caged leopard set on fire by mobOn Wednesday, 23 March 2011, a leopard entered Dhamdhar village in Kalagarh Forest Division, Corbett Tiger Reserve. Sighting the furtive cat, a crowd gathered and began shouting, pelting stones, sticks, rocks… whatever they could lay their hands on. The leopard fled and took shelter in a cowshed and in the chaos, three people were injured—none too grievously. The forest department tranquilised and captured the leopard, but by then mob frenzy had peaked. They attacked the leopard—trapped, terrified and helpless in the cage—with iron rods, sickles and stones, before finally dousing it with kerosene and setting it ablaze!

This particular leopard had never killed man-nor injured a soul, except when cornered by an angry mob… yet, it paid a heavy price for the mere sin of being alive… and wild.

The picture of the leopard’s charred body made it to one or two spots on TV and a vague mention in print (with cricket,2G & wikileaks, there was little scope). I am unaware if it made ripples either in the corridors of power which define wildlife policy, or in the collective conscience of a society that calls itself humane and is proud of its ahimsik traditions. To me the charred visage, frozen in agony represents the face of the accelerating conflict in the country and the degeneration of our attitude towards the wilds. It defines India’s changing relationship with nature.

Revering nature is part of our heritage. Most ancient religions of India don’t differentiate between the soul of a human and an animal. We pray to the elephant god Ganesha, the monkey god Hanuman and the vulture god Jatayu. The tiger symbolises fertility and in some cultures newly-weds seek its blessings. We worship the sun god, and the river Ganga is sacred. It is this veneration and values that have stood wildlife in good stead. They have kept it alive, against the worst of odds.

Think about it: India has about a dozen large animals—carnivores like tigers, leopards, lions and wolves; elephants, sloth bears—all capable of harming humans, living amongst its teeming millions. We have leopards living in agriculture fields and on the fringes of expanding towns, wolves and hyenas in villages, tigers clinging to shrinking habitat on the fringe of the forest, and onto human ground. It must be added here that given the proximity, conflict is minimal.

It is truly amazing—and laudable—that an underdeveloped (then) India, with its booming population and many pressing concerns kept aside land and funds for Project Tiger, that revived this dying animal while most of Europe and the US persecuted their carnivores to extinction.

But… the tide is turning.

The problem is complex. At one level it is about our fraying relationship with nature, of a ‘distancing’ from the earth. At another, it is about development and growth, and its ‘face-off’ with environment and ecology. India’s expanding middle-class has a ferocious appetite to consume—and the direct impact is on our natural resources. Does this India, hurtling down the fast road to economic superstardom and with its growing aspirations have room on its land, and in its heart for nature?

As a nation, we are losing touch with our roots, with nature. A child growing up in a box—read apartment—has little concept of climbing trees and chasing butterflies, wild flowers or clear streams. Nature, at best is a manicured park, or Animal Planet.

The milieu has shifted even in rural India. While there is huge dependence on forest resources for sustenance and livelihood, better means of communication and the growing economy have raised aspiration levels here as well.

At the heart of this all is human-wildlife conflict. The mix of shrinking, fragmented natural habitats, pressed in by villages and towns is lethal. Conflict, especially when fatal, fuels further conflict. Tolerance has sustained wildlife in this overpopulated landscape, but for how long? The reverence is fading. This particular leopard had done no wrong, unless you count venturing into human habitat. It was fear, and intolerance of the ‘intruder’ that lit the fire. The leopard died… but the fire has not yet doused; its flame has engulfed many species, including the tiger, and the veneration that we once had for animals.

This is not the first time a leopard has been burnt to death, nor will it be the last… unless we take the gravity of the situation on board, unless we work with communities who bear the brunt of conflict; unless we work out strategies to tackle conflict and to manage wildlife in—and more importantly around protected areas, and our rural landscapes; unless we nurture and hold sacred the values of nature worship.

> printed in The Sunday Guardian on April 3,2011