Lives of others
BEYOND USUAL SUSPECTS
A case for neglected species in wildlife research and conservation
For most of us wildlife is represented by large mammals like elephant, rhino, lion and tiger, may be birds like hornbill, raptors, peafowl and waterfowl and awe inspiring reptiles like marine turtles, crocodiles, python and king cobra. The fact is that wildlife ranges from very small insects to gigantic trees and from coral polyps to whales. Unfortunately, only a very small number of species have received attention of researchers and conservationists. While charismatic species largely drive the conservation scenario, they also seem to be the focus of wildlife research mainly because of the availability of funds and the role of charismatic species in setting our wildlife policies.
Mammals, birds and plants are among the better studied groups in India. This generally means we have better information on the distribution, ecology and conservation status of these species, knowledge vital to conserve them and their habitats in a rapidly changing world filled with numerous and emerging threats. Even among these better studied species, research and conservation attention is not even. For instance, rodents, bats, aquatic mammals, small cats and marine mammals are poorly studied compared to elephants and large cats. This is the pattern with birds also; aquatic birds, pheasants and raptors have received much of the research attention.
Inadequate research results in poor knowledge and understanding of species and more often than not several species are hurtling towards extinction even before they are described and properly understood. A good example are land snails, the largest group of animals after arthropods, constituting about six per cent of the species that have been described so far. This group has the largest number of documented extinctions worldwide. In India about 1,130 species have been described but very little is known about their taxonomy, distribution, ecology and population biology; knowledge vital to plan for their conservation.
IUCN through its Species Survival Commission and various Species Specialists Groups has been preparing the Red List which has a statement on the conservation status of species worldwide. Despite much effort only about 2.5 per cent of the 1.8 million scientifically described species have been assessed.
Of these a fairly high number are categorised as data deficient because of severe paucity of information to assess their conservation status.
The IUCN process is an international process which draws upon expertise from all over the world. The Indian conservation scenario can benefit from a more structured approach. We need to adapt the IUCN process to our national conditions and invest in commissioning scientists, researchers, conservationists and wildlife managers to undertake assessments of wild species throughout India. About 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the species found in India are data deficient. This clearly does not portend well when all our wildlife and their habitats are under constant threat from human actions.
We have a queer situation in India today as many new species are being described (especially taxa like amphibians and spiders) but the required follow up study to assess their conservation status is not there. For many species in India even basic data on their natural history and distribution is lacking.
It is time the environment ministry collaborated with scientists and conservationists to start a process of national red listing of species, a systematic conservation assessment of all species occurring in the wild across India.
This should be done on a periodic basis, say every three or four years, so that there is real time data for planning and implementing conservation projects. The findings should be linked to listing species in the Schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act to ensure legal protection for a species is based on an objective assessment of its conservation status. This should attract researchers and conservationists to generate real time data on the hundreds of neglected species. Hopefully, this will enable better understanding and conservation of India’s wildlife.