Eminent zoologist and ecologist Oommen V. Oommen, Chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, talks about his enduring tryst with science
The little boy who grew up in the village of Nallanikunnu never imagined that one day he might inherit a life exploring the wonders of the animal world. With three decades of research in zoology and ecology behind him, Oommen V. Oommen’s long journey through science has been a random walk filled with surprises.
“My school education was in Nallanikunnu. It was like any other village in Kerala in the 1960s, isolated and in a world of its own. Whatever time I had after school went in helping my parents with the household chores. My family did not have the wherewithal to support my education beyond college. I worked for a while as a sales representative selling chemical pesticides, which, on hindsight, was a dreadful thing to do ecologically,” says Dr. Oommen.
Fortune stumbled in when he received a redirected telegram notifying him that he had been selected for the programme in zoology at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). “Stepping into the sprawling campus of the university with its vast libraries, large classrooms and 20,000 students, I realised how small I was,” recollects Dr. Oommen.
BHU opened for him the doorway to a fascinating new world of research on animal physiology. “I worked under Professor J. P. Thapliyal for my PhD in comparative endocrinology, studying the endocrine system across life forms. This was a way of tracking down similarities and differences between species,” explains the scientist.
The most productive years of his career in zoology came from long collaborations with researchers at the National History Museum, London. In the midst of 1990s, while a faculty at the University of Kerala, Dr. Oommen received a letter from the Natural History Museum. A team from the museum was collecting information on the caecilians of the world, a species of limbless amphibians. “One can pretend that these animals do not even exist because they are subterranean. We rarely spot them, unless we dig through the earth. But they are so important for the ecosystem of the soil,” he explains.
The team from London had seen Dr. Oommen’s publications on caecilians. “On my brother’s ancient typewriter, I wrote back that I was willing to work with them. That one letter and its reply started the revival of caecilian research in India,” claims Dr. Oommen. A high point of this collaboration was the discovery of a new species. In the late 1970s, during a field trip, Dr. Oommen and his team had collected a caecilian specimen from the Bonacaud area in the foothills of Agasthyarkoodam. The specimen was sent to the Zoological Survey of India in Chennai to help with identification. Two decades later, when the researchers from London visited the museum in Chennai, they re-examined the specimen and found the earlier identification wrong. It was a new species altogether.
“They asked whether I would mind if they named a species after me. This was the genesis of Ureaotyphlus oommeni. I am immortalised in science,” he says with a laugh. As he dug deeper into his study of the animal world, Dr. Oommen found a concern for the environment growing within him. His research required frequent trips to areas of the Western Ghats where he witnessed the rampant damage that humans had inflicted on the forests. “Kerala is rich in biodiversity. There are several hundred species of plants and animals, big and small, which are endemic to this part of the world. This diversity of life is our greatest treasure and their protection should be a prime concern for all of us,” he says.
As chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, Dr. Oommen is piloting a large number of conservation programmes to preserve the natural world. The board has identified patches of fragile ecosystems across the state as biodiversity heritage sites, insulating them from human encroachment through strong legislations. More recently, a project has been initiated in the Cardamom Hill reserves of Udumbanchola in Idukki district for the restoration of genetically diverse crops with incentives for farmers who adopt methods of organic farming.
Dr. Oommen feels that it is perfectly within the powers of individuals to make a difference. Planting of trees, proper use of natural resources and supporting biodiversity by growing local varieties of plants and vegetables at home are practices everyone can adopt. “Recently I happened to visit a farm run by a family in Chittoor, Palakkad district. They are rearing indigenous high-range dwarf cows in the most natural environment. The milk of this cow is proven to be beneficial for the health of the heart, stomach and kidney. Such indigenous varieties of cattle have become a rarity. Hybrid and foreign breeds are preferred purely for their high yield, even though their milk is comparatively a poor source of vitamins and minerals,” he explains.
Dr. Oommen’s optimism for the future lies in educating children about the need for nature conservation. He splits time from his busy schedule to reach out to school students, talking to them about wildlife and ecology, answering their queries on career possibilities in these fields. “There is much to be learned about the natural world we are living in. There are possibly hundreds of species of plants and animals in our forests that are yet to be discovered. Our culture is a storehouse of traditional wisdom on ecology which is not understood properly,” he says, pausing for an instant, “I would like the next generation to be better stewards than we have been in caring for the environment.”
Nature conservation is intimately linked with the quality of human life. It is a mistake to think of the two as conflicting interests. Through its outreach programmes the Kerala Biodiversity Board hopes to displace the notion that protection of the environment can happen only at the expense of material development.