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Karnataka’s conservation fix: To fetch water for tigers or not

It is nature versus nurture, with a twist. The green fraternity is engaged in a strange battle in Karnataka over artificially replenishing waterholes in tiger reserves in the dry summer months. While one group has lashed out against the decision of the state forest department to do so, others feel there is nothing wrong with the move as long as tankers do not ferry contaminated water from outside.

Former member of the National Board for Wildlife Praveen Bhargav, wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth and conservationist KM Chinappa are among those opposed to unnecessary interventions that disrupt natural ecological processes. Others claim that drought management has been a common practice that features in the guideline issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Tiger with bait. Image courtesy: Aditya Singh.

Tiger with bait. Image courtesy: Aditya Singh.

Dry summer months test animals in the wild. It is a weeding process that eliminates the old and the weak so that the young and healthy have access to more resources and a better chance to thrive. It ensures that only the best genes remain in circulation and the future generations of animals are born robust.

Yet, conflicting situations, such as the one now playing out in Karnataka, arise because most of us cannot or do not differentiate between conservation and welfare. Put simply, animal welfare is about caring for every single animal. It is relevant for domestic animals because the very act of domestication makes us responsible for our dogs or cattle. It is natural that we feed the house cat daily and take it to a vet when it is sick.

But wildlife conservation has nothing to do with the fate of individual animals. The future of the species does not depend on the survival of a famished or injured tiger. Yet, we are increasingly restless to “help out” wildlife. But every time we treat an injured wild tiger or feed one that cannot hunt, we breach a cardinal rule of conservation by interrupting nature that knows far better.

When it is not pure sentiment, our welfare motive is often an excuse. In 2010, for example, the West Bengal government decided to release some captive-bred spotted deer in Sunderbans to discourage tigers from venturing into human settlements, looking for food. The authorities would have us, and perhaps the tigers, believe that releasing a few dozen cheetals in an area teeming with domestic cattle (more than 400 per square kilometre) would dissuade the big cats from easy takeaway meals.

The move, in fact, was to dump surplus animals in Sunderbans in the garb of a conservation drive after failing to manage deer populations in captivity. Many animals would have carried tuberculosis infection from their squalid enclosures. Bereft of any fear of humans, most were destined to boost Sunderbans’ flourishing venison trade.

But even when our welfare motive is sincere, it often harms the wild. While many want to brand every carnivore that had a chance encounter with humans a maneater, animal welfare groups refuse to accept that a confirmed problem animal must be eliminated as quickly as possible. They first question the ‘problem’ tag. Then, they insist that the animal be taken to a zoo rather than be put down.

Such bargaining often causes delay and, at times, more damage by turning the affected communities against conservation and putting entire species at risk for the welfare of one animal. Ironically, from the perspective of wildlife conservation, it does not matter if a problem tiger is shot dead or taken to some zoo because both mean one tiger less in the wild.

Every time a state forest department wants to cull wild boars or blue bulls where the animals have become pests, the welfare lobby goes up in arms and proposes alternative mitigation methods such as electric fencing around agricultural fields. But it is very difficult to keep animals away using such contraptions. Used locally, electric fencing diverts animals to the next village. Used extensively, it turns forests into fenced zoos. But how does it help the animals?

If we really believe that animals are raiding crops or cattle because there is little food inside forests, denying them access to cropland will eventually bring down their populations. If we are fine with death by starvation far from our sight, why fuss over culling?

Nothing fired our inspiration to help the wild more than the 1966 blockbuster based on Joy Adamson’s Born Free. No wonder so many of us are hooked to the idea of nursing wild animals particularly big cats, in distress. Across the country, we bait and treat old and injured tigers or bring up orphaned cubs to release them in the wild.

In Ranthambhore, tigress Machhli is just one of many wild cats fed by the authorities. In 2010, an orphaned cub raised by the forest staff was killed by a wild tiger and another died of an injury while trying to hunt. In 2011, two villagers were killed by hand-raised leopards released in the wild by the Mysore royalty and a Bangalore-based NGO.

Replenishing waterholes so that tigers and other wildlife do not go thirsty may not have such extreme consequences – unless the water is contaminated – but it reflects the same selfish welfare motive. We want to return orphaned cubs back to the wild, keep old tigers on food doles, treat injured wildlife or ferry water for them because it makes us feel good. More than the wild, it is our perception of the wild that we really care for and want to pamper.