Why is there a mound of plastic bags in a tiger reserve?
Just after we crossed a riverbed returning from our eye camp in Marripalem, our Chenchu guide, Naganna, pointed out a conspicuous mound in the forest. We stopped the jeep and walked over faded yellow bamboo leaves, picking our way through the thorns to reach a coffin-shaped heap of caked mud that evoked a construction site. Partially decomposed black plastic bags tangled with grass, and vaguely organic matter. A long streamer of bright blue plastic snaked in and out of the mound.
Naganna, ever the pragmatist, was not one to build up the mystery.
“The tiger was here last night”
The rest of our team looked at him blankly. Mahesh glanced over his shoulder. Walking a few feet, Naganna pointed to a footprint in a sand patch, circling it with a stick for the newbies. The right hind foot of the tiger, with its soft central foot pad and four oval toe pads, was now clearly visible.
Around us were the scattered bones usually present at sites like this: a femur, half a pelvis, a long curved jawbone with a full set of teeth. The skeleton and pugmarks told us that a tiger had killed a buffalo here and had returned to the scene, passing through on its way to the stream, but what to make of the mound?
Naganna saw he had to spell it out for us – we were seeing what remained of the buffalo carcass after it was burned by the Forest Department to discourage the tiger from preying on livestock. More precisely, the mound was the contents of the buffalo’s gut :pounds and pounds of undigested plastic bags that had filled its stomach while the animal was alive and would remain long after it was gone.
As many as 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, but it is startlingly visceral (hard to avoid the pun here) to see the magnitude of bags consumed by an animal in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. This of course may say something about the buffalo’s inability to stay away from polyethylene products, but I think it says more about ours. It lays bare the false distinction between the purity of nature and the pollution of cities, between wild and human habitats. A tiger eating a domestic animal eating a plastic bag discarded by a pilgrim eating prasadam may be an obvious visual example of this reality, but this condition was invisible to us when the buffalo was alive, just as the effects of pollution in the animal’s lungs, blood, and immune system remain hidden to us in its death. Protected areas throughout the world, including India, are not only affected by the world around them: they are the world around them.