Quest to save native species

Quest to save native species

The Habitats Trust aims to fund efforts to conserve lesser-known species and habitats

The Habitats Trust began in 2018 with the aim of protecting and promoting indigenous species and natural habitats in India. The trust provides four grants to individuals and organisations that facilitate this aim. Trisha Ghose, the project director, was recently in Bengaluru at The Habitats Trust Symposium on January 21. The event was organised to walk future applicants through the process, which is open till February 29. 

Trisha says that grants like these are especially important in times when the government doesn’t prioritise the environment. “They are doing things but most of the funding goes to animals like the tiger, rhino or elephant; we concentrate on lesser-known species and habitats,” she says.

Bengaluru-based Metastring Foundation is striving to find ways to deal with the plummeting wild species population. The winners of the 2019 Lesser-known Species Grant, they have been working to understand and conserve the Malabar Tree Toad. Harikrishna Surendran of the Metastring Foundation talks about the project to Metrolife

Why the Malabar Tree Toad?

They are a truly unique species. Research indicates that their ancestors split from its closest relatives at least 65 million years ago, making it a deeply endemic species. 

Its distribution in some of the most threatened regions of the Western Ghats, its unique ecology, and its conservation status make it ideal for conservation. 

Is there a reason for choosing a community-based approach?

We have been involved in citizen-science initiatives for several years, through our open access ‘India Biodiversity Portal’. Most targeted research projects are restricted by time or space. Adequate understanding of the ecology and population status of species requires coverage of large parts of its distribution as well as accumulation of long-term data which makes it practically impossible for an individual or a small team. However, the people living in these areas can help address these problems. 

What’s the end goal of the project?

Assessing the conservation status of the Malabar Tree Toad through engagement of local citizens, identifying priority habitats/geographic locations for conservation action, and developing local capacity for surveying and monitoring amphibians.

How important do you think grants, such as this, are to conservation?

This grant is unique in its focus on species which are often not very charismatic or popular with the public. The focus is on neglected species which need conservation action. Such grants will lay the foundation for a much broader and inclusive approach to conservation.

Neethi Mahesh was a runner-up of The Habitats Trust Grants 2018 under the ‘Lesser-known Habitats’ category and has expanded the scope of her project this year as the winner of the Conservation Hero Grant in 2019. Her project is based on the freshwater fish Mahseer. 

Why did you pick riverine habitats and the Mahseer as your area of interest?

It is a well known fact that freshwater fish have not been listed under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. While carrying out surveys of freshwater fish in a west flowing river, in the Western Ghats, local communities spoke of a large species of fish which were dynamited every year, during their annual migration. The fish they were referring to were the Mahseer. Their ecology and spatial requirement became the focus of my work, soon after, for they play a major role as an indicator species for rivers. 

What’s the end goal of your study?

The work now involves engaging with communities and schools in Coorg District, to establish a long term, sustainable community-based river monitoring network. We have created a tech-based platform called, ‘Our River, Our Life’ that connects communities with the necessary tools for river conservation efforts. 

How important do you think grants, such as the one you’ve received, are to conservation?

This work has largely been possible through small grants from WWF- India, Rufford Foundation and now The Habitats Trust. Conservation and research grants are crucial in enabling and sustaining efforts in the field, which is the immediate need of the hour. The grants support field-based conservationists all over the country and encourages more people to get involved in such work. 

The grants 

Strategic Partnership Grant (Rs 25 lakh)
Lesser-known Habitats Grant (Rs 20 lakh)
Lesser-known Species Grant (Rs 15 lakh)
Conservation Hero Grant (Rs 10 lakh)

The process

They have a very rigorous selection process. “It starts with an online application, after which external auditors have look at them for the first level of screening. Next, a few are shortlisted for field inspections. If they pass that they are presented to the sub jury who select three finalists in each category. They are all brought to Delhi to present their work after which four winners are selected,” Trisha explains. 

The parameters

Strength and capacity of the applicant to deliver 

Relevance and importance of the habitat or species chosen

The status of the target habitat and/or species

A pragmatic project activity plan 

Stakeholder involvement, including collaboration with locals and NGOs 

Expected project impact and a monitoring and evaluation plan