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Disappearing big cats and multiplying man-eaters in the Indian Anthropocene

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Species extinction as well as increasing levels of human-animal conflict are now widely considered two indicators of anthropic climate change. In this paper, I ethnographically locate and study these two trends in the Indian Himalaya in the context of leopards and tigers in an attempt to elaborate how climate change is experienced in a specific region of India. In the Himalaya there has been a reduction in the number of leopards and tigers over time and, at the same time, there is an ongoing perceived spike in attacks on humans by them. I describe how these two aspects are ascribed to climate change (or what could be understood to be climate change) by a range of actors. These include officials, conservationists, journalists, wildlife biologists, hunters, and villagers in the Upper Himalaya. Climate change discourse has been discussed as ‘elitist and exclusive’ (Beck 2012) and the absence of a wider acknowledgement of its imminence has been ascribed to a ‘failure of the imagination’ (Ghosh 2016). Political-psychological studies have argued the sheer enormity of the calamity that awaits us leads to active denialism (see Runciman 2014) while other works have shown the agents that have worked towards manufacturing scepticism or misinformation (e.g. Conway and Oreskes 2012). In lieu of such an approach that bemoans the absences of a deeper environmental and climactic consciousness, I work through an ethnographic engagement with disappearing big cats and multiplying man-eaters to argue that there are, in fact, wide ranging non-elite discussions of climate change and life in the Anthropocene in the everyday. What is needed is a finer attunement to stories and narratives that do not fit either the official, scientific discourses on climate change or the mainstream conservationist/developmental accounts that seek to protect big cats.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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