The century-old Zoological Survey of India is now relying on the indigenous knowledge of local communities such as deep-sea fishermen and tribals living in remote forests to scour unexplored areas for new animal species unknown to science.
An estimate prepared by scientists is enough to shed light on why such a network is needed at the earliest. There are about 1.7 million living species across the world. But scientists are yet to uncover another 15 million species that are estimated to live in the world. Many of these may be beneficial to man.
“Local communities could take us to unexplored areas and help us find new animal species. They could be fishermen who venture into the sea and bring in various species of fish and marine animals as a by-catch or tribal living in forests of north-east who are well acquainted with every nook and corner of the forest,” said Kailash Chandra, director of ZSI which has its headquarters in Kolkata.
The network becomes all the more important because scientists estimate that between 150 and 200 species of life become extinct every 24 hours. Around 97,000 animal species have so far been identified from India.
“The number of scientists working in ZSI has decreased over the years. The organisation now has around 80 scientists as compared to 120-130 in the past. This has also resulted in the decline of reporting of new species. An average of over 100 new species was recorded by ZSI scientists in the past which has now come down to around 70,” a senior ZSI scientist told HT.
In 2016 when the institution was celebrating its centenary year, Prakash Javadekar, former union minister for environment, forests and climate change urged ZSI scientists to build up a pan-India network so that more species could be discovered.
ZSI doesn’t have the infrastructure to explore the depths of the seas – Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. So they have to rely on the fishermen, who go out into the sea and to bring new species to their notice. “The fish landing harbours could be a good source for us. Recently tribal people of Mizoram helped a ZSI team to discover three new species of crab earlier unknown to the world,” said a ZSI official.
“Our main focus is now the biodiversity hotspots of India which includes the Himalayas, the north-eastern forest, the Western Ghats and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” said Chandra.
It may be recalled that ZSI had earlier come under flak from CAG for “poorly executing” the mandate given to it. The report said ZSI lagged behind in the targets set for the survey and publication of animal accounts.
ZSI is also trying to set up a pan-India network of scientists working in various universities and colleges across India to increase the number of discoveries. “Once the networking is established the work of discovery and scientific documentation of animals would gather pace. College and university students are also being trained by senior scientists on specific avenues such as herpetology (study of reptiles and amphibians) and entomology (insects) so that they can also be a part of the network,” said Chandra.