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Burning too bright

The Indian media are obsessed with numbers. Worse still, the obsession is restricted to the numbers of only one species, the tiger, writes Bahar Dutt.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2007 23:34 IST
Bahar Dutt

Recently, the Prime Minister convened a meeting of the National Board of Wildlife, the apex body which reviews all government policy for endangered fauna. Critical issues were to be discussed: a dam, which will wipe out the last habitat of the snow leopard, species that are on the verge of extinction and marine species that are being exploited for illegal trade. But the only item of interest for most reporters covering the meeting was: what did the Prime Minister say about the fate of the tiger?

The next day’s headlines screamed, “Tiger population down by half!” Never mind that this news had already been reported six months ago. Never mind that a crucial decision was taken at this meeting on diversion of a forest to a hydel project in Jammu and Kashmir. The Supreme Court, this month, will rule on the cutting down of 50,000 trees in Kalahandi, an elephant corridor, home to the golden gecko and the leopard to make way for a bauxite mining project.

Not one television channel or newspaper bothered to cover these issues. It was all about tigers.

The Indian media are obsessed with numbers. Worse still, the obsession is restricted to the numbers of only one species, the tiger. For better or for worse, the tiger has become the poster child for conservation in India. If you are reporting on wildlife, it has to be about tigers. The good news is that this is a huge leap from a media that did not even consider it worthwhile to report on wildlife issues except on page 3. The tiger obsession started in 2005, with the wiping out of an entire population of tigers in Sariska. And since then, the media have kept up the pressure, which, of course, is a good thing.

But the bad news is that the mindset has become rigidly established. If its news on wildlife then it has to be about the tiger. The inevitable banality sets in. Whenever there is a workshop on tigers in the capital, the newspapers have screaming headlines the next day about the tiger population declining. Anytime a tiger dies, even of natural causes, television channels go berserk. Since June 2007, when the Ministry of Environment and Forests first released a report on the number of tigers, newspapers and TV channels have flashed the same story at least 15 times. And each time it has been pitched as a new report on the tiger’s numbers.

And the banal seems to keep everyone happy. There’s no attempt to run in-depth reports. Why are the tiger numbers shrinking? What’s happening to its habitat? Why is it that some parks in the country have no breeding tigers? Why is the annual budget for tiger conservation in the country only Rs 28 crore? Compare that with the annual budget of say, the horticultural wing of the NDMC, which is Rs 100 crore. And you have some idea of just where the problems lie.

A second problem is that the focus on tiger numbers is at the cost of reporting on any other wild species. Take the Indian gharial. In international taxonomic listings it has now reached the Critically Endangered list. Its populations have fallen so drastically that it is as, or probably even more, endangered than the tiger. In Chhattisgarh, less than 200 wild buffaloes exist, putting the species on a worldwide endangered list. Few even know that India has cat family species other than the tiger and the leopard, such as the rusty spotted cat, the marbled cat or the fishing cat. The Indian bustard is now limited to less than 1,000 in number and confined to small pockets in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. No editor has ever come forward to save these species.

And bad journalism has also meant bad conservation. National park managers, who oversee the management of areas rich in wildlife, shudder at the thought of the news of a tiger death leaking out. Any other species poached? Not a problem. Who’s bothered and who notices?

Of course, reporting by the media is not the answer to all conservation problems in India, but it does set the tone for conservation policy in the country. It is because of the media’s relentless pursuit of tiger numbers that politicians and policy-makers realise the urgency of the problem. Would it make a difference if the media did reports on the rampant trade in star tortoises, sea horses and butterflies? Of course. It could set the conservation agenda and create the mindset that other species also need protection from extinction.

We look down upon sexism, we say no to racism. Maybe it’s time to say no to species-ism as well. It is time now for journalism that moves beyond numbers, for more in-depth analysis of why the numbers are dwindling. And not just for news of the sexy big cats.

Thousands of other species are dying a silent death in different corners of this country. Shouldn’t we care?

Bahar Dutt is a wildlife conservationist and environment editor with CNN-IBN.