Tender notice for common sense

Published: Friday 29 February 2008

after 30 years of efforts in India to conserve gharials, the country does not have one veterinarian who can conduct a post-mortem to establish the cause of a gharial's death. The animal is found only in India and Nepal. India knows about as much as its neighbour about the cause of over 90 gharial deaths in two months in the Chambal river.

The first death was reported in early December. The forest department conducted autopsy after mindless autopsy, followed by funerals, as required for a Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act. There was no let up in procedures. But the cause of death remains unknown, though symptoms were the same in each case. Indian scientists do not have any baseline data to compare dead and live gharials, so they are resorting to comparisons with Chinese alligators. This is comparable to a physician testing a human patient against standards set for an ape. In such situations, standards and baseline data must be extremely species specific. So what are we doing at this grave juncture to generate such data?

Foreign vets, called in for advice, asked for a study on a live gharial to generate some baseline data. This would mean killing one gharial. The Wildlife Protection Act does not permit any killing of Schedule I species. The procedure is paramount, common sense the primary victim. So the vets have been allowed to take blood samples from live animals, irrespective of the fact that blood tests are not the need of the hour.

The union government has formed a Crisis Management Group of state forest departments, wildlife ngo s, and premier veterinary and wildlife research institutes of India. The group's focus is establishing the disease that is killing the gharials, which may or may not be the right approach. Its decisions and priorities are based on what it does not know. Forest officials' trite calls for additional money have gotten shrill. But wildlife activists who demand commando forces be deployed in India's forests for protection of biodiversity have not demanded a similar urgency on the scientific side. Perhaps they'll like the river to be fenced.

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