18 May 2017

Current Affairs – A Natural History

Politicians, policemen and other animals.

by Neil Tidmarsh

The world of politics and the world of nature don’t mix, by and large.  Human beings go about their business and animals go about theirs, normally quite separately.  There are exceptions, of course – there’s an obvious overlap where the ecology and the environment are concerned, and there’s always plenty of room for jokes about politicians and animals (that description of Dominique Strauss-Khan as a “rutting chimpanzee” cropped up again a few days ago in The Times); nevertheless, it was a surprise when rats, buffalo, wild boar and birds turned up in the newspapers this week with plenty to say about the way we humans treat each other.

First, the rats…

Last year, alcohol was banned in the Indian state of Bihar.  This attempt to combat one of the causes of crime, poverty and violence has naturally placed a heavy burden on the police; they’ve arrested nearly half a million offenders (who can expect up to ten years in jail) and confiscated many millions of bottles of booze.  Police stations quickly ran out of room and extra space had to be rented.  But then something strange happened; more than 900,000 litres of confiscated alcohol disappeared.

The officers guarding the alcohol were questioned at a meeting of state police last week and the mystery was solved; the police explained that thirsty rats had drunk the alcohol.  Of course.  The cunning rodents had somehow managed to get the caps off the bottles without bottle-openers, they said, and had gulped down the lot.  Strangely enough, their story wasn’t accepted by everybody (perhaps because the police hadn’t managed to arrest any of the guilty creatures?).  A member of the state government suggested that the alcohol had found its way onto the black market (fenced by the rats rather than drunk by them, perhaps?), while the head of the state police said that “with the rats running riot, policemen should now be subjected to random breathalyser tests to check whether they too have had a swig or two of the confiscated booty”.  In what was surely an unrelated incident, the president and a senior member of the Bihar Policemen’s Association were arrested last week, charged with consuming alcohol and disturbing the peace on police premises.

Next, the buffalo… Also in India, an angry mob raided a dairy farm in Uttar Pradesh and attacked five men they accused of butchering and skinning a cow.  Cows are sacred to Hindus, and it’s illegal to kill them.  The five men, who were beaten and arrested, insist that the slaughtered animal wasn’t a cow but a buffalo, which isn’t sacred or protected, and an examination of its remains is underway to establish the truth.

Whatever the examination finds, however, the story has two points to make about contemporary India.  First, this kind of ‘cow vigilantism’, which is now common, is seen by some as the reflection of a dark side of the otherwise enlightened government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party.  He is working hard to modernise the country (with education reforms, new technology initiatives, anti-corruption drives, toilets for all, etc) but his critics say that his Hindu nationalist party is encouraging hostility towards India’s Muslims (who of course are the real targets of cow-vigilantism, having no taboos about eating beef).  Second, it suggests that the caste system persists; the attackers were high-caste Hindus, the accused were Dalits, the lowest caste.

Meanwhile, in Canada, at Edmonton airport in Alberta, birds were highlighting the dangers of man’s increasing use of robotics.  No doubt hawks and falcons will soon be complaining alongside human beings that their jobs are about to stolen by robots – a drone which looks like a predator, with realistically-flapping wings, has been developed to scare birds away from the airport’s flight-paths, a job traditionally undertaken by trained birds of prey and their handlers.  It was developed by an engineer at a Dutch company after it was found that birds aren’t frightened by fixed-wing drones.  Humans and their governments are developing drones not just to scare birds, of course, but also – as is the way with all technology – to kill other human beings.  In the same week, Erdogan’s government in Turkey announced that its defence ministry has developed an entirely Turkish-made weaponised drone, the Bayraktar, as a first step towards the development of a Turkish defence industry which will make the country’s armed forces self-sufficient in materiel.

Real animals – rather than robotic, technically-created virtual animals – are striking back with a vengeance in Italy, where wild boar are invading Rome at the head of an animal army of rats, mice, snakes, crows and gulls.  Public services including the organised collection of rubbish have collapsed, and the Five Star Movement mayor Virginia Raggi has been unable to get them back on their feet since she was elected last year.  Mountains of refuse are growing in the streets, rotting in the heat and drawing all kinds of hungry animals into the centre of the eternal city to forage.  Wild boar are a common sight, rummaging in gardens or running down the street among the traffic, and two months ago a man was killed when a boar collided with his moped.  All of which seems to suggest that populists will make a pig’s ear of governing whenever they get a crack at it, a suggestion which appears to be borne out by the mess which President Trump seems to have got himself into with his own intelligence services and Russia.

Police corruption, religious discrimination and hatred, the dangers of new technology and the inefficiency of populist governments… But what, finally, are we to make of this week’s story about the encounter between a troop of wild boar and a British diplomat in Austria?  Leigh Turner, our man in Vienna, was taking a walk in the woods when he found himself confronted by half-a-dozen huge wild boar and their numerous offspring.  He beat a diplomatic retreat but one of the adults gave chase and Mr Turner took a tumble scrambling to safety over a woodpile and ended up with his hand in a splint and his arm in a sling.  A foretaste of Brexit negotiations, perhaps?


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