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Guwahati: Carnivore research in India is biased towards the large cats (tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard), and environmental litigation and conservation policies have been overwhelmingly shaped by just one species – the tiger, a new study says.

A new study by scientists from various Indian and international institutions addresses these topics through a detailed assessment of all the research work conducted on India’s carnivores since the country’s independence.

The authors of the study spent more than a year meticulously reviewing around 1,800 research papers, theses and books published from 1947 to 2020. In doing so, they put together information related to academic institutions involved in carnivore research, the species in focus, the geographic scope of studies, the themes and topics addressed, and the sources of funds that supported the research. In their analysis, they also examined the nature and extent of the impact that scientific research has had on conservation policy in India.

The study found that Indian scientists have made substantial contributions to the field of carnivore ecology, from establishing global standards in population monitoring techniques to developing cutting-edge tools in genetics research. The field has come a long way, evolving from elaborate natural history documentation to impactful applied conservation projects.

India presents a unique and peculiar case among developing and developed countries, where 1.4 billion people manage to coexist with large carnivores like tigers, lions, snow leopards, sloth bears and leopards. The country is home to around 23 per cent of the world’s carnivore species, most of which occur at high densities, while also sharing space with the second largest human population on the planet. Besides their charismatic appeal, many of these carnivores are conservation flagships and important players in food webs across ecosystems.

“But not all carnivores benefited from extensive ecological studies, with many smaller non-charismatic species like mongooses, civets, otters, etc., barely receiving any attention. Conservation policy in the country did not seem to adequately draw from the scientific findings and insights, perhaps underscoring the frail links in communication between scientists and policymakers,” the study states.

Commenting on the topics that have hitherto dominated conservation research, co-author Dr Saloni Bhatia, said, “India’s people have long shared spaces with carnivores, both large and small. Many cultures view humans and wildlife as two sides of the same coin. Studying such biocultural relationships, behaviour, and decision-making can actually make carnivore conservation a lot more inclusive. Our study shows that we need to build capacity in multi-disciplinary approaches to address today’s conservation challenges”.

The authors recommend that ongoing and future research efforts should focus on lesser-known species and their threatened habitats. They must combine social sciences with ecological studies (especially when dealing with sensitive topics like human-carnivore conflict) and make carnivore science more democratic through establishing partnerships across diverse institutions as well as local communities that share space with conflict-prone carnivores.

According to lead author Dr Arjun Srivathsa, “Carnivores are among the most fascinating species on earth. With the kind of national and international efforts invested in carnivore research and conservation, it is important to pause, take stock of the status quo and address the gaps and blind spots. Our synthesis of carnivore research in India accomplished this objective. Our hope is that the findings from our work can serve as a guiding doctrine for directing future research on carnivores in the country”.

The study, “Chasms in charismatic species research: Seventy years of carnivore science and its implications for conservation and policy in India”, was published in the latest edition of the international journal Biological Conservation.

The authors include Dr Arjun Srivathsa (Wildlife Conservation Society–India and National Centre for Biological Sciences-TIFR), Aditya Banerjee (Conservation Initiatives), Malaika Mathew Chawla (Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia), Anshita Das (Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed to be University), Divyajyoti Ganguly (National Centre for Biological Sciences-TIFR), Ryan G. Rodrigues (Wildlife Conservation Society­–India), Tiasa Adhya (The University of Trans-disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology), Dr Saloni Bhatia (Wildlife Conservation Society­–India), Aritra Kshettry (Wildlife Conservation Society­–India and Centre for Wildlife Studies), Iravatee Majgaonkar (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), Girish A. Punjabi (Wildlife Conservation Trust), Dr Mahi Puri (University of Georgia, USA), Priya Singh (National Centre for Biological Sciences-TIFR) and Nikit Surve (Wildlife Conservation Society­–India)

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