The Media's Disservice to India's Wildlife That Only It Can Fix

The current practice of reporting the monetary value of seized and confiscated wildlife items might increase the newsworthiness of an article, if not sensationalising it outright – but it also draws the attention of potential offenders.

The tragic consequences of revealing information is there for all to see. The most obvious example would be revealing the identity of a victim of a crime. In a recent instance of callous disregard for privacy, the Delhi high court fined 11 media houses Rs 10 lakh each for revealing the identity of the Kathua rape victim. The bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar noted that “We have to set our own limits” on freedom of expression. Another area of reportage where discernment is required is the current practice of monetarily valuing illegally traded wildlife or wildlife products in news articles. This practice could have far reaching unintentional and destructive consequences for India’s incredible natural heritage.

Wild animals like tigers, leopards, elephants, macaques, langurs, geckos, star tortoises, snakes and countless others are routinely snared or trapped; then butchered or kept alive in hideous conditions to meet the demand from the clandestine wildlife trade. The volume is staggering. For example, about 450 species of birds have been documented in the birds trade by Rajat Bhargava, a scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society. Plants and trees (e.g., red sandalwood, commonly known as red sanders) are also traded illegally. Live animals, skins, bones, other animal body parts, shells, logs of trees and plants are some of the “products” in this trade. Occasionally, enforcement agencies apprehend the traders involved and seize the products. Coverage of such seizures in news reports should take cognisance of the fact that these are often animals and plants threatened with extinction, not merely commodities that can be reported solely in terms of their monetary value.

A cursory internet search will reveal that news articles regularly report the value of confiscated wildlife products either in attention-grabbing-in-your-face headlines or in the content. These reports describe wildlife “products” in terms of their monetary value but leave out other important information, like the animal’s threatened status and the impact of such hunting on their population. Emphasising their value as a commodity rather than as a living being has two critically harmful effects. First, it suggests that wildlife only has value after death, once they are turned into “products”. Second, by placing a specific value on these “products”, it advertises the notion that dead animals are considered valuable and expensive products.

Why report tiger skin in terms of its price? Are such news reports reaching out to audiences that will only respond to animals if they come with a price tag attached? Do publications have a broader moral responsibility to prevent threatened wild animals and plants being thought about only as commodities? Who is helped by such reportage?

Taking note of this practice, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), a statutory multidisciplinary body established to combat organised wildlife crime in India issued an advisory in 2012. The advisory (No. 10-27/WCCB/2012/3874 dated August 9, 2012) directed enforcement agencies to not assign monetary value to seized wildlife or wildlife products. The advisory cautions that the current practice of assigning such values may actually promote poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and reveals that some first-time wildlife criminals took to committing crimes after reading newspaper reports that valued wildlife products.

Is it possible that a mere mention of the monetary value of some wildlife “product” could have unintended negative repercussions for the animal or plant in question? Shekhar Kumar Niraj, the current additional principal chief conservator of forests (Project Tiger), Tamil Nadu, thinks so. Pointing out that the WCCB advisory was necessary, he agrees that valuing wildlife products is problematic. Drawing on his vast experience as the former country head of TRAFFIC India, an organisation combating the illegal wildlife trade, he minces no words: “Luring youth [to commit wildlife crimes] is very easy.” Citing the potent combination of money, poor on-ground enforcement and the weak system of prevention, he also said “Anybody will get lured [to commit wildlife crimes].”

As a follow-up to the advisory, the WCCB has been sensitising enforcement agencies. Tilotama Varma, the additional director of the WCCB, communicated that, “WCCB is reiterating this [not to assign monetary values to seized wildlife or wildlife products] in all the inter-agency coordination meetings conducted at various places in the country, [to] sensitise the field agencies on this aspect.”

While the WCCB is focusing on sensitising enforcement agencies, Niraj reaffirms the need for media to be sensitised as well. The current practice of reporting the monetary value of seized and confiscated wildlife items might increase the newsworthiness of the article, if not sensationalising it outright. However, this practice does not help enforcement efforts or the animals that are killed or trafficked for trade. Instead, pricing seized wildlife products seems to be fuelling the fire. Focusing on the quantity of seized items (skins, bones, scales, logs, etc.) could help establish the scale of the problem. Including information about the endangered status of the species in question and the impact of poaching or collection on its population could help garner public support for conservation. And listing the fines and jail terms on conviction for poaching wild animals in the news articles could deter would be first-time offenders.

Fortunately, this change in reportage is already underway. Some news reports (for example, see this, this and this) about the illegal wildlife trade have bucked the trend and have not listed the monetary values of seized wildlife products. Instead, they provide information on the threatened status of animals, the fines and jail terms for poaching wild animals, prior convictions, the number of animals that were killed, etc. This kind of reporting needs to become standard practice rather remain the exception.

The media is undoubtedly a very important stakeholder in protecting India’s natural heritage. Pricing illegal wildlife products in media reports is counterproductive to the cause of wildlife conservation and enforcement. Instead, including other pertinent information in news reports will help India’s beleaguered wildlife.

Chaitanya Krishna is a conservationist and tweets @ChaitanyaKrshna.