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Conservation Biology In India

Credit:S.D. Biju

Sanctuary Cover Story April 2012:With every passing day, it is going to be more vital than ever before to weave the disciplines of ecology, sociology, economy and science together, if India is to have any chance at all of escaping the worst impacts of climate change. Today these sectors work in compartments isolated from each other, though everyone agrees that each one impacts all the others.

India has some of the finest scientists and field biologists in the world. Professor Biju Das, a Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award 2011 recipient, has, for instance, been recognised for the high quality amphibian research his team has conducted. Earlier this year, he was credited with the discovery of a new family of burrowing caecilians (see image below) from Northeast India, which reveal genetic links to species from Africa. But is such research valued and respected? Sanctuary’s Lakshmy Raman spoke with a mix of veteran and young field biologists to understand how they felt about their work, its worth and the future of conservation biology. This is what they said.

Ajay Desai, Elephant expert and Co-Chair of the SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG)

In my view some of our best thinkers are to be found in various State Forest Departments, not within the scientific community. Forest managers must think logically, given the multiple problems they face daily. They also understand and work within the constraints imposed by the ‘system’ and by the lack of data. Unless scientists work closely with wildlife managers on a regular basis, their work will not reflect the reality on the field. – Ajay Desai. Credit:Shekar Dattatri

My lifelong interest has been animals. Wildlife research is personally fulfilling. The current scenario is frustrating but this is where I have wanted to be all my life.

Indians, though we make a lot of noise about wildlife, are not really at the forefront of research. The number of meaningful studies are few. In the 1970s and 80s, wildlife science was young and facilities limited, which constrained researchers despite their hard work and inner motivation. I started work in 1983, I was dependent on my Guide for most of my reference material. He photo-copied literally hundreds of references on elephants from the U.S. and brought them to India. Apart from the few journals in the Bombay Natural History Society library, one had little access to good literature on wildlife-related subjects. How different things are today!

Researchers can download the very latest papers, often from their field stations! Sadly, some researchers, instead of using quality data from the field, will conveniently plug in available information to bridge the gaps in their own data. A degree, thus, is no guarantee that the individual is an expert.

There have always been and will continue to be field biologists for whom degrees are more important than detailed field work. Once they obtain their Ph.Ds, they barely do field work themselves, preferring to send in students who probably know even less. Real field workers who spend substantial time and effort to truly understand the species or issues they are studying are increasingly rare. And fancy statistics and modelling can make even insignificant data and field work look great. But that is not good science.

Any application in the field requires two things – a knowledge of basic concepts and their interplay – field data. Conservation is a complex issue with multiple factors, which interact with each other and produce a further range of variables. A Protected Area (PA) manager needs to understand all these and then, from the data at hand, he or she must chart a management course. To begin with, most scientists do not understand this. They have a narrow focus, narrower knowledge and write from that narrow view. This hardly helps the PA manager. We need people capable of multi-dimensional thinking and analysis who can obtain the required data, derive management inputs from it and then actually apply this in the field.

These days there is a general obsession with so called peer reviewed papers. When there is a churning out of papers without adequate field time then you can be certain that the objective of the author is his or her career and not conservation. Conclusions will almost certainly also be inherently flawed in most cases.

Effective management planning requires depth. Another issue is the fact that paper after paper on tiger populations emerge, but all that we do is to monitor. It’s like continually taking a patient’s temperature and hopping around when it is too high or low, but doing little else. A wildlife manager must know what and how to deal with target populations. When numbers decline on account of easily identifiable causes, such as poaching or habitat degradation, you don’t really need scientists or managers to diagnose anything… you need to remove the cause of the problem. It’s when problems are more subtle that someone must figure out the causes and suggest effective remedies.

The ideal situation is one where a priority is taken up for research, quality work is put in to obtain data and good analysis and inferences are then drawn. This is what the wildlife manager must use to develop and implement appropriate action. In ‘real’ life, such instances where everything comes together are few and far between.

In my view some of our best thinkers are to be found in various State Forest Departments, not within the scientific community. Forest managers must think logically, given the multiple problems they face daily. They also understand and work within the constraints imposed by the ‘system’ and by the lack of data. Unless scientists work closely with wildlife managers on a regular basis, their work will not reflect the reality on the field. Fortunately for me, I have an excellent working relationship with the Forest Departments of all states where I work with and have rarely faced problems, even when I criticise something, because they have worked with me in the field and know my intent is to improve, not merely blame.

It must be said that the government itself is a limiting factor (driven as it is by unpredictable individuals in charge at any given moment). It becomes necessary sometimes to work around red tape, but even doing this poses problems if research policy is absent, or the approach is so flawed as to offer no real support for hard decisions to be made. As for the Ministry of Environment and Forests at the Centre, frankly it seems to have little clue about research needs, which is why existing rules serve little purpose apart from facilitating the harassment of genuine field biologists and researchers. For instance, keeping researchers out of core areas and other spaces kept inviolate and undisturbed for tigers is unwarranted. How can you keep doctors out of the ICU? Besides, often the mere presence of researchers deters poachers and also prompts the Forest Department staff to patrol more diligently. Research in tiger reserves is critical as these are the flagships of India’s conservation programme and must not be managed on an ad hoc basis without any scientific data to back decisions.

A. Christy Williams, WWF Asian Elephant and Rhino Programme

India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have good and competent local field biologists and this has helped develop a greater understanding of the ecological issues at stake, especially with regard to large mammals. Many in-country biologists have in fact served as powerful spokespersons against issues such as poaching, mining and illegal logging. – A. Christy Williams. Courtesy:A. Christy Williams

Working in eight countries across South and Southeast Asia on elephant and rhino issues has given me a unique opportunity to appreciate the work being done in this region. Field biology is still in its infancy in Southeast Asian countries with the first generation of local in-country biologists just graduating in places such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. However expat scientists have been studying wildlife for a very long period in these places and therefore excellent scientific papers and documentation exists. Between 1980-2000, field biologists here were largely foreigners who were afraid that their research permits would be cancelled, which is probably why they did not sound loud enough warnings even when critical habitats were being cleared for industrial agriculture (oil palm, paper and pulp plantations).

By comparison, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, have good and competent local field biologists and this has helped develop a greater understanding of the ecological issues at stake, especially with regard to large mammals. Many in-country biologists have in fact served as powerful spokespersons against issues such as poaching, mining and illegal logging. However, here too, while vibrant research happens, the findings are seldom used while developing management plans. The system is so ineffective that often Forest Departments are not even aware of the research results from studies conducted in their own PAs. Nepal, thankfully, is proving to be different, and research results are strongly consulted before management decisions are taken for PAs.

In India, a few biologists who largely chase papers for publication, or awards from government or international agencies tend to be the ones that the Government of India listens to. So you have a situation where some “morally corrupt” scientists give the government scientific cover when they should actually be speaking out against decisions.When I was a young field biologist, I was personally told by a very senior scientist not to inform the Forest Department about some elephant poaching cases that I stumbled upon in the field, unless they directly asked me for information. He did not want me to endanger the research permit!

A.J.T Johnsingh, Eminent Wildlife Biologist, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India

The inability of the Government to establish the Gola corridor, in spite of the necessary information available, which would have allowed Uttarakhand to manage its tiger and elephant habitat as one landscape, is another example where we failed to strengthen field conservation in spite of having the requisite knowledge. – A.J.T. Johnsingh. Courtesy:A.J.T. Johnsingh

Many young biologists venture into the natural world and come up discoveries of new species and valuable information and splendid images. There have been discoveries of new species in almost in all taxa, particularly in invertebrate groups. Some biologists have also come up with innovative ideas for conservation. Grazing-free areas established in Kibber in Himachal Pradesh in collaboration with locals has caused bharal populations to rise. We see snow leopards more frequently now. Another example is the establishment of community-approved power fences to keep away porcupines, wild pigs and elephants from crop fields on the fringes of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Restoration of degraded shola forests on the Valaparai Plateau in the Anamalais led to the use of such forests by the lion-tailed macaque. Across the country there are several examples of how biologists have contributed to strengthen conservation.

I believe field biology in India is at par with the rest of the world as most of our biologists are brilliant and hard-working and now with the availability of better technology in the form of equipment, computer applications and lab work, we can do even better.

A lot has been spoken about the focus on publication of papers. Paper publication, particularly in peer-reviewed journals, is very important in the career development of young field biologists. However, this is just one aspect in the overall development of a conservation biologist. It is wrong to expect that managers will read through the scientific papers and make use of the research findings. Conservation findings need to be taken repeatedly by the biologists and environmentalists to the masses and managers through discussions, presentations and popular articles, if we wish to see changes in the field.

In a country like India, making conservation work depends largely on government. Biologists may gather information and make it available to the government but if officials do not understand the value of the research, or don’t even read it, then such knowledge becomes meaningless. In my experience, many of our field biologists are passionate and dedicated, but one of the exasperating aspects in their career is the inability to firm up conservation on the ground. A classic example is the Chilla-Motichur wildlife corridor across the Ganges, which we have been trying to establish for three decades! Many officers have worked here, some have been promoted and some have even retired. Yet the corridor, one of the simplest and most vital in India, has not been established. The inability of the Government to establish the Gola corridor, in spite of the necessary information available, which would have allowed Uttarakhand to manage its tiger and elephant habitat as one landscape, is another example where we failed to strengthen field conservation in spite of having the requisite knowledge.

Besides collecting data by hard work, dedication and sincerity, young biologists should have the eyes to see and precisely identify the conservation issues in the study area. Many biologists have worked in the Mudumalai landscape but they have failed to bring to the attention of the managers that at least a 100 sq. km. area in the landscape (Masinagudi, Singara, Sigur and Bhavanisagar Ranges, total area close to 500 sq. km.) is covered by Opuntia dillenii, an exotic from tropical America, whose sharp thorns render a huge area inaccessible to large mammals. Similarly biologists working in the Bandipur and Bhadra Tiger Reserves have failed to notice the spread of the exotic, invasive, ornamental and unpalatable Cassia spectabilis, which now occupies considerable area around these reserves.

I am also worried about the future of field biologists because there are just not enough suitable jobs available to them in India. We should be encouraging placements in colleges and universities. A cadre of well-paid brilliant, dedicated field biologists should be established on par with the Forest Service not subservient to them, or forced to work to their whims. They could have affiliations with premier conservation institutions in the country and should have the freedom to work anywhere. Every five years their academic performance and contribution to conservation should be evaluated. The knowledge they generate should be used by the government to strengthen field conservation in the country.

K. Ullas Karanth, Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society

Managers who are unqualified for conducting research – often teaming up with equally unqualified NGOs – are trying to do ‘wildlife science’. This is only creating clouds of “pseudodata” that obscure rather than help us understand ecology. – K. Ullas Karanth. Courtesy:Sanctuary Photo Library

The biggest constraint to the growth of field biology in India is official indifference. In most advanced countries, wildlife managers encourage qualified wildlife scientists from a variety of institutions, and try to learn from their results. In India, because of the fundamental flaws in the way the Wildlife Protection Act is structured, and, due to the huge lack of professional training among managers, this is simply not the case. Managers who are unqualified for conducting research – often teaming up with equally unqualified NGOs – are trying to do ‘wildlife science’. This is only creating clouds of “pseudo-data” that obscure rather than help us understand ecology. An allied problem is the pampering and over-funding of researchers in a few institutions run by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, while simply ignoring or even thwarting research proposals from outside this inbred MoEF family.

Some of us, the first generation of Indian practitioners of modern wildlife biology grew up in despair, and, then witnessed the almost miraculous wildlife recovery that took place after 1970, when many of the present day wildlife reserves were established. However, biologists from more recent cohorts take these reserves with abundant wildlife for granted, and tend to underplay the critical role of strict protection from human impacts in their maintenance. Additionally, sometimes they often suffer from a deep guilt at belonging to a “consuming middle class” in the face of dire poverty, and, fancy themselves as ‘social reformers’ in addition to carrying the burden of being real conservationists. Consequently, they endorse all sorts of unworkable social-engineering alternatives that basically undermine the importance of core protection. This make believe world of conservation – what I call the “conservation in the kiddy-pool” – often relies on data from small scale experiments, which do not work at spatial scales that really matter for recovering many endangered species populations.

Rajeev Pillay, Research Affiliate, Nature Conservation Foundation and Ph.D. Student, Wildlife Ecology & Conservation, University of Florida, Gainesville

There is a pressing need for ecologists to liaise better and more frequently with organisations and individuals having the mandate and resources to implement conservation strategies in the field. This will ensure that some of their findings are translated into achievable conservation goals, instead of remaining confined to research papers. – Rajeev Pillay. Courtesy:Rajeev Pillay

When I began my professional career as a wildlife biologist in 2004, it was with the impression that wildlife biologists could play a key role in generating new knowledge about species and systems of concern as well as work on implementing conservation strategies for the same. However, I quickly realised that it may be beyond the capacity of an individual to participate in all the steps necessary to ensure conservation success. I found myself gravitating toward questions of an ecological nature and trying to come up with conservation applications. While I will always liaise with conservationists and managers to attempt to translate these research findings and applications to conservation action, what and how much of it is ultimately carried out largely remains out of my control. This is different to what a hardcore conservationist may do when applying the results of someone-else’s research for conservation action.

Though I have limited experience with the research being conducted in other countries, I believe that there is a greater connect between ecologists and wildlife managers in the U.S., which may enable a better translation of research outputs into actual conservation goals in the field. Secondly, I think that people there are more open to conducting experimental field manipulations to address certain questions which, when logistically feasible, greatly improves inferences. It may be next to impossible to get permits for experimental manipulations in India.

Government red tape is a major limiting factor when conducting field research on ecology and conservation biology in India. Often, the whims of individual managers prevent accredited researchers from conducting their work in Protected Areas. The system of obtaining permits needs to be vastly improved from the current situation where virtually anyone in the management hierarchy can deny permission to work in a wildlife area.

We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to knowledge about how species, ecosystems and biological processes operate and how anthropogenic disturbances alter vital ecological functions. Therefore, conservation efforts are likely to be better served with improved knowledge about the species and systems of interest. That said, there is a pressing need for ecologists to liaise better and more frequently with organisations and individuals having the mandate and resources to implement conservation strategies in the field. This will ensure that some of their findings are translated into achievable conservation goals, instead of remaining confined to research papers. It then becomes the duty of ecologists and conservation organisations to work in tandem with wildlife managers to ensure that these conservation goals are met.

The good news is that over the last decade, there has been an increasing number of youngsters interested in wildlife and conservation. We now have two top-notch Masters programmes in wildlife ecology at WII and WCS-NCBS. This augurs well for the future of wildlife biology in India.

Aaron Lobo, Marine Field Biologist

Conservation biology should be grounded in good science. The goal should be better communication of science by researchers to policy makers, managers and the general audience. – Aaron Lobo. Courtesy:Aaron Lobo

We are just entering a new era of research in marine ecology in India. My personal journey as a young marine biologist has been extremely fulfilling though frustrating at times. We are also slowly moving from describing patterns to understanding the processes that underlie them. However, the research is rarely being applied in the field. Except for very few studies, there is a lack of communication between researchers and policy makers.

Conservation biology should be grounded in good science. The goal should be better communication of science by researchers to policy makers, managers and the general audience.

While there has been a gradual but positive change from more descriptive studies to a question-based approach to ecological/conservation biology research, managers are still trying to apply terrestrial conservation paradigms to marine systems. Many managers actually understand very little about the systems in their charge. Marine Protected Areas in our country are met with constant opposition by fishing communities who have been excluded although they have been using these areas for generations. Nevertheless, the illegal harvest of marine resources continues apace. It’s a lose-lose situation.

There is also bipolarity in policy when it comes to marine conservation. On the one hand you have the Ministry of Environment and Forests that generally works on the premise of “No-take”, enforcing this with bans, jail sentences, and what have you, and on the other hand you have the Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Fisheries) that works on the mandate of increasing production. The net result of this schizophrenia is obvious.

Sanctuary’s Viewpoint

As the field biologists on these pages have highlighted, science should be the foundation of conservation action and advocacy. But all field biologists are not necessarily conservationists. In the complicated political and social situation that prevails in India it is vital that conservation biology takes its rightful place in decision-making, but for this to happen scientists must first accept that they either need to acquire the necessary skills and attitudes to deal with situations where even a word, or a nuance could spell life or death for ecologically fragile habitats and species, or accept rational conservationists as equal partners whose skills and experience are vital to the objective on hand. This is the only way that science can effectively be brought back to the centre of decision making to the advantage of wildlife and wildernesses.

And, of course, even the best scientist, expert, or conservationist, needs a healthy dose of common sense.

Today not enough field biologists or experts are willing to speak out against the powers that be, even when they know that a strong stand might actually end up saving the species and habitats that are the focus of their work. Their lack of experience in dealing with project proponents, politicians, bureaucrats and consultants on issues surrounding environmental clearances has all too often ended up in the destruction of vast wildlife tracts that have forever been lost. Cases in point include vast forests in the Narmada Valley, Assam’s Lower Subansiri Valley and huge tracts of Western Ghats rainforests.

Examples abound, but one that hits you in the face, as Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh writes, is that of wildlife corridors. Using satellite imagery, field biologists, conservationists and even project promoters can instantly identify such corridors – Kanha-Pench in Madhya Pradesh, Rajaji-Corbett in Uttarakhand, Nagarhole-Bandipur-Mudumulai in Karnataka-Tamil Nadu. Without corridors, the movement of genes through living species is interrupted, making local extinctions (like Sariska) more probable, more frequent. In an era of climate change, such unimpeded migration and dispersal has become even more vital than ever before as new and unpredictable stresses afflict both plants and animals. Put another way, even the best managed, best protected landscape requires connectivity to other biodiverse landscapes to be viable in the long term. Towards this end field biologists, botanists, ornithologists and zoologists need to unite to interpret the mountains of data available so as to monitor and diagnose the problems and take conservation solutions to completion.

Are moist deciduous forests becoming drier? Are forest fires burning at higher temperatures thanks to soil moisture evaporation? Are grasslands becoming deserts and are dry deciduous forests turning to scrub? What is the impact on species of these and other climate induced changes such as early and late monsoons, early and late migration, early and late flowering and fruiting, early and late nesting… or the presence or absence of species.

Temperature rise and changes in humidity are already affecting every ecosystem on the planet, but altogether too little work is being done to monitor such transformations.

In a world where conservation priorities are all-too-frequently sacrificed at the altar of the national or global economic agenda, independent science must be recognised as a primary defence of natural ecosystems and species, without which the worst impacts of climate change will be unmanageable.

Going forward, we believe that vision, courage, foresight and honesty are at least as important today as pure scientific knowledge if the objective is to return good governance into the arena of land and water management on the Indian subcontinent.

Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 2, April 2012

 
 
 

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