Did you know leopards actually prefer to stay away from human settlements rather than prey on them? The recent killing of a leopard in Gurugram shows how damaging sensationalist reporting on the wildlife can be.
On November 25, horrific photographs and videos of a leopard in Mandawar village in Gurugram made headlines across India. Many, including The Times of India, showed a particularly disturbing image of the villagers dragging the leopard by its tail, its head bludgeoned to bloody pulp. Some blurred out the head. Others, such asIndia Today, chose to carry a video of people posing for photos with the dead leopard, and a disclaimer of “disturbing content, viewer’s discretion advised”.
There’s something almost obscene about the show of human triumph in those photographs and an unspoken reiteration of the idea that wildlife and humanity must have a relationship of animosity. Leopards, incidentally, are solitary animals and humans are actually not their traditional prey. So despite the fact that we call them “predators”, as far as we humans are concerned, leopards are not actually bloodthirsty. This is probably why many local legends in different parts of the country see leopards and tigers as protectors rather than predators. Yet, look at the press reports, the story of progress is one of clashes like this one, between man and animal – it’s a war, and humans won this battle.
Sensationalising human-animal conflict in the media serves no purpose, except to make matters worse. If we’re being shown these images for higher ratings or more views and shares, it is a poor excuse. The Ministry of Environment and Forests’ Guidelines for Human-Leopard Conflict Management 2011 edition clearly state, “Media should contribute to diffusing the tense situation surrounding conflict with objective reporting aimed at highlighting the measures to mitigate conflict. Reporting mainly aggressive encounters with leopards can erode local people’s tolerance and worsen the situation by forcing the Forest Department to unnecessarily trap the wild animal due to public pressure.”
Many headlines played a blame game – “Gurgaon villagers beat leopard to death: How the forest department failed to save the animal’s life”, “Leopard enters Gurugram village, attacks 8, beaten to death”. The Hindustan Times headline read, “Leopard killed: As villagers discuss tales of courage, fear of police action looms large” and then went on to say in the body copy, “In the two days since the incident, the event has been embellished with ‘snippets of valour’.” So was encountering the leopard really an act of courage or was it “embellished”? Your guess is as good as mine.
As writers, our lexicon is everything. Bandying about phrases like “leopard on loose” or “beastly attacks” alter perceptions, often dubbing the animal as dangerous and fearsome. “The media has to stop imagining that the mere sighting of a leopard is like a terrorist in the neighbourhood,” said wildlife conservationist Prerna Bindra, who is also a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. “It does not represent conflict, in all probability the cat was living in peace for years, before it was unfortunately spotted. The cat lived in peace, home sapiens couldn’t. What’s appalling is not just beating the creature to death, but posing-in-glee for pictures as though it were some kind of trophy.”
The Indian Express was one of the few outlets to offer restrained reporting, including this story by Jay Mazoomdaar, titled “Spotted a leopard? Back off, stay calm, let it slip away”. Mazoomdaar elaborated that “leopards traditionally live close to people and just because one is sighted does not mean the animal means harm.” As did The Wire, taking an in-depth look at policy decisions when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. “Leopards tend to live near people,” wrote Neha Sinha for the The Wire. “In modern times, on the other hand, they have vanished from more than 60 per cent of their historic range worldwide. Thus, of all man-animal conflicts, leopards have borne the worst brunt, and the story is no different in India.”
This is not the first instance of man-animal conflict that has been reported in the media. It will also not be the last, in fact climate change will possibly exacerbate it. As will policies such as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change declaring certain wildlife species as vermin if they are “damaging human life or property”, and translocating leopards (which stresses them further) or projects that mow down forests to make way for roads and highways.
As India moves rapidly towards an economic growth that is bolstered by unchecked development paradigms that shrink forests, it also unravels the fragile bond that humans and wildlife share. What was once a relatively peaceful existence is now marred with violent conflict. In a story, Learning to live with leopards, ecologist Vidya Athreya who has done substantial research on the subject, said “…we are finding that we can share our space with leopards when we know how they behave and we understand how we should behave. In rural India, wildlife is a fact of life; by learning to live with it, we can minimise trouble.”
Efforts are being made to inculcate better understanding in the media. In 2015, the Wildlife Conservation Society India held collaborative workshops with the media on reporting human-wildlife interactions accurately and responsibly. There are numerous documents and publications available online about standard operating procedures as well as guidelines. That can propel nuanced journalism which takes into account multiple perspectives, facts, and relies on wildlife experts and scientists to report on incidents such as this.
Unfortunately, there’s an ingrained sense of fear towards the creatures of the wild that gets exploited in sensational reporting of the kind we saw in the Gurugram leopard case. But this fear mongering doesn’t actually help us come to an understanding of how we’re going to share space with wildlife. And as we bludgeon our way to progress, we’re going to have to figure out a better way to achieve an equilibrium.