The endangered wildlife biologist
INDIAN universities and research institutes today are becoming far more open to foreign capital, ideas and knowledge than in the past, with new collaborations being fostered between Indian and foreign universities for developing curricula and courses in science. These developments are welcome: they are likely to increase cross-fertilization of ideas, bring in fresh expertise and hopefully challenge our rather complacent scientists to improve the quality of their research.
Unfortunately, even as some streams of the sciences such as information technology and biotechnology are opening up to new ideas, the same cannot be claimed for knowledge streams significant for biodiversity conservation: ecology and wildlife biology. Rather a number of developments in the central Ministry of Environment and Forests and state forest departments together seem to be gradually reducing the access of Indian and foreign biologists working in the area of ecology to their objects of study – wild species of flora and fauna and the ecosystems they inhabit.1
Given the declining forest cover and quality of habitat outside wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in India (henceforth referred to together as protected areas or PAs), there is a paucity of sites that are sufficiently protected from human use and, therefore, suitable for biological studies. Consequently, most biologists need to work at least partially in PAs. However, in order to work inside PAs, formal written permits are required from the state forest department for specific activities and time periods.
Research permits to work inside protected areas have never been easy to obtain. The rules so far dictate that researchers should write to the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state in which his/her study area lies, who then asks for the comments of the forest officer in charge of the relevant protected area on the research proposal before granting or refusing a permit. Even now, when the procedure is somewhat simpler, permits can take several months to be sanctioned. Moreover, permits for wildlife research are extremely difficult to obtain if the fieldwork involves capture of animals (even harmless), manipulation of habitat for experimental purposes, or observations at night.
The new guidelines on wildlife research promulgated by the central Ministry of Environment and Forests in August 2006,2 soon to be enacted as law, are likely to make the process of issue of permits even more complicated and time-consuming than it has been. Now each proposal will need to go through an additional expert committee that is expected to meet only every four months, further delaying permit approvals. Since ecological research is subject to stringent seasonal schedules, delays in data collection by even a few months can result in loss of data for an entire year due to the failure of schedules that require observations at specific times of the year. In cases of research requiring capture of animal species listed in Schedule I, separate authorization is now required from two other divisions within the Ministry of Environment and Forests, apart from the relevant state’s Chief Wildlife Warden.
Such restrictions effectively exclude types of research methodology that sometimes are the only way to validate certain ecological hypotheses. For instance, accurate estimation of population density of any animal species requires capture, marking, subsequent release of animals and finally, recaptures. Since permits for capture are rarely granted, most researchers have to be satisfied with purely observational methodologies involving visual counting of individual animals. Such a restrictive concern would be understandable in the case of endangered species, but the same blanket rules even apply to species whose populations are unlikely to be affected by accidental death or injury.
Take another example. Studying the impact of annual anthropogenic fires on forest trees and shrubs might involve setting fire to small plots of forest/grassland and studying the effects after some months through observations and measurements on plants. Such experiments require repetition for at least a few years if statistically viable samples are to be generated. It is almost impossible to get a permit for such activity, even though such manipulation is often otherwise undertaken within protected areas for management purposes. Such field experiments, where allowed, have led to important insights for management in the past, such as a study of the spread of grass species unpalatable to ungulates due to a prevalent fire control practice.3 A similar study in central India revealed that the use of fire by local villagers for facilitating collection of commercial forest produce, such as mahua flowers and tendu leaves, can significantly decrease growth rates and increase mortality of tree saplings.4
Thus the range of methods used and, consequently, even the research questions that can be asked by wildlife researchers, are to a large extent dependent on the managers of the sanctuary or national park concerned. It is somewhat unfortunate that the principal work of scientists – to independently decide research questions, formulate hypotheses and develop methodologies best-suited for asking that question – is governed, to a large extent, by bureaucrats .
If Indian biologists face such restrictions in their own country, one can well imagine the difficulties if they were to seek collaboration with foreign scientists. Up to eleven different clearances need to be obtained from several different government departments including environment, human resources (education), home affairs, defence and external affairs before a foreigner can be issued a research visa for field studies. Such clearances are routinely held up for months, leading not only to delay but frequently, abandonment of the project. It is not surprising that there are just a handful of research projects that are today being undertaken with a foreign collaborator in India. A recent documentation of the 41 protected areas in the state of Maharashtra reveals that not even one has ever hosted any research with foreign collaboration.5 The majority of PAs have in fact hosted very little research apart from the annual census of carnivores and ungulates by the park managers themselves.
In contrast, other developing countries such as Nepal and Uganda have hosted several wildlife research projects that have been designed and implemented in collaboration with foreign universities. In Nepal, the twenty-year old involvement of the Smithsonian Institution, United States National Zoological Park and Worldwide Fund for Nature in the ecological study and conservation of the one-horned rhinoceros has significantly enhanced understanding of the ecological needs of this highly endangered mammal. The study led to scientific reintroduction of the rhinoceros in its old habitats. Alongside, the project also created capacity for conservation among local biologists and park managers.6
In Uganda, Thomas Struhsaker, a pioneering primatologist from the United States, enlisted scores of Ugandan and foreign students to undertake research on a wide variety of subjects ranging from insect diversity to behaviour of primate species in the country’s rainforests. In this process, between 1970 and 1988, Struhsaker helped create a capable cadre of biologists and foresters who today are independently carrying forward the long-term research programme initiated by him.7 His interventions led, among other things, to the establishment of the 766 sq km Kibale National Park, a prominent wildlife research and tourism hub in Uganda today.
Governmental restrictions are not just confined to environmental research. Foreign researchers in social sciences (often holders of prestigious scholarships), routinely face difficulties in getting clearances from a host of governmental departments, ostensibly due to the ‘sensitive’ nature of their subject. Indian researchers, therefore, are being deprived of valuable scientific exchanges and collaborations which are vital for improving the quality of research and competing with the best in the world. It appears that we haven’t progressed very far since the 1970s when Kailash Sankhala, erstwhile Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, ‘killed’ a valuable opportunity to establish a scientific field station in Corbett Tiger Reserve in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution for fear of allowing unfettered access to foreign biologists.
In addition, ecologists and field biologists are increasingly being called upon to explain the applicability of their research to the management of the protected area that they are working in. Even before the new guidelines were formulated, more than one ecologist was faced with the question: What good is your research for management of this sanctuary? What is the point of documenting the species of butterflies found in a forest? Is it not a waste of time tracking herds of wild bison for hours together with no other purpose than to record their feeding habits? This author has recently been asked these questions, independently, by the chief wildlife wardens of two different states, indicating that such concerns have become of paramount importance in decisions regarding research permits.
The new guidelines stress that preference will be given to research that has visible and immediate implications for management of protected areas. In so limiting the research agenda, our forest managers ignore history. There are innumerable examples of seemingly irrelevant research turning out to be valuable for management much after it was undertaken. For instance, observations on the occurrence of trees, mammals, birds and amphibians in the Western Ghats by numerous scholars over more than fifty years, is today allowing an assessment of the protected area network in this global biodiversity hotspot.8 As another example, research on the relationship between tigers and ungulate density, established through years of focused study, helped establish benchmarks for evaluating tiger reserves.9 Unlike what the new guidelines state, there is a need to study the ecology, behaviour and evolution of various animal groups, at a minimum, if one is to understand how best to conserve them in their natural habitat.
Further, many management-oriented questions cannot be addressed without access to well-protected ecosystems that can be used as ‘control’ sites. For instance, long-term studies on rainforest birds in the mosaic of coffee plantations and protected rainforest fragments in the Annamalai Hills have led to specific recommendations on how to manage coffee for maximal biodiversity.10 Comparison of habitats facing specific anthropogenic disturbance with strictly protected habitats in terms of diversity and function enables protected area planning to be more rigorous and information-based.11
While access to protected areas is rarely easy for any Indian researcher, the process tends to get smoother if one is working for a government sponsored research institute or project. So far, this preferential approach to government sponsored research was just a rumour, though felt strongly by biologists. But the new guidelines actually institutionalize these double standards by stating that scientists working on projects funded by the MoEF or other governmental departments such as the Botanical Survey of India will enjoy priority in obtaining research permits. Researchers from governmental institutions more frequently receive permission for manipulative and nocturnal research techniques. Often they also get preferential treatment over matters that may seem mundane to many, such as access to accommodation inside a protected area. This is a disturbing trend, implying that in future, independent researchers may have even less access to wild areas.
There is no obvious basis for differentiating between government-sponsored and independent research. To verify the scientific credentials of independent researchers one only has to scan the internet to look at publications in peer-reviewed international journals, lists of research grants obtained, or participation in academic conferences. Peer review is an internationally accepted process that weeds out low quality research and improves the process of knowledge creation. In fact, several non-governmental research organizations working in the field of wildlife conservation are undertaking high quality research, of relevance not only to management but also helpful in hands-on implementation.12 In a free and democratic society, there is an important role for independent research along with government-sponsored research that can act as a counter balance to occasional vested interests.
Facilitating independent researchers inside protected areas should be seen as a positive development rather than a hindrance to forest management. Frequently, researchers report on facts related to poaching, illegal timber smuggling, occurrence of weedy invasive species or presence of rare wildlife, thereby helping managements. Consequently, there is a need to foster dialogue and interaction of forest managers with researchers, rather than treat them as unwelcome outsiders. Both researchers and forest staff can learn from each other’s experiences, both on and off-field.
The bottom line is that knowledge production systems, both state-sponsored and independent, seem to be under attack from the government. A disturbing trend of marginalizing independent researchers and even making them subservient to the needs of the government is clearly visible. Government denial to researchers wanting to study biology for biology’s sake can be construed as the denial of the fundamental rights of a citizen of India who wishes to access the rich library of knowledge hidden away in our protected areas.
Undoubtedly there is a strong case for curbing irresponsible, destructive research in protected areas, given their fragile status and the intense human pressure that they face. It is necessary to check illegal transfer of genetic diversity outside the country through effective enforcement mechanisms. However, for this to happen it is necessary to build capacity within the forest department so that it can judge scientists and their research output.
There are ways in which the currently dismal state of affairs can be slowly rectified. First, it is necessary to inculcate a more scientific mindset among the guardians of our forests and wildlife. If only bureaucrats could understand researchers better, they would be far more welcoming of researchers working in their respective areas as also take advantage of the knowledge created by them. One solution could be to encourage the forest department to fund research (particularly on management issues) by academic institutions and independent researchers via an open and transparent scientific review system. There is no reason why individuals, universities (both foreign and Indian) and research institutions (both private and government) cannot compete for these funds and for the right to conduct research.
Another mechanism would be for universities and research organizations to enter into official agreements with state governments that would enable access to specific protected areas for research for a certain period of time. This way, both basic and applied research can be carried out to the benefit of both parties. These agreements can be periodically revised depending on the performance of the institution as well as that of the forest department.
Further, each PA should have affordable living facilities available to researchers. Currently even the largest of PAs do not have assured accommodation for researchers. There are numerous cases of researchers having to move from their accommodation at short notice, often in order to accommodate a visiting VIP, little realizing that most of them work on a shoestring budget that does not allow stay in tourist resorts and hotels even for short periods.
Rules governing access to researchers should be clear-cut, well-publicized, transparent and uniformly imposed so that there is no scope for abuse by researchers or mistreatment by park managements. While the new guidelines make it possible for researchers to avail of free entry into PAs and a waiver from vehicular charges, there are other issues that are not so clear-cut. For instance, entry into PAs during tourist off-season, charges for accommodation to be levied on researchers and types of transport that can be used inside the PA, are still non-uniform and unclear. These rules need to be clearly defined and publicized in each PA via the internet so that they can be considered while drawing up research plans and budgets. Day-to-day ‘policing’ of researchers has to be given up – such as the recent requirement to report on the areas of a reserve being visited on a given day.13 Researchers cannot be treated as intruders; they deserve respect as knowledge-creators and thinkers.
There are numerous instances of permits being withdrawn without sufficient reason of misdemeanour. The latest is the withdrawal of a research permit to study king cobras using radio telemetry by the herpetologist Romulus Whitaker on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations made in April 2007. Whitaker’s international reputation in his field of study, and his contribution to reptile conservation in India, is unmatched. By withdrawing his permit the government has dealt a severe blow to scientific enterprise in this country. Such incidents can be prevented in future by having more independent scientists on board the technical advisory panel that is constituted for reviewing research proposals and by adopting a transparent procedure for such evaluations.
Even government scientists, who today undertake much of the research inside PAs, require more autonomy to carry out research and monitoring tasks with credibility and transparency. The recent tiger crisis in 2005, made worse by the misreporting of tiger numbers, was a direct result of secretive attitudes. Secrecy is the anti-thesis of science; all results and methodologies have to be exposed to public scrutiny and debate. By the same token, scientists working inside PAs should be required to present their research to park managers on a regular basis. In fact, state forest departments should organize annual research seminars where researchers could present their findings and also be involved in open discussions on the important management and socio-economic questions facing the area.
Above all, we need to encourage collaborative research with foreign universities and institutions to improve and upgrade the quality of wildlife research in our country. Many countries require that a foreign researcher work with a local counterpart at a university or a research institute. All publications emerging out of the research are then jointly undertaken. These are effective ways to ensure that the benefits of research reach the country in question and that there is no illegal removal of genetic material or data. The process for research visas has to be simplified so that foreign collaborations can be fostered and encouraged. The number of individuals entering India for research purposes is so pitifully low that it is easy to monitor and check any illegal activities within PAs. A ceiling can be imposed on the number of foreign collaborative projects to be allowed in a given state during a given year, if human resource for monitoring and enforcement of rules is a constraint.
In an age of rapid globalization and instant communication, can we afford to be so xenophobic and anti-science? We need to get our necks out of the sand and move ahead with the rest of the world.
* I am grateful to Mahesh Rangarajan and Abi Tamim Vanak for their useful comments which helped to improve this article.
1. M.D. Madhusudan, K. Shanker, A. Kumar, C. Mishra, A. Sinha, R. Arthur, A. Datta, M. Rangarajan, R. Chellam, G. Shahabuddin, R. Sankaran, M. Singh, U. Ramakrishnan and P.D. Rajan, ‘Science in the Wilderness: The Predicament of Scientific Research in India’s Wildlife Reserves’, Current Science 91(8), 26 October 2006, 1015-1019.
3. M. Sankaran, ‘Fire, Grazing and the Dynamics of Tall-Grass Savannas in the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, South India’, Conservation and Society 3(1), 2005, 4-25.
4. S. Saha and H.F. Howe, ‘Stature of Juvenile Trees in Response to Anthropogenic Fires in a Tropical Deciduous Forest of Central India’, Conservation and Society 4(4), 2006, 619-627.
5. P. Pande, National Parks and Sanctuaries in Maharashtra. Reference Guide (Volume II. Individual profile and management status). Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, 2005, p. 531.
6. E. Dinerstein, The Return of the Unicorns. The Natural History and Conservation of the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros. Columbia University Press, New York, 2003.
7. T.T. Struhsaker, Ecology of an African Rain Forest: Logging in Kibale and the Conflict Between Conservation and Exploitation. University Press of Florida, 1997.
8. A. Das, J. Krishnaswamy, K.S. Bawa, M.C. Kiran, V. Srinivas, N. Samba Kumar, K.U. Karanth, ‘Prioritization of Conservation Areas in the Western Ghats, India’, Biological Conservation 133(1), 2006, 16-31.
9. See K.U. Karanth, James D. Nichols, N. Samba Kumar, William A. Link and James E. Hines, ‘Tigers and Their Prey: Predicting Carnivore Densities From Prey Abundance’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(14), 2004, 4854-4858.
10. T.R. Shankar Raman, ‘Effects of Habitat Structure and Adjacent Habitats on Birds in Tropical Rainforest Fragments and Shaded Plantations in the Western Ghats, India’, Biodiversity and Conservation 15(4), 2006, 1577-1607.
11. G. Shahabuddin and R. Kumar, ‘Influence of Anthropogenic Disturbance on Birds of Tropical Dry Forest: the Role of Vegetation Structure’, Animal Conservation 9, 2006, 404-413. Also, C.A. Garcia and J.P. Pascal, ‘Sacred Forests of Kodagu: Ecological Value and Social Role’, in G. Cederlof and K. Sivaramakrishna (eds.), Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihoods and Identities in South Asia. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005.
12. For instance, see papers in G. Shahabuddin and M. Rangarajan (eds.), Making Conservation Work: Securing Biodiversity in This New Century. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007.
13. However, this rule is rarely implemented, to the credit of most park managers and many ad hoc exceptions are made for scientists.