Wild passions

On a wildlife safari, the one species that stands out is the male wildlife photographer, identified by his phallic lens. Unlike you, the casual tourist with your smartphone camera, he is here in pursuit of trophies for his (social media) wall.

On the hunt for charismatic mega-mammalian fauna — tigers, leopards, tuskers, rhinos — he dons a grave mien of purpose. Not for him the majestic trees that innervate the forest with oxygen, or the mama mongoose crossing the jungle track with her pups, or the woodpecker gouging out a nest-hole for her brood, or the shiny dung beetle rolling its prize filled with seeds that will regenerate the forest.

“Dude, let’s move on. I didn’t pack my macro lens.”

Here’s another trigger-happy shikari, mercifully minus the gun. Despite the number of accomplished women in the field, exploring the inhospitable jungle is doubtless an alpha male privilege. Of course, women are invited. Just take your place behind the dude calling the shots — and remember there are no restrooms in the forest.

He’s not just a photographer. He’s an artist, an image-maker, maybe a conservationist. Elbow through the crowd for his exalted company at the bar in the evening, and he’ll regale you with a rehearsed retelling of his top cat sightings — jaguars in the Pantanal, snow leopards in Hemis, lions in the Serengeti. His sermon is a nerdy jumble of exotic place names, ISO settings, shutter speeds and F-stops.

A few drinks down, he’ll open up about his political leanings. He’s for keeping humans out of forests, so that wildlife can be free to roam. And he’s for keeping wildlife inside forests, so that humans can spot them.

Oh, how visionary. Good fences make good neighbours. Why didn’t they consult him to arbitrate a solution to Palestine or Kashmir?

As urban thrill-seekers raised without a visceral life-affirming connection with nature, we regard it as an otherness — an exotic fetish to be ‘captured’ and ‘documented’ before it’s gone. Our increasing alienation from the wilderness causes us to be distanced from it..

In March, we celebrated International Day of Forests with a spate of obligatory, deeply insincere social media messages. Not to forget a glut of images on Instagram — the only place where our forests and wildlife continue to thrive unabated.

Despite the ‘proof’ furnished by satellite images, forest cover in India has depleted alarmingly in the last decade. The pillage has exacerbated under the watch of our chowkidars, who have arm-twisted the Forest Rights Act, among other legal instruments, to clear the decks for facile land acquisition by greedy industrialists. The damage done is almost irreversible.

Hesitatingly, I say almost, because I nurse a frayed shred of hope that the electorate may see beyond selfish short-term gains to exercise good judgement.

With election season upon us, we brace for a plague of facts and figures dressed up as infographics and memes. They pour out of every official orifice and are broadcast to unquestioning believers by the knowledgeable faculty of WhatsApp University. Poll code of conduct thrown to the winds, our learned professors in government and opposition exploit every loophole to bombard us with lies, damned lies and statistics.

There are gains and losses to be accounted for on both sides, but not when it comes to the environment. In this case, we are neither winners nor losers, merely victims.

We are at war with nature on many fronts, and the casualties are piling up. As citizens and taxpayers, we don’t flinch when our cities are denuded of trees to make way for flyovers and tech parks. Biodiversity is shrinking as the world urbanises. But we want our wildlife tourism like packed lunch — in a disposable box.

The rape of our natural heritage has never been a pressing electoral issue. We’re content to be consumers. Our cities choked, our air and water poisoned, our lifestyles divorced from nature, we still nurture the fantasy that forests exist to provide for us. Let’s count the ways — handicrafts, paper pulp for our toilet rolls, and the egomaniacal pursuit of wildlife tourism?

The industry that profits from wildlife tourism gives little back to forests, which are under mounting threat from poaching, highways, railways, mining and human-induced fires. Time is ticking away as you read this. Elsewhere, people are awakening to the calls of a teenage climate activist but we — we have Third World priorities. We must catch up before we even think of rolling the wheel back.

Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves, wrote the American conservationist Terry Tempest Williams. How long can we resist the truth?

It’s dark and murky out there. But hey, let’s jack up the ISO and take a record shot.

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