Before Hurricane Harvey had displaced hundreds of pets, a similar tragedy ravaged Kaziranga Wildlife Reserve in Assam killing more than 200 animals. Usually animals move to higher ground but the sudden onset of floods this time caused by severe monsoon rains meant there was very little time to do so. After floods in July drowned animals as well, it is unfortunate better measures were not in place to protect them. Is conservation a sufficient tool for human-animal co-existence? Are animals best served in sanctuaries and reserves? In our national discourse for sustainable development and renewable energy, how can we make visible animals and ‘wildlife’ as stakeholders?
I have seen a few photographs of animals escaping the floods and carcasses- a royal Bengal Tiger dead on its side, a young rhinoceros trapped in the vegetation- but of course it doesn’t compare to the vast types of documentation of Hurricane Harvey. There are videos going viral, photographs of abandoned pets, of pets with their owners at shelters, and perhaps most importantly, photographs and narratives that capture the role played by animal activists and rescuers in helping and accounting for the animals in a natural disaster.
These photographs are uncanny because they break down certain mental binaries, such as the wild animal that lives in the forest, and the pet animal that resides inside the home; that have been ejected and vie for shelter and care alongside humans. Perhaps the narrative doesn’t change; media tells us about animals rescued by ‘heroic’ men (mostly men), yet it is an instance where animals live out their lives in the public eye, not doing anything particularly animal, but just reacting to a natural disaster like any other human being.
John Berger has written poetically on the vanishing animal which has slowly all but disappeared from the modern life, after having been moved forcibly to embrace and become ‘wildlife’ thereby reducing the animal, leaving it to the mercy of the caretaker- the zoo keeper or the pet owner. The situation in India is even darker. The colonial ‘fencing’ of the forests for timber has been replaced by more universally appropriate concepts of ecology: national park, biosphere reserves, sanctuaries…and conservation.
How is wildlife conservation complicit in this kind of erasure? The pedagogical weight of these architectural concepts is larger in the popular imagination than the constituent animals and project wildlife reserves and parks as a paradise for animals from the destructive man. It is a negative self-fashioning that makes it look like some of us can protect the ‘wildlife’ from some others. But natural disasters eject them to public memory and display them outside these designated spaces. Like pets that are lovable as long as they are in the control of their masters, wildlife will also be enjoyed at a safe distance, in a separate space- outside our living space.
Of course it would be laughable to suggest a grand opening of all zoos and sanctuaries, firstly because the poachers would have a field day. Are all our animalsmicrochipped as many pets that were caught in hurricane Harvey were? How can we ensure funds will be used efficiently to rescue animals and create highlands when entire swathes of human population need rehabilitation? Floods have killed more rhinos than poaching this year.
Kellyanne Conway, American Presidential Counselor when asked whether there can be a discussion about the role of the climate change expressed surprise in typical White House fashion saying, ‘…we’re trying to help the people whose lives are literally underwater, and you want to have a conversation about climate change?’. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has said that it is dumb not to have a conversation about climate change after the hurricane. If the probability of such events is increasing along with the average severity then we need to consider such links seriously at least. But even as unprecedented weather phenomena happen across the globe, human adaptability is beginning to condone it as part of our modernity or natural variability. Skeptics of Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) emphasize on improving human life and uplifting people out of poverty as things ‘we can actually do something about’.
If in the next few years it becomes evident that man has started an irreversible catastrophe, will conservation be enough to protect animals? Conservation is premised on the equality of life, then can natural disasters explain away the loss of animal life? 335 animals have died so far in the floods in Assam and we don’t have a serious national discussion about conservation or climate change. Conservation is theoretically a sound concept but it is certainly not a solution to all animals or environmental sciences. There is a need to think beyond, and not accept conservation as a panacea for everything environmental.
Susan Haris is an animal rights activist based in Delhi.