In India, a mob gathers within seconds of a large wild animal being cornered. Even in the jungle, people come out the woodwork. The animal may have attacked or killed a human. Or it may have done no more than merely being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The situation calls for the state Forest Department to take action. But the presence of a crowd is no help to anyone.
As individuals, people may be smart, but as a mob, their collective IQ plummets to single digits. In case after tragic case, hordes of men high on fear, revenge, and machismo, sometimes booze, interfere with the rescue of wild animals. Anything can go wrong in this volatile situation.
A desperate animal can hurt a member of the gathered public or the capture team. A mob can attempt to capture the animal with disastrous consequences. It can attack the team or kill the animal. In one case, a group armed with axes chased a leopard that had been shot with tranquilisers. Not only is the life of man and animal at stake – conservation suffers. A scared and stressed animal fighting for its life confirms the worst stereotype of wild animals being vicious, bloodthirsty beasts that should be exterminated.
The recent incident on the doorstep of Corbett National Park is the latest in a series of such incidents. Urged on by a belligerent crowd, the department’s personnel tried to pin a drugged tiger with the gigantic metal scoop of an earthmover. Not long after, the tiger died. Some unnamed sources say it suffered spinal injuries. Others say it died of septicaemia and asphyxiation.
Caption: Rescuing a wild drugged tiger using an earthmover.
A rescue team needs space to assess the situation, draw up a strategy and manoeuvre. The impulsive actions of an emotion-fuelled mob forces the team’s hand. The marksmen and veterinarians may be experts but they cannot make reasoned decisions when they are caught between an irate mob flexing its muscles and a desperate animal trying to escape. When rescue operations go wrong, the state forest departments and their apologists blame the presence of crowds.
For all these reasons, mobs have no place in wildlife emergencies.
Human-wild animal interactions are on the rise. Since crowds form readily, you’d think that the state Forest Departments would have a protocol for dealing with them. In a wildlife emergency, West Bengal declared it would use Section 144 of the Penal Code that prohibits the assembly of people. That was August 2016. Five months later, it didn’t put its newfound resolve into practice. A leopard bit 20 people even as the forest department refused to do anything about it.
Despite managing an increasing number of wildlife incidents for four decades, the departments’ personnel often act as if they have learned no lessons from previous debacles. Much like the woozy tiger in the video, they lurch unprepared and untrained from one incident to the next.
The forest department’s mandate is to deal with wild animals – not control the crowd pressing in on all sides. Two documents issued by the environment ministry for dealing with leopards and tigers that are in conflict with people call for crowd control as one of the first actions. The police and district administration, the agencies meant to maintain law and order, are to aid in these situations. But more often than not, they are nowhere in sight and no one controls the crowds.
Even if the states refuse to accept these documents drafted by the central government, nothing prevents them from coming up with their own protocols. It’s inexcusable that they continue to function without such procedures in place and make decisions by the seat of their pants. It’s imperative the state forest departments talk to the police and state authorities before a crisis arises. When they have to react at a moment’s notice, then the already-set-up system takes over.
A volunteer group, Mumbaikars for SGNP, in Mumbai liaises with and trains the police to help the forest department in tackling any emergencies involving wild leopards. Sadly, this is more an exception than the rule.
What prevents the states from deploying their police forces to help their forest departments? Why do wildlife personnel continue to be harassed and threatened by the public while performing their duties? By not asking for police and district authorities to help in managing people, the state Forest Departments have no one but themselves to blame. If Mumbai can set up a protocol, so can the others.
Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.