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Puzzle for scientific community!

Despite allocating a staggering USD 34 million through a loan and grant for a seven year project, the end product comes out with a number of inaccuracies puzzling especially the scientific community.

Taprobanica Nature Conservation Society researchers point out inaccuracies in the consultancy report prepared by many consultants for the Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources through an Asian Development Bank loan.

Society’s Chairman Tasun Amarasinghe, Secretary Dinesh Gabadage and Coordinator Mohamed Bahir told `The Island’ that popular conservationists dominating the field of conservation science seem not to be familiar with the science of taxonomy, especially the need to identify species accurately, cite references in the text and list them under references.

Amarasinghe says this is an issue to be argued nationally and internationally. It is incumbent upon educators, conservation managers, legal advisors, funding agencies, officials and policy makers to work along with genuine research scientists to safeguard the island’s vanishing natural treasure.

"Clearly, the procedures on the appointment of consultants to conduct studies should be revised and genuine researchers should get the opportunity to contribute towards the conservation of the country’s vanishing biodiversity heritage," he added.

These scientists have seen many errors in one such final consultancy report, published recently to popularize conservation in Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve `Consultancy report, Biodiversity baseline survey: Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve’, project funded by the Department of Wildlife Conservation through Asian Development Bank loan number 1767-SRI.

They question that while reading the document, the need for a baseline survey such as this? The flora of Ritigala was documented to a great extent about a quarter century ago and recent studies have simply confirmed this early assessment; that three species of plants are restricted to Ritigala as point endemics.

Department of Wildlife Conservation Operations Director Rathnayake told `The Island’ that the biodiversity survey report has been submitted and the evaluation will be done shortly.

He said of the USD 34 million, USD 11.5 came as an ADB loan and others came as grants through multi nationals. Despite numerous efforts Wildlife Conservation Director Ananda Wijesooriya could not be contacted.

Bahir says Ritigala is already recognized as a Strict Nature Reserve; consequently the habitats and the existing species within the reserve have received the strictest protection. It is noteworthy that there are only three Strict Nature Reserves in Sri Lanka, namely Ritigala, Hakgala and Yala (a part of the Park), so the importance of Ritigala is already recognized and granted the required conservation status.

"We believe that consultancy services should be of a higher standard, and in addition they are well remunerated for their efforts, so we have a right to expect that there should not be any gross errors or inaccuracies in consultancy service reports," they said.

They point out many errors and inaccuracies in the `Biodiversity Baseline Survey: Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve’ and argue that to produce this nature of publications does not need any consultants.

The biodiversity baseline survey team included nine PhD holders – including two foreigners- show mistakes and inaccuracies not expected by the readers, conservation managers, policy makers, scientists or the general public from what is claimed to be a refined final report, derived out of work funded by the tax-payer.

Many of the existing errors in are on systematics and scientific issues, and continue the sort of taxonomic inaccuracies in conservation publications from the region which have been exposed recently. It is critically important that consultants on conservation science should be able to produce valid conclusions and bring out worthwhile publications if they are to feed into policy and planning, added Bahir.

They highlight many severe errors and serious inaccuracies in the Department of Wildlife Conservation. They stress the importance of consultants in biodiversity studies being up to date publications with the existing scientific literature, nomenclature and refer quality publications in their reports.

Gabadage says it is obvious, in addition, that the authorities must consult appropriate taxonomists in biodiversity surveys for species identification; otherwise it simply amounts to a waste of funds, and will create problems for conservation rather than serving the remaining biodiversity.

Errors in references and citations

The report refers to the widely recognized work on Sri Lankan flora but this is not listed under References. Also the contributions of many authors on the fauna of Sri Lanka and the status of taxonomy, research and conservation edited by Dr. Channa Bambaradeniya is cited in the text for the whole 308 page document simply as Bambaradeniya, C. N. B. (ed.) 2006; this neglects the input by the researchers who actually worked out their areas, and offered their findings of years of work or results to a national program to prioritize conservation, organized by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources together with IUCN.

Bahir says this method of citation is bizarre: the editor of a compilation -in this case Bambaradeniya- is not the person responsible for the research, findings and opinions of its contributors. The consultants actually needed to cite only some of the articles from that document relevant to the groups that they worked out in their survey.

According to him the report says of the freshwater fish diversity of Ritigala, `Five species are endemic, representing 11 per cent of the 44 species endemic to Sri Lanka’. In reality, at the end of August, 2008, 35 species were endemic to Sri Lanka. It is evident, as demonstrated on the evidence of two invertebrate and four vertebrate groups, that the biotic interchange is much limited than has been assumed and that Sri Lanka has maintained a fauna that is largely distinct from the mainland. Many species of animals will probably turn out to be endemic after taxonomic comparisons, as has been shown recently. Nonetheless, there is a danger of listing species as endemic without evidence.

In `Freshwater fishes of Sri Lanka’, the author unwittingly published statements of Pethiyagoda, without knowing the seriousness of taxonomic issues. It is rather unfortunate that the consultants did not preserve any voucher specimens of freshwater fish in their survey, so the identity of their species cannot be confirmed. To obtain collection permission from the Department of Wildlife Conservation is difficult for bona fide scientists, but unfortunately conservationists in many cases get permission to collect specimens in their studies without any taxonomists to identify them accurately. Consultants actually misused their opportunity of preserving voucher specimens though they had permission to make collections. Current procedures for systematics and conservation science by the authorities in Sri Lanka should be improved or reassessed up to international standards of taxonomy and conservation science.

They said going by the report, it is not at all clear how the consultants identified the species concerned; these references, and others not mentioned here, should have been listed, in particular because they did in fact cite several in the text which nonetheless did not appear in the References Cited list.

"We ask the following questions: Is this because the consultants are not aware of these relevant publications? (Answer no, because some of those publications are already referred to by them in (DWC 2007b), and we believe the final report needed likewise to provide all relevant references to enable readers to understand the project and its context). Are the consultants themselves actual researchers and/or scientists? Have they published research papers in international journals in their respective fields? How are consultants chosen, and what is the policy behind the appointment of consultants in any given program?

To take only the most glaring example, the editor of a multi-authored compilation (e.g., Bambaradeniya, 2006) must not be the one to receive the citations; he or she presumably has a hand in choosing the authors of the various contributions, but beyond that he/she is in no way responsible for what they write.

It is mandatory for amateur naturalists, taxonomists, conservation scientists, conservation managers, government officials, legal advisors, policy makers and politicians to pay serious attention to solving matters of this nature, especially at consultancy level; otherwise conservation science and biodiversity research in Sri Lanka will perish.

This is an issue to be argued nationally and internationally; in Sri Lanka, a unique jewel of biodiversity, much of what comparatively little remains is now trapped in small forest islands, and pleads for conservation. It is incumbent upon conservation managers, funding agencies and policy makers to work along with genuine research scientists to safeguard the island’s vanishing natural heritage.

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