The headline said it all: "Tourists intervene in cat fight at Tadoba reserve". The strap rubbed it in: "TOI reader Vishal Chaudhari admits he broke rules but 'saved the life of a tiger'". The congratulatory tone ran through the story.
A Nagpur-based resort owner was out on a jeep safari in Tadoba with his friends and two others (not clear if clients) when they chanced upon a fight between two male tigers. According to the news report, the resort owner was worried that one of the precious big cats would die in the mortal battle and created a ruckus to distract the animals.
“Though tourists are advised to remain silent and not disturb wildlife, I deliberately began shouting at the two Gypsies ahead of us to move. I told my friends to shout as well. The ruse worked. The tigers got confused and walked away. A tiger means a lot to us," the proud resort-owner was quoted as saying.
In spite of saucier issues dominating the social media, the brazen smugness triggered online wars. While many congratulated the "TOI reader" for his Good Samaritan act, others came down heavily on him for not understanding and respecting the ways of the wild. Some, including eyewitnesses, even accused him of finding an excuse to justify violation of rules only to get ahead of the vehicles parked in front of his jeep for a better view of the fight.
Even if the tourists were guided purely by a welfare motive, it was dangerously misplaced. Many who lauded the act argued that each of the few remaining tigers is too precious to be lost, and that wilderness in its natural sense exist no more as all our reserves are anyway heavily man-managed with artificial waterholes, grass burning and all. Such arguments have obvious appeal to average tiger lovers. For many, love of wildlife is an extension of their love for dogs and cats. While it is important that they care, animal welfare and wildlife conservation are two very different concerns.
Animal welfare is often fixated on the welfare of individuals — feeding an abandoned puppy or sheltering a sickly kitten. Such kindness is touching but has little role in species conservation in the wild. The fate of a single tiger has little to do with the future of the species. And attaching too much value to an individual animal can in fact be harmful to the species.
On several occasions, so-called conservationists have destroyed the goodwill that the tiger traditionally enjoys among the local communities around tiger forests by resisting attempts to remove even confirmed maneaters. The result is a spate of revenge killings by angry locals who began to resent every tiger around.
Tigers are territorial. They fight. Males are more aggressive. While most fights end in timely submission of the weak, fatalities are common. Our interference may avoid immediate casualties but the long-term consequences can be many times worse. If a male is not allowed to defend his territory, the challenger may end up killing his cubs to establish his own bloodline. Anyway, stopping a fight does not mean the two won’t fight again to settle their rights. That increases the chances of injuries that can easily render the dominant tiger useless in his prime.
Of course, management by forest authorities often amounts to interference as well. Animals are supposed to die in the dry summers. That is how nature weeds out the weak. And yet we create dozens of artificial water points and hire water tankers. Grassland burning kills hundreds of smaller species for whom it is akin to a forest fire.
Yet, such practices are rampant. Some do not know better. Others do not care. Anyway, one needs to spend government money to make money. Thankfully, increased technical scrutiny has started showing results and, at least in certain reserves, such mindless intervention is under check.
Of course, average tourists are not supposed to be educated in the nuances of tiger or wildlife or conservation biology. That is why there are rules that they must follow inside a wildlife area. The rules prohibit all kinds of interference — from feeding to disturbing. Whatever be the popular excuses, wildlife tourism gets a bad name when tourists break these laws. Not for nothing was tourism in tiger reserves under the SC’s scanner till a few months ago.
But this is not merely about sentiments or science or laws. It is just common sense. Indeed, if we value the tiger, or any rare species, we need to ensure that not one dies unnaturally. No, territorial fights, snake bites or a porcupine hunt gone wrong are not unnatural. Poaching and habitat loss are. We need to save the tiger from ourselves and our thoughtless acts. And that includes simple-minded interference in the ways of the wild.