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Turning the Page in Wildlife Science

A majority of Indian wildlife scientists are unable to come together to create a united front to add a much-needed conservation focus to policymaking. In an age when we are trying to balance development with protection of forest areas, wildlife biologists need to actively respond to and engage with situations where the wildlife and conservation angles need to be highlighted. They should make the effort to translate science into policy in conjunction with the bureaucracy and actively work towards creating a much-needed platform for collaboration.


Turning the Page in Wildlife Science

Conservation Biology and Bureaucracy

Nandini Velho, Meghna Krishnadas, Sachin Sridhara, Umesh Srinivasan

of an academic career sometimes make it onerous for a scientist to pursue the long trail towards systemic action. Sometimes, it may not even be possible to do so, as the study may not have an applied component. However, a redefi ning of the boundary encompassing wildlife science and action in India is now essential. This is particularly important in a

A majority of Indian wildlife scientists are unable to come together to create a united front to add a much-needed conservation focus to policymaking. In an age when we are trying to balance development with protection of forest areas, wildlife biologists need to actively respond to and engage with situations where the wildlife and conservation angles need to be highlighted. They should make the effort to translate science into policy in conjunction with the bureaucracy and actively work towards creating a much-needed platform for collaboration.

Nandini Velho ( is with the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia and also with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Meghna Krishnadas and Umesh Srinivasan are with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Sachin Sridhara is with the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012

recent article by the authors in this journal (“Turning the Page in Forest Governance: Science and Bureaucracy”, EPW, 10 December 2011) highlighted the need for the forest bureaucracy and wildlife scientists to liaise actively to ensure better forest governance, pointing out how the forest bureaucracy often made it diffi cult for independent scientists to engage meaningfully with them. To highlight the other side of the story, as it were, we would like to present how the reverse is just as true – many in the wildlife science community in India are resistant to working productively with the forest bureaucracy as peers, preferring to remain aloof from real world conservation issues, and unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue for change. Strangely, however, at the same time, almost every wildlife scientist has an opinion on the practice of conservation (whether by the forest department or other scientists), that they presume stems from their objectivity as practitioners of science. We argue that wildlife scientists need to realise that science is but one cog in the wheel of conservation practice. Scientists need to make the effort to translate science into policy in conjunction with the bureaucracy, and actively work towards creating that much-needed platform for collaboration.

The Insular World of Scientists

Scientists often live in an insular world within the boundaries of their academic interests, and out of touch with the on-ground issues facing forest governance. It is true that a scientist has enough worries about the day-to-day grind of doing research – thinking of a good study, collecting quality data, publishing the results, and obtaining funding for her/ his work. The contingent responsibilities

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crisis discipline such as conservation biology, where basic and applied sciences can be equally valuable, and scientists who study the field must be willing to engage with a complexity of issues that influence their field of study (Ludwig et al 2001).

Many scientists are often unaware of the complexity of a forest manager’s task. In addition to his assigned duties, the forest manager often has to deal with a multitude of real world, nonabstract problems of social and political dimensions. These might include, among other things, working with resident communities hostile to management decisions, dealing with threats from local militant outfits, pressures from political bigwigs, and inter- and intra-departmental politics that impede their regular duties. Even with so much on their plate, a large number of forest offi cers are genuinely interested in using science and research to guide management, and actively seek inputs from scientists. It is for the scientist then to go that extra mile with an interested officer, and apprise forest managers of the nature and scope of scientific studies, and when necessary, help in translating science into action. This does not necessarily require a scientist to do applied science, or start a new project entirely. It only needs them to use their training to collate scientific material relevant to an issue at hand and present the potential conservation implications of it, when the department needs it. Sometimes, it may need scientists to engage in a formal manner with bodies like the Forest Advisory Committee or the National Board for Wildlife, to nuance the debate on a conservation issue.

A vast majority of wildlife scientists are, however, unwilling to take on political, bureaucratic, or corporate interests even when they pose an obvious detriment to


wildlife. Scientists especially shy away from bureaucratic battles that might jeopardise obtaining research permits from the forest department. Consequently, a majority of Indian wildlife scientists are unable to come together to create a united front to add a much-needed conservation focus to policymaking. In this age when we are trying to balance development with protection of forest areas, wildlife biologists need to actively respond to and engage with situations that need the wildlife and conservation angle to be highlighted. However, making this change will involve dealing with challenges that will force scientists to leave their comfort zones and wear different hats, accept different viewpoints, and speak in a language other than academia (Ludwig et al 2001).

Fostering Engagements

A first exercise in plurality should be a more inclusive approach within the larger community of science itself. The acknowledgement of barriers between scientifi c disciplines is often recognised when wildlife scientists say “I am not a social scientist/economist/political scientist”. Undoubtedly, any single person rarely has the combined skills, inclination, or the time to comprehend and master these multiple disciplines. It is, however, essential to respect the components of these fields that infl uence conservation issues, and integrate these disciplines to find multidimensional solutions to wildlife conservation (Mascia et al 2003). The lack of dialogue between disciplines is best illustrated in the past two decades, where the world’s top five political science journals have published only one article on biodiversity conservation out of more than 2,000 articles (Agrawal and Ostrom 2006).

As a next and very crucial step, scientists need to make their research more accessible to policymakers. Like any specialty, conservation science has its fair share of jargon that by definition is meant only for other scientists to understand, and this needs to be “translated into English” to inculcate an interest in the general public and make it more accessible to a policymaker or forest manager. For instance, it is very true that for a success ful conservation programme, information on species biology is important. But no amount of information on species biology is useful if this information does not inform policy when needed. To do this, it may often be up to the scientists to come forth and present their work in a simple and lucid manner to those in decision-making circles. Sometimes, it might not be enough for scientists to simply make their own research accessible. Very often, wildlife managers need specific information that are not relevant to a scientists’ core interests, but which scientists can provide without much effort. For instance, the impact of roads on amphibians is not the primary focus of an ornithologist, who can nonetheless synthesise the literature on the issue and highlight the relevant scientific aspects to inform a park manager on the impacts of a proposed road.

Most important, biologists must make the leap from simply offering analysis to actively ensuring that their inference is incorporated into policy, and persevere for a change in conservation decisionmaking. With few exceptions, many wildlife scientists do not take those simple extra steps, such as translating reports submitted to the forest department into vernacular languages, or placing information in relevant context through updates and presentations. The incremental step from a research paper to a policy document is missing, in large part due to the reluctance of scientists to engage with peers, non-scientists, and experts outside the sphere of conservation science. It is time to discard the eloquent discourse as to why cross-disciplinary talk would not work – in fact, it is the only thing that is likely to work, and the sooner we get moving, the better for all.

The Recalcitrant Biologist

For a policymaker, dealing with scientists is generally not easy. Their attitude towards bureaucracy is often unreasonable or condescending, and towards peers, dogmatic and adversarial. “If you put five scientists together you get 10 different opinions and no consensus”. The result often is that scientists are unable to present concrete, usable information to aid conservation decisions. Scientists

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tend to believe that their own beliefs and actions are drawn from an empirical repertoire of understanding, while those of peers are contingent on personal shortcomings, biased inclinations, and self-interest (Burchell 2007). The problem of the “empirical self and contingent others” is pronounced in conservation biology, where scientists are expected to maintain their objectivity through datadriven arguments, and at the same time, advocate a set of biodiversity values. The completion of a data-oriented study many times spirals out of context into philosophical rhetoric. For instance, most advocacy (by scientists, no less!) on sustainability in extraction of non-timber forest produce in India scales up from individual case studies, glossing over pan-Indian reviews calling for more information on key ecological processes to model sustainability better (Shahabuddin and Prasad 2004). As a result, use regimes are advocated not based on a comprehensive evaluation of data but on personal philosophies. Sophistry gains over science, even for scientists.

Along with Government, Not Instead of It

Wildlife scientists can and should play a large role in defining the contours of science and conservation, and more importantly, placing it in the context of other larger societal goals (Lele 2011). One could argue that India today lacks a constituency of wildlife science and conservation due to the “tunnel-vision” approach of placing the goals of science or conservation in a vacuum. It is imperative to get social scientists, economists and non-scientists alike to think of wildlife science and conservation as desirable goals. Consequently, scientists may have to engage with the government directly or through civil society organisations.

Civil society and scientists, like we pointed out in Krishnadas et al (2011), are essential to add a democratic balance to state governance. Scientists and conservationists, nonetheless, underestimate the importance of state mechanisms, dismissing good forest officials or leaders of being one-man shows, when many research or conservation programmes are also contingent on a variety

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of externalities. No matter how wellintentioned and scientifi cally equipped, civil society cannot provide a long-term replacement for the overarching system of government machinery in the country. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) often rely on funding from competitive grants, for limited periods, for specifi c projects. This means that long-term institution-building at a countrywide scale by NGOs is a near impossibility, unless they channelise their efforts through existing systems to maximise impact. In fact, sometimes NGOs fi nd themselves pulling out of conservation efforts (such as providing alternative livelihoods or sometimes even withdrawing life-saving drugs) when funding runs out or when the going gets tough, highlighting the limitations of civil society. Invariably, governmental agencies are dismissed as dysfunctional institutions when, disturbingly, not enough institution-building happens within the scientifi c community. Personal biases and entrenched viewpoints preclude collaborations and data sharing, often hampering the next generation of independent thought and practice.

Notwithstanding a fl ourishing NGO sector,1 the focus should be on strengthening pre-existing governmental mechanisms, doubtless the most important challenge for biodiversity conservation over the next century (Agrawal and Ostrom 2006). A diversity of measures for adaptive governance will lead to sustainable long-term conservation strategies. This will require strengthening, organising and devising rules, and monitoring government units at different scales. The best way forward is to incorporate independent conservation efforts within the framework of governance to provide incremental changes that can make permanent improvements in the system. Scientists and civil society can be vital catalysts, but not the process itself.

Scientists need to understand the difference between pointless intransigence and constructive criticism, and move from accusations to fruitful debate – both within themselves and with the government. There are notable examples of wildlife scientists and civil society engaging with policy matters, rather than

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simply stopping at providing informa of our natural world changed with the
tion and reports. The issue of human advent of wildlife science in the early
leopard conflict, leading to loss of hu 1960s. Forty years later, there is wide
man lives and killing of leopards, is a se spread arrogance and egotism among
rious matter across India. A scientifi c academics who are unwilling to work to
study found that translocation of leo gether or with the system, and we re
pards, a routine conflict mitigation mea quire a renewal of humility, modesty
sure used by the forest department in and plain common sense. Humility and
Maharashtra, increased the frequency of modesty to acknowledge that expert
leopard attacks (Athreya et al 2010). The knowledge is not privileged, and that
state forest department trapped 276 leo public and policymakers should be part
pards during 2001-05, but this did not of a greater sphere of engagement be
arrest attacks. With scientists working tween science and society. Common
with the department, and strong leader sense to acknowledge that infi ghting
ship within the forest department, a dif does not solve conservation problems,
ferent policy was followed based on only exacerbates them.
scientific understanding. The Maha India’s conservation legacy is going to
rashtra state forest department issued be judged by the degree of unity that
guidelines which were based on the fi n conservationists and scientists attain to
dings from the scientific study on leo fight agendas that are bigger than the
pard translocation. Only 38 leopards fractured philosophies of personal view
were trapped during 2005-09. The im points and academic debate. We must
plementation of the guidelines decrea learn to tame the beast inside, before we
sed the number of attacks on humans move on to saving wildlife.
from 218 (between the years 2000-05)
to 34 (2006-10) and the number of hu- Note
man deaths from 66 to six (Athreya et al 1 There are around four NGOs per 1,000 urban
2010). Several other states such as Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir dwellers and 2.3 NGOs per 1,000 rural dwellers – (
followed suit with similar guidelines. References
The Ministry of Environment and Forests Agrawal, A and E Ostrom (2006): “Political Science
(MoEF) jointly hosted a workshop with the Wildlife Trust of India and Inter and Conservation Biology: The Dialog of the Deaf”, Conservation Biology, 20: 681-82. Anon (2011): Guidelines for Human-leopard Confl ict
national Fund for Animal Welfare in 2007, where forest department offi cials, NGOs, Management (New Delhi: Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India). Athreya, V, M Odden, J D C Linnell and K U Kara
scientists and veterinarians discussed nth (2010): “Translocation as a Tool for Mitigat
the best practices to deal with human ing Conflict with Leopards in Human-dominated Landscapes of India”, Conservation Biology,
leopard conflict. Working with several 1: 133-41.
scientists and institutions, the MoEF created a comprehensive set of national Burchell, K (2007): “Empiricist Selves and Contingent ‘others’: The Performative Function of the Discourse of Scientists Working in Conditions
guidelines (April 2011), to best deal with human-leopard confl ict (Anon 2011). A of Controversy”, Public Understanding of Science, 16: 145-62. Krishnadas, M, U Srinivasan, N Velho and S Srid
complex issue was thus dealt with multisectoral cooperation at the local and hara (2011): “Turning the Page in Forest Governance: Science and Bureaucracy”, Economic & Political Weekly, 46: 10-13.
national level. Lele, S (2011): “Rereading the Interdisciplinary
Mindscape: A Response to Redford”, Oryx, 45:
Moving On 331-32. Ludwig, D, M Mangel and B Haddad (2001):
If one traces the evolution of wildlife science in India and the attitudes of many “Ecology, Conservation and Public Policy”, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 32: 481-517.
wildlife scientists today, it has followed a trajectory similar to the history of sci- Mascia, M B, J P Brosius, T A Dobson, B C Forbes, L Horowitz, M A McKean and N J Turner (2003): “Conservation and the Social Scien
ence in general. From Socrates and Plato’s ideas of ignorance, to the scientifi c ces”, Conservation Biology, 17: 649-650. Ravetz, F (1993): “The Sin of Science, Ignorance of Ignorance”, Science Communication, 15: 157-65.
revolution which injected a triumphant Shahabuddin, G and S Prasad (2004): “Assessing
faith of scientific pretension (Ravetz 1993), our lack of a systematic understanding Ecological Sustainability of Non-timber Forest Produce Extraction: The Indian Scenario”, Conservation and Society, 2: 235-50.
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