Zoological Survey of India: A hundred years of glorious legacy

Zoological Survey of India: A hundred years of glorious legacy

September 7, 2015

The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) is one of the most venerable institutions of the country. This national institution is celebrating its centenary in 2015.

Though founded on July 1, 1916, its history goes back to 1875 with the establishment of the Zoological Section of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. The section was established on the strength of the zoological collection from the former museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The activities of the ZSI include surveying, exploring and researching the fauna in the Indian subcontinent (originally in the erstwhile ‘British Indian Empire’). These activities are coordinated by the Conservation and Survey Division in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The headquarters of the ZSI is located at New Alipore in Kolkata.

(Clockwise from above) ZSI; 1st director-general, Thomas Annandale; plaque dedicated to Annandale at Indian Museum (thestatesman.com; Wikipedia; victorianweb.org)


The diversity of India

India is recognised as one of the twelve mega diversity countries of the world with two biodiversity hotspots – the Eastern Himalaya and the Western Ghats. There are about 1.7 million living species described from all over the world, of which approximately 96,000 species of animals have been described in India till date. In the last 100 years, the national organisation has emerged as a repository of knowledge of these 96,000-odd species, 5,000 of which were new to science. However, a large number of species are expected to be discovered, especially from the lower invertebrate groups occurring in various ecosystems.

Scientists in ZSI are engaged in exploring, naming, describing, classifying and documenting animals from all over India. For this, the Kolkata-based institution has eight Regional Stations and eight Field Stations. The ZSI also functions as the guardian of the National Zoological Collections, containing over a million identified specimens from all animal groups.

New discoveries

Scientists at the ZSI have discovered more than 150 animal species in the past one year. Ninety-three species of insects were recorded, along with 24 species of amphibians, 23 species of fish and two species of reptiles.

The other new finds were 12 species each of arachnida and crustacea, and one species each of nematoda, trematoda and mollusca.

A newly-discovered subterranean frog; a catfish (landofthewild.com; thehindu.com)


Bengal’s faunal diversity

Of the new insects discovered, several were found in Bengal – among other places, at Panchala in Howrah district, at Kalikhola and Buxa Tiger Reserve in Jalpaiguri district, at Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Darjeeling district, in Alipurduar, and in Burdwan.

In fact, North Bengal, particularly Darjeeling, is considered a animal diversity hotspot by zoologists as the Eastern Himalayas is the gateway for faunal elements coming to India. The insect and amphibian population in Darjeeling is very high.

Of the 96,000-odd recorded animal species in India, 11,042 species, or more than 10%, are found in West Bengal. Different climate zones – alpine temperate forest in Darjeeling, tropical forest in North Bengal, deciduous forest in South Bengal, dry grassland in the middle region and mangroves in the Sundarbans – support a varied animal life.

Newly-discovered insects: (L to R) A tiny damselfly; Calvia explanata; a water strider (indiabiodiversity.org; bdj.pensoft.net; researchgate.net)


New activities

In the run-up to its centenary year, the ZSI has embarked on an ambitious programme to digitise the specimens found in India. Creation of a geographic information system (GIS) platform is underway, using which all the species would be spatially and temporally mapped for reference. The mapping would enable the ZSI to have baseline data for climate change. For this purpose, the ZSI has made several permanent monitoring plots, among other places, in the Sundarbans, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and at the Malvan coast.

A databank of high-resolution photographs of type specimens, along with their full profiles – what they look like, where they were discovered, where they are now found and their DNA bar code – would be created.

India’s Biological Diversity Act provides for a sovereign right over all the biodiversity available in the country. To establish that right over the biodiversity, DNA bar coding has to be done. For instance, the shark soup served in a Singaporean or an American restaurant could be easily analysed through DNA bar coding to check whether the shark belonged to India.

Preparation of pictorial catalogues of the zoological collections has also been undertaken.

The Rs 3-crore project would digitise information on 7,286 species, most of which are 100-200 years old.

The ZSI is also talking of restoration of certain ecosystems, for instance, the coral reefs of the Gulf of Kutch, that have been lost over the years.

Founder’s grave discovered

Not many people know that the first director-general of ZSI, Thomas Nelson Annandale was buried at the Scottish Cemetery in 1924. However, this was not known till recently. According to some records at ZSI, Annandale was buried at South Park Street cemetery. It took ZSI, which is adept at identifying species around the country, a while to fish out documents to prove his burial at Scottish Cemetery. A plaque was then erected to pay homage to the Scottish founder at recently-discovered tomb.


Renovated grave of Thomas Nelson Annandale (thehindu.com)


ZSI’s collection thrown open to the public

For the first time, more than 40 lakh zoological specimens (from ants to elephants) that were collected over the past 250 years by scientists, the largest collection in the world, were thrown open to the public by the ZSI as a part of its centennial celebrations. From July 1, when the celebrations officially started, for a few days, the collection was thrown open to the public. Till date, only scientists and research scholars, having proper permission, had access to the National Zoological Collections.

Some of the collections are more than 200 years old and were collected by scientists from neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Myanmar. While there are mounted specimens of several animals starting from beautiful, large and colourful butterflies to animals which are now thought to be extinct, such as the pink-headed duck, cheetah and Malabar civet, there are also around 300 trunks full of animal bones, many of which are yet to be identified.

Illustrations of some extinct species: (L to R) Pink-headed duck, Malabar civet (birding.in; Helmut Diles/WWF-India/wiienvis.nic.in)


A bright future

While a lot has been done over the last 100 years, new activities are continuously being undertaken. Besides the digitisation efforts already described, many other field activities are also being undertaken constantly.

For instance, the ZSI is all set to conduct a research and conservation programme on the rarest of rare species found in the Shivalik Hills ecosystem, spread across the four states of Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The project will be funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) will help with GIS applications and Uttarakhand State Council for Science and Technology (UCOST) will contribute towards providing expertise from related fields for the survey.




Lead image: Wikipedia



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