The ‘menace’ of
W. SOMERSET Maugham came to India in 1938. He was working on his novel, The Razor’s Edge, whose hero, his nerves shattered by the senseless slaughter of trench warfare in World War I, ultimately finds peace of mind in a holy man’s ashram in India. As may be expected, Maugham spent much of his time in this country interviewing swamis and gurus. But he was also one of Britain’s most successful authors, which made the sahibs of the empire, too, welcome him in their clubs and bungalows.
In the notes he kept of those times, Maugham mentions a British general of the Indian Army as a typical ‘empire maker’. This man had been in India for 35 years, and he told Maugham in all seriousness: "The only thing that makes life possible in this country is the shooting."
The dramatic polarity
of the two viewpoints, his own and that of the general, could not have
escaped Maugham. He had come to India to meet vedic scholars, teachers
of yoga, sages who ran ashrams which were believed to be
islands of tranquillity in a troubled world, hoping to obtain peace
through meditation and non-violence. And here was this red-faced
general who had spent his adult life in India saying that the only
thing that kept him in India was its abundant wildlife which pandered
to his insatiable blood-lust.
So the killing of wild animals was a sport, and the sahibs who ran the empire were its avid practitioners. At that, in the ranking order of shikar or ‘shooting,’ they were never in the same class as our Maharajas. No matter how long a sahib had lived in India, he had absolutely no hope of equalling the records of animals killed by some of our princes.
Their Highnesses had the money and the means and few restraints, and as a class they were known for their excesses. Among them, the competition for slaying the record number of tigers, bisons, bears, and even ducks and partridges was both fierce and bitter. Bharatpur’s boast was that it was the venue for the annual Viceregal duck-shoot, which took place around Christmas. Something like a thousand ducks were killed in one day, and certainly as many more must have been ‘winged’ so that they died soon after. Bikaner, which was mostly desert anyhow, specialised in sandgrouse. They were jealously protected all the year round so that, on the day of the shoot itself, there should be plenty of sport for the Maharaja and his guests.
Most Maharajas maintained game preserves where tigers and other wild animals were similarly ‘protected’ so that they should be available for killing at the right time. Mysore was famous for its wild elephants, Travancore for its bisons; the petty states had to make do with what they called ‘roughshoots’ a sort of free-for-all.
The all-time record of the highest number of tigers killed was held by the Maharaja of Surugaja: more than 600. Almost coinciding with Maugham’s visit to India, the Maharaja of Nepal had held a shooting party in the Nepal Terai at which, over a period of 10 days, as many as 125 tigers were bagged. Even by princely standards, this was a remarkable achievement. It has been commemorated for posterity by the writing of a book, complete with photographs. The tented camp in the jungle must have resembled a slaughterhouse yard with the trees festooned with vultures gorged on tiger meat; and the stink from all those tiger skins hung out in the open air to dry must have been truly apalling.
Oh, what fun!
Then came 1947, and India’s tryst with destiny. The sahibs left India and went home, and soon after that, the Maharajas, too, were rolled up. The new rulers of the land were the sons of the soil weaned on non-violence. Most of them were vegetarians and belonged to a religion which not only respected animal rights, they actually venerated some of the species, as for instance the bull, in the form of Nandi, a benign presence in the house of God, the cow, as gaumata, the cow-mother, no less; and the elephant, as the Lord Ganesha. Under their care, whatever wild animals still remained in the country would be free from further molestation.
All signs pointed that way. New laws were enacted, banning the shooting of wild animals, and the hunting blocks of the sahibs as well as the shooting preserves of the Maharajas were declared to be sanctuaries. Even the killing of migratory birds was strictly regulated.
But that was about as far as it went. In the people’s raj, the people’s interests came first. As their numbers increased the forested lands were cleared for their use — for farming or industry. The animals in the forests vanished. Even the sanctuaries were opened up for setting up industries. The one I know well, since I live on its edge, that of Dandeli in Karnataka, has become an industrial slum notable for its smothering smog and the river an outlet for chemical waste.
As a sop to the clamour from environmentalists and wildlife activists, a Ministry of Environment has been created, but it has made little difference to the rapid destruction of forest land and even less to wildlife. In any case, any person who is keen on animals welfare is not likely to remain long as the minister for environment, as Maneka Gandhi’s brief tenure in that office has demonstrated.
The sahibs of the Raj and the Maharajas may have killed animals for sport. But both, for reasons of their own, had sought to protect the country’s forests. Now that those forests have been denuded, the animals, too have gone. The Malabar squirrel, the mouse deer, the quilled pangolin, the red wild dog, have all but disappeared. And who would have thought that even the ubiquitous vulture which lived on carrion would soon become an extinct species?
All this has been achieved in a matter of 50 years. And the future is even more bleak. There is not even lip service for vanishing wild animals any more. Any tiger or leopard that shows up in the neighbourhood is regarded as a ‘threat’. Sure the shooting of animals is banned. But there are other ways of killing them. Perhaps the most horrifying is the larding of their kills with rat poison.
Whatever sympathy there was for the
animals of the jungles seems to have gone. The change of attitude was
reflected in a report in my daily newspaper, Bangalore’s The
Deccan Herald which, as a rule supports nature and wildlife
conservationists. A couple of days before Christmas, the paper
published a coloured photograph of a herd of wild elephants on its
front page. Ordinarily such a picture might have been given a cheerful
heading, reflecting satisfaction that this state which was once the
home of wild elephants still possesses a fair number of them. But what
these elephants had done was that they had broken out of their reserve
and raided an adjoining farm. The report accompanying the photographs
bore the caption: Elephant menace.