Bystanders watch as a wild elephant walks along a busy street in Siliguri, West Bengal, India. Credit: Dintendu Dutta/Getty Images

The former director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Asad Rahmani, recently emailed a group of scientists about the type of terminology used in popular and scientific writing, and how it skews the public’s impression about wildlife and natural processes.

Rahmani referred to a news item published in an Indian daily headlined ‘Chhattisgarh jail turns safe shelter to terrified villagers against marauding wild elephants.’ He questioned whether “marauding” was the correct term for normal animal behaviour. “Do the elephants know they are not supposed to eat the paddy crop that has been planted on their traditional migratory route?” he asked.

“A marauder is a raider, plunderer, looter," he said emphasising that the 'gentle giants' could not be labelled thus.

Rahmani’s call for correcting such terminology when reporting various aspects of biodiversity and environmental impact has evoked a response from some members of the scientific community.

“The media often reports environmental issues in terms of cliches such as ‘development vs environment’, because journalists and writers have stopped really thinking about these terms,” says Ranjit Lal, a columnist and author of books on environment and ecology.

Rahmani also drew attention to the phrase that has become common in conservation lexicon — human-wildlife conflict. “Conflict between two parties occurs when they want the same resource and they consciously know what they are fighting for. In the so-called human-wildlife conflict, does a sambhar or a wild boar know that eating a crop will lead to conflict with the farmer?”

Rahmani suggested in his email: “It is better to say human-wildlife interactions, instead of human-animal conflict.”

Infrastructure projects and agricultural activities have led to habitat destruction or encroachment and an increased contact between wild animals and humans, which often lead to casualties. India's minister for environment and forests Bhupender Yadav told Parliament in August 2021 that 1,401 people and 300 elephants were killed between 2018 and 2020.

Abi Tamim Vanak, senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru also advocates that reportage should avoid using the term ‘straying’ when wildlife is seen in human habitations. “Not every sighting of a large carnivore results in ‘conflict’. What shape this interaction takes depends often on our reaction,” he says.

Rahmani wrote that besides encroachment on wildlife habitats, the most important reason for the increased ‘conflicts’ between humans and animals was the public perception about wildlife — exacerbated by frequent inaccurate use of terms in popular and scientific writing.

Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, says public support is essential for conservation efforts and “that process is impeded by negative terminology around wildlife and conservation. Terminology plays an important role in building narratives and creating a worldview.”

For years now, conservationists and scientists have advocated for replacing the misleading term ‘wasteland’, Vanak says. “We have fought against the term ‘wasteland’ when referring to open natural ecosystems.” Dutta says that open, dry natural habitats that support unique wildlife — bustards, wolves, chinkara and blackbucks — are valuable for livestock-rearing but were termed wastelands in colonial policies to promote land-use that was deemed more productive.

“The continued usage of the term ‘wasteland’ has been concomitant with large scale diversion of these ecosystems for intensive agriculture, infrastructural projects and exotic tree plantations, often at the cost of its biodiversity conservation,” Dutta says.