generation that has grown up in post-liberalisation India (me included, I must admit). Exposed to National Geographic and Discovery, they know about wildlife, but only through what they have seen on air. Their practical, hands-on experience with them is nil.
The last mindset is of the people of our villages. Though illiterate or semi-educated, villagers nevertheless live in the closest proximity to wildlife and their reverence and spirit of accomadation towards it is the highest among the three groups.
And if one talks about our media, the condition thre too is pathetic. Most of our journalists come from urban backgrounds and their exposure to wildlife is minimal. Consequently, their coverage of anything connected to wildlife reflects this. Their main aim is to get eyeballs and consequently, any sensational event, like the one in Meerut are covered. The Bhasha or vernacular media (especially Hindi news channels) is the worst in this context. But even if we talk about the English news media, we find a similar situation thre. Of the five channels that broadcast news in English in India (Times Now, CNN-IBN, NDTV 24X7, News X and Headlines Today), only one (CNN-IBN) has a full-time environment desk, to the best of my knowledge. Even then, stories related to wild animals are hardly covered. Instead, general environment stories like pollution levels in the metros, the impacts of mining on the environment, dam-building, environmental clearances are preferred more.
In summary, neither the mainstream mass media in India nor the general public are sensitised towards wildlife. Coverage of wildlife is pathetic and old attitudes prevail. No efforts are made to understand wildlife problems, especially man-animal conflict in a scientific manner, by way of understanding wild behaviour. With the exception of a few determined NGOs and conservationists, the wild animals of India have nobody to turn to.
Unless the media and the general public come out of their ignorance and insensitivity towards wildlife, they would not be able to put pressure on the political class to make conditions better. Which would fasten the doom that the wild fauna of this country is already hurtling towards.