Misplaced compassion in a starving nation.

Place: Connaught Place, New Delhi. Time: Early morning hours. On my way to board the airport express metro train (revered as a top class facility in the world) I was caught by a pleasant surprise when I witnessed a middle-aged lady tossing several kilo of grains on the pavement for birds. This pleasure was short-lived as my eyes stumbled on a starving and shivering man on the other side of the same road. The elevated metro line gave me a snapshot of my historical national capital, rivalling the status of other mega cities, with “a large baggage” of its religiously inclined middle and lower class population surviving hand to mouth.

With 15.2% of its population undernourished, and 194.6 million people going hungry everyday, India has the largest undernourished and hungry population in the world

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Image: Food loss and waste (tons/year on a log scale) generated from human food production.Screenshot from: Ecological and evolutionary implications of food subsidies from humans, Ecology Letters, (2013) 16: 1501-1514 

The same nation feeds several metric tonnes of grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. to feral animals in its cities, towns, and villages. Unlike the West, animal feeding in India is largely motivated by religious purposes, aimed to seek after life benefits, or to request relief from sins. An age-old compassion for animals (as forms of incarnations or vehicles of Hindu Gods), which essentially has aided the conservation success in a billion strong nation, shall have some serious considerations over the economic and ecological repercussions of many food offerings to our animal friends . Few snippets:

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Clockwise (from top left): Vegetable vendors stop to feed kilos of cauliflower and aubergines to monkeys, before heading to market; a man carrying a dozen bananas to feed the monkeys; left over banana; leftover bread by  a troop of monkeys.
  1. Every year, the state of Himachal Pradesh loses crops worth £50 million to Rhesus macaques, the descendants of the Monkey god Hanuman. According to a report by Down to Earth, India, an agrarian economy, suffers with significant crop loss due to monkeys in 20 of its 29 states.
  2. Feral dogs have been reported destroying nests and eggs of Critically Endangered Great Indian Bustards. And spreading Canine Distemper Virus to tigers, lions, and even red pandas! To add to this, stray dog populations in urban areas are a threat to our own species with 36% of deaths due to rabies occurring in India.
  3. Everyday, tonnes of grains are given to rock pigeons. Their urbanization, on our window ledges keeps us susceptible to respiratory diseases and their excess population  communicates avian pox, bird cholera, and ticks to other species.
  4. Every year, on the festival of Nag Panchami (Snake festival), cobras are caught to worship. As an act of devotion, they are made to ‘drink’ milk, which causes snake mortality.

Needless to say that our irresponsible love for some animal species has hit below the belt. With easily available food, animals tend to spend less time foraging and more time in procreation and have a higher breeding success. This culminates in population explosion in case of these urban exploiters, followed with civic bodies taking drastic steps like indiscriminate culling , while not addressing the root problem. These measures have drastic consequences, leading to behavioural alterations in dogs and monkeys, making them aggressive against humans in general.

Ecologically speaking, this superabundance of food afforded through philanthropic offering in urban spaces, with low predation pressure, and favorable microclimate, along with habitat loss, leads to biotic homogenization and affects food webs, altering nutrient transfer between biotopes and ecosystems. Consequent loss of native fauna, on being outcompeted, is a major conservation concern across the world . Urban sprawl, leading to habitat loss, along with people feeding animals severely alters the energy dynamics of urban spaces. This synergism forms a vicious circle of human and animal suffering as urban ecosystems are spreading rapidly on Earth, with a figure estimate of  66% urbanized humanity by 2050 (World Urbanization Prospects, 2014, United Nations) Such large-scale urbanism has well-demonstrated ecological consequences, including population extinction of many species. The scientific world is still unaware of the consequential proximity of the urban fauna with humans. With the field of urban ecology still in its infancy, especially for South Asia, we can expect transfer of new zoonoses, which might catch us unprepared.

I see the need of shift in the role play of a religious nation in 21st century. While the compassion for animals is a welcome trait, ample activism and education shall redirect it for the cause of animals which are in dire need of conservation attention. and which may happen in the following ways:

  1. By changing their ideas for green spaces, i.e., by planting native plants species to support native biodiversity instead of non-native ornamental plants.
  2. Through direct financial support to research and management of our protected areas.
  3. Through aids to communities which reside beside the protected areas, and always face conflict with wildlife and issues of subsistence.
  4. Aiding educational institutes and shelters for homeless (giving alms to needy does not qualify as help)

Changing intra-human and human- animal dynamics in the era of economic proliferation, which entails increased eco-social disparity is the blueprint of all major social evils. A hungry citizen can never aid in conservation efforts, or the efforts on social values. The future looks grim under the lens of the fastest growing Indian economy, with a major chunk of its population uneducated and below the poverty line. However, empathy for Earthlings and compassion for conspecifics are the definitive traits of humans. I do see the silver lining of the opportunity to educate and motivate our developing society, and remould their ancient practice of respecting nature in myriad inter-personal ways. This responsibility shall eventually fall on the shoulders of young conservation students, whose efforts shall be honed to educate the society to judiciously use this sword of compassion, to aid in Biodiversity Conservation and Poverty Alleviation, the two dire challenges our world is facing.

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