|Discothyria sringerensis (top), a species of ant found in Sringeri in 2006, is the first report of that genus from India; Vombisidiris humboldticola, a new species of ant. Courtesy: Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan
New Delhi, April 13: A government agencys refusal to allow dead Indian insects to be sent to America for classification has disappointed a group of Bangalore scientists.
Insect taxonomist Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan had sought permission from the National Bio-diversity Authority (NBA) to send the specimens, which Indian experts could not classify, to scientists in the US and other countries.
Now he and his colleagues are accusing the agency, tasked with protecting Indias bio-diversity, of virtually killing an Indo-US project to find, classify and name unknown insects from the Western Ghats.
A senior NBA official said one of the agencys major tasks is to help ensure that Indias bio-diversity is not commercially exploited without appropriate sharing of possible benefits that might arise from the commercial spinoffs.
The proposal may be for (transfer of) dead insects... but in principle any biological material could be used for novel patentable information, the official said.
The Chennai-based agency has asked the researchers to classify the insects with the help of the Zoological Survey of India or other scientists within the country. It has, however, told Rajan he may send the insects images abroad electronically.
Entomologists in India said the NBA restriction was irrational and the agencys suggestion of sending digital images of the insects for classification was ludicrous.
We have a peculiar situation where restrictions are imposed on a few dead insect specimens, but anyone can export mangoes or bananas or other commercially important plant varieties from India, said K. Divakaran Prathapan, assistant professor at the Kerala Agricultural University.
Such crops could be propagated and used in making new varieties, said Prathapan, one of several entomologists planning to collaborate with the Bangalore scientists on the project.
This was a dream project for some of us, said Rajan, a fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree), Bangalore. The Western Ghats are rich in bio-diversity but entomologists estimate that thousands of insect species there remain unknown to science.
A team at the University of Calicut, led by T.C. Narendran, has identified over 900 new insect species from a single superfamily of parasitic wasps in the Western Ghat region.
Entomologists believe that some insect species are early warning indicators of ecological change, while some species may find use in the biological control of crop pests.
The diversity of insects is enormous and classification often requires collaboration across continents, Rajan said. There are over 1,600 families of insects, and a taxonomist can specialise in at most three families.
This is an era of virtual connectivity and taxonomic identification alone does not justify the transfer of insects, the NBA said in its review of the proposal in 2006, and has since then refused to let the specimens be sent out.
A senior NBA official said the experts who reviewed the project felt there was no reason to send insect specimens outside India.
Scientists said the NBA order threatened to erode Indias capacity for insect taxonomy.
Science research policy should be guided by facts, not fears or perceptions, said Kamal Bawa, Atree president and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Were losing bio-diversity and there is an urgent need to catalogue species.
In a joint opinion note published in the journal Current Science, Prathapan and other entomologists have also argued that natural history museums are not involved in commercialisation or patenting of biological material. Taxonomists use only dead specimens with no commercial value.