"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.