Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Waiter, there’s a human in my forest

How much social science should be taught to students of wildlife biology may continue to remain a debate. But whether it should be taught is no longer a valid question

Should students studying wildlife be taught social sciences?

Soft murmurs of discontent could be heard at the recently concluded Student Conference on Conservation 2016 held in Bengaluru on the undue importance given to the social sciences in the workshops and plenary talks, with far less emphasis on wildlife biology and purely scientific topics. The same students felt that their coursework should focus more on studying species than how to conduct social surveys or work with communities.

The Student Conference on Conservation is an annual event that brings together over 500 students from Africa and Asia to present the latest research.

SCCS says it “helps young conservation scientists gain experience, learn new ideas and make contacts that will be valuable for their future careers." It’s also a platform for young minds to learn from each other and some of the best minds in the field of wildlife biology.

You could brush away the complaints of the students at the SCCS as just the rant of some students against a system. But the rant actually is symptomatic of a larger issue—of the existing tension within the discipline of conservation biology and how it should be taught. And more importantly, how wildlife conservation should be practised especially in a human dominated landscape.

While world over there is an acceptance of the need to work with local communities to save biodiversity, there continue to be debates on how much is too much. There are absolutists—like the ones who raised objections at the SCCS—who believe that wildlife biology should focus on species and the natural world, while communities and how to work with them should be the domain of the social scientists.

Yet the recent trends now indicate the need for a new and emerging discipline—Conservation Social Science that combines the ethics of the social sciences with the knowledge systems of the natural sciences. Everyone working in conservation now accepts that natural science alone cannot solve conservation problems.

The session at the SCCS on ‘Ethics in Conservation’ perhaps summed up best the need for combining these two disciplines. Students asked a panel comprising noted sociologist Amita Baviskar, wildlife biologist Anindya Sinha and Harini Nagendra about a number of dilemmas they faced in the process of doing their research, especially where there is an inter-face with communities.

One young student lamented, “I took a picture of a tribal leader without asking their permission, later I was told this is not considered acceptable within the community." Another young student who was working in Andhra Pradesh along the coast spoke of how she noticed local people entering the wildlife sanctuary and collecting firewood and how she felt guilty about not raising the issue with the forest department. Should she give the local people away and report them? And did she really have a right to report them, when she didn’t have any livelihood options to offer in return?

Conservation biology students maybe studying fishing cats, lions or frogs, but they face these ethical dilemmas everyday in the course of their fieldwork. While conservation biology can teach you how to radio collar a tiger, it does not necessarily teach you how to work with communities to mobilize them to save biodiversity. And that perhaps is the biggest challenge the discipline faces.

Fact is that in India no forest is isolated or devoid of human presence (even though the purists would want it that way). And wildlife biology students who go out to work with species at some point or the other will need these life skills of working with communities, asking questions that are culturally appropriate. But as Nathan Bennet and others argue in a paper published in June 2016 titled ‘Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation,’ despite broad recognition of the value of social sciences and increasingly vocal calls for better engagement with the human element of conservation, the social sciences remain misunderstood and underutilized in practice.

How much social science should be taught to students of wildlife biology may continue to remain a debate. But whether it should be taught is no longer a valid question. A more inclusive conservation science (i.e., one that includes methods and insights from the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities) will enable the conservation community to produce more ecologically effective and socially just conservation.

Primatologist and professor Anindhya Sinha who tried addressing the students dilemmas summed it up well: while there are no right answers, the fact that students face these ethical dilemmas suggests that a more formal discussion of these issues is needed. Point taken.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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