An Indian perspective on Cameron’s ill-conceived badger cull
“The fate of animals is of far greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous…” said Emile Zola.
So here I am writing a blog on British badgers, a creature I have seen only once in my life. I am writing this however as, sitting in New Delhi, where one is closer to the ethical fount that has driven Indian conservation for well over two thousand years. When I look at what the teachers and rulers of that time left for humanity as prescriptions for life; killing badgers just does not fit!
Let us start with the first animal protection laws in the history of mankind that were codified and put down. No, I am not talking of the British Animal Protection act of the 1800’s, which many including the RSPCA have on their website as the oldest laws of the world concerning animals.
I am talking of the edicts of Ashoka the Great in the 3rd Century BC. Ashoka, after having committed wanton killing during war in his youth, saw its excesses and became a pacifist.
He turned to Buddhism and through his empire erected iron pillars and stones, inscribed with his proclamations and laws for life. In some he talked of the punishments meted out to people if they did not follow the code as he saw it. A law indeed. Some of these edicts talk of animal protection as well, allow me to quote:
"I have enforced the law against killing certain animals. The greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favour of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings."
Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus:
“Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected -- parrots, mainas, ruddy geese, wild ducks, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible.
Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt, and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures..."
He did not, unfortunately, talk of badgers!
That was because India as a country does not have true badgers, honey badgers yes, hog badgers yes but not true badgers.
We do, unfortunately have Tuberculosis (TB). TB has been the bane of India for centuries and even now doctors struggle to save human life from this disease, bovine TB is also known.
Although we have no badgers, a key realisation in the control of TB as a disease is that there are many vectors for the spread of bovine TB, and the badgers of England are only one of them.
Kill them all off and there could still be TB as the bacillus finds a new host.
So what do we do then, cull the new offending creature off too? Cull an entire species? Exterminate them?
Alice Walker once said "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”
Let us not dwell on the piety of Ashoka or the Machiavellian pragmatism of Kautilya, nor even on the fact that wholesale killing of the species is what we are talking about, but let us just consider what we are killing off.
I am told the badger is one of Britain’s three largest carnivores along with the grey seal and the red fox.
Where in India, we have the brown bear, the black bear and the tiger.
These three top carnivores of India do not transmit TB as far as we know. However, between them, they maul and kill over 100 people a year in our country. Add leopards to the mix and the count goes up to 200. Put our national heritage animal into the equation, the elephant, and the count goes up to 600.
So what do we do about it?
We lose sleep and try every possible conflict mitigation practice there is to reduce these killings. We protect these animals even as we try to protect ourselves.
Does the state sanction a culling of tigers in the Sunderbans where there is a village of widows whose husbands tigers have taken away? Or order a cull of bears in Kashmir where horrific maulings near apple orchards have left many women disfigured and unable to lead a normal life.
The world exhorts us to save tigers.
And should we as a nation decline to do that and wipe out from the face of this Earth an entire species?
You may say it is only selective culling, you may say that it is based on good science, but ethics and value systems are as important in such decisions as science. Or that this is the view of an Indian sitting in a country with one third of its people in poverty and yet protecting 60 percent of the world’s tigers, 65 percent of the elephants in Asia, 80 percent of the one horned rhinoceros and 100 percent of the lions in Asia.
When we think of the wildlife we exterminate for the convenience of man let us consider another continent, the Americas and of a thinker, naturalist, and writer Thoreau, who in his journal in the middle of the nineteenth century said,
“When I consider that the nobler animal have been exterminated here - the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country... Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with?
As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors...I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places.
I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”
An entire heaven and an entire Earth...must essentially be part of a noble nation. I return now to India, the land of my forefathers.
Kautilya, known as India’s Machiavelli who became Prime Minister to Ashoka’s grandfather wrote of what a country should be ideally, and I quote partially,
"Possessed of strong positions in the centre at the frontiers, capable of sustaining itself and others in times of distress, easy to protect, providing excellent means of livelihood...endowed with agricultural land, mines, material forests and elephant forests, beneficial to cattle, beneficial to men, with protected pastures, rich in animals, not depending on rain for water, provided with water-routes and land-routes."
Two thousand years later another great Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, said “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
Britain today has the choice of the moral right or a populist (at least in some quarters) wrong. If it chose for the former, Gandhi’s quote would enable us to look at it as a great nation. If it does not, another one of Gandhi's quips, this time a witty one might be more relevant…
When asked about his views on Western civilization, Gandhi is supposed to have retorted tongue in cheek, "It would be a good idea".