We think we own the earth. Seven and a half billion humans, teeming around, spreading fast and thick. But the truth is that we share our planet with millions of other species. Humans make up just around 0.1% of the total biomass of life. We are just a small part of a larger whole.
Nature has connected us in an intricate web of interdependence. We interact and adapt and find ways to survive, which is why it is important that we learn to coexist with all the other creatures. Of course, coexistence does not imply an idealised state, where conflict is absent. The food chain itself ensures we compete for limited resources. But cruelty and a contemptuous disregard for the lives of others certainly cannot be justified.
The recent horrifying incident, where a pregnant elephant was fed firecrackers, is an example of extreme cruelty and a callous attitude, which is shocking to say the least. The fruit exploded in her mouth, causing severe burn injuries because of which she was unable to eat. Her traumatic death was caused by starvation. She suffered for days, and yet amazingly, was compassionate enough not to trample through the village or destroy our fields in anger and pain. Her last hours were spent standing in the Velliyar river, her trunk and wounded mouth submerged in water. The image on our phones is a powerful reminder of the extent of human brutality.
Her death sparked a nationwide outrage. Thousands are signing petitions, speaking out on social media and empathising with the poor animal and her unborn child. The Chief Minister of Kerala has promised action. Celebrities, industrialists, actors and sportspersons have all spoken out, fuelling the narrative. This is one instance of animal cruelty which is visually so powerful that it has sparked chain reactions, bringing awareness, causing discomfort, and raising questions about our actions.
Look around and you will find that cruelty, exploitation and degradation of nature is inbuilt into modern life. We don’t even question its existence. Over 70 billion animals are reared for meat, milk, leather and eggs every year. Trillions of aquatic animals are produced for consumption. Each animal is a unique being, with a complex set of emotions and sensations. Its life charted completely from birth to death — factory style — bred and slaughtered. We’ve actually changed the structure of bones in chickens through nonstop feeding and breeding. They are not the only ones.
Those we don’t eat, we kill. Over half of the planet’s animals have been lost in just the past fifty years. We’re responsible for directly altering around 70% land on earth. Forests have been mercilessly chopped down to make way for our settlements; pollution has ravaged soil, air and water; precious ecosystems have been destroyed. In such a short span of time, we have dramatically changed the earth. We are a minority, but our impact is immense.
Our ancestors lived closer to the natural world. We don’t understand animals the way they did. With increasing urbanisation, we are only removing ourselves farther and farther. Our pets are probably our only limited window to the vast animal kingdom. But they sentimentalise our view. Enclosed within walls, in our artificial cities, learning through books, electronic devices and potted plants, we are trapped in concrete jungles, disconnected from what is outside. How can we truly understand, respect, and even attempt to communicate with the vast world, teeming with life, around us?
The suffering of one animal will not be enough to save all animals or change our behaviour. But it is a reminder. Our actions and our behaviour cause a huge impact on others who share our world, our forests, our bodies, the air we breathe, the rivers and the seas. Centuries ago, wild animals posed a real threat to humanity. That equation has reversed today. The essential interconnected web of life is shrinking. We need to restore balance, repair our relation with nature, and learn to share our world. We are not alone. The planet belongs to all of us.
Which is why, the elephant, in all its pain, brings me some hope. She was able to unite our voices, and our emotions, even if it is temporary. Perhaps we can be unselfish. We are struggling with an unknown virus; there is tension on our borders; cyclones are swirling; locusts are threatening us; monsoons are looming; jobs are being lost; people are being lost. But we still care. There is hope we have not lost all empathy, the essential quality of being human.
(Ekta Kumar is a writer, columnist, artist and works closely with the European Union on gender and civil rights-related issues.)