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Why My Conservation Colleagues Are Altruistic Patriots

They care about India’s people, the trees, the land, the animals, the rivers…

19/04/2017 2:23 PM IST | Updated 27/04/2017 5:15 PM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Dear conservation colleagues,

I blog in your praise. It is important to publicly laud co-workers when a passionate, earnest and nationally significant body of scientific effort and achievement has been consolidated over two decades. So listen up.

In Karnataka's Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary where Soliga adivasis cultivated millets and harvested gooseberry even as tigers and elephants prowled and lumbered in shrubby surrounds, you combined field research and remote sensing for years. An official non-timber forest produce (NTFP) collection ban in the late 1990s that adversely affected the Soligas was extolled by indifferent conservationists as having increased the population of a gooseberry variant. But from long-term plant population research you demonstrated that it wasn't fruit harvesting but mistletoe and the invasive lantana that reduced gooseberry growth. From your ecological research that engaged with natural historical observations of the Soligas, you formed a hypothesis that forest fires, banned since 1973, facilitated Lantana invasion. Lantana thickets also concealed clan territory and stone deities that were admissible evidence for Soligas to claim community rights under the Forest Rights Act. You counter-mapped Biligiri as a lived and threatened cultural space.

Your research covers those geographies our poet laureate Tagore had invoked reverentially in our national anthem: Ganga, Himalayas, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Dravida... How is that for altruistic patriotism?

In the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, you set up flower traps, camera traps and moist nets in tall tree canopies. You observed and recorded the pollinating roles of lion-tailed macaques, Nilgiri langurs, giant squirrels, giant flying squirrels, Malabar spiny mice, dusky striped squirrels, brown palm civet, bats, and birds. While conservationists typically record living diversity, you sought diversity in death. You sampled roads in and around KMTR for animal mortality before and during an annual temple festival. The revelation that many nocturnal anuran and reptile species were killed on roads made for sad but novel road ecology. And you weren't ones to rest on your laurels. You actually discovered a new species of Lauraceae or the laurel family. You studied the negative biodiversity implications of temples being located in the tiger reserve; you studied the positive biodiversity implications of bats roosting in antiquarian temples located amidst paddy lands.

Along Kerala's coast sits the Vembanad lake, a polluted and over-researched estuary or wetland. Substituting outreach for research, you mobilised and sensitised. Your annual fish count is a conservation case-study. Manifestly, the event efficiently generates data on fish diversity and abundance. But its latent achievement is in getting school children, college students, fisher-folk, media, and teachers to participate collectively as a conservation community.

From Odisha's coast you've generated what is perhaps our most novel output. In a largely academic field where scientific papers are reviewed and read by a few peers, you actually had the graceful audacity to imagine a children's book Turtle Story. In our participative turn, children had never been stakeholders. They now quite often are.

Spaces with trees enjoy legal protection as reserved or protected forests. Conservation is ensured and easy. But I know that your conservation effort in the central Indian grasslands is difficult. Here, the biodiversity threats aren't the chainsaw, gun or plough, but language itself. When you label grasslands as wastelands to easily convert them for development activity, convincing people otherwise becomes the conservationist's burden. For the lesser Indian floricans, wolves and blackbucks of semi-arid Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, weighing the benefits of language change makes more conservation sense than just weighing the costs of climate change.

When you label grasslands as wastelands to easily convert them for development activity, convincing people otherwise becomes the conservationist's burden.

In the Banni grasslands of Gujarat, through long-term monitoring, you have sought to comprehend better the pastoral effects of invasion by Prosopis Juliflora, a woody shrub. But you also seem to be open to the possibilities of Banni having flipped into a novel ecosystem or an unintended woody ecosystem with new plant interactions that no longer depend on humans to thrive.

In the villages at the fringe of the Senchel wildlife sanctuary in the eastern Himalayan region of Darjeeling, you have initiated livelihood efforts ranging from alternative energy to beekeeping. These efforts to reduce forest degradation were simultaneously drudgery-reducing efforts. Converting wood into charcoal was a laborious and unhealthy income-generating pursuit in these villages in the 1990s. You have, in very participative ways, facilitated the switch to alternative energy use. Smokeless chulhas are commonly used today. In neighbouring Sikkim, you have generated an enviably diverse research record including the value of pollination to mandarin oranges, high-altitude limits to amphibians, and climate change impacts on high-altitude Rhododendron-pollinator interactions.

Some of you have fled forests for rivers to study gritty dolphins in the polluted Ganga.

Dear colleagues, do you realise that your research covers those geographies our poet laureate Tagore had invoked reverentially in our national anthem: Ganga, Himalayas, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Dravida (think Biligiri and Kalakad). How is that for altruistic patriotism?

I am not leaving for elsewhere. Not yet. But at the risk of committing a faux pas, it has been great working with you.

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