What are India's citizen scientists looking for?

Computer geeks, school children and professionals from different fields, who have otherwise no inkling of science and research, are turning into its latest foot soldiers. Meet the country's citizen scientists.

Dr Ceaser Sengupta, a pathologist and General Manager with what's considered to be the world's largest thyroid testing laboratory, Thyrocare Technologies Limited, leads a busy life. When he's not at his Turbhe office, his attention is divided between his six year-old daughter, his father and wife, with whom he resides in a swanky highrise in CBD Belapur.

Researchers belonging to Lost Amphibians of India look for amphibians
in the remote area of Latpanchar in North Bengal. The group that
comprises mostly individuals from non-research backgrounds is
 undertaking a pioneering project in trying to locate Indian amphibian
species that are feared to have gone extinct.
Pic/ Caeser Sengupta

All this might seem terribly ordinary if you didn't know about Sengupta's parallel life. Occasionally, the 37 year-old takes off to far flung areas of the country, especially forests and swamps, carrying with him a sleeping bag, a supply of dry fruit, and  a pair of leather boots that reach his knees, protecting him from snake bites. If unable to locate a cow shed to sleep in, the sleeping bag comes in handy.

A volunteer at one of BNHS's Be a Scientist For A Day programme

On these trips that often last between four days to a month and a half, Sengupta, along with other skilled urban professionals from a variety of career fields, transforms into a 'citizen scientist' or amateur researcher.
Sengupta's task is as ambitious in nature as it is vital. He, along with 500 urban professionals, mostly from non-science and research backgrounds, are part of Lost Amphibians of India (LAI), a group that is searching for 50 Indian amphibian species, mostly frogs and caecilians, that are thought to have gone extinct. While several species have been sighted in the last 10 years, some have eluded researchers for over 169 years.

"It is an extremely important programme. Most Indians are concerned about certain 'prestigious' animals, and hardly ever give a thought to amphibians. Some of the species we are searching for have not been sighted for years. We need to see if they are still around," says Sengupta.

LAI, which was launched in November 2010, has seen an excited response from common citizens. With its 500 members, it has already conducted 30 expeditions, one of which lasted a month-and-a-half in Arunachal Pradesh. The next one, which will be led by Sengupta, is days away and will take him to Maharashtra's Phandsad Wildlife Sanctuary.

LAI is not the only science programme that has seen support from commoners. Snigdha Kar, a 27 year-old Delhi-based employee of UNESCO, who is involved in the coordination and organising of various research programmes for the body, is a researcher in her own right. For the last four years, she has been part of MigrantWatch, a programme with over 1,300 members across the country, that is tracking one of nature's most spectacular events -- the migration of birds.

The programme hopes to ascertain if climate change is affecting the migratory patterns of birds. Kar earlier worked for the Delhi chapter of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and, despite being an amateur, has a keen interest in birds and has been keeping track of 20 different species that regularly fly into Delhi.

To spot these birds, Kar often continues her research when she travels out of Delhi on vacation, and consults books by experts, apart from looking up birds' features on websites. Out of the 20 species of migratory birds that she frequently reports about, Kar finds one particularly tough to spot. "The Greenish Warbler is very tough to identify. It's a small forest bird and we (bird watchers) have hours of discussion just to reach a consensus that it's the Greenish Warbler."

According to Suhel Quader, founder of MigrantWatch that is run by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, the growing number of Indians from non-research backgrounds getting  interested in the natural world provides a great opportunity for both, professional and amateur researchers, to work together.

"For many ecological changes, in particular, documenting what is happening over large spans of space and time is most effectively done through a participatory approach, where interested people volunteer their time and effort in working towards a common goal even though they are distributed throughout the country. When we started, it was obvious that seeking the help of bird watchers was the best way forward," says Quader. 

While many have spoken about how eclipses affect the behaviour of animals, few have ever sought to ascertain if this claim is true. Earlier last year, during the January 15 solar eclipse, NCBS tried to do just that.

Over 100 volunteers took part in EclipseWatch, from locations as diverse as Itanagar, Thiruvananthapuram to Mumbai, to find that the only clear change in animal behaviour occurred in areas where the maximum eclipse was almost complete (more than 88 per cent coverage of the sun). In these areas, there was a marked reduction in the activity of birds and animals.

Banking on such models, another programme is being run across Kerala schools, before it can be replicated across the country. And it invites adult participation too. Called SeasonWatch, the programme that launched in November 2010, seeks to learn if climate change is affecting the seasonality of trees.

A total of 100 different trees are on their list, and volunteers monitoring them, regularly update findings on the programme website, including the timing of the flowering, fruiting and leaf-flush of the trees. Arun Elassery, SeasonWatch's programme manager, says, "We often hear of trees blooming before hand, or summers lasting longer. We are trying to learn more about these happenings by taking the help of volunteers."

More often than not, volunteers come with a keen interest in nature. Kar, for instance, was troubled to see how a large number of jackals were being run over by vehicles whenever she drove down the narrow Suraj Kund Road that cut across Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, connecting Tuglaqabad to Kant Enclave, "I spotted at least six jackals being run over.
I would always get out of my vehicle, and photograph them while others would continue running over them. Using the photos, I requested the sanctuary officials to lower speed limits on that road but it hardly helped." Later on June 1, when the Nature Conservation Foundation launched a two month-long survey to find out about the numbers and location of Golden Jackals in India, Kar was able to make an invaluable contribution with her notes and photographs. 

LAI's team of amphibian scientists are working and using several scientific parameters to identify the Lost! Amphibians of India. Announcements of rediscovered species are expected very soon. In the case of MigrantWatch, it is too early for results of any kind to emerge. As Quader explains, "We have begun formally documenting existing migration timings -- and this will form a baseline against which future patterns can be compared."

Even in Mumbai, smaller programmes that are as much educational in nature as they are research-oriented, are emerging. For instance, Dr V Subhalaxmi, general manager at BNHS -- Education Department, helped launch in February this year, their Be A Scientist For A Day (BASFAD) programme. Here, a few professional researchers lead a group of volunteers into the 33-acre BNHS Nature Reserve in Goregaon to conduct field trips.

Sachin Chogre, an educational officer who conducts research programmes on moth studies, says, "Here, once every month, we organise research groups to study moths, amphibians, birds and flora of the region. We started it, knowing that we'd get a good response. Besides, it's a great way to document changes unfolding in these regions."

Sameer Patil, a freelance computer programmer from Thane, who attended a session of bird spotting, is planning to join another one soon. "Earlier, I could hardly ever identify birds. That day, we were taught about various species and how to identify them from their calls and features. We spread out and were able to document various species that frequent the area," he says. After a period of time, all findings made during the BASFAD programme, will be compiled into a report.

Dr Sengupta says, "When I return home from exhibitions, my body is marked with mosquito bites. But it is all worth it."

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