LAST week, two superstars made it to the headlines of national media. One was from the bygone era and one from the present and both from fields as diverse as films and forests. And there was an uncanny resemblance in the manner in which they came to be discussed in the media. We are talking here about late superstar Rajesh Khanna and iconic Maharashtra tiger Jai, who has gone missing since April 18. With the Forest Department playing a reluctant monitor, hundreds of tiger lovers, NGO representatives and wildlife photographers have taken it upon themselves to look for the 250-kg giant that has become the cynosure of all eyes – of common public as well as celebrities that had been flocking to the little-known Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary straddling Nagpur and Bhandara districts of Vidarbha over the past at least two years. Jai, now close to seven years of age (remember he is only missing as of now on record), has been doing unprecedented number of rounds in the social media across the country, prompting people from far and wide itching to see him in the wild to visit the sanctuary. But would those, who haven’t seen him so far, have the luck to ever see him any time in future?
But why tag Jai with Rajesh Khanna? We will come to that later. First, let’s try to understand how popular and classical views about tiger have come in for a clash in Jai’s case. Maharashtra’s wildlife officials and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) find this popular surge to locate Jai as “uninformed”. Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Shri Bhagwan and WII scientist Bilal Habib, who incidentally had radio-collored Jai twice over the past nine months, held a special press conference a few days ago to enlighten the mediapersons about why we shouldn’t be looking at the Jai’s disappearance with the kind of popular alarm it has generated. What they argue in nutshell is: tigers being identified and adored as individuals isn’t scientific way of looking at tiger ecology. They say tigers are a “biological population” and must be seen as a lot, where tigers coming in and going out is a perfectly natural phenomenon. So, while popular concerns are fine, there shouldn’t be much ado about it.
The “official” views being forwarded as “scientific” suffer from some basic problems that are two-fold – first, science can’t always be used to counter a popular set of beliefs unless it is an out-and-out blind faith and two, interventionist conservation that we have adopted due to environmental and ecological exigencies themselves will have to go if science was to take full charge of conservation by itself.
First about the science of “natural “ tiger ecology. It’s nobody’s argument that tigers shouldn’t be left to their own ways of living in the state of nature. But do we do that? Or can we afford to do that? This “natural” “let ecology take its own course” sounds like an opportunistic excuse to cover up a missing tiger not being accounted for. So why does the forest department lexicon have the “monitoring” word in it? Is “monitoring” unscientific then? Do we let tigers take their own course or do we guide their course ourselves as an intervention needed for “scientific management” of the tiger conservation business? Clearly, science can’t be used as a double-edged sword that cuts both ways solely in the Forest Department’s favour.
The “scientific” tiger ecology argument also suffers from a self-contradiction when it comes to tigers like Jai. It is a well-established fact of biology that nature promotes dominant genes to the fore. Jai is such a dominant male that he covers, as the officials themselves tell us, about 600 sq km as against the normal 200 sq km range of an average tiger. Three years ago, he travelled about 120-km from the Nagzira forest of Gondia to Umred in search of mate and has since then mated with several females in the vast area he covers in tours that have taken as many as two months at a stretch to father 20 cubs. So, the dominant alpha male has managed to sow his seeds all around the place. Forest officials crib that while everyone is blaming them for Jai’s disappearance, nobody spares a good word the conservation work that has led to increase in the tiger numbers in Umred-Karhandla from three about four years ago to 13. The argument becomes weak when juxtaposed against the fact that it is Jai that has fathered nine cubs in the sanctuary. Before Jai there were a few males but the numbers hadn’t risen to this level that has actually led the officials worried how the small 189-sq km sanctuary will be able to accommodate such a big population.
Lastly, the reason why WII decided to radio-collar Jai was this extra-ordinary nomadic tendency of Jai. With it, they would have collected vital information about tiger behaviour and ecology. Clearly, even scientifically, Jai is more equal than other tigers.
And now about the popular understanding about tigers in the context of the Jai episode. Tigers have come and gone but why has Jai caught the popular imagination so much? It is for the simple reason that he is not only different that most other tigers due to its huge size but has also granted lavish sightings to several tourists that have taken thrilling memories of the majestic tiger back home etched both on their minds and camera chips. For them, Jai is a superstar among tigers, who doesn’t follow the classical lifestyle of a tiger in the post-conservation era. He is an exuberant, adventurous male with huge libido. He isn’t a typically shy tiger, who won’t like to be spotted easily by humans. He is first among them all, like the Ustaad of Ranthambore, against whose caging people had resorted to protest. He is like Rajesh Khanna, whose car would get lip-stick marks all over it and whose marriage would leave girls heart-broken. He is like Amitabh Bachchan, whose health bulletins would make it to the front page of newspapers when he was admitted to Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai after the injury he suffered during a film shoot. That kind of attention can’t be possible for great actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who had come in for a flak for his observation of Rajesh Khanna as a ”poor actor”.Superstardom follows its own science and sociology. Superstars don’t “act” in a classical fashion but still cast a spell of charm that “classical actors” are unable to do.
Coming back to brass tacks, the popular search for Jai stands out brightly against the Forest Department’s bid to escape from the responsibility of finding him out. They should have been doing this at least for their cash boxes that Jai had sent ringing – the Chief Minister himself said that Jai had fetched Rs 14 crore for the Forest Department. They seem to have failed in their argument not only on biological and administrative but also on commercial count. Where footfalls grow behind a huge pugmark, Forest Department’s footprints must be seen to merit their views being taken seriously.
The lesson that it needs to draw from the episode is that it must factor in the popular interest and understanding of wildlife in their conservation regimen, be it tiger tourism or man-animal conflict.