World Wildlife Day: The Call of the Wild

Enayetullah Khan
Saturday, March 12th, 2016


It must sound plainly ridiculous to imagine a world without wildlife. Or at least our world, as handed down through generations, over epochs spanning history, or our human memory. Every civilisation, by-and-large, or all the ones that forged some lasting significance at least, has accommodated the wild somewhere in their vision. All too much in the periphery perhaps, so that neutered dogs and caged birds have grown to form part of the repertoire, as ways apparently to love animals. When really what they portray, is our species’s most base and detestable instincts and compulsions. Pets satisfy our innate hunger to exercise utter authority over another living, breathing entity. And history is replete with incarnations of men especially, but a fair number of women too, who if given the chance have not shied away from such a hold over their fellow human beings. It is the dynamic of power that informs the relationship.


On the occasion of World Wildlife Day, it might be more worthwhile to reconceptualise our entire relationship with the other beings – comprising  animals and plants – distinguished by life on our planet, albeit lived wild. For all its advantages, it remains subjective to assert that our civilised existence is somehow superior to theirs. We may have built institutions. But they roamed jungles. How many are the hearts, grown weary and cynical by the relentless humdrum of human aspiration, that have at some point craved the unencumbered freedom, the perfect flight of the seagull, that can only be possible in the wild?


The theme chosen to celebrate World Wildlife Day, March 3, this year was “The future of wildlife is in our hands.” Apart from sounding a bit clumsy and presumptuous, it left you underwhelmed by the limited opportunity it offered to increase our understanding of our fellow earthlings. Rather, in a back-handed sort of way that no animal could possibly countenance, it can be construed as an effort to establish dominion over them, and gets mollycoddled in the language of patriarchy, so that even as we devote our voices to their cause, we fail to acknowledge their right to prerogative.  Really, there can be no scope for us to look so ‘kindly’ upon animals.


Although UNEP’s choice of that theme becomes clearer once you contemplate the sheer scale of wildlife crime that is prevalent in almost all parts of the world today. To be fair to them, UNEP does avoid the nauseating step of sugarcoating the fight against illegal poaching in appeals to an all-too-failing humanity. Instead, it rightly focuses on the adverse economic, environmental and social consequences of the illegal wildlife trade, that is estimated at upwards of $100 billion in a year. Other forest crimes, mainly illegal logging, are estimated between $30-100 billion annually. A black market is central to keeping the trade lucrative, a criminal industry with high margins that have allowed it to finance criminal, militia and terrorist groups. Forget about cruelty to animals.


International poaching syndicates are also notorious for cultivating pools of local politicians through systematic bribing regimes and other favours that compromise their commitment to public service, in order to ‘watch their backs’. So whenever some illegal operation is apprehended by law-enforcers, they have people in the right places to get them out of trouble. Although even that is rare. The model has been honed in the weak states of Africa and parts of Asia. Some of these countries have been forced eventually to adopt specialist rangers to fight environmental crime.  Yet there are question marks over the actual remit they are given, once they are out in the jungle. What is most damning about the power of these syndicates is the free rein they enjoy, as long as they’ve bagged the local politicians or forest officials.


Even in the cases where public officials are earnest in upholding their duties, their good intentions are liable to come undone in the face of the sophisticated, transnational crime outfits engaged in illegal poaching. Strong national laws, such as Bangladesh’s own wildlife (Protection and Welfare) Act, 2012 may come a cropper against the breadth of their influence. Recently however, we have seen good results obtained by countries through which such networks run coming together and forging meaningful alliances to thwart environmental crime. The case of the ten Asean nations, who formed an alliance against the illegal timber trade centred in south-east Asia, is a case in point, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been recouped through fines, penalties or recovery of stolen goods. Even then, the number of years it took for such a sensible path to be finally taken tells you something.


It is what helps to explain the signal failure to prosecute a single individual till now, for any crime against animals or the environment, in the courts of Bangladesh. One has heard stories of Forest Department officials running out of room to stash cash payments in their houses! Experts opine that illegal poaching in the country’s forests, especially the Sundarbans, is not just present, but rampant. How else really, can one explain the unfeasible decline in the Tigers’ population from 440 in 2004, to the pitiable 106 that was estimated by one of the government’s own agencies following a study using the modern camera-based techniques last year. Rather shamefully however, its findings have been subsequently brushed underneath a very heavy carpet. Lately the word is that the study covered just 31 percent of the Sundarbans, hence the low figure, and so another survey will be held in October to glean the reality. It is difficult however to remain optimistic about the results being all that different.


But on World Wildlife Day, we owe it to ourselves really, not to view those we share the planet with from the same old paradigm. Not with sympathy or as samaritans. We can actually look up to them to enrich ourselves.Maybe learn how they achieve the equilibrium of coexistence that they do with other species in any ecosystem they inhabit, in the midst of diverse populations. One may be hunter and the other prey, but it is almost unheard of for any animal to be driven into extinction, even locally, purely by the preponderance of being on the wrong side of that equation. It is easy to think of animals as dumb, and sure enough, they have never developed anything even remotely comparable to the sophistication of human communication. Yet they are ancient repositories of wisdom, and if we just open our minds to the possibility, there is no telling what we may end up discovering.


Enayetullah Khan, Editor-in-Chief, UNB, Dhaka Courier, and Founder Chairman, WildTeam

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