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Sixty percent of threatened Indian mammals are endemic

Navodita Jain

We bring an interview with the current director of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kailash Chandra, he highlights the institute’s research activities and its contribution to the cataloguing of Indian biodiversity. He also gives a quantitative glimpse on the status of threatened species endemic to India.

Commemorative stamp celebrating the centenary of ZSI
Commemorative stamp celebrating the centenary of ZSI    (Photo: https://stampsofindia.com/)

Could you give us a glimpse of the organization’s archival collection?

Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) is a premier taxonomical research institution headquartered at Kolkata along with 16 regional centres spread across the country. ZSI was established as a small unit at the Indian Museum in 1916 to promote survey, exploration and research of the exceptionally rich faunal diversity of the country. We hold over 5 million specimens of Protozoa and Mammalia for ex-situ conservation. The historical collection of invertebrate groups (ticks, mites, spiders, scorpions, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bugs) is a reference for revisionary taxonomic studies. The collection also includes specimens of India’s species facing extinction risk like the Pink-Headed Duck and the Malabar Civet.

What is the current research focus of ZSI?

We are committed to the task of conducting faunistic explorations and collection from the diverse biogeographical zones including the protected areas of the country. Along with taxonomic explorations, ZSI is currently assessing the effect of climate change on the faunal diversity of the Indian Himalaya. We have compiled the information of 30,377 species and subspecies of animals and protozoans from the Himalayan biotic provinces. This study is unique as it assesses the impact of climate change, habitat degradation and forest fragmentation on the diversity, distribution, and abundance of select insect species – viz. high altitude apollo butterflies, moths, and wild bees. Vertebrate species (pheasants, pika, marmot, Himalayan newt, and a few species of frogs and bats) are being used as the indicator species to model the change in the climatic conditions.

India is one of the megadiverse countries of the world - holding 2.4% of land and enriched with more than 6.4% global faunal diversity. We are developing a website for the fauna of India, complete with taxonomic account of the species, their distributional maps, and the habitus images of the species.

Can you please shed some light on the projects involved in DNA barcoding of endemic organisms?

Molecular taxonomy is an add-on tool for modern systematics as it helps distinguish closely related species. ZSI has well-equipped DNA laboratory at the Kolkata headquarters and at four regional centres (Dehradun, Hyderabad, Pune, and Chennai). DNA barcode data of more than 4,000 (fresh and museum specimens at National Zoological Collection) has been generated and uploaded on global database (BOLD and GenBank).

We have also initiated the sequencing of whole mitochondrial genome of ultra-conserved regions for understating the phylogeny of fauna, and their evolution.

In addition to barcoding of endemic animals, we are generating a genomic library of threatened and schedule fauna of India - for use in wildlife crime control and formulating recovery and management plans.

What are the research fellowship programs and training offered by the organization?

ZSI has regular fellowship for doctoral and post-doctoral researchers (Junior Research and Project Fellowships, Senior Research Fellowships, Research Associateships and Post-Doctoral Research Fellowships) in the field of biodiversity conservation. For creating a second line of taxonomists in India, the JRFs and SRFs are encouraged pursue a doctorate with scientists at ZSI.

We regularly organise training on

  • collection, preservation, and identification of zoological specimens
  • tools and techniques in molecular systematics, and
  • the use of geographical information system in zoological research

for students, researchers and conservation practitioners. Details of our upcoming trainings can be found here.

ZSI has also trained students under Green Skill Development Programme for skill development in environment and sustainable measures. Training is also imparted to enforcement agencies engaged in wildlife crime control (Custom Department, Sashastra Seema Bal and the Wildlife Crime Bureau).

What is your opinion on an educative publication to introduce readers to nation’s biodiversity? Does ZSI publish any such resource?

We annually update the information on the faunal wealth of our country in the form of a compendium - ‘Animal Discoveries - New Species and New Records’. In the year 2017, a total of 300 new species have been discovered, the rich fauna of India now includes more than 1,01,167 species! Our most significant documents include baseline information for identifying groups of animals for young and trained taxonomists (Fauna of British India, Fauna of India and Adjacent Countries).

In the last couple of years, ZSI has brought out significant contributions such as Faunal Diversity of the Indian Himalaya, the Current Status series (Marine Faunal Diversity, Freshwater Diversity, Estuarine Faunal Diversity of India, Fauna of Sunderban Biosphere Reserve) and the DNA Barcode Fauna of India. For young readers and nature enthusiasts, ZSI regularly publishes Handbook and Pictorial Guides on a large group of fascinating animals. All the publications are freely accessible at www.faunaofindia.nic.in.

What are your insights on the state of threatened species endemic to India?

As per IUCN Red List-2018, there are about 683 animal species from India that are threatened (Critically Endangered - 78, Endangered - 209, and Vulnerable - 396). As for the threatened species - 60% of mammals, 30% of amphibians, and 40% of birds are endemic to India (http://www.iucnredlist.org/).

Few threatened endemic species are Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat, Andaman Horseshoe Bat, Leafletted Leaf-nosed Bat/ Kolar Leaf-nosed Bat, Cochin Forest Cane Turtle, and Sispara Day Gecko.

Threatened species endemic to India
Threatened species endemic to India a) Credits: Rohit Chakravarty, License: Copyrighted, used with permission b) Credits: Sandeep Das (Wikimedia Commons), License: CCBY-SA 4.0 c) Credits: Skeeze (Pixabay), License: CC0 d) Credits: G Agoramoorthy, License: Copyrighted, used with permission

What role does ZSI play in policymaking? What are the focus areas?

ZSI is an advisor to the GoI (and a member of advisory board of state government) in matters of faunal diversity and wildlife conservation. ZSI also plays a significant role in the formulation and amendment of - Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA) 1972, Biodiversity Act 2002, Coastal Zone Management Act and Forest Act.

The monitoring and assessment of endemic fauna have to be undertaken on a priority basis. Quantitative assessment of fauna of the 769 protected areas and eco-sensitive zones is imperative.

Conservation and management plans have to be drafted for threatened fauna. For conservation planning of the biodiversity hotspots of India, three national faunal repositories are being developed at Port Blair for Sunda Island fauna, at Solan for Western Himalayan fauna and Kozhikode for Western Ghats fauna.

What are the perks of being a scientist at ZSI?

Our job at ZSI is fascinating and unique; we get to visit remote areas for sampling and observing the behaviour of animals. Each year, the scientists at ZSI conduct extensive surveys at beautiful places like the Nicobar group of islands, North-eastern Hills, Eastern Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Trans Himalaya of Ladakh.

The discovery of a new species provides utmost satisfaction - the scientist’s name associates with that species and is immortalized in scientific history.

What are the challenges of being a scientist at ZSI?

We have to be cautious while observing wild animals (as well as tiny insects!) since we cannot gauge their reaction to our presence. Working in harsh terrains of the Himalayas has been challenging as our scientists faced difficulty in travel and finding lodging. It is also quite complicated to work in Naxalite affected areas and under the threat of a dacoit encounter.

Written By

Science Education and Communication Coordinator