What about those endangered animals and the media hype that follows every time the IUCN updates its Red List? Why should we care if the polar bear lives, or if poachers kill the rhino? Shouldn’t we concentrate on saving humans from poverty instead?
This problem has two approaches. One is recognizing the inherent worth of creatures shaped by millions of years of evolution. 'God's Creation' for the believers. Can we let our preference to burn 2km worth of fuel instead of walking, endanger or possibly exterminate an entire living species? This debate veers off into the often-ambiguous realm of morality. So let us take a practical approach. When scientists/conservationists appeal for the conservation of the Giant Panda or the Tiger, the fundamental message is often overlooked. That is as a large, enigmatic species, their habitat requirements encompass those of a variety of wildlife in its range. Hence, by saving one tiger, you are extending your protection to entire ecosystems, multiple complex webs of species interacting with each other that create an astonishing operatic harmony in nature.
But what about those smaller endangered animals? If they are so endangered, their populations may not even produce a significant effect on ecosystems?
Well we don’t really know. That is why so much funding focuses on research of endangered species. If their populations fall below sustainable levels in the wild, efforts are undertaken to support their recovery (eg. Californian Condor, Black-footed Ferret). First, because we don’t want to lose another species. Second, because many species of flora and fauna may have inherent qualities of which we simply are not aware. What if the extinct grass species was capable of curing cancer? And what if that ugly looking rodent was a seed hoarder and consequently, critical disperser for the species? (For those of you theists shaking your heads in disbelief and calling it far-fetched: if we believe in the existence of a supreme being that we have never seen or heard, imagining cancer-curing endangered plants isn’t really such a big leap of faith, is it?) We just don’t know, and ignorance is deadly in the best of circumstances.
So yes, in a way, wildlifers are contributing to human welfare. Sometimes, though the research doesn’t get implemented into policy or ground action. Another drawback is that the results are not immediately visible- you don’t get heart-wrenching animal testimonies such as:
“I now have a place I can call home. Thank you Dian Fossey” – In debt, Gorillas in the Misty Virungas
“Thanks to Dr. Schaller our future generations will not be persecuted anymore”- Love, Wei-Wei & Tang-Tang, the Last Pandas of Wolong
“Mr. Attenborough has brought our plight before the world.”- Forever grateful, Critters of the Bornean bat caves
In fact, much effort needs to be invested into monitoring the effects of any change upon forest communities. Conservation practitioners often prefer to direct their work to the origin of the problem rather than wait around for it to manifest into another ugly spectacle. Working for conservation on the ground requires a diverse skill set- negotiation, outreach, strict enforcement of laws, the ability to improvise on existing methodologies, marketing, fund-raising and so on. One scientist cannot possibly fulfill all these roles, though many try their best. Conservation requires representatives from civil society to step up and lend their expertise to the cause. The cause of human welfare, if it appeases their conscience.
Okay agricultural landscapes have valuable critters. However it still doesn’t quench mingled public curiosity and derision that follows scientists who voluntarily choose solitary confinement in dense tropical forests for 'research'. This is when the real fun begins.
"Why do you care whether an arboreal poisonous snake lives? What if it jumps down from the branches a la Anaconda and bites you?"
"Chhee! You will collect elephant poo for a living! Your fancy degree is worth shit!"
"Ugh…Not bats! What if they attack you in their bat cave and drain out your blood? Who will marry you then?"
"You will die of rabies. Rats are disgusting evil creatures. They can nibble you dead. Why don’t you study Mumbai's dogs instead? "
This prejudice stems from an incomplete understanding of the way ecosystems function, which in turn arises from shortcomings of science outreach, human discomfort about alien creatures, administrative policy and a misplaced deadly reputation (venom, diseases etc.).
How does an amateur begin to explain the consequences, the direct relevance of his/her work to people? Let us take the example of researching snakes. Not all snakes are anacondas (which are not even found on the subcontinent) or cobras, neither are they all venomous (a snake would be 'poisonous' if eating it made you sick or worse, dead), nor do the females exact revenge upon unsuspecting humans by transmuting into celestial nymphs. They control rat populations- certified agricultural pests as any farmer worth his salt would testify. Deep in the forest they feed on rats, shrews, birds etc. Now rats, mice, shrews, birds act as seed dispersers or predators. In either case, they directly influence forest composition by deciding how many trees should grow and which trees ought to be nipped in the bud.
Besides controlling global temperatures, trees maintain the hydrological cycle, and ensure smooth functioning of ecosystems. The disastrous flash floods exacerbated by deforestation along mountain slopes in Uttaranchal are a recent example of how forest destruction can prove deadly for human life. Trees provide food to a host of wildlife including macaques that transition into human landscapes and often into rural households following deforestation and cause mayhem and severe monetary loss to humble farmers. In northeast India, bamboo flowering (bamboo flowers only once in its lifetime, after the flowering event all the bamboo in the area dies off) causes mass exodus of rodents from the forest into fields resulting in famine across the region. Thus, studying the ecology of even the smallest rodent in a non-modified landscape- knowing what it eats, where it lives, what is its population will help us formulate plans to control if not prevent such infestations. All of this has direct relevance to human health and well-being.
So if we look at research from a broad perspective and back it up with some common sense knowledge about ecosystem functioning (I admit thinking on the same topic for more than 30 seconds is decidedly difficult in today's world of instant likes- but trying to think never killed anybody), we can rationalize the importance of ecological research in anthropomorphic terms.
Then comes the biggie, research must promote human development. I support this assertion, albeit not whole-heartedly. After all, research is public-funded. It is also foolish to imagine a utopia where the vast majority of humankind is scientific-minded and takes pleasure in funding and finding new stuff. Such a society did not exist during Galileo's age, and despite the phenomenal advances made in terms of human knowledge, such a society still has few takers today. So yes, research needs to be or atleast sound relevant to human development. However, what is the much touted 'development' mantra? The current Indian government seems to confuse it with GDP. Is industry an adequate measure of growth? I believe we need to re-examine development through a social and environmental lens. Would eradication of poverty be development? We don’t have an adequate definition for poverty. Obviously, a person's daily wage is a rather constricted measure of poverty. A tribal living off the forest in a secluded region of Orissa may be termed 'poor' using conventional terms, but is he really poor? Likewise, an inhabitant of an urban slum could earn enough to live comfortably in a village, but his dependence on the city of his dreams and livelihood forces him to live in perceived squalor.
Maybe hunger is a stronger determinant of poverty than money. How do you quantify hunger? Or unhappiness? Or discrimination. Discrimination might even be an inherent part of primate societies. Take gorillas for example. A male silverback controls and provides for his harem of 3-6 females and their children. His first 'wife' is the dominant member and wields greater influence than the second wields, his second wife is more powerful than the third and so on. Could this mean that societal structure seems to have an inherent provision for discrimination? Does it imply we accept caste, race, religion, sex-based injustice? Of course not. In another example, patrolling chimpanzees kill neighboring chimp troops in an effort to gain access to additional resources and reduce competition. Such behavior reflects human motivation for war. We need to be aware that competition (which may manifest itself as discrimination) will find a way to creep into society. Perhaps, we should address the root cause at a more biological level than we currently acknowledge. Wild primate societies can provide vital clues about human behavior. While we cannot prevent war, we can perhaps interpret the adrenaline rush and the urge to dominate that precedes a road rage fistfight and avoid cooling our heels in prison for a night.
Okay, primates are our ancestors and their behavior helps us understand ourselves better. Fine, but what about all those tiny disgusting critters that creep and crawl their way into our nightmares? Slithery geckos on the wall give us the shivers, maybe because that’s how we see our parents react to the animal. The gecko's only crime is that it feeds on insects buzzing around tube-lights. Some of these bugs have rather painful bites. Others may prove pestilential for crops. However, insects are also important pollinators- for example, the much-feared wasp is responsible for fertilizing the flowers of the revered peepal tree that is an essential part of every temple compound. So why don’t we simply kill off the pests and let the good guys live? Spray insecticide on the crop. Easy. Let the poison mix with the water and drain into gullies, streams, rivers and cause murder and mayhem amongst any who drink it. Including humans? And ofcourse, the cocktail of chemical in our chapattis and rice do lend a most delicious aroma to the meal. Refine our palate, in Masterchef lingo. Sigh. Well, since indiscriminate pest control isn’t the most viable of options we could perhaps start by looking at the natural history of these so-called pests. Where do they love to live? When do they reproduce? How do their numbers vary according to crop seasons? What animals feed on these insects? Do they face competition from other insects? Studying insects is linked more intricately to yours and mine well-being than we realize.
"Why waste money on wild animals instead of human welfare?"
This is the most common question I am asked when off to study frog diseases or vulture reproduction or rodent distribution. For somebody who has been fortunate enough to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature, it becomes tiresome. My first knee-jerk reaction is, "You need to be out there and experience it for yourself. *select cuss words for the education system*." Few are convinced and the conversation ends abruptly with the other party thinking me elitist. May be I can afford to spend money on animals having never experienced hardships in life. Of course, they also think I am bonkers, off my rocker, gone off the deep end and the classic, "Kaun karega tujhse shaadi?"
Answering this question satisfactorily has become a priority in my life and probably of every biologist/ecologist/conservation biologist/what have you. As a taxpayer, everyone has a say in how their money ought to be spent, Swiss billions notwithstanding. Let me try and analyze this question by whittling it down to two sections-
Why is wildlife research more important than finding ways to help the downtrodden?
Why should money be spent on saving wildlife when so many humans need to be rescued from poverty, war, hunger and disease?
Let us revisit the question- 'why do we conduct research?' in order to answer the other questions satisfactorily. Perhaps human behavior provides clues for this answer. A human child in its formative years is curious, constantly exploring its environment and assaulting elders with incessant questions. There is great pleasure in discovery- this spirit lives on in some people despite adulthood and blinder-bound education. Incidentally, discoveries or inventions can be translated into concrete solutions for humanity's problems- an approach that gives medical and engineering fields a Buddhaesque halo of selfless piety. On the other hand, space science is an alluring enigma brimming with fantastic names like black holes, quasars, Andromeda galaxy, blue giants and a sprinkling of dark matter. Respect for physics is ingrained from childhood- right from Archimedes naked 'Eureka' episode to Newton's apple bump and Einstein's brilliant (and esoteric) theory of relativity. The convoluted C-H bonds in organic chemistry make their way into life-saving drugs for the terminally ill. Nobody bats an eyelid when the fore-mentioned sciences are conferred prestige, importance and most importantly money. Maybe astronomy causes a degree of flinching, but the wondrous star-filled skies, gleaming nebulas and streaking meteor showers put the mind at rest. "Is there anyone out there?" is singularly responsible for softening even the staunchest of opponents.
What then is the deal about wildlife?
Perhaps it is unfair to compare wildlife to core space sciences or theoretical physics, simply because wildlife science deals with living things. This may be why it is directly compared to human welfare. Seriously, why would studying a critically endangered monkey in the far off Amazon help humankind? The underlying assumption here is that ALL research must be directed in a way as to lead to human progress. Another minor, yet prominent assumption is that wildlife is concentrated in far off paradise-resembling forests such as the Amazon or the Congo or Madagascar or Serengeti's grasslands. The second belief might have arisen out of relentless and skewed media attention to those regions- would our grandparents have the same notion of wildlife? As also from an inherent ignorance about the term 'wildlife' when the layperson strongly asserts that there is no 'wildlife' outside forests. Fifteen minutes of looking out your window, be it in your air-conditioned workplace or your bedroom will reveal atleast one bird/lizard/bat/snake/butterfly that you have never seen before. That’s your wildlife. Are stray dogs and cats wildlife? No, these animals have been domesticated and like cows, buffaloes, horses, donkeys, chickens and pigs (remember Old McDonald's farm?) are not wildlife. Packs of dogs feeding off apathetic garbage dumping can turn 'wild', in that they may hunt young children. In contrast, the real 'wild dogs' (dholes) of South and Southeast Asia don’t bother humans. The term 'wildlife' needs to be reinvented in our minds.
I sit back today and wonder, “How is it that wildlife conservation struggles for funding while projects supporting stray, homeless animals get so much attention? Is it not life too?” I felt outraged initially. Now, I have accepted it as a way of life. As a struggle that I will face throughout my career… But the question still troubles me – “Why?”
A colleague couldn’t have expressed it better – “Wildlife science is not entertainment.” You could cry yourself hoarse trying to convince your family and friends (who are notoriously impossible to get around) that the quality of life of humans would degenerate quickly in the absence of birds, animals, reptiles, frogs, forests, coral reefs, wetlands and what have you. But more often than not, you get categorized as the ‘freak’ that lives in the jungle and studies ‘all those animals that I would rather not have around.’ “Why are you doing social work when there are much better avenues for you to showcase your skills?” is a common refrain. “She/He could get a green card but the fool wants to live in the malaria-infested jungles of India,” is probably what people we have known all our lives think of us. And when it comes to donating money, almost every issue takes precedence over wildlife protection.
The works of the researcher who slogs all his life, produces the most revolutionary piece of science, and gets much applause in the scientific community, might never reach the common public. The media sometimes relegate it to the inner pages. But more often than not, the populace is largely unaware of the issue, of the significance of the unceasing efforts of conservationists working for the environment.
So how can things change? I recollect another conversation with a colleague who interjected, “Conservation Biology is the synthesis of possibly every field and skill on this planet in an attempt to protect our natural heritage.” Yes. We need you. The ‘common’ man with ‘common’ skills. We need entrepreneurs to initiate alternate sustainable livelihoods projects, marketing professionals to promote the importance of wildlife conservation, salesmen to sell our ideas to the larger public, engineers to design technology to understand animal movement and behavior, social scientists to engage local communities in conservation efforts, medical teams to provide proper treatment to individuals in cases of accidental animal attacks, investigators to investigate wildlife crime, managers to devise adaptive management techniques, journalists to spread the message far and wide, artists to popularize the environmental movement, teachers to germinate seeds of nature conservation in younger generations, finance graduates to establish clever funding schemes towards greater conservation efforts, and finally, scientists to ensure that scientific process isn’t violated.
This is also what Nagaland needs. The common man. You may feel that your job/career lacks the potential to make a difference. You are wrong. Conservation, especially in the Indian scenario, requires active collaborations with the most regular of people who are willing to volunteer a part of their lives into the cause. For many of us, wildlife hunting might seem to be an alien concept, but it is a stark reality for Nagaland’s wildlife and for the indigenous communities that depend upon this tradition. Only that tradition is being replaced with over-exploitation. Spears with guns. Subsistence with commerce. How does it affect hunting? How sustainable is hunting? How severed is the web holding the ecological communities together? And what does erosion of a significant tradition imply for the social dynamics and history of indigenous peoples in the state? I hope to navigate the labyrinth of emotions, traditions, economics, relations to find a satisfactory answer. It might be the classic case of the untrod path beckoning the traveler along it – and the traveler could not do it without you.
So there I was. An opportunity to study what I had been yearning to study since 5 years. Satisfying a dream I had nurtured for the longest time. The road here had been rough. But it was well worth it. Or so I thought...
Flashback to education in India. A product of the Indian education system, a marks-oriented intense societal pressure system that is becoming increasingly capable of driving young children to suicide. But I was among the lucky ones. The kid who scored. Who managed a decent rank in all exams. In school I did it because I liked it. Or that's what I was taught to believe. I would like to think I liked it. Then came a series of bad choices, not fought hard enough against that sent me straight to the exact education I did not want. Technical studies were traumatic enough- I was driven further up the wall thinking about how I should be outdoors and not cocooned inside air conditioned walls. Scoring in exams came easily though- whether out of lack of challenge or because of smarter friends who taught the subject a day beforehand, I don't know. But we lived, I lived and to my relief I was spat out of the system- glossy and shiny - all ready for a thriving it job market.
When I put my foot down. And decided it wasn't worth it. But once a victim, always a victim. After a year of relative peace in a nondescript rural area, I packed off to another education system, another continent, another country, another culture- but the same stress. This time around I face a time-starved system- that offers me a zillion choices, but won't afford the time to give justice to any of them.
So without launching into a diatribe on the evils of the education system, I ask a few questions-
1. 'Customer Satisfaction' is the buzzword across the globe. If the customer is satisfied, if the electorate is satisfied, if the employee is satisfied, success follows. Why is this principle not applied to education systems? And to students? How many students can claim to be a 90% satisfied with their education? The issue becomes critical once the student enters college, and falls into a routine- a routine he accepts as being a part of his future. In a way the system prepares him for a future of dissatisfaction with his career, his dreams crushed. And hopes shattered.
2. Is education for the elite? Despite considerable efforts at promoting school education globally, higher education remains the privilege of an elite few, who have the means (or rather are supported by parents) to pursue graduate education. How fair is it that despite such advancements in human society (of which I consider few to be really significant, but that's another topic) only a few of us get the opportunity to pursue further studies? Why are education systems so cash starved that they become increasingly elitist with higher degrees? And what responsiblity towards society do we bear, as alumni or current students?
3. As products of a graduate degree, what is our global contribution? As fortunate members of a 7 billion population, being people who have had the rare opportunity to become 'knowledgable'- how are we using our skills and knowledge to improve the globe? Eradicate poverty? For social justice? Improve health? Not everybody needs to be a social activist, not everybody needs to be out in the sweltering sun. But where are the big ideas, the innovations, the reforms required to revolutionize society? Or to make the lives of even 50 households in a remote poverty stricken village better? Where are the big ideas?!
4. Is education really the answer to all problems? As students (ESP in India) we have been pushed from one degree to the next to the next to the next until our rationalizing, understanding and tolerance powers vanish into thin air. We remain but hollow skeletons of a system that ruthlessly churns out more paper degrees each year, unmindful of the quality of students being generated. So should we care about education at all?
Depressing though it may seem, there has to be a golden rule. Some hidden formula that makes education worth the quarter of our life we invest in it. Perhaps it is time we start looking for answers. Avoid the mistakes of our past.
Because education is not such a bad word after all.
The purpose of education should be to provide students with a value system, a standard, a set of ideas- not to prepare them for a particular job.
Education is, at its core, a basic understanding of the world encompassing all social, political and developmental aspects of human life. Human beings, for ages unknown, have used this knowledge to form a deep and meaningful relationship with all that they have encountered over the long-drawn and arduous process of evolution. Socrates, Galileo, Newton have all contributed in the struggle for the Truth, sowing the seeds of unquestioned respect for scholars and academics worldwide.
Education, in itself, is a powerful tool. It provides a fascinating insight into how the universe functions- why the earth is round and the sky is blue, why birds migrate and frogs hibernate, how machines are built and bridges constructed, and to sum it up, how the entire system of the universe manages to co-exist without any alteration of balance. Scientific breakthroughs in the field of medicine can revolutionize healthcare, upcoming fields like genetics research can lead to treatment of thousands affected by incurable diseases. Robotics can send an unmanned spacecraft into the solar system and return with never before seen footage of the worlds beyond our own. Any individual, irrespective of his social background, can dream big and achieve the impossible with just the right degree of training.
The ability to change the world lies in the hands of the learned, those who spend their lives yearning for that control. And their education is what determines whether they have that capability.
A human child begins to grasp his surroundings at a very young age. He absorbs and analyses situations and sometimes, manipulates them for his won benefit. Education provides him with a new set of eyes through which he views his world. Man’s thirst for knowledge can never truly be quenched. He remains a student throughout his life.
Many academicians have debated about what truly is education. Is it a system that should concentrate on feeding crass knowledge into raw minds, or should it be a higher school of thought that focuses on the overall development of the child? Should colleges be reduced to factories minting out custom-made professionals whose curiosity in subjects occurring outside their chosen fields are treated with contempt and cruelly suppressed?
Educational institutions are seats of higher learning. But more than that, they are places where a child grows into an adult, his life transforms, first into gawky adolescence and then into mature adulthood. This is where he makes the first friends, wins the first game of basketball, participates in the drama competition, falls in love and then out of it, and creates a niche for himself, an identity that he can claim to be totally and completely his own.
And that is what education should be all about. It should concentrate on developing the personality of students and discourage academic pressures of any kind. The student should be dissuaded from poring into his books, instead he should be encouraged to look around, travel and gain the amazing insights the world has to offer. Free thinking should be the norm on college campuses and knowledge should be acquired, not force fed. There should be an attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible, which would allow the participant to savour the victory of his acquisition.
Liberation of education from the clutches of narrow mindedness and anachronism is the order of the day…Unless of course, we want our future generations to be reduced to a collection of intelligent, yet mindless robots.