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Forest babus build wall against science

New Delhi, Oct. 26: Forest officials across India have been denying scientists access to protected wildlife reserves or demanding payment and even unethical authorship favours to permit entry, leading conservation experts have alleged.

Without citing instances, a 14-member group of ecologists and wildlife biologists has said research in wildlife reserves is today dictated by the whims of a forest bureaucracy that has absolute discretion whether or not to allow entry to researchers.

“Scientific inquiry is being throttled in a field where it is most urgently needed,” wildlife ecologist M.D. Madhusudan with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and fellow ecologists warned today in the journal Current Science of the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Researchers recounted to The Telegraph how one doctoral student was denied permission to study primate behaviour in a forest in southern India, and how wildlife officials sat for months over a proposal to tag sea turtles, preventing the project from taking off.

In another case, scientists dropped a proposal to study wild herbivores in the Northeast after forest officials dictated terms on how to conduct the research, imposing such unrealistic conditions that it was not worth pursuing, a scientist said.

“The when-and-where is not important, it’s the why that we’re concerned about,” Madhusudan said.

“The problem is that the system does not provide incentives for forest officials to support research,” said Kartik Shankar, a biologist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

“Some forest officials are enthusiastic and have helped us, but the system doesn’t thank them for it. In some cases, it has even cost them in some ways,” Shankar said.

In their Current Science paper, the ecologists said permissions have been denied without any justification. When access is granted, it is often done with restrictions based on bureaucratic whims.

One set of researchers was charged several hundred rupees per day to enter a protected area for research. In some cases, officials have demanded co-authorship in research publications as a condition for permission to conduct research, alleged the ecologists.

Some scientists believe that by stifling research, forest officials prevent independent scientific audit of wildlife management practices.

“In many instances, research results or observations of researchers have been viewed as a source of embarrassment by the forest departments,” the researchers said.

This is particularly so where the research explicitly deals with illegal activities such as livestock grazing or hunting in protected areas.

Scientists argue that research is needed not just to document wildlife, but to also address problems related to conservation. Without assessment, it is difficult to pick the best conservation action or make corrections.

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