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How green activism relies on shock-and-awe to deliver

Every year since the 1980s, thousands of olive ridley turtles die entangled in fishing nets used by mechanised boats or trawlers along the Indian coast. The numbers are particularly staggering along the Odisha coast where they congregate for arribada or mass breeding. The spectacle of hundreds of dead turtles washed ashore makes news every breeding season.

Olive ridley hatchlings waddle to the sea at Velas in Maharashtra. Photo: Yuwaraj Gurjar

Olive ridley hatchlings waddle to the sea at Velas in Maharashtra. Photo: Yuwaraj Gurjar

The species and its habitat are protected under green Acts. The Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (OMFRA) restricts trawling in the near-shore waters. Yet, tardy enforcement allows the killings to continue. On top of that, nesting beaches are being damaged by casuarina plantations promoted by the forest department itself. There is little effort to protect these sites from artificial lighting that disorients turtles and ends up killing hatchlings.

The green activists have been raising these issues with the governments, communities and other stakeholders for decades with very limited success. Naturally, the tenor of activism has only got shriller with time. This has little enthusiasm for good news such as thousands of olive ridleys nesting at one of its three mass-nesting beaches in Odisha.

Unlike the Devi river mouth and Gahirmatha, Rushikulya has been hosting massive arribadas in recent years. These numbers do not weaken the legitimate cases for reining in the trawlers, removal of casuarina and restricting the use of artificial lights. But wary activists apparently fear that celebrating the happy news from Rushikulya will make the task of rallying support for the turtle and pushing a reluctant administration more challenging.

Unlike the ridleys, gharials (the fish-eating river crocodile with a long, narrow snout) reached the brink of extinction in the 1970s with only around 200 left in the wild. The conservation response was to declare their key riverine habitats as protected areas and launch a programme to collect eggs, rear hatchlings in captivity and release juveniles in the wild. Till now, more than 5000 gharials have been released and yet the species remains critically endangered.

Every census, enumerators scout the Chambal river in motor boats to count gharials. But the noisy engines make sure that for every gharial counted, two slide away unnoticed. No correction of this under-estimation is done in order to sustain the picture that gharials are still in need of “emergency help” through the rear-and-release programme.

This makes conservation a lot easier. While logic demands that we mend the hole rather than keep pouring into a leaky bucket, the convenience of hatching and releasing some gharials every season just does not compare with the challenges of fixing field problems of water shortage, sand mining, fishing or riverbank agriculture.

But the so-called long-term issues of habitat protection can be avoided only as long as a fire-fighting mode of conservation can be justified. Reporting fewer gharials serve that purpose. Ironically, gharial numbers may in fact plummet if rear-and-release stops. That, however, is far from an alarming scenario.

If it becomes evident that the gharial is struggling in the wild on its own, conservationists and managers will be forced to ask why. But as long as rear-and-release keeps destabilising the population, the natural status of the species will remain unclear and the factors threatening it unaddressed.

No other species enjoy more media space here than the tiger. Sundry experts and activists are quoted to create a spectre of poaching every time a dead tiger is found anywhere in the Indian wild. Given that the tiger’s usual lifespan in the wild is around 12 years, at least 100 of India’s 1500-odd tigers are expected to die annually due to natural causes, including territorial fights and starvation due to injury or old age. Most of these dead tigers rot or are scavenged unnoticed.

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Gharials reached the brink of extinction in the 1970s with only around 200 left in the wild. Image: Rajeev Chauhan

Yet, every tiger carcass found is supposed to be the handiwork of poachers. Since tiger bones fetch more money than skin these days, no poacher would leave the skeleton to rot with the gut. While forest officials are notorious for finding a natural reason of death for every dead tiger, this does not justify the other extreme of sensational take-no-chances activism.

These are just three examples of alarmist strategies popular with conservationists and activists alike. To be fair, this has evolved through harrowing experiences of even the most legitimate cases not being heard. Hard facts and logic are often poor tools to garner public support so vital for pushing indifferent policymakers and cold-hearted business interests. So activists try the green equivalent of the military strategy of shock-and-awe to achieve rapid dominance in the public space.

It works, at least spasmodically. A tiger cub or a panda melts a million hearts and keeps raising much more than a million buck. Some of the support gets translated into actionable strategies including legislations etc. But alarmist strategies play on emotions to succeed. The reaction, therefore, is often knee-jerk. So even when such strategies succeed in triggering action by the powers that be, it addresses issues mostly in all sorts of ad hoc manners.

It is easy though to be condescending. If the social consensus seems to be that no species deserve help if it is not in an imminent danger of going extinct, what choice do the green activists have? If only the ends were happy enough to justify these means.