That Hunted Feeling

Our best biologists are being hounded and maligned so venal forest officials can keep their dirty secrets secret
That Hunted Feeling
That Hunted Feeling
Tiger biologist Dr Raghunandan Chundawat is desperate to return to the wild. Particularly to the dry deciduous forest of Madhya Pradesh's Panna Tiger Reserve. The site where he conducted the first and longest study in our conservation history, from 1995 to 2004, of strengthening tiger ecology in a dry forest; the most extensive tiger habitat in India and also the most vulnerable. But even in the current tiger crisis, Dr Chundawat is barred from entering Panna TR as a researcher, his application for continued research ignored by the MP forest department since February 2005.

His crime? Scientific certainty. "We documented the loss of nine breeding tigers, almost the entire breeding population of Panna, plus 21 young adult tigers," he says. His misdemeanour? "Showing this evidence to the director, Project Tiger." The result? Official action, not against poachers, but against the scientist. Chundawat's research vehicle and radio-telemetry equipment were seized (then returned). A case for recovering Rs 1,80,000 as elephant hire charges was filed with three-year retrospective effect. This, despite a fee waiver in writing. Then, he was implicated in an inquiry against a BBC crew for night filming, "though we were accompanied by officials," says Chundawat. Not only that, he is also barred from the high tables of policymaking. "These cases were used to discredit and prevent his inclusion in a nodal national wildlife committee," says a senior government source.

Chundawat's is not an extreme example. Nor is it isolated. It's just the system striking back at researchers who expose bureaucratic corruption, mismanagement and the nexus between officials and poachers and timber and mining mafias.

Dr Raghunandan Chundawat Senior Wildlife Biologist
ACHIEVEMENTS Conducted longest tiger study in Indian history;fellow, Smithsonian Institute;Tiger Gold Award winner
STATUS: Denied entry for tiger study,inquiry on night filming

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Like the 13 cases of "criminal trespass" filed by the Karnataka forest department against 18 conservationists and researchers, including three eminent scientists. Their crime, allegedly committed 1-3 years ago? Collecting credible data on the impact of environmentally hazardous mining in Kudremukh National Park (KNP) on Bhadra river. In 2002, the Supreme Court instructed the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company to stop mining in the park by 2005. And to pay the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) Rs 25 crore as compensation. The outcome, two years later? The 13 cases of trespass that have been stayed by the higher courts.

Outlook has a list documenting 30 such cases of monetary, mental and physical harassment of wildlife researchers by state forest departments and the central ministry. "What we're seeing is the retarding of biology in India," says Mahesh Rangarajan, environmental historian and author of Battles Over Biology.

So deep is the fear of official persecution that most researchers, irrespective of their seniority, refuse to speak on record. Their responses range from the paranoid "Are you recording me?" and the petrified "Don't give me away, I'll never get my Ph.D." to the pathetic "We'll talk, call us in a few years". A few years? The diplomacy is dismissed and forest officials called "terrorists" and "tinpot dictators" only after you close your reporter's diary. The stories of harassment include research permission denials to punitive fees in lakhs for whistle-blowing (see box).

Presently, the MoEF and its state counterparts have total authority over at least 20 per cent of our land area. Only they can grant scientific study permits. These wild habitats are also the only laboratories where wildlife biologists can research. Yet permissions are being denied or withdrawn even to globally recognised institutes like the Bombay Natural History Society, the internationally-affiliated Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), even the Wildlife Institute of India, funded by the MoEF.

Presently, the MoEF grants permissions for trapping, radio collaring or tagging any Schedule 1 species for research. The rest come from state forest departments. Says S.K. Chadha, joint director, wildlife, MoEF: "We want studies that fit our priority areas, not research for pure scientific purposes." Counters Rangarajan: "Scientists don't have to have all the answers. But they do have the right to ask questions."

And today, there are serious questions confronting Indian wildlife. How do we scientifically count our tigers? How do we save the Indian rock python? Where have the sparrows gone? India is home to 10,000 species of flora, 12,000 species of birds and 500 species of mammals, many of which are unstudied and near extinction.

Conservation begins with information. And our data pool is pitifully shallow. Says Dr Ravi Chellam, UNDP's programme officer (sustainable environment & energy): "To manage, you need credible information, which scientists provide." But in India, even tigers and elephants are inadequately studied, forget frogs and insects. Each year, the World Conservation Union's red list adds species to its threatened lists, and classifies many declining species in India as "data deficient".

Dave Ferguson of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) calls India a "magnet for conservation", the largest South Asian country with the most important and largest concentrations of plant and wildlife. USFWS has been a major research funder in India since 1970. Says Ferguson: "Wildlife and conservation are non-political subjects, offering a common ground for working on issues that affect us all."

But even if politicians want action, the officials don't act. This March, besides tigers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drew attention to our vanishing vultures. The MoEF co-funds the Vulture Care Centre in Pinjore, Haryana. Claims an MoEF spokesperson: "We are giving full cooperation." But delayed permissions this year have resulted in the loss of one season for capturing vultures.

There's no forum for relief. Valmik Thapar, member, Tiger Task Force, accused by the CBI of poaching, says this "hound, harass and malign" method has long been used "to keep scientists in the second rung of wildlife bodies".

A knowledge lag persists, at policy and individual level. Protesting that there isn't a single chapter devoted to research in the Wildlife Protection Act, Dr Ullas Karanth, conservation scientist, WCS, says, "Laws to deter criminals are applied to curb researchers, who fight vested interests like mining, logging and corruption in protected areas." Like was done with Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy, fellow with environmental research trust ATREE, whose study of the impact of mining on the sediment discharge into the Bhadra river contributed to the KNP ruling. His study discontinued, Krishnaswamy has "lost almost two years of data". Forest officials have cooperated but one vindictive officer seems to have gone gunning for him.

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Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Fellow, ATREE
ACHIEVEMENTS: BTech IIT; PhD in environmental science, Duke University; author of 20 scientific papers and presentations
STATUS: ‘Criminal trespasser ’in case filed by Karnataka forest department

The Wildlife Protection Act classifies scientists in the same category as hunters, who have to be given permits to trap animals for studies. Says Rauf Ali, senior wildlife biologist with NGO FERAL: "Today if I see a new species of butterfly in our country, I need permission to collect it. We've killed taxonomy, the science of classification."

Without biological knowledge there's bureaucratic chaos. On seeking permission to collect frogs, a researcher was instructed to collect just one male and one female specimen: "But with many frog species, you can only determine the sex after dissection." Says another scientist: "A forest department vet wanted 100 ml blood sample from a slender loris that was being radio-collared. The poor creature has only 150 ml of blood!"

The need of the century is reconciliation ecology. Senior forest officer Pramod Kant recognises this: "From being forest guards protecting jewels, we must become librarians who invite people for learning." If Kant's idea takes hold, civil society can once again contribute to conserving our wildlife with biologists. Like naturalist Billy Arjan Singh gave us Dudhwa National Park. Rahmani and Ranjitsinh helped save the Great Indian Bustard in MP's Karera. Nature writer M. Krishnan contributed to the conservation of Tamil Nadu's Pichavaram mangrove wetland.

But as biologists get locked out of their living labs, their freedom to study bound and gagged by the bureaucracy, the science and India's wilderness will decline.

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