By Bharath Joshi and Sharadha Kalyanam | Published: 04th November 2013 12:00 AM |
India's biodiversity has inspired a young breed of warriors
It was a chilly Sunday morning in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park. As joggers watched, more than 200 vintage bikes pulled over, raring to accelerate for a cause. It was a ride to Bannerghatta Biological Park, which was organised by Bangalore RD350 Club for Saving Wildlife. The club was generating funds for conducting conservation activities at the park.
This is the new face of conservation science, one where youngsters are addressing issues as diverse as the field itself. Over the last ten years, conservation and ecological science has not restricted itself to science graduates. Experts believe this is because of the richness of India’s biodiversity resources.
India ranks among the top ten species-rich nations and shows high endemism, according to the Union ministry of environment and forests’ (MoEF) Fourth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. There are, so far, over 91,200 species of animals and 45,500 species of plants documented in its ten bio-geographic regions. The recent budget allocated a sum of Rs 2,430 crore to MoEF.
However, most of the students who have actively involved themselves in conservation activities believe that it is not just the theory and academic parts that contribute to the cause and at the Student Conference on Conservation Science held from September 25-28 in the Garden City called on the Ministry to speedily document existing species of plants and accord them a conservation status as there is an added threat of lobbying and smuggling even within restricted areas.
An example is Navendu Page, 28, a PhD student from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. A student of botany since undergraduation, Page’s love for the environment grew out of reading about conservation science and looking at pictures in his textbooks. As part of his ongoing project, Page spent almost two years studying the evergreen woody plants endemic to Western Ghats, assessing each species and assigning a conservation status to them. “Many endemic trees and woody plants in this region are not well-known as most are narrowly distributed outside protected areas. If they don’t come to the notice of scientists and forest officials now, they will disappear soon,” Page states. He says riversides of Kerala are one of the most fragile ecosystems. He believes the forest department should soon assess woody plants endemic to north Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. “It is essential to build a database of these plants as many are in the threatened category. We may not want to lose them to extinction,” he fears.
During his fieldwork, Page found that more than half the plants on the Ghat were data deficient. “Of the 800 species of woody plants in this region, about 350 are endemic. We assessed 250 of them and found that more than half fell under the categories of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered,” he says. “It may not be possible to save the whole of Western Ghats, but we can at least prioritise.” Page plans to present his report to the Karnataka Forest Department in December.
Field of science
Conservation science is a part of environmental science. “In environmental science, we deal with all aspects concerning management and pollution of the environment. Conservation comes under the management aspect, where we can provide strategies to manage it,” says N Nandini, chairperson, Department of Environmental Science at Bangalore University.
She believes introducing environment as a compulsory subject at the undergraduate level has given this field of science the push it required.
“As per a Supreme Court decision and the University Grants Commission policy, every graduate needs to learn about the environment. We implemented this in 2006 and the paper’s syllabus includes wildlife, which is the most important thing anyone should learn when we talk of biodiversity,” she says adding that the paper has helped youngsters become more sensitive towards the subject.
While science is an academic pursuit, conservation requires working with people who are part of the problem and the solution, says Ravi Chellam, director for research and conservation at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. “Because bulk of conservation problems are caused by humans, working with policy makers, local communities and the wider public is very important.”
The rise of commerce and management subjects has sidelined basic science courses like botany and zoology. “These subjects are not gaining momentum. Ten years ago, colleges offered these courses along with biotechnology and microbiology. But now, more than 600 colleges under the university are closing these courses for want of students,” says Nandini.
Opportunities in conservation have grown exponentially and that the field is attracting a lot of youngsters from different backgrounds, says Chellam. “Today, there is no guarantee an MBA will get you a job, or even hold on to one. Very few people are trained to do conservation but you have to make yourself employable. One needs to develop the skills, not lose passion and perspective,” he advises students. “A lot of engineers, computer science graduates and veterinary graduates have come in and this kind of mix is good for conservation science.”
The mix, Chellam says, would be lost if conservation science is introduced as a course at the undergraduate level. “I don’t think it is a good idea to have courses at the UG level. The minute you start narrowing it at that level, you may lose out on the breadth of knowledge needed to become a good conservation scientist. There are courses at the PG level that do not even require you to have done science, not even biology, which makes the mix possible,” he contends.
Pursuit of a different kind
Aniruddha Marathe is a doctoral scholar with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). The 28-year old spends most of his time observing ants. “Right now, I have about 120 species of ants and the number will definitely increase,” Aniruddha says with pride. His research topic is ‘Species richness and distribution of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) along an elevation gradient in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary (Arunachal Pradesh)’.
At just 24, Prasenjeet Yadav, who was pursuing a PhD at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, decided he was going to follow all his passions — wildlife and photography — at the same time and explain conservation science to non-academics. “There is plenty of academic research going on and it is imperative that the common people, who are a part of the natural environment, get to know of these pursuits,” Yadav strongly feels.
So, after discontinuing his PhD, Yadav set out documenting photographs of doctoral fellows. “Very few people understand science so I go along with doctoral students and get pictures published so that even a non-academic can understand that work of such kind is being done to protect wildlife and the environment," says Yadav, who recently documented the yearly mating system of black bucks in Velavadar National Park, Gujarat.
According to Chellam, the trend of youth conservationists only picked up in the last decade. “The big difference from when I got started in the early 80s is that students are addressing the diversity that represents wildlife — not just tigers, elephants or lions. We find them choosing not-so-charismatic animals, often outside the protected areas in an attempt to understand their ecology and inter-relationships with other species and their habitats. This research also tends to address conservation problems, as the bulk of conservation problems may be coming from outside the protected boundaries,” he says.
While some students believe that it is a good idea to introduce undergraduate courses on conservation sciences and also include it as compulsory subjects at school level, most feel that it is something an individual has to hone and develop on his or her own. “It is a good idea to introduce more courses, but school-level teachers need to be trained much more in order to do justice to the environmental modules that are now integrated into mainstream learning,” says Nandini Velho, a PhD student from James Cook University, Australia. Others feel that an interest in nature and its protection is a responsibility that individuals should have, irrespective of an academic credential to back it up with.