The chronicles of conservation: the lion, the tiger, the cheetah and politics

The idea of ​​bringing back cheetahs, the only large mammal that India has lost in recent history, has huge appeal to the public. This was not lost on Jairam Ramesh, who supported the idea as the environment minister in the Congress-led UPA-II government in 2009, or the BJP-led NDA-II who revived it in 2017, even after it Supreme Court had shot down the plan in 2013.

As the nation awaits the great spectacle, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to be released the African imports in enclosures built in Kuno National Park on September 17, his birthday.

Modi is not the first leader to recognize the value of charismatic wild species in building political capital, especially when the animals are deeply rooted in cultural identities. While the spin-offs of such symbolism used to be almost entirely diplomatic, in recent years the growing awareness of conservation among the middle class has encouraged domestically even electoral gains.

In 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru gave elephant calf ‘Indira’ to the children of war-torn Japan. (File photo)

A messenger of affection and goodwill, elephant calf ‘Indira’ was gifted by Jawaharlal Nehru to the children of war-torn Japan in 1949 by Jawaharlal Nehru. In the 1950s, India shipped elephants to zoos in China, the Soviet Union, the US, Germany, Turkey, Iran, Canada and the Netherlands. Nehru described the elephant as the symbol of India – “wise and patient, strong yet gentle” – and the gifts ostensibly helped create the idea of ​​a new independent nation.

Half a century later, however, Prime Minister AB Vajpayee sought a more imposing image of India in the elephant symbol. “The Indian economy is often identified with the elephant. I have no problem with the analogy. Elephants can take a moment to move all parts of their huge bodies forward at once. But once they get moving, it’s very difficult to redirect, slow down, stop or reverse the momentum. And when they move, the forest shakes,” he told the third India-EU Business Summit in Copenhagen in 2002.

While the elephant was portrayed as an embodiment of India’s unhurried but determined spirit, it was the Asiatic lion that became the national animal in 1948. The image on a column that Emperor Ashoka had built in Sarnath helped with the case of the lion, which was strongly supported by the Gujarat Natural History Society. An icon of Gujarati pride, the species continued to enjoy political support and the Gir Lion Sanctuary Project was launched in 1972, a year ahead of the vaunted Project Tiger.

When scientists recommended creating a second home as insurance for the isolated species, Gujarati asmita got in the way of sending a pair of lions to Madhya Pradesh. In 1997, then-Prime Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela swore that “not a single lion cub” would ever leave the state. In the years that followed, his successors only hardened that stance.

Modi is, of course, no Nehru, whose solitary confinement in the Ahmednagar fort was enlivened by the arrival of a pair of migratory wagtails — “the heralds of a new season” — and known to find solace in rivers (although he didn’t like it). refrained from imagining ‘temples of modern India’ in large dams).

Instead, as a boy, Modi took the famous baby crocodile home from a pond he took a dip in, only to learn a lesson in animal welfare. “My mother told me that this is not right. You can’t do this. Don’t do this, put it back. I went and put it back,” the Prime Minister told popular presenter Bear Grylls as he walked through the wilderness in the Corbett Tiger Reserve for a TV show in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

PM Narendra Modi with Bear Grylls (Source: Discovery Channel India)

Still, as prime minister, Modi would not share lions from their only home in Gujarat with Madhya Pradesh, where his party had been in power since 2003, even if that kept the proverbial risk of putting all the eggs in one basket. It was quite fitting that it took a BJP-ruled Rajasthan in a tug-of-war over eggs to pull a Gujarat on Gujarat in 2015.

While Gujarat was on the 2013 Supreme Court order that set a six-month deadline for moving a pair of lions to Madhya Pradesh, it was on the wrong end of a similar accord, with Rajasthan refusing to send eggs from its state bird. – the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) – to Kutch for breeding.

In October 2015, then-Prime Minister Vasundhara Raje instructed top state officials that no GIB eggs should be shared with Gujarat. Instead, she asked them to set up a breeding and research center near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Her wish came true after she lost the parliamentary elections in 2018 and the GIB breeding center in Ramdevra in the Desert National Park is now nearing completion.

Before Raje had the last word on the state bird, Raje denied her political opponent Congress the legacy of Rajasthan’s third tiger reserve near Kota. While former Rajasthan forest minister Bina Kak sought credit for the groundwork she claimed had the blessings of her party chairman Sonia Gandhi, Raje turned the tables by naming the reserve after Mukundra Hills instead of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as previously stated. suggested.

Rajiv Gandhi in Kanha (Source: Project Tiger)

However, the status of the guardian angel of the tiger in India was long preserved for Indira Gandhi. Described by ornithologist Salim Ali as “an expert birdwatcher in her own right,” Indira, in a 1956 letter to her son Rajiv, described the impact the gift of a huge tiger fur had on her.

“The tiger was shot by (the) Maharaja of Rewa just two months ago. The skin is in the ballroom. Every time I walk by it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he may have been roaming in the jungle and roaring… I am so happy that nowadays more and more people are going into the jungle with their cameras instead off with weapons,” she wrote.

Indira Gandhi with tiger cubs (Source: Project Tiger)

After her landslide victory in the 1971 elections, Indira enacted the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, delivered her famous “poverty is the greatest polluter” speech in Stockholm (1972) and launched Project Tiger (1973) before launching the Pokhran- nuclear test conducted in 1974. She also replaced the lion as the national animal with the tiger, ostensibly due to its greater presence across the country. However, her critics tried to link the decision to the fact that the Morarji Desai faction, although wiped out by the Indira wave in 1971, had won 11 of Gujarat’s 16 seats.

At the launch of Project Tiger, Indira signaled an exclusionary approach: “The tiger cannot be kept in isolation. It is located at the top of a large and complex biotope. Its habitat, threatened by human interference, commercial forestry and grazing cattle, must first be cleared.” As early as 1976, an interim evaluation of Project Tiger recommended a more flexible approach to providing livelihoods to villagers in the buffer zones.

Despite all the accusations against Indira of yielding to Western constituencies (the World Wildlife Fund pledged a million dollars) at the launch of Project Tiger, the prime minister took a significant risk by harassing several powerful home lobbies who hated the right to hunt. because of the ban she imposed in 1970, before her position was strengthened by the landslide victory.

In time, her legacy of tiger conservation was so powerful that Manmohan Singh, widely regarded as the prime minister whose neoliberal conviction favored development over wildlife in every trade-off, had to act swiftly and decisively as the local extermination of tigers began in earnest. Sariska in Rajasthan made headlines in January 2005.

Singh ordered a CBI investigation into tiger poaching and established a task force to shape the future of tiger conservation even before seeing his first tiger — the famed Machhli of Ranthambhore — in May 2005. The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau were established in 2007 under Singh, who claimed to have seized the opportunity for reform.

While it’s tempting to undermine Singh’s damage mitigation efforts, given the growing middle-class support for wildlife conservation, popular support for wildlife remains far from significant at the mass level. Unless a species is tied to identity politics.

Manmohan Singh at Ranthambhore in 2005. (Source: Project Tiger)

Modi campaigned for the highest seat and delivered one of his moving speeches at Assam’s Dhemaji in March 2014. “Aren’t rhinoceroses the pride of Assam? Today there is a conspiracy to kill it… (by) people who are in government… to save Bangladeshis… they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinoceroses so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can settle there,” he said.

Two years after he warned the conspirators – “chun chun ke hisaab liya jayega (will account for every last bit)” – Modi recalled the endangered rhinoceros ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls. “Eyes were kept closed while rhinos were allowed to be killed and political protection was given to the killers,” Modi reiterated at a rally in Bokakhat near Kaziranga National Park in March.

If rhino politics breaks new ground, Modi will achieve what no other prime minister, not even Indira Gandhi, could have imagined through conservation symbolism, even as he pushes the convenience model more aggressively than his predecessors.

Jairam Ramesh with a cheetah (Source: PIB photo)

While Manmohan Singh complained that his government was wrongly called “too restrictive” for being selective in allowing projects that impacted wilderness, project rejection rates have continued to fall since 2014, even as Modi shows off it. growing numbers of tigers every two years and has launched plans to rescue the dolphin and lion, the mascot of his ‘Make in India’ project, with much fanfare.

And now the prime minister is on the brink of another Modi hai to mumkin hai moment that his supporters believe will build an unparalleled legacy for him. If Project Tiger was about saving the tabby from extinction, then in their minds Project Cheetah brings the spotted cat back from the dead. That is magic that goes far beyond conservation. Magic that appeals to (almost) everyone. No wonder Jairam Ramesh continues to tweet about his and his party’s leading role in the project.

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