Monday, Sep 26, 2022

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

It may be another 'Modi hai to mumkin hai' moment Saturday, but Nehru onwards, it's not the first time leaders have displayed a keen 'animal instinct'.

Jawaharlal Nehru gifted elephant calf ‘Indira’ to the children of war-torn Japan in 1949. (File Photo)

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

Now as the nation waits for the grand spectacle, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to release the African imports in enclosures built inside Kuno National Park on September 17, his birthday.

Modi is not the first leader to recognise the value of charismatic wild species in building political capital, particularly when the animals have deep roots in cultural identities. While earlier the spin-offs of such symbolism were almost entirely diplomatic, the growing awareness of conservation among the middle class at home has in the recent years encouraged prospecting even electoral gains in it.

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

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Half a century later, though, Prime Minister A B 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 may take time to get all parts of their vast bodies moving forward in unison. But once they actually start moving, the momentum is very difficult to divert, slow down, stop or reverse. And when they move, the forest shakes,” he told the third India-EU Business Summit at Copenhagen in 2002.

While the elephant was portrayed as an embodiment of India’s unhurried yet determined spirit, it was the Asiatic lion that became the national animal in 1948. Its depiction on a column Emperor Ashoka had built in Sarnath helped the lion’s case, which was backed strongly by the Gujarat Natural History Society. As an icon of Gujarati pride, the species continued to enjoy political patronage and the Gir Lion Sanctuary Project took off in 1972, a year ahead of the vaunted Project Tiger.

PM Narendra Modi clicks a photograph of a tiger at Nandanvan Zoo in Chhattisgarh.

When scientists recommended creating a second home as an insurance for the isolated species, Gujarati asmita came in the way of sending a few lions to Madhya Pradesh. In 1997, then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela vowed that “not a single lion cub” would ever leave the state. In the years to follow, his successors only hardened that stand.


Modi, of course, is no Nehru, whose solitary confinement in Ahmednagar fort was enlivened by the arrival of a pair of migratory wagtails — “the heralds of a new season” — and who was known to find solace in rivers (even though it did not stop him from envisioning “temples of modern India” in large dams).

As a boy, instead, Modi famously took home a baby crocodile from a pond he took a dip in, only to be taught a lesson in animal welfare. “My mother said to me this is wrong. You cannot do this. You should not do this, put it back. I went and put it back,” the Prime Minister told popular presenter Bear Grylls while walking the wilderness inside 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)

Yet, Modi as chief minister would not share lions from their only home in Gujarat with Madhya Pradesh, where his party had been holding power since 2003, even if that perpetuated the proverbial risk of keeping all eggs in one basket. Rather befittingly, it took a tug-of-war over eggs for a BJP-ruled Rajasthan to pull a Gujarat on Gujarat in 2015.


While Gujarat sat on the 2013 Supreme Court order that set a six-month deadline for shifting a few lions to Madhya Pradesh, it found itself at the wrong end of a similar bargain, with Rajasthan refusing to send eggs of its state bird — the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) — to Kutch for breeding.

In October 2015, then chief minister Vasundhara Raje instructed top state officials that no GIB eggs were to be shared with Gujarat. Instead, she asked them to pursue setting up a breeding and research centre near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Her wish came true after she lost the Assembly elections in 2018 and the GIB captive-breeding centre at Ramdevra in the Desert National Park is now nearing completion.

Before having 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 ground work which she claimed had the blessings of her party president Sonia Gandhi, Raje turned the tables by naming the reserve after Mukundra Hills instead of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, as was proposed earlier.

Rajiv Gandhi in Kanha (Source: Project Tiger)

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

“The tiger was shot by (the) Maharaja of Rewa only two months ago. The skin is lying in the ball room. Every time I pass it, I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in the jungle… I am so glad that nowadays more and more people prefer to go into the jungles with their cameras instead of guns,” she wrote.

Indira Gandhi with tiger cubs (Source: Project Tiger)

After her landslide victory in the 1971 elections, Indira legislated the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, made her famous “poverty is the biggest polluter” speech at Stockholm (1972), and launched the Project Tiger (1973) before conducting the Pokhran nuclear test in 1974. She also replaced the lion as the national animal with the tiger, ostensibly for its larger presence across the country. Her critics, though, sought to link the decision to the fact that the Morarji Desai faction, though wiped out by the Indira wave in 1971, had won 11 of its 16 seats from Gujarat.

While launching Project Tiger, Indira signalled an exclusionist approach: “The tiger cannot be preserved in isolation. It is at the apex of a large and complex biotope. Its habitat, threatened by human intrusion, commercial forestry and cattle grazing, must first be made inviolate.” As early as in 1976, a mid-term assessment of Project Tiger recommended a more flexible approach in allowing villagers livelihood opportunities in the buffer zones.


For all the accusations against Indira of pandering to western constituencies (the World Wildlife Fund pledged a million dollars) in launching Project Tiger, the prime minister shouldered significant risk in annoying several powerful home lobbies who resented giving up the right to hunting due to the ban she imposed in 1970 even before her position was bolstered by the landslide victory.

In time, so powerful was her legacy of tiger conservation that Manmohan Singh, widely considered the prime minister whose neoliberal conviction favoured development over nature in any trade-off, had to take swift and decisive action when local extermination of tigers in Rajasthan’s Sariska made headlines in January 2005.


Singh ordered a CBI probe into tiger poaching and set up 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 set up in 2007 under Singh, who claimed to have grabbed the opportunity for reforms.

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

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

Campaigning for the top seat, Modi made one of his stirring speeches in Assam’s Dhemaji in March 2014. “Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam? These days there is a conspiracy to kill it… (by) people sitting in the government… to save Bangladeshis… they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there,” he said.

Two years after he had warned the conspirators — “chun chun ke hisaab liya jayega (will account for every last bit)” — Modi invoked the endangered rhino again in the run-up to the Assembly polls in 2016. “Eyes were kept closed while rhinos were allowed to be killed and political patronage was given to the killers,” Modi reiterated at a rally in Bokakhat near the Kaziranga National Park in March.

If rhino politics was breaking new ground, Modi is set to accomplish what no other prime minister, not even Indira Gandhi, could imagine possible through the symbolism of conservation even while pushing the ease-of-business model more aggressively than any of his predecessors.

Jairam Ramesh with a cheetah (Source: PIB Photo)

While Manmohan Singh lamented that his government was unduly dubbed “too restrictive” for being selective in allowing projects that impacted the wilderness, project rejection rates have been plummeting further since 2014 even as Modi has flaunted growing tiger numbers every two years and launched schemes to save the dolphin and the lion, the mascot of his ‘Make in India’ project, with much fanfare.

And now the Prime Minister is at the threshold of yet another Modi hai to mumkin hai moment that his supporters believe will build an unmatched legacy for him. If Project Tiger was about saving the striped cat from extinction, Project Cheetah, in their mind, is bringing the spotted cat back from the dead. That is magic far beyond conservation. Magic that appeals to (almost) one and all. Little wonder Jairam Ramesh keeps tweeting about his and his party’s pioneering role in the project.

First published on: 16-09-2022 at 11:09:29 am
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