The elephant is a large animal

Wildlife research in India is primitive and fails to live up to the crisis of conservation

Published: Tuesday 30 June 1998

If wildlife research and management in India was indeed a cartoon film, this would be about time when antics of the scientific community and the wildlife bureaucracy, just stopped being funny. So far they have been going around in circles, falling over and bumping into each other without one paying attention to the other.

Once again Indian wildlife research scientists stuck on their myopic magnifying glasses and met in New Delhi to discuss which plant and animal species need to be saved, but failed to provide a researched and considered solution to that million-rupee question plaguing conservation in India: how can these species be saved? The level of input given by wildlife science to conservation in this country can at best be called library decoration; at worst irrelevant, biased and backward.

The "scientifically correct" workshop, part of the Bio-diversity Conservation Prioritisation Project (bcpp) initiated in November 1995 by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, was solemnly going about its business of setting priorities for biodiversity conservation in India, when one of the partici-pants asked a question : a similar exercise of listing important sites was carried out in 1988, and areas that needed priority conservation measures had been listed. Nothing had come out of the exercise. Why should this current exercise be different? Nobody had an answer, of course.

At a time when the entire "hands-off nature, people-out-of-national-parks" conservationist approach taken by the country seems to be failing and needs urgent scientific attention, the scientists continue to hide in their library cupboards, and seemed to be stuck on the micro rather than the macro. In other countries and continents, the scientific community has long since started to show scientific objectivity and record the impact of human needs rather than just grudgingly acknow-ledge that they exist. The workshop itself fleetingly touched upon the need to understand the perceptions, knowledge and priorities of the local community, and its relationship with the ecosystem was emphasised. Ironically, however, none of the scientific papers presented made an effort to document and understand these interactions, or offered a method on how to include people and make them an integral part of conservation and management strategy.

People-animal conflicts in India are now old hat. Everybody who is anybody in conservation is talking about whether the Gujjars, for example, should or should not be allowed to continue their nomadic lifestyle in Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh. The scientific community in India has strong personal opinions on the matter, but professional, studied and considered opinions backed by facts and statistics - scientific opinions - are in short supply. Surely, having solid, fact-based opinions on human-animal interactions is now a biodiversity conservation priority.

The record of wildlife research in this country in dealing with conservation emergencies is not good. When homeless elephants tried to drive home their point to the national media by trampling over humans and crops in Bihar and West Bengal, the voice of the scientific community, when they whispered together, was, to borrow words, like wind in dry grass and rats feet over broken glass. The elephants, to give them due credit, were not trying to make a local point - they were acting for elephants across the country who would be forced to kill many more human beings as they find themselves similarly marooned in small pockets which cannot sustain them. This will soon be a national problem. No national solution has been identified by the scientific community.

The tiger is on the verge of extinction. That, it seems, is the sum total of the knowledge we have on this glamorous symbol of India's fauna. Millions of dollars and a much extolled Project Tiger later, we know that the tiger is on the verge of extinction. It has not tickled the fancy of one scientific mind in the country to find out what went wrong with Project Tiger. With no lessons learnt but many more dollars allocated, the conservation plans blunder on.

Part of the problem maybe that the scientific minds in the country cannot see socio-economic realities as they peer down at sacred nature through their glasses. At the bccp workshop, for example, one of the premier research minds in the country, with years of experience, gave the following reasons for conserving nature - the rights of living organisms, and the fact that "sacred life" provides an "elevating experience" for all people. Unfortunately, the world turned big and bad since the last time he looked up from his microscope. Another part of the problem is that at a time when the world is busy tearing out its hair at the extinction problem, a vast chasm exists between science and management practices in the country.

As scientists make daisy chains and talk about sacred and dainty nature, the forest service is taking matters into its own burly hands and dealing with them as badly as they can. They scorn wildlife research as an "academic exercise". No attempt has been made to build a bridge across these cross-purposes.

Conservation in India is in crisis. A crisis needs presence of mind. We already have a list of priority areas that have been listed as National Parks. We have not been able to find a way to save them. And if the wildlife research community does not wake up now and become truly scientific, they might as well keep on sleeping. But we can kiss the tiger goodbye.

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