All creatures great and small

On the joy of reporting on new species of plants and animals Every year on World Environment Day, the Botanical Survey of India and the Zoological Survey of India, set up in the colonial era in Kolkata to record the flora and fauna of the country, publish a list of new species of animals and plants discovered the previous year. About seven years ago, when I began visiting these organisations as a reporter, I found it difficult to get the scientists and taxonomists to explain their work in common parlance to me. I had no formal training in zoology or botany and was full of questions and doubts about the scientific jargon in their explanations. But what I funnily found as difficult was convincing them that what appeared as routine work to them could in fact be of interest to common people. For instance, in 2015, the Zoological Survey updated its list of raptors (birds of prey) in India. I was interested in knowing how many of the world’s raptors were found in the country. It turned out that India was home to 106 species of raptors, which is 18% of the number of species found in the world. These included raptors that can only be found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Similarly, I found out that there exists a new species of banana, which is edible and sweet and with orange coloured pulp. The scientist was not convinced that this species, found in a tropical rainforest on the Little Andaman Islands, would be of interest to anyone but scientists. It turns out that the story was interesting enough to make it to the Civil Services Examination in the form of a question later. Over numerous conversations with taxonomists over the years, I realised that every new discovery of a plant or an animal species had the possibility of becoming a news story, not only because it would reveal something new to the world, but also expand our knowledge beyond flagship species that always make it to the news. The publications of these survey organisations are a treasure trove, opening a floodgate to fascinating, weird and exciting information about India’s biodiversity. For instance, I was excited to discover that water striders have appendages that are designed to enable them to walk on water. Similarly, the discovery of several ginger and balsams species in the Northeast highlights the importance of these biogeographic zones. A single new discovery on the basis of morphological features or genetic diversity highlights the importance of conservation. Many species may be lost without ever being discovered. It also shows us the importance of ecological hotspots such as the Western Ghats, the Himalayas, and the Northeast, where most of these discoveries are made. The fact that both these organisations are headquartered in Kolkata is useful to me as I am able to interact with scientists directly. The principle I follow is that I write a story only after details of the discovery are published in a science journal or a book and are available in the public domain. For reporters on every ‘beat’, every assignment is a dot on a learning curve. For me, it has been a unique experience. When the news is otherwise almost always about losses — of lives, biodiversity — the thrill of publishing stories on gains — of new species and the ways in which they add value to the ecosystem — is of a different kind.

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