Last week, I read a thrilling narrative on the return of the wolves to the American plains, written by Joe Donnelly. While nearly half the world is seemingly distressed by how the growing population of Asian countries spells doom for creatures of the wild, the plight of the forsaken predators of the American plains is not discussed so much.
But there you go, Americans with their low population densities have successfully eliminated their large predators. In their land, predators are forsaken — they are gunned down when they enter city boundaries. But Indians, with their booming population, have still managed to sustain their largest mammals. Here’s how it could possibly have worked for us for so long — religion.
The realisation dawned when we went on a visit to some rural areas in Maharashtra. Interaction between humans and leopards is a common phenomenon in the region. Akole, the region that I am talking about, is known for its fields of sugarcanes that stretch far and wide. These fields turned out to be homes for leopards too, most unexpectedly. The villages and towns surrounding these fields provide leopards with food — domestic dogs and livestock — and the sugarcane fields provide daytime shelter. However, the story is not all happy. Chance encounters and unavoidable accidents often happen, causing people to get injured or worse. Leopards are often killed by angry mobs. Yes, there are complexities involved in their management. However, people have still not taken the extra step and demanded their eradication from the landscape. While hapless bears and cougars are shot in America, the leopards in Maharashtra do not face the same consequence.
History tells us that the tribals and pastoralists of the region worshipped Waghoba and Waghjaimata, gods and goddesses of big cats like leopards.
Similarly in Satyamangalam, the Soliga tribes endure the coming of the elephants into their fields at the start of the maize season. They regard it as auspicious since they believe that Lord Ganesha has come to their fields. In Jharkhand, the nilgai is regarded as holy because it looks like a blue cow to them and cows are sacred in Hindu mythology. Hence, it is generally not killed. In North India, the sighting of a Sarus crane pair by newly-weds is regarded as a good sign, since a Sarus crane pair bonding is supposed to last till death. In Bhetnai, a small village in Orissa, blackbuck are considered to bring good luck and even if they raid crops, they are not killed due to fear of mishaps visiting their lives.
Hold on, I am definitely not advocating that we have exceptional tolerance due to our religious beliefs and this feature is supposed to stay in these times of change. No, I do not believe it. In my own work on wild small cats, I have seen local villagers killing small mammals ruthlessly for meat in West Bengal. Tigers — the most charismatic cats — aren’t they also the vehicles of our goddesses? How come tiger poaching is then such a big concern in the conservation spectrum? Well, as I mentioned before, these are times of change. People’s values are changing; many customs and rituals related to these tribes are fading into oblivion since the youth are interested in the calls of a cosmopolitan world. Many still hold on — they assert they are not primitive and are proud.
What I am trying to say is that the proponents of many our religions perhaps had a vision of making religion a tool for wildlife persistence.
Hence, many of these animals were made vehicles of our gods and goddesses. This can explain to some degree why most of our big mammals, have persisted in this nearly-the-most-populous country in the world.
Mankind has used religion to bring upon itself some of the most cruel wars in which thousands of innocents were ruthlessly murdered. Makes one wonder why we could not use religion and embark on a totally different tangent — where religion could have come to the rescue of conservation.