Mastering wildlife

A non-governmental organisation starts a post-graduate course on conservation

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Friday 15 October 2004

Mastering wildlife

-- Fourteen students sit clustered together in a room in Bangalore engrossed in animated conversation. They come from streams as diverse as history, biology and zoology, and chemical engineering. But now they are pursuing a common interest: wildlife. Their discussion is peppered with wildlife anecdotes, info-bites and interesting details about the tiger (someone tries to remember the number of tigers the erstwhile kings and princes shot down; umm... did wildlife historian Mahesh Rangarajan write about it?). Of course, with Ullhas Karanth in the room, mention of the tiger is inevitable. Karanth is the undisputed heavyweight of tiger conservation in India. But despite Karanth's presence, the students also debate other questions: How to involve politicians in conservation? Is the local it industry really worth talking to? Is eco-development working in India?

The enthusiastic youngsters are perhaps unaware that they are ushering in a new chapter in wildlife conservation science in India. They comprise the first batch of the Post-Graduate Programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, funded and run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), one of the world's largest conservation outfits. With the earlier bastions of wildlife science such as the Wildlife Institute of India, the Bombay Natural History Society and the Aligarh Muslim University faltering, the new course, the first to be offered by a non-governmental organisation in India, is taking the lead in teaching conservation science.

The course is run in collaboration by a consortium of institutions, individuals and agencies, with the Bangalore-based Centre of Wildlife Studies providing logistical and administrative support. Of course, you need a degree when you graduate, so the course is affiliated to the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, a deemed university. Karanth, who heads the Indian office of wcs, promises, "We shall ensure the institute with time becomes independent of funding."

The course typically is organised into three semesters of coursework and a final semester of field research and thesis preparation. The breadth of the course can be gauged from the fact that the third semester addresses even the historical, social and economic framework within which conservation operates. This is something all other courses teaching wildlife science (but claiming they teach conservation) miss out on.

The course doesn't have a full-time faculty and this turns out to be its strength, according to dean Ajith Kumar, a primatologist of international repute. "Experts from across institutions and affiliations participate, build the curriculum and teach subjects of their interest. This allows flexibility and provides vitality to the course. We get the best to come together," he explains.

Bangalore and its nearby towns host many wildlife experts. For instance, Mysore-based M D Madhusudan, of the Nature Conservation Foundation, who remains in constant touch with Kumar, working on some part of the curriculum, fixing and fine-tuning the syllabus to keep abreast of the latest research. He is one of the leading young researchers who were unable to share their field knowledge and resources with students in other institutions which follow staid systems of teaching. Says Madhusudan, "This course gives us an opportunity to bounce our research and ideas against young and dedicated minds."

To make things systematic, an advisory board of eminent national and international conservationists provides suggestions on important aspects of the course. An executive board of representatives of participant institutions helps take administrative decisions and an academic committee gives advice on the curriculum.

The course will be offered every other year so as not to clash with the master's course at Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India. The course is bound to grow in stature and content with ensuing batches while it holds on firmly to its flexibility of content and management. "If it continues to foster all possible ideologies and perspectives (and there are plenty) on wildlife science as well as conservation it shall lead the debate as well as the practice in the field," says a Bangalore-based senior academic who also collaborates with the curriculum building. The trend is set; it is now for the students and the faculty to build on it.

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