Environment

ZOO in his luggage: Dr Sanjay Molur on the three decades of the Zoo Outreach Organisation

The Zoo Outreach Organisation turns 33 years old and its executive director Dr Sanjay Molur explains the work it has done all these years

Ask Dr Sanjay Molur, executive director and trustee of Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO), what got him into conservation biology and the answer is “frogs”. Thereby hangs an interesting tale. When in school, and later in college in Bengaluru, Molur noticed that the frogs in the labs were getting smaller and that the number of species was also declining. Intrigued, he sought out the supplier who told him that earlier he got plenty of frogs in and around the city but was now being forced to travel 20-30 km outside. “This piqued my interest and I started going around with him. That’s why I tend to focus on amphibians,” he laughs.

Molur has been with ZOO for 25 years and the organisation itself turns 33 on January 11. Over the past three decades, ZOO has focused on gathering scientific data, doing risk assessments of species, conducting capacity-building programmes for biologists, conservationists and working with schools, colleges and anyone with an interest in the field. But the organisation’s beginnings lie in an invitation from Mysore Zoo allowing people to hold the tiger cubs born there (see box).

“Our forte is data,” asserts Molur, “and philosophy is to lie low and let the science speak for itself.” While the organisation does not engage directly with officials, “our data informs decisions. We reach out to the government with our findings and courts have used our publications at Environmental Impact Assessments, and our species assessments have helped frame the Wildlife Protection Act and the Biodiversity Act.” However, Molur says that, while awareness of the environment and conservation is spreading among people, it is yet to impact policies. “Even if there is awareness, it may not reflect because of various pressures. Usually conservation loses out.” He emphasises that he is not talking about the charismatic species like the tiger or rhino “that are getting a lot of vociferous support but, in general, biodiversity per se is not doing well.” Why? “The number of people on this side is not enough. Also conservation has limited finances. The sector that influences or impacts biodiversity always has more money. I am not really very negative,” he smiles ruefully, “but this is the trend. The pressures on biodiversity are so much more.”

Does he have a solution? “Get more people involved,” he says immediately. To do so, ZOO has changed its lie-low policy and is also entering the social media space. The strategy here is “Stick to the truth. We have a wealth of information but we need to strip the science off its jargon and put it out in a way that people understand.”

Going forward, on the organisational front, Molur wants to send out positive stories from India and bring in new tools and techniques for assessment. He is emphatic that India cannot remain insulated. “Wildlife, conservation and environment do not have borders. We cannot stick to our boundaries in the name of nationalism,” he says earnestly.

The beginning: January 11, 1985

When Sally Walker came to India to learn yoga from Pattabi Jois, she had no idea about conservation. Attracted by an article stating that Mysore Zoo would allow visitors to hold new-born tiger cubs, Walker went to went to the zoo. She began volunteering there and working with Dr Mewa Singh, of the University of Mysore, on how to care for the cubs. A little later, she started the Friends of Mysore Zoo, to get more volunteers and sponsors to adopt animals. This was so successful that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked her to start similar organisations in zoos across India. And so Zoo Outreach Organisation was born.

Tips for children

What should a child interested in conservation biology do? Molur suggests the following:

Develop empathy and curiosity. He talks about how he used to dig in the mud for earthworms. “I noticed that the number differed according to the type of soil.”

Observe the world around closely. He has a simple exercise. Record the biodiversity inside the house. Observe a house that is gecko friendly and one that is not. What do you see? What are the plants in the backyard or roads? Build from that.

Just read. “Comic books inspired me.” He reels off names – Hulk, Fantastic Four, Superman, Calvin & Hobbes, Tintin, Asterix, Phantom – and then laughs at my incredulous look. “All of them inherently have conservation messages. It’s all a question of how you read and interpret them.” His recommendations include Gerald Durrell, Desmond Morris, “even Enid Blyton”.

ZOO in print

In 1995, “the risk assessment of species began as an experiment with medicinal plants. Today the count stands at over 10000 species and is growing. The data gathered is fed into the IUCN’s Red List. One of the things that made this possible was the monthly Zoos’ Print Journal. “When we started, people had problems in publishing articles. For many, English was not their primary language and there were very few journals,” recalls Molur. “We began in April 1999 with 12 pages. By December it was around 48 pages. By December 2007, it was 84 pages,” Molur says proudly, adding, “I recently learned that this was one of the first open-access journals in the world.” The journal began inside the monthly Zoos’ Print Magazine , which contains articles about what’s happening in the world of zoos, wildlife and conservation. Both these magazine are available for free on http://zooreach.org

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 4:19:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/dr-sanjay-molur-on-his-zoo-outreach-organisation-zoo/article22404529.ece

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