Why Activists and Scientists should start talking to each other

Activists are often accused of being all heart and fire, and conservationists are known to be completely dedicated to their science. Both agree that they need to meet somewhere in the middle for conservation to become a reality. But how?

Activists are often accused of being all heart and fire, and conservationists are known to be completely dedicated to their science. Both agree that they need to meet for conservation to become a reality. But how?

stripey save our tigers

Stripey the Cub won a lot of hearts, but did the tiger benefit in the end?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kiran Bedi and Tamizh actor Surya roared for the tiger. They informed us that only 1411 of them were left in India. They asked us if we were going to let our national animal disappear. The tiger cub in the ads was the talk of the town. Stripey the Cub’s fond Facebook followers grew by the thousand every day. The campaign was regarded as wildly successful. It then went off air. Any curiosity that was piqued, if at all, went unaddressed, and eventually wore off. The key to sustained interest in something that is twice removed from us, like conservation, is education. We need to understand why bio-diversity preservation should get our mindshare as much as inflation does. Save the Tiger called to our emotions, which is always a great vehicle to capture attention, but does not feed an incited passion or sustain interest. In general, our ire against destruction and concern for forests, endangered species and the environment at large is very short lived. Why? Let’s take a moment and think about how much we know about these causes. Can we write a page each about why must we save the tiger? Or, what’s wrong with the Tatas building a port in Orissa? Why must we oppose nuclear plants? Why must we conserve our cities’ lakes? Beyond the big picture rhetoric, I am worried that we might not be able to add much. This is at the heart of our sporadic support. While there exists substantial proof via scientific research, data and numbers to support the cause for conservation, movements being short lived can perhaps be explained as a lack of co-operation between activists and conservation biologists. At a recent panel discussion titled Conservation and Activism: Exploring conflicts and synergies at the JN Tata Auditorium panellists Areeba Hamid, Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace India, Roshni Nuggehalli, Hasiru Usiru, Praveen Bhargav, Trustee, Wildlife First, Ravi Chellam, Director, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, Sharachchandra Lele, Senior Fellow, ATREE, and moderator Harini Nagendra, DST Ramanujan Fellow, ATREE and Centre for Study of Institutions Populations and Environmental Change, Indiana University, along with other members, discussed nuances of the same. Scientists sit in ivory towers Activists feel that scientists remain inaccessible and are unwilling to take a stance, offering objectivity as an excuse. They argue that the scientific community is lost in its perceived goals—number of publications to each scientist’s credit. And, published papers are riddled with jargon that does not interest the general public at all. The scientists contend that conservation movements may not always be based on scientific principles. Dr. Chellam adds that, “At times, scientists may think that activists are unable to understand and comprehend their work.” The constant talk of misappropriation of funds at NGOs also makes the scientific community wary of aligning itself with activists. Dr Chellam says, “The key concerns that the scientist often has is that his association with the activists may in some manner impair his ability to conduct his research. Given the challenges in obtaining research permits, this in many ways is a very valid concern.” Forest officials can and do revoke permits without notice, he says. Dr. Sharath Chandra Lele, senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), points out that research organisations are either directly or indirectly funded by the government and any overt opposition may result in funding being cancelled. Moreover a scientist may not be geared up to take on the role of an activist. It is about personality, explains Dr. Chellam. Lack of trust and co-operation between activists and conservation biologists is unfortunate. Information needs to become more accessible, percolate and become part of the collective unconscious and this requires sustained long-term engagement. Science add credibility to campaignsA healthy conversation between activists and scientific community hence becomes a must. Agreeing, Dr Chellam says, “if the scientist is interested in conservation, it is only natural for her to align with the activists.” Moreover conservation biology begins with an agenda and, therefore, it is no more a pure objective science. The conservation biologist has already entered the activists’ realm, explains Dr. Lele. The activists, especially those who work locally, provide invaluable networking support to the scientific community by connecting them to the appropriate people, adds Dr. Chellam.


Beyond all the garnering of emotions, activism benefits greatly from facts that conservation biologists can bring to the table. Pic courtesy: Greenpeace

Activists need facts from the scientific community for optimal results that can affect policy and help gain credibility. During litigations, the judiciary calls for scientific opinion. Areeba Hamid elucidates that a conservation biologist brings facts to the table making the advocacy campaign stronger and infinitely better thought out. Hamid gives more instances, such as, “The dumping of nuclear waste in the oceans meant devastation for marine ecology and once we knew the science was pretty clear on it, we took action against it. We use scientific information to communicate to people what and why we are taking a side and standing up for it, and that is why people support us. We lobby using the science behind an issue. We have solutions for the problems and they are also based in science.” Hamid talks of Dr. SK Dutta from the North Orissa University who was the principal investigator in the Dhamra biodiversity assessment. It was based on his report that Greenpeace resisted the Tatas in connection with the port in Orissa and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) done by them. The initial statutory report by the Tatas didn’t even mention the Olive Ridley turtles, says Hamid. The EIA, she says, looked like a haphazard report drawn out because they were legally bound to present one. Talking about growing co-operation, Hamid says, “Greenpeace has laboratories in Exeter University and we are always looking for scientists in various areas who would be willing to work with us, whether it is a biotechnologist or radiation expert.” And when there is co-operation much gets done. “The closure of iron-ore mines in Kudremukh National Park, the closure of night traffic in Bandipur and Nagarahole are all good examples of conservation victories based on initiatives taken by activists and supported by good science,” points out Dr. Chellam. Where the two meet Activism and science can collaborate and this collaboration can take on many forms. Organisations like the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), its sister concerns, Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Trust (ANET) and the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, which have taken to activism more directly may not carry placards, but choose to educate. They run extensive volunteer programmes. “MCBT announced an annual Herpetological Conservation Research Fund of Rs. 25,00,000 to encourage young Indians to conduct research on the reptiles and amphibians of India. Conservation education is a very important aspect of our work; captive animals offer a great opportunity for us to engage with the general public as well as special groups. Many of us also give public lectures to engage wider and more diverse audiences. Several films have been made with the expert inputs of our Founder Trustee Romulus Whitaker”, says Dr Chellam. Given that one of the primary problems with conservation is our lack of understanding about how our lifestyle affects natural habitats and our general disconnect with the environment, given that conservation is complicated, the importance of such programmes is paramount. Such initiatives help connect the dots and we see the link between a broken tap and animals out in the wild. We realise that conservation is not just about saving the tigers but also about the lakes in our backyard. The next time we sign a petition, hopefully we’ll also get an opportunity to read why while knowing what we can do about it. This video that explains the work of MCBT in creating awareness around reptiles and conservation in India.

Vani is a bangalore based writer who has worked with such organisations as Ogilvy and Mather, Time Out Bengaluru, and Deccan Herald. But right now however she'd rather be sitting under a tree. more


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Vani is a bangalore based writer who has worked with such organisations as Ogilvy and Mather, Time Out Bengaluru, and Deccan Herald. But right now however she'd rather be sitting under a tree. more

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