Thursday, February 7, 2008

Crocodile tears

Monday , February 04, 2008 at 22 : 59

Curious how the stuff of Animal Planet becomes a mainstream media issue and everyone in the animal kingdom a spokesperson for it.

First, it was the tiger - when the Sariska poaching incident came up, our friends in the media announced doomsday for the big cat. Sorry, even before that it was the elephant - Veerappan and his ivory oligarchy won Jumbo a number of page-one anchors.

And then we forgot about them.

Now, because tigers are so last year and elephants scarcely a blip on the radar, media melancholia has shifted to the knob-nosed, fish-eating crocodilian we know as the Gharial. Before we wait to find out what's behind the mysterious gharial deaths in the National Chambal River Sanctuary, we already have hyper-informed, scoop-hungry television anchors beating their chests in public and writing the ancient reptile's epitaph.

Before you can say Gavialis gangeticus they have flung a daisy chain of jeremiads upon everyone and everything within the finite radius of their imagination: What is the forest department doing? Why is the chief minister silent? Who killed the gharials?

Generic, irrelevant questions that any J-school undergrad with a fleeting idea of the 5Ws and 1H would ask. Irresponsible questions that can unnecessarily politicize matters and skew popular judgment. And what of the issue itself? Why wait to understand it when you can invent it?

So what's really happening?

The Madras Crocodile Bank - founded by Romulus Whitaker, arguably India's leading reptile expert - has announced that there is evidence that toxins are killing off the gharials. Initially, suspicions of an epidemic were high. But now it appears to be clear that a single instance of poisoning has caused all of the 95 gharial deaths reported thus far.

The good news is there is no indication of an infectious disease. Autopsies reveal gout - uric acid build-up in the joints of the animals. Such evidence points to a case of poisoning (the causes are only being unraveled) and not an epidemic. Note: epidemics, such as avian influenza, are highly contagious and spread rapidly from individual to individual.

Nearly every day, the Madras Crocodile Bank publishes an update on its website, uncovering the events and reporting the findings from autopsies of the dead gharials. Their views are corroborated by a team of leading researchers including Samuel Martin of La Ferme aux Crocodiles, France, the only veterinarian experienced in working with gharials.

The team also reports that, contrary to what the media has to say, the much demonized forest departments of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, responsible for the governance of the National Chambal River Sanctuary, have been proactive.

Now contrast all of this with the balderdash that our friends in the media have had us believe over the last few days. First, as always, there was the frenzy to report the scoop. After that had passed, it was a duel of speculation over the facts. Then the usual TRP-motivated charade of lies, damn lies and statistics. And when that too became passé, they drew inspiration from the subject of their story and shed gallons of crocodile tears.

How much has this contributed to the average person's understanding of the gharial crisis? Join the tips of your index finger and thumb for the answer.

Wildlife reporting is something of a new fad with our media. For the longest time, but for a few newspapers and magazines that devoted glossy photo-features to tigers and elephants, no one covered wildlife in any seriousness. Apart from Tehelka and the Indian Express among mainstream media, Sanctuary magazine continues to make the sole difference in reporting wildlife conservation issues. There are any number of newsletters and online discussion groups that keep the fraternity of wildlife enthusiasts in touch with reality.

But a wildlife crisis with political undertones is yummy media fodder, and it takes no time for an OB van to find its way to the remotest location. Here again, as with our staples of cricket or Bollywood, there are stars and underlings.

Tigers are stars, no matter what the wildlife expert Dr. Ullas Karanth says about the cats making a comeback. Vultures, whose numbers fell nearly 97% due to the effects of the livestock antibiotic Diclofenac, are not. Blackbucks are stars, only because they are linked to the shenanigans of certain road-raging, muscle-bound actors. The Gangetic Dolphin, which is being killed off thanks to careless commercial fishing practices, is not. This list doesn't end here but I shall be merciful to you.

The future course of action in the gharial crisis has to do with controlling the pollution levels in the Yamuna, which meets the relatively pristine Chambal at their confluence. There are also indications of an ecological invasion. Tilapia, a fish introduced from Africa, has multiplied in large numbers in the Chambal, threatening indigenous species on which the gharial and other predators have fed for millennia.

If media must report wildlife crises seriously, it must inevitably consider the facts and chase them down. Yes, it is old-school journalism, but that had more to do with unearthing the truth than just looking good muttering it on TV.

If that sounds like too much hard work, journalists are better off chasing the wildlife of our urban jungles

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