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A file photo of a forest ranger rescuing an injured leopard in Guwahati (Photo: ANI)
A file photo of a forest ranger rescuing an injured leopard in Guwahati (Photo: ANI)

What the flaneur leopard says about urban migration

Self-interested politicians can keep migratory conflict levels low where ethics fail to do that job

I must first tell you about the leopard. A leopard is a townie. For decades, the scholarly view has been that the leopard wishes to be in the forest, and that it encroaches human habitats pushed by circumstances, like shrinking forests. There is a deeply set view among modern humans that the leopard “belongs" in the jungle and its forays into human settlements are acts of desperation or mistakes. So wildlife officials follow a standard practice: capture the leopard and release it into the wild. This is also known as a “rescue".

But, a group of scientists who tagged some “rescued" leopards found out that the cats returned to the villages and towns, traversing considerable distances to be with humans, who tend to have an abundance of tasty dogs, cattle, children and other lumbering prey that are too lame for the forest, where even the deer puts up a hard fight.

The tagged leopards demonstrated that they not only liked human settlements, they often lurked only metres from homes.

Humans like to think that there is such a thing as a “natural habitat". It’s a convenient anthropocentric view, hence has a religious tone to it—every animal has its place, close to humans if they are safe and far away if they are dangerous. According to this idea, wild animals belong in the forest. But the leopard has shown what humans demonstrated centuries ago—the natural habitat of an animal is any place that offers the best quality of life even if such a place harbours inherent risks, and that it will travel great distances to achieve it.

The behaviour of the leopard may have some lessons for the sophisticated. That not everything that is displaced is in need of a “rescue". That, often what is actually being “rescued" is the rescuer. That a feral migrant to a town is not always a tragic figure. That, even though a city is not as ancient as a forest or humans, there is something natural about the idea of the city, that romanticizing the village is a pointless exercise.

People, including the poor, like to be where the action is. Mohandas Gandhi’s love for villages, and his wrong prediction that “the future of India" would be in its villages, frames a powerful feudal wish of generations of the Indian elite: They like to cordon off the poor and the provincial in sanctuaries, and they do this by telling themselves that a “sanctuary" is a form of paradise. Restricting the rustic poor to their poverty, modest farming and daily caste insults to fulfil some fantasy of the elite about village life is what India’s past has essentially been about.

But then, for decades India’s villagers, especially the poor whose lives are tough and whose social status is low, have wanted to migrate to the cities, where there are more opportunities and entertainment, and anonymity. Alarmed by this, a section of India’s elite has promoted a view that migration to the cities is a sign that something is wrong.

Migrating leopards also reveal a crucial aspect of violence against migrants. That an ethical idea may not be as important in keeping the peace as a practical politician acting in self-interest.

A few years ago, I went to meet some leopards in Junnar, a sugarcane district about 200 km from Mumbai. At the time of my visit, in 2002, leopards had attacked 22 people, mostly children, and had consumed nearly 700 cattle in two-and-a-half years. Nobody counted the dogs that had gone missing. The people in the region wanted the government to kill the leopards. The forest officials did what they were supposed to do — they captured the cats and released them into the forest. But the leopards kept returning, with friends and lovers. They loved the place. The sugarcane farms provided a good cover, and as it was one of the most irrigated places in the state, there was abundant water. And, of course, there were cattle and dogs.

The villagers wanted the leopard killed not only to save their own lives, but also to avenge past killings. But forest officials said they would protect the cats. They asked the villagers to grow sugarcane in patches to deny leopards vast cover. But then sugarcane is a lucrative crop and the farmers wanted to grow it on every inch possible. They were aghast that the government was going great lengths to protect the leopards. At the time, the compensation for a child’s death caused by a leopard was 20,000, and the penalty for killing the cat was 25,000.

Soon, politicians entered the arena. The Shiv Sena led demonstrations demanding the execution of leopards. India’s laws that protected the animals were exemplary, moral and wise. But the villagers who faced a threat every day were baffled. And politicians alone had the crudity to speak up for them. It comforted the villagers. And in the process may have saved the leopards from organized mass murder.

Leopards don’t vote, so most politicians don’t take their side. Yet, they continue to thrive in many human settlements across India. It is possible that a whole generation of leopards has never seen a forest; they were born in sugarcane farms or vacant hillsides near villages. In all such places, local politicians still speak the minds of villagers. As often happens in India, they may not have solved a complex issue, but they act as vents of anger so that it does not escalate into something worse.

Time and again, India encounters a man-woke conflict, in a manner of speaking. A highly ethical global idea, a sophisticated idea, infuriates simple people who have to bear its consequences. And politicians alone, in self-interest, say what is unsayable.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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