Can simplistic debates save India’s tigers?

CNN – IBN had a prime time debate at 10 p.m. on Thursday on the latest tiger estimates put out by the Wildlife Institute of India, which generally point to a sharp decline in numbers in the key tiger states of Central India.

The problem with television is that it is forever simplifying and homogenising complex issues and trying to find quickie solutions. Barack Obama put it beautifully when he told a mediaperson that there can be no sound bite solutions to complex problems.

In any case, Vidya Shankar Aiyar who hosted the discussion on CNN – IBN was remarkably unprepared for the debate featuring Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and Raghunandan Chundawat, the tiger scientist who has faced rough weather and withdrawal of research permission because his work is uncomfortably revealing for the commerce-conscious forest managers (Read more about it in the Tiger Task Force report 2005, available on the Project Tiger website).

Everyone knows that Sunita Narain has been hardselling a vision of an “Indian model” of conservation that is as yet unclear to the scientific world, a scheme of primeval loving co-existence between tigers and people, and economic development within protected areas (see the comments of the Tiger Task Force headed by her, on the need for road-building and construction of infrastructure within Sariska, for instance).

The CNN – IBN debate completely missed the point about the pressure on protected areas that is bringing people and tigers into conflict, the hunting of prey animals in most reserves with a devastating impact on tiger populations and more fundamentally, the lack of science in the conservation agenda of the Government of India, its Ministry of Environment and Forests, Project Tiger and the newly constituted Tiger Conservation Authority (incidentally, those who were harshly critical of scientists are today seeking credit for their own unverified scientific work!) The good examples of conservation in Nagarahole (resettlement of forest tribals with land to the periphery) and Kaziranga (armed enforcement by forest guards) did not find mention in the programme — we cannot blame the panelists because they did not get enough opportunity.

The dissenting member of the Tiger Task Force, Valmik Thapar would surely have made a major difference to the debate, but he was conspicuously absent. So was India’s best-known tiger scientist, Ullas Karanth. Raghu Chundawat is himself a good scientist with a lot of work to his credit, but he was under pressure from the moderator to deliver bursts of comments to straitjacket questions.

The finale was typical commercial television: “So which one would you choose, tigers or people,” the panelists were asked, which in an extended sense is like asking people whether they are ready to lose an arm or a leg (a little reading on the externalities of nature’s contribution to human existence will make that clear).

It is not surprising, and indeed it is a great relief that print journalists fare a lot better than their glamorous television counterparts. Perhaps the relatively greater time and space that they have helps. They certainly are keen to read more, read in depth and present facts with perspective.

On a different note, many would have visited Project Tiger’s website to see the full text of the tiger population estimates. There was nothing there. Ditto for the websites of the MoEF and WII.


One Comment

  1. Subhashini said…
    Your comment on Aiyar ‘being remarkably unprepared’ is a great description of commercial TV journalism. But you cannot also put all the blame on them. I should blame the producer who decided that TV can discuss any subject, just because it is current and can thus be exciting viewing. The news producers know few persons would actually use the inane points of empty discussion in any serious conversation or use it as a matter of record on further discussion on the same subject.
    TV journalism as a craft is based on the viewers’ short memory spans.


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