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Home > City Resources > Education > Interview with BNHS Director Dr Asad Rahmani
  Education
 Interview with BNHS Director Dr Asad Rahmani 

"India is the next wildlife destination after Africa" - Dr Asad Rahmani, Director, BNHS

Dr Asad Rahmani, Director, Bombay Natural History SocietyIndia is the next wildlife destination after Africa's glamorous national parks and safaris, with nearly 45% tourists being wildlife enthusiasts. The 117-year old Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the largest NGO on the Indian subcontinent has contributed selflessly to the conservation of natural resources in the country.

An interview with BNHS director, Dr Asad Rahmani, at Hornbill House (named after the Society's mascot the Great Indian Hornbill), on the Society's decades of yeoman service to the flora and fauna of the country.

Why did the Society choose Hornbill for its mascot?

The Society's association with the Hornbill dates back to 'William,' the Great Pied Hornbill which arrived at the Society as a nestling in 1894, and The great pied Hornbilllived in the Society's rooms till 1920. William, affectionately known as the office canary, lived in a cage behind the Honorary Secretary's chair during the 26 years he lived at the Society. Hornbill House was named after him.

How has the BNHS evolved over the years?

The Bombay Natural History Society was started by 8 hunter naturalists 117 years ago for the purpose of exchanging natural history notes. A journal was born out of their notes in 1896. As their study progressed, they felt that they should also keep their study specimens. This gave rise to a museum of sorts, where people contributed what they shot or used to send skins and antlers, for the purpose of identification. Soon, bird skins became a major component of the museum, followed by mammal skins. For almost 50 to 60 years, major research activities of BNHS was study of skins, without much field work.

With the development of better equipment, the study of natural history slowly progressed considerably, leading to field studies. BNHS was one of the first institutes in India to introduce field studies. Salim Ali in the early 1930s, was one of the first scientists in Asia to study the behavior of birds and animals. Earlier, only morphology of dead animals was observed, now live animals were being studied under their natural habitat. This established the foundation of natural history.

BNHS greetings cards for saleThen came a transition period in people's view of flora and fauna. Previously, most curators were hunters and hunter naturalists, which changed over the years to more naturalists and less hunters. During the last 30 years, the main focus of BNHS is natural history field studies.

Does the BNHS still maintain its museum collection?

We are still maintaining our museum collections, because it is a national treasure and not only the property of BNHS, but also property of the Government of India. We do have a collection, but we do not have a classical museum of mounted specimens, due to lack of space. We have a research collection, which is consulted or referred to by almost anyone in India and abroad, working on natural history. We also send our specimens abroad for comparative studies. We have a natural history section at the Prince of Wales museum for public viewing, maintained by the BNHS for almost 50 to 60 years.

How much time and finance is involved for a thoroughly researched project?

Most of our research projects are conservation oriented scientific projects, which are not academic in nature. In natural history, a minimum of 3 years of study is required, because the researcher has to work during different seasons. A one-year data on the ecology of a certain species cannot provide an accurate picture. There are changes with regard to temperature, monsoon, etc, ours being a tropical country. In India, monsoons play a vital role in the ecology of all species, including human beings.

Regarding finance, it all depends on the vastness of the project. One can do wonderful studies even with a small budget. For studying behavior of animals and birds, we require telemetry to track them down. Telemetry is an instrument in which you catch the animal, attach a radio collar and track it with the aid of an antennae. Telemetry equipment costs Rs 1,00,000 and additional has to be spent on transport, food, salary of staff, researchers, etc. It is quite an expensive proposition.

The Great Indian Bustard shows off its plumesDoes the State or Central Government sponsor scientific research based studies?

The Ministry of Environment and Forests does sponsor many of our studies. We conceive ideas and consult the forest department. At times the project might not be directly beneficial to the managers of the protected area, but purely academic in nature. We discuss project proposals with our peer group and then submit the project report with the budget, objectives and methodology outlined. We then write to the Ministry of Environment, funding agencies or even the Department of Science and Technology. The latter is providing funds for one of my projects on the 4-horned antelope.

Usually, the procedure for acquiring funds is tedious. More often than not, it takes up to 6 or 7 months or even up to 1 year to get the project. The funding agency sends the project proposal to their own recognized experts to comment upon.

Many times, we have to change the project proposal based on comments of experts and resubmit. After that follows negotiations for funds. It is long drawn and does not happen as soon as we would like it to.

How does BNHS ensure sustained financial support?

We get funds amounting to 2.5% of our total budget from the Government of Maharashtra. This is mainly for the maintenance of the collection, which is national property and we are the custodians. The rest of the funds we generate from other sources like publications, products, institutional charges, membership, etc.

We have published nearly 30 books, some of which are best sellers for which we get royalty. We also have the products department wherein cards, calendars, T-shirts and other memorabilia are put out for sale. BNHS charges 12% to 15% institutional charges and offer equipment, books and vehicles for hire. At present we have projects of nearly Rs 1.5 crores. Donations form corporates and individuals are for corpus building. Our membership programme is almost on a no profit, no loss basis. I can only say that on the financial front BNHS still has its neck out of water.

The Great Indian Hornbill, the BNHS mascotWhat are the noteworthy projects undertaken by BNHS?

BNHS is the authority on bird migration studies in Asia, especially South East Asia. We have done a major study on the migration of birds, a 12 year project on elephants, another one on the Great Indian Bustard and a study funded by the Government of India on 'Bird strikes to aircrafts,' to name a few. Then we also completed a project on the dry and wet grasslands in the country. At present, we are studying the Shola and Alphine grasslands and have 22 ongoing projects in different parts of the country.

Is research in India at par with international reports?

In India, we are doing great studies with limited resources. Unfortunately, many times extremely disturbing restrictions hampers our studies. Restrictions in the foreign countries are not much. In India, at times the restrictions are quite unreasonable and we are forced to answer silly questions. Obtaining permission for research is also a long drawn process.

In the recent years, we have some intelligent protected area managers trained by the Wildlife Institute. These young well-read people are supportive of our research. Sometimes we do not have enough resources and funds, but if we use their methods and we have the same kind of resources, we find that we are not lacking in anyway. Sometimes, we are doing much better work especially in the case of conservation, despite of the growing population, we still are retaining many of the protected areas. Compared to the neighboring countries, especially South East Asia, we are doing very well.

What has been the response to BNHS educational programmes?

We have a Conservation Education Centre at Goregaon, established with the help of the British government. This Centre started off as a 3-year project, now we are looking after that. Initially, they provided us with finance, now it is quite successfully as far as the conservation education programme is concerned. We receive nearly 12,000 to 14,000 children every year for the programme. Our limitation is the area, our building is small when compared to the type of work we want to do. Even our resources are limited. We want to reach a much larger number of children and more schools. Many schools are regulars at our programme every year. The age group that is most influenced by our programmes is that between 9 to 14 years.

Is the Environmental Impact Assessment studies by BNHS independent of government influence and pressure?

An endangered speciesOur Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies also brings in some funds. But we are very firm in our stance that any EIA project undertaken by BNHS is an independent report, free from influence or government pressure. We give independent report based on our own studies. We are also not willing to accept outside data and offer just interpretation. BNHS also does not obtain permission for EIA projects, only offers research and recommendations. Our main aim is to maintain the credibility of BNHS, which has been upheld for years from the days of Dr Salim Ali.

As of 2001, which are the endangered species in India?

We have nearly 78 species of birds in the country that are endangered. Out of them, 7 are critically endangered and their numbers are less than five hundred. Many more birds will soon join the endangered category the next 5 to 10 years, if corrective measures are not taken.

Many mammals come under the endangered category. One mammal that became extinct was the Cheetah, which was last shot in 1948 and last seen (confirmed records) in 1952. We have also lost 2 species of birds - pink-headed duck and the mountain koel. I am quite positive about the rediscovery of the mountain koel, mainly seen in Moussorie and Nainital. But I think the pink-headed duck is lost forever, because it lived only in undisturbed wetlands deep in the forest, which don't exist anymore.

Has poaching declined with awareness?

Hornbill HousePoaching is mostly based on economic factors. There are 2 kinds of poaching. One is done by villagers and tribals in the forest or its outskirts, when they hunt for food. It is not fair to stop them unless we offer them an alternative. This kind of poaching is also not so detrimental, especially if they do it with traditional methods. Commercial poaching is the most disturbing. It is more important to stop commercial poaching than that by tribals living in the forests. Commercial poaching cannot be stopped by means of education and stringent laws are the only answer.

For more information on BNHS and their activities, contact:

Address:

Bombay Natural History Society,
Hornbill House, Dr Salim Ali Chowk,
Shaheed Bhagat Singh Road,
Mumbai - 400 023.
Phone: 282 1811
Fax: 283 7615
E - mail: bnhs@bom4.vsnl.net.in
Url: www.bnhs.org

By: Anupama Vinayak



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