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The long road to field research

Getting permission for research on a particular species can take several monthsin some cases, more than a yearto arrive

Turtles are smuggled either for food or to be kept as pets.
Turtles are smuggled either for food or to be kept as pets.

News on species threatened with extinction is now commonplace. Wildlife conservationists believe that populations of several mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, birds and plants are plummeting. The list of endangered species in India has increased significantly—from 13 species in the 1950s to 988 now.

In 2014, the WWF, an international non-governmental organization, stated that the world’s wildlife population had declined by 52% since 1970; the figure is estimated to touch 67% by 2020.

Ironically, though, wildlife researchers worldwide are finding it difficult to obtain permission from authorities to assess the status of threatened species in the wild. There continues to be a lack of data on ecology, distribution and population on most of these species.

The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, divides endangered species into four schedules according to the perceived threat level. Schedule I species are accorded the highest protection.

If a researcher wants to study and collect biological samples from a species listed in Schedule I (Fishing cat, Bengal florican, gharial are some examples), a research proposal has to be submitted to the chief wildlife warden of the state concerned. The proposal is evaluated by a technical committee chaired by the warden and then forwarded to the director (wildlife), Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEF&CC). On getting the go-ahead, the warden issues permission for a stipulated period.

According to wildlife biologists, getting permission for research on a particular species can take several months—in some cases, more than a year. It can be extremely difficult for novice researchers, especially those based far away from the state capital (where the office of the chief wildlife warden is located), to pursue their case.

In February, at the 3rd Indian Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Strategic Conservation, Action Planning Meeting and Red-list Assessment Workshop, a few experts voiced their discontent at the proposal to upgrade more turtle species to Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Even as turtle species continue to be traded illegally, fuelling fears of their numbers plummeting, concerns about getting permits to study them are mounting.

Delay or denial of permission for scientific studies is not new. In 2006, many well-known wildlife conservation scientists got together to write a paper, Science In The Wilderness: The Predicament Of Scientific Research In India’s Wildlife Reserves, in the journal Current Science. “India’s wildlife reserves are important ‘living laboratories’...there is a disturbing trend across India where scientists are increasingly denied access to wildlife reserves for scientific research or are seriously impeded, without scope for redress.... With no enabling legislative or policy framework to promote and apply science in our wildlife reserves, we are concerned that the future of many scientific disciplines in India is being jeopardized," the study stated.

In January, Union environment minister Anil Madhav Dave requested scientists serving on different committees not to seek more field studies (such as biodiversity assessment), since this could further delay various development and infrastructure projects. The news came as a dampener for the wildlife conservation community and there are apprehensions of a clampdown on future research permits.

The issue is not restricted to India. Last week, a friend at Charles University, Prague, emailed me a science paper with an unusual title—Assessing Biodiversity: A Pain In The Neck, published in the journal Bionomina. Ivan Löbl, an entomologist associated with the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, wrote, “The chance to assess further vast areas of unknown species, which are estimated to exceed the number of all known ones by four to five times, is now decreasing significantly, just as are the chances to provide new hard data potentially useful for conservation issues.... At present, sampling a bumble bee for study is condemned, while planting exotic lime trees that permanently kill bumble bees is not a matter worthy of criticism."

In 2013, two American scientists, Ellen Paul and Robert Sikes, also criticized the US federal and state governments for delays in issuing permits. “Even the most experienced wildlife biologists have trouble ascertaining which permits are required for any given research study. Management of research permits is time-consuming and can be vexing. Some even find it distressful." In a paper titled Wildlife Researchers Running The Permit Maze, they wrote about how permits for wildlife research had become unavoidable burdens for wildlife biologists.

A chief wildlife warden, who requests anonymity, says the government needs to look into developing “easier and balanced procedures". A wildlife biologist who works on the conservation of Schedule I species says there is a need for better mechanisms for constant engagement and monitoring between the forest department and research personnel.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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