This is surely a case of serendipity. I had decided to read a book entitled, The Big Conservation Lie, written by Mordecai Ogada and John Mbaria with the aim of revisiting some traditional concepts of wildlife protection and environmentalism when I learned the news of the publication of the paper, “Decoloniality and Anti-Oppressive Practices for a More Ethical Ecology,” by Christopher H Trisos, Jess Auerbach and Madhusudan Katti. It became immediately obvious that the authors of the two documents were broaching the same subject from different vantage positions and it became apparent to me that it would be worthwhile to state my own views in relation to these publications. The paper was garnered additional importance in the wake of the recently concluded conference entitled, Our Land, Our Nature, which challenges the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notion that 30% of the world’s lands should be set aside for protected areas.
Before these publications were introduced to me, I wrote my own book, Dreaming In Calcutta And Channel Islands, published in 2015, an account of my own experience in India and my first visit to England. This book also questions many traditional beliefs outlined in the paper and the book currently under perusal. One principal thought articulated in my book is the question that why information flow on any topic, including wildlife-related topics, appears to have been only one way, that is, based on the experience of Westerners commenting on affairs both on their own countries and in different continents globally. Dominant views on ecology, wildlife, and conservation that I read during my childhood were always based on Western notions. I very often thought as a child, why was it that a child born in USA or UK could dream about going to Africa to study wildlife whereas this same dream was considered to be unfeasible for a child in India. It can be said that India has many wild animals in the country, but the same can be said of the United States. It felt to me there was some other reason behind this discrepancy and as I grew I realized the discrepancy was geographical location, nationality, and economics. An American person who has money can go anywhere he likes and his dream of studying Mountain Gorillas in the Congo is thus practical, but an Indian does not have enough financial resources to do so and thus his dream remains impractical. My book cites several examples of people who have broken this mold.
My book speaks of the monumental contribution of Ram Brahma Sanyal, the first superintendent of Alipore Zoo in Calcutta, to zoo management, since he wrote the world’s first modern zoo management book, The Handbook of The Management of Animals in Captivity in Lower Bengal, in 1892. In the literature on zoos, emanating from the west, there is a glut of references on the work of pioneers in this field like Lee Saunders Crandall, Devra Kleiman, Gerald Durrell, John Aspinall, William Conway, and Steve Irwin but Sanyal is still almost unknown in wildlife protection and zoo circles. It is a common experience for me to speak on the zoo topic to Westerners and find them noting his name. This lack of recognition is outlined in the decoloniality paper under the paradigm shifts entitled, ‘Decolonize your Mind’ and ‘Know Your Histories.’ Similarly, there is little recognition for the gigantic contribution of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose in botany and physics in the western world. One would be lucky to hear his name in Western academia or popular discourse on plants despite his monumental contribution to botany, especially on the topic of how plants react to stimuli.
This lack of recognition also extends to a naturalist from Bengal named Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya who conducted pioneering studies on insects and animal behavior (ethology), comparable to that done by Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl Ritter von Frisch, Eugene Marais, and Jean Henri Fabre. Among these names, all of them belong to the Global North, except Marais, but Marais was a white South African so white privilege would apply to him because his roots were European. This is not a complaint that these scientists did not deserve the well-earned recognition they received — although Marais did not get adequate recognition. But since Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya remains an almost unknown name in the West, it is a demonstration of the fact that recognition and fame for many scientists depend on their nationality and how much exposure they have obtained from the Global North rather than the intrinsic quality of their scientific research.
To illustrate the imbalance of research efforts due to financial constraints, I would like to state that in India, one of the most remarkable works on wildlife has been the studies of the late Professor Ratan Lal Brahmachary, of the Indian Statistical Institute, on pheromones, who visited Africa fourteen times and wrote of his studies on African big cats, elephants, gorillas, and other fauna. In his books, including, My Tryst With Big Cats, Professor Brahmachary repeatedly spoke about how difficult it was for him to sustain his research financially and the enormous lengths he went to save money to conduct research in Africa. My point is simply this, as an individual, I can be as fascinated about Polar Bears as I can be about tigers. My desire to study lions in the Serengeti in Tanzania can be as strong as my wish to see tigers in Sunderbans. However, finances and a host of other reasons brought about in its wake get in the way of realizing my dreams of working with wildlife in faraway lands whereas this is most likely not the case in the Global North. This brings us to a fundamental question on economics as much as it does about ecology: why are some countries endowed with more wealth than others? If there is an equitable distribution and indeed creation of wealth globally, then a researcher from India like Madhusudan Katti can indeed freely go to the USA or Canada to study Polar Bears and Harp Seals without constantly having to worry about fellowships, grants, visas, draconian immigration policy restrictions, access to study locations and above all racism. The traditional query, “You are from India, why do you want to study Polar Bears in Canada?” can also be applied to a counter-question, “You are from the USA, why do you want to save tigers in Bangladesh?” So if we take two ecologists or wildlife researchers based in New York and Dhaka, they may have the same dreams and capabilities but one is ahead of the other sheerly because of an accident of birth that puts him ahead because of financial and political muscle power. This balance of power has to change and this comes under the paradigm in the paper, ‘Decolonize your mind.’ The popular catchphrase, ‘Think globally, act locally,’ is rooted in prejudice and a colonial mindset that allows people from the Global North to do what they like both locally and globally but encourages or suggests that people from the global South should be restricted to their own backyards and not venture beyond for exploration. I have always felt very strongly about this.
A common conundrum that I find very puzzling in ecology is that species are discovered and given names by people who purportedly saw the animal or plant or recorded the first specimen. One example is the Okapi reportedly being discovered by Sir Harry Johnston in 1901. This is borne by the scientific name of the creature, Okapia johnstoni, in Latin. Surely one can be pardoned for thinking the local people of Congo knew about the existence of the creature before Sir Harry Johnston laid his eyes on the animal? Here discovery means discovery to European people representing civilization, whatever one may construe by that description. Mahatma Gandhi once mocked Western civilization as being what “might be a good idea,” and Gandhi’s quote is worth thinking about in the context of ecology and conservation today.
In the aftermath of discoveries of continents and people and wildlife in Africa, Asia, and South America by Westerners, what followed in many cases was colonization of the land, plunder of resources (both material and natural), and the capture of animals to be sent to a lifetime of captivity in zoos. Humans were not spared from this brutality, as evident by the fact that a Pygmy man from Congo named Ota Benga was displayed in the Bronx Zoo in New York City in the United States in 1906 before protests stopped this unethical and immoral racist exhibition. These are all concepts that come under the shifts in the Decoloniality paper, ‘Know Your Histories,’ and ‘Decolonize your Mind.’
I want to mention ongoing research on hybridization in biology that is making new revelations on a regular basis. The standard definition of species as popularised by Ernst Mayr is based on reproductive isolation whereas modern research has shown us that not only are species not restricted by reproductive isolation, the whole concept of species as a rigid unit can be logically re-examined and, indeed, many scientists are doing so. The prejudice against hybridization and hybrid animals extends up to the holy cow of the IUCN, whose endorsement has resulted in killing hybrid animals in captivity, an act I have challenged in my publications with primatologists Karin Saks and Anindya Sinha. Modern-day ecology and conservation has a lot of baggage from the legacy of people like Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Sir Julian Huxley of Great Britain, both of whom had racist and eugenicist views. It is up to modern scientists to change this legacy not only to ensure more compassionate humane treatment for hybrid animals but for devising more equitable and just policies for forest dwellers living around national parks and inhabitants of the global south in general.
I want to end with two cautionary notes. One, an ecologically destructive practice does not automatically become acceptable just because the practitioners are from the global south. Therefore, if there are morally dubious practices related to wildlife trade and animal killing practiced by tribal communities or specific populations in the global south, they should not be automatically granted legitimacy on account of their location and the ethnicity of their practitioners.
Second, the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, once stated that the fact that a group of human beings has been oppressed by another group of human beings does not automatically make the oppressed group of people morally superior, because given the chance the oppressed can very quickly become the oppressors. We have plenty of examples in the political scenario of the world today. Whilst decolonizing ecology and asking for more global representation in science and culture, we should bear this in mind. Minority integration should not become a tyranny of the minority as represented poignantly in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell.
Given the above, and living with the hope that it can be attained, we can then truly do justice to what Carl Sagan said in his book Pale Blue Dot in 1990 and ensure “our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Read the entire Decolonizing Science series:
1. Introduction: Decolonizing Science and a World Turned Upside Down by Madhusudan Katti and Jess Auerbach
2. Towards a New Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans and Nature by Shubhobroto Ghosh
3. What Will It Take to Decolonize Ecology? by Adriana Romero-Olivares and Prakash Kashwan
4. If Colonialism in Africa is Dead, Would That Make Forest Conservation its Ghost? by Emmanuel Nuesiri
5. What Does Decolonization Mean for Conservation? by Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri
6. Decolonizing Science Means Taking Indigenous Knowledge Seriously by Dina Lupin
7. On Decolonizing the Law: Views from a South African Legal Scholar by Caiphas Brews Soyapi
8. Decolonizing Science and the Bias Against Non-Native English Speakers by Ian MacGregor-Fors