Leopard in Gurugram: How The Media Made A Mess Of A Tragedy

https://www.newslaundry.com/2016/12/05/leopard-in-gurugram-how-the-media-made-a-mess-of-a-tragedy

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.

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Shaktimaan’s broken leg isn’t about politics, but animal abuse

He’s currently the most famous horse in India, only because his leg was broken. India’s big media needs to show more love to animals

Shaktimaan’s broken leg isn’t about politics, but animal abuse

Earlier this week, a police horse was allegedly attacked by Ganesh Joshi, a BJP MLA, in Dehradun, during a protest. While the videos don’t show the horse being hit directly, there’s enough evidence that the horse suffered multiple fractures because of the mayhem at the scene. What followed was outrage – at the horrific cruelty, the inappropriate headline by India Today (which broke the news), and of course realms of political trolling online. Although the ensuing media focus on the trending hashtag #ShaktimanSuffers is primarily political in nature, at least it’s mobilising action.

Because let’s face it, a horse’s broken limbs wouldn’t have grabbed headlines if it didn’t come with a splash of politics. The videos, while grainy, show a despicable truth – a shouting mob, a man brandishing a stick and charging at a horse, a horse being yanked down. Whichever way you see it, it’s an appalling act of animal abuse. “Animals claim no political sides. For them, there are no voting rights, just our mercy,” said Bhuvaneshwari Gupta, campaigns advisor at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals India, an animal rights NGO. “The horse’s leg is absolutely mangled, as can be seen in photos online, and the abuse has shocked the entire country.”

PETA India, Humane Society International-India and other NGOs are now petitioning the police, Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah to investigate and take action.

Shaktimaan’s story is not an isolated incident of cruelty. Everyday animal abuse is all around us – owls are stoned down from trees because they are considered inauspicious, fire crackers are burnt on a cat’s face because that’s someone’s idea of a sick joke, dogs are being poisoned or abandoned in cities. However, few of these incidents make it to the news. Rarely are they as hotly debated on national television during prime time as Shaktimaan was. Even on slow news days, animal welfare takes the lowest of priorities.

This is ironic when you consider how social media is overflowing with people cooing over #catsofinstagram, #owlsoftwitter or #funniestanimalsonfacebook. Of course, there are journalists who diligently write about animal rights and do fine stories, but it’s not even close to being a respected beat.

“The media has played an important role in talking about many animal issues,” said NG Jayasimha, the managing director of Humane Society International-India. However, he agreed that it is easier to get media support for issues that are already popular with the public and create headlines. “The difficulty with this approach is that bigger issues such as factory farming and animal testing that are not sensational, don’t get enough media attention,” he added.

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It’s not surprising then that animal rights activists have dressed up as crippled chickens to draw attention to battery chickens in the poultry industry, donned a pig costume in the sweltering May heat of Delhi to make a point about cruelty in pig farms, and roped in celebrities to give voice to their issues. “We don’t have the big budget of large corporations to help us reach out to people—like the millions of US dollars McDonald’s reportedly spends on advertising each day,” said PETA’s Gupta. “And with so many kinds of stories for media to consider every day, we have to compete. We instead ensure a high standard of our research and investigations, and rely on our own creativity to share information about animal rights in an eye-catching way to grab the media’s attention.”

Too often, if animals do make it to the news, the media whips itself into a frenzy, framing headlines such as “Sink Teeth into Stray Dog Menace” or “Where Streets are Thronged with Strays Baring Fangs” (don’t miss the quote in the last article – “Stray dogs are dangerous not only because of their teeth but also because they help ticks and other parasites thrive”). Irresponsibly, the media doesn’t challenge the wisdom of statistics such as this one: “Dog bites in Mumbai accounted for more deaths in 20 years than the combined toll in two deadly terror strikes in the city-the 1993 serial bomb blasts and 26/11 attack”.

The Indian media has encouraged everyone to take sides when it comes to man-animal conflicts, traditional animal sports, and dog biting. Yet, connecting the dots, presenting both sides of the story with solid research isn’t that hard. Nuanced journalism, such as this article which sensibly says “Killing isn’t the answer: Kerala must learn from Jaipur how to control stray dogs”, is not just possible, but critically important. “We believe that animal welfare issues cannot be looked in isolation and a balanced approach which looks at the issue in totality is needed,” said Jayasimha.

In some ways, social media is in its own way building pressure on big media, by drawing attention to animal rights violations. In the USA, a study by PETA showed that “animal causes and social media seem to be made for each other” and that there’s increased interest in not only cute animals, but also their natural history and in condemning cruelty. Jayasimha also said that social media is quite animal-friendly and posts about animals do go viral quite easily, especially when they’re accompanied by photographs. “Animal rights is increasingly becoming a priority with the media and public as we can see from the national reaction to the recent horse cruelty case,” said Gupta. “This will certainly help reinforce the fact that nobody should be able to get away with cruelty to animals.”

Where big media becomes important is that it can be less sensational and more balanced in its coverage than social media. It can draw upon science and hard facts. Leave aside the sensationalism, the Shaktimaan case shows that Indians are also concerned about animals abuse and it may have garnered the all-important TRPs, even if animals don’t watch TV or read the news or if there isn’t a political controversy involved.