Observe a herd of elephants across a hill slope as they slowly amble through a tea garden. Massive but agile, it is incredible to watch how they make their way along narrow walking paths cut through the tea, carefully, thoughtfully. The paths are made for bipeds but they navigate them and remember them, building these walkways into their migratory routes. Observe them by way of smart phone by way of 50x binoculars and the more immediate connection I feel to them, even when watching from a distance, looks and feels surreal. Here they are in a more open patch of an estate in Gudalur, Nilgiris.
Before Gudalur there was a week of standard immigration bureaucracy to navigate in Bangalore and getting set up with my local host institution. Before that there were two brief days in Chennai, and the 7 hour train from Chennai to Bangalore. The image below greeted Casey and I at our first hotel in Chennai. I was thrilled. I’m reading Eduardo Kohn’s “How Forests Think” and so I’m thinking about symbols, the power of symbols and icons, and both how we as humans represent the non-human and how ‘they’ in turn represent us. This representation of a Tiger dressed as an officer or prince, in addition to being fantastic, seemed like a good place to start thinking about animals as icons and representations of animal selves. How can problematizing and deconstructing our conservation symbols and icons can be productive (in the positivist sense), and yet how are these symbols productive (in the critical sense), and for whom?
This week happened to coincide with the announcement of India’s first leopard census, the first attempt by the Indian State to estimate a country-wide leopard population. It is the first time the State has made such a calculatory effort to produce a Indian leopard population, though it has much practice with Tigers. Based on a combination of scat data, sightings, camera trap imagery, and much extrapolation, the Wildlife Institute of India now estimates a country-wide population of 12,000 – 14,000 leopards. I want to spend some time thinking about these numbers, what they mean, for whom (human and non-human), and why. For more on counting cats, it’s worth reading about the recent Tiger Census that suggested India’s tiger population increased 30% in recent years (or did not), and the power of such calculations.