Call of the wild

The magic wand of wildlife research is literally bringing to life that sleeping beauty called extinct biodiversity - the supposedly disappeared species of yore

By L A K Singh
Published: Thursday 29 February 1996

-- REDISCOVERIES of species is a sure source of jubilation as it indicates that the species is not extinct despite its projected disappearance. And with a spurt in the interest for wildlife studies, examples of rediscoveries are emerging. There are re-entries of wildlife species into the Indian wilderness and addition of first-hand notes on natural history. Yet, there are a few problems which seem to stalk this heartening trend: most wildlife research is becoming byproducts of conservation pursuits.

Wildlife research does not seem very popular with the jobseeking graduates and post-graduates. Besides, almost all good habitats are under the 'Protected Area' network and difficult to negotiate with. Inhospitable areas, 'surveilling eyes' and the absence of definite wildlife research wings in government departments act as further deterrents to potential researchers.

Biodiversity surveys can, of course, help one obtain a more complete picture of the distribution of less studied groups and examine both links and changes in species distribution patterns. The latter is significant in correlating and appreciating impoverished habitats and changing biodiversity values. During the early '70s, with the beginning of the Crocodilian Conservation Programmes, research personnel were inducted into various state forest departments. This saw full-time young wildlife researchers working under the aegis of premier institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), or working part time for projects under the Zoological Survey of India or veterinary institutions of Kerala and Izatnagar in Uttar Pradesh.

A workshop jointly sponsored by the us Fish and Wildlife Service and the Government of India brought together about 100 such people to Kanha, Madhya Pradesh, in 1982. The result: field research stations, field camps, status surveys and above all, "rediscoveries" with natural history notes.

The Cane Turtle (Geoemyda silvatica), now known as Heosemys silvatica, was known from just two specimens from Kerala in 1912. It was rediscovered in 1982, after 70 years. After a lapse of 86 years, Jerdon's or Double-banded Course bird (Cursorius bitorquatus) was rediscovered and photographed near Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh, in 1986. Described from a single specimen collected in 1949, Salim Ali's Fruit Bat (Latidens salimalii) was rediscoverd by the BNHS in 1993.

There are a few instances since the '80s, when important species were noticed by the conservation-community as a result of status surveys. The Great Indian Bustard (Choriotis nigriceps) was brought to the notice of conservation biologists in, many new areas, mainly Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) in Chambal river was not studied during the launching of the Crocodilian Conservation Programme. During the '80s, however, a field camp for the erstwhile Central Crocodile Breeding and Management Training Institute, Hyderabad, was established at Morena in Madhya Pradesh. Only then, besides the gharial, the freshwater turtle, gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica), otter and wetland birds could receive due attention of the conservationists.

In the Indian subcontinent, in fact, most fauna were already known before the 20th century, and their nomenclature histories were recorded in treatises like the Fauna of British India and the Cambridge Natural History in the early '60s. Nevertheless, later, birds were exhaustively dealt with by the late ornithologist Salim Ali and his co-author S Dhillon Ripley. Also, while only 77 amphibian species were reported by 1890, the number has more than doubled now.

Talking about flora, the enumeration of orchids continues to be enlarged and updated. Goodyera thilandica and Malaxis purpurea orchids were discovered in Simlipal, Orissa, in 1980, while Eria meghasanienis is just new to science. The Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union, while choosing the world's 24 most endangered orchids, mentioned about Drury's slipper orchid (Paphiopedolul druryi), which has not been found in its only locality in Kerala since 1972, although its rhizomes or seedlings probably survive.

The Asiatic cheetah (acionyx jubatus jubatus) is thought to be extinct since 1949, after the last three members fell victims to shikaris in the then princely state of Korea in Madhya Pradesh.

It is pertinent to examine the reason for designating a finding as rediscovery. First, there may have been no reference about the species for long; second, during the course of normal faunistic surveys, the species was not recorded; third, despite a long systematic search for a/the particular species, it was not located until the date of rediscovery.

Also, there are instances when facts remain unnoticed because of communication gaps or loss of research findings in a not-too-relevant journal. For example, a few four-horned antelopes, Tetracerus quadricornis, which reside in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, went unmentioned in a 'recent' publication reviewing species distribution and status in the area.

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