People love learning about animals. It’s true. In PLOS blogs alone, animal posts have been very popular–including strange animal findings, squid beaks and spider webs, and even the fossil record of the lace-bug. As David Attenborough rightly said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have not experienced”. So, we are aware of the melodrama of conservation of our fauna and flora from natural and anthropogenic activities. Additionally, Earth’s biodiversity never ceases to surprise us with new species every day.
Often we encounter beautiful creatures in our daily life accidently and sometimes, intentionally: a multi-coloured butterfly or a skink in their backyard, a blue bottle fly in their kitchen, a lovely bush-stone curlew during a bush walk, a carpet snake on a bike lane, a gorgeous tiger-shell on the beach, a beautiful gorgonian in one of the dives, and so on. However, to conserve our biodiversity, museums, sanctuaries, national parks and heritage sites play a vital role. To better understand this, let’s examine where nature conservation scenarios between developing and developed countries intersect.
It is interesting to note we see more dogs in the streets in developing countries, yet view them more as pets in developed countries. This is just one example. It is essential to not only have an awareness on how dogs are seen, but a broader understanding that each living organism has the right to live on this planet in its own glorified manner.
It is only when we perceive each living creature, no matter whether it be a worm or an elephant, that we can conserve them. Moreover, if we understand the behavioral traits of animals (both terrestrial and marine) what they can teach us is phenomenal like the mutualism between gobi and shrimp, commensalism between whale and barnacles and parasitism of fleas, lice. etc.
Often the way we treat animals differs from people, cultures, countries, and continents. In India, as per religious and ancestral beliefs, when some animals are dangerous, they respect and worship them which has a similarity with totemism in Australian aboriginal communities. Though the intention is to stay away from scary animals, in a way, both Indians and Australian aborigines do promote animal conservation. In India, it is still observed in rural areas that snake catchers (famously called snake charmers) make their living by showing snakes to the public, frightening them with deadly stories and attracting them by claiming to have magical powers to handle deadly venomous snakes. At some point when you read a news in your local daily newspaper that the, “Unfriendly snake kills its care-taker”, it begs the question: What more can you expect from a snake after being tortured for days in a bamboo basket, severing its right from being in the wild?
India hosts about 272 of the world’s 2,000 species of snakes, out of which 80% are non-venomous. The number of Indian-snakes the 140 species of land snakes found in Australia, though some Australian Snakes are among the most highly venomous snakes in the world. In some villages in India, the deadliest Cobra is seen as obedient to a snake charmer’s instruction and rhythm. People say the snakes follow the rhythm, popularly called ‘magudi’ (which rightly means cheating) and it is an act of swaying the ‘pungi’, the musical instrument, that makes the snakes sway their hood. There are several temples for snakes in many Asian countries like India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. However, it is a more prevalent scene that when you encounter a snake in your backyard or in the wild, the initial instinct is to kill it at any cost. Contrastingly, the total annual snakebite deaths in India is 45,900. Surprisingly and contradicting to this, it is to be noted that in Australia– in which can fit two Indias and is host to many deadly snakes (both terrestrial and marine)—the annual death toll is around 4 to 6 and mostly due to the unfriendly handling of . Associate Professor Bryan Fry, a herpetologist and venom expert at the University of Queensland makes the point that this discrepancy in mortality is an important lesson for a country like India where snakes are contrastingly threatened and worshiped at the same time.
When I came to Australia, the first thing in the immigration booklet is, “you are going to live with nature!” What that means: you may live in a suburb where you may see beautiful cockatoos, kookaburras or wallabies or pretty snakes or attractive spiders. Australia is also famous for other deadly creatures like venomous tarantulas, crocodiles, box jellyfish, and sharks. Though all these animals come under “dangerous creatures”, they are typically harmless unless troubled in any way. The interesting captions and signage that welcome you in any Australia Universities or remote locations are: “Be Crocwise in Croc Country”, “Don’t scare the stingers – swim somewhere away from them”, “It’s a snake-friendly country” etc. Moreover, national sanctuaries and nature reserves/parks bring their wild animals to universities (on market days) or communal festive locations (e.g. EcoFiesta) and allow people to touch them, handle them and take a lovely picture with them. In this way, the ‘fear factor’ can be assassinated and exciting encounters with these animals can be encouraged. Besides, the various diving rules and regulations fortified on how to not disturb the coral reefs and its associated organisms is another important aspect that developing countries should learn to preserve their pristine ecosystem.
However, when anthropogenic developmental activities disturb populations, the responsibility to give communal awareness lies mostly with government and private organizations like museums and marine parks to inculcate the best thoughts to conserve our nature while in distress. I have visited some amazing museums in both developed and developing countries and I am astonished by how museums in Australia make efforts to educate the public. Queensland Museum often leads by giving informative science talks, social media engagement, fun activities for children, “giant” exhibitions like Dinosaur Discovery and the recent one on “wild state”. Kids and families are given information on an animal’s nature and importance to the ecosystem. Museums encourage annual family passes and discounted tickets where the whole family enjoys multiple entries into the learning experience about fauna and flora right from parasite world to the most endangered Mahogany gliders of the Far Northeast Queensland. Some museums go a bit further and explain the “do’s” and “don’ts” of animals when you confront them in the wild. This is one of the best ways to help children develop kindness to animals, to choose their favourite animals, but also equip themselves accordingly. The art of taxidermy teaches the public on how to bring animal specimens to the museum to give them new life. Above all, any researcher in any field, depends on museums for their collections, to learn about new organisms—their biodiversity, biogeography and unique characteristics. This in turn would favour the conservation panorama and inform policymakers to implement new policies to manage and conserve nature.
Hence, the conservation organisations in any developing countries should take a lead in educating the public from not disturbing any animal–even harmless spiders in their natural habitat—to protect them, and treat them with due respect. Also, governments can encourage museums, wildlife parks and sanctuaries to partner with wild life conservation teams and groups. Let our future generations see more animals in the wild than in the museums.
Dr. Anita George is a postdoctoral researcher at Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia with expertise in Ecology, Marine Biology, and Systematics