Saturday, June 3, 2017

Do we need 'celebrity tigers'?

Do we need ‘celebrity tigers’?

One of the most intriguing trends to have emerged in the Indian wildlife conservation discourse in recent years is that of the ‘celebrity tiger’. Whether it is Ustad or Machhli in Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park, Prince in Bandipur in Karnataka, or Jai, Srinivas and Bittu in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, these are tigers or tigresses with an individual presence and identity that is matched by little else.
The very fact that they have a name suggests, already, that something has happened that is not common. The tiger might be a wild, forest living entity, but the ‘celebrity tiger’ is clearly an urban creation—a heady mix of burgeoning tourism where the urban elites escape to the wild for heart thumping encounters, growing incomes that allow for the travel and purchase of expensive, sophisticated photographic equipment and an explosion of the world of social media where images and compliments are exchanged freely and where the boundaries between the expert and the commoner have been blurred considerably.
There is raging debate on whether this, the ‘celebrity tiger’ phenomenon, is good news or bad news for conservation and the jury is still out on that. Some have said that the fame of a tiger attracts public and media attention, that this attention and constant scrutiny forces field authorities to be on constantly on their toes because a missing ‘celebrity tiger’ is instant news and all of this allows for conservation issues to be brought into the mainstream of politics, policy-making and public consciousness.
The best example of this, perhaps, is Ustad from Ranthambhore whose capture and incarceration on grounds that he had become a threat to humans became the subject of debate that captured media headlines around the world. More recently, the disappearance of Jai, the much photographed star of Chandrapur in Maharashtra, led to another huge uproar and to questions being asked of wildlife management and protection in the region. Had the tigers not been famous, it has been argued, we would have never known as to what was happening.

Too much attention

But there is the counter argument, which maintains that a ‘celebrity tiger’ draws too much attention to itself, that too much resource and attention gets focused on it and this draws away from the larger conservation interest of the species in particular and of wildlife in general. Is it possible, for instance, that the uproar and focus on the missing Jai meant valuable human, financial and scientific resources were taken away from less glamorous species and areas? In the case of Machhli who died in Ranthambhore a few months ago, huge efforts were made in keeping her alive because an iconic, famous tigress could not be allowed to die! According to one argument, valuable resources were wasted in keeping alive an animal that had no role to play anymore in the ecological context of her location.

And it is at precisely this point we need to make a departure from a discussion that is focused only on ecology, conservation and protection. The ‘celebrity tiger’ is not a construct of its conservation value and ecological role alone; it is as much a sociological construction as it is a function of the political economy of conservation and of tourism.

Many questions

This opens up many other interesting avenues as it allows for many other questions to be asked. Why this particular name? Who named the animal? How and why did the animal become so famous? Who really benefits from the fame of the tiger? Why was Machhli not allowed to die? What happens to other tigers who die every other week without being noticed? Why is it that we don’t have a famous tiger from the Simlipal tiger reserve in Odisha or the Kawal tiger reserve in Telangana? Why don’t we have a famous lion or rhino or elephant yet?
Having conclusive answers to these questions may or may not be possible, and that’s not the point either. The point here are the questions themselves. Engaging with them even as thought experiments will allow us to understand that conservation is a complex, multi-layered and much contested terrain.
It is as much about the villagers who depend on these very forests and resources for their livelihood, as it is about remote urban publics for whom forests mean leisure, photographs and social media communities. It is as much about wildlife as it is about politics and economics. History is implicated here, so is the media and so are the power structures and biases of our society.
The tiger operates within this complex matrix and engaging with this complexity may, in fact, offer the best chance going forward—for the tiger who’s become a celebrity and for the many more who have not and who never will!

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