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By: Siddharth Shrikant Kulkarni, OTS PhD Student at George Washington University

“What happens in Costa Rica doesn’t stay in Costa Rica?”- Gustavo Hormiga, The George Washington University

I inferred many meanings from what my advisor said just before I left for the Tropical Biology course. But, this is an apt title for what I experienced throughout this course.

Quick backstory: India is a large country which accommodates huge biodiversity, mostly concentrated in the two hotspots, the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. I come from the Pune District, right in the Ghats. The mountains, full of diverse animals and plants, were unnoticeably part and parcel of daily life. I first missed those mountains and the biodiversity in 2015, during a short trip to Leiden, Netherlands. “Leiden is so flat”. Then, I missed them again in 2016 during my trip to Washington, D.C., this time for doctoral study.

The Tropical Biology course gave me an opportunity to live the tropical life again, “pura vida”. And of course, the mountains reminded me of the Western Ghats. I presented my hardcore love for spiders and phylogenetics during the Tropical Biology course. In fact, as discovered (with evidence) by Patricia Salerno, the “cappuccino high Siddharth” draws phylogenies. Christine Pardo said that “sleepy Siddharth” wakes up upon hearing “spider”. A short 45 day period was enough for my company to realize the extremity of my interest. This sounds good, however, I was becoming a narrow specialist with less of an idea about other fields, and life might have been leading to a monotone.

Like a citizen of any country, I have always wanted to contribute to the betterment of my nation through my profession. Of course, documenting spiders and their phylogenetic relationships does contribute to the understanding of the biodiversity that we have in India. However, several threats to biodiversity like mining, poaching, deforestration, fires for pasture land, etc. exist without any concrete solutions. We have gads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working towards conservation. We all have good motives to conserve the region. However, what we lack is a solid foundation of informative and long-term data about the biodiversity, habitats, and impacts of the current threats around us. Without proper information, our conservation strategies will most likely go wrong, sometimes even against what we had aimed to fix. For example, we introduced the guppy fish Gambusia sp. to control malarial Anopheles, but this fish also eats up copepods, ostracods, and small crustaceans, many of which are native and have short-range distributions.

Taking the OTS course gave me unparalleled experience in studying biodiversity and changed my perspective towards developing conservation strategies. I believe that every biology student should take it. Unlike many other countries where conservation is recognized only as a career field, it was amazing to learn that the Ticos practice it as a part of their culture. According to the survey we conducted in San Vito and my discussions with Don Carlos and Don Alberto in Cuerici, generations have transformed themselves from their habits of hunting animals to striving for their restoration. In addition to the 48% of the Tico-land protected by the government, many individual citizens have maintained the forest on their private lands which sums to about 60% of the area of Costa Rica.

The generosity of common people who donated lands to OTS for conservation of biodiversity is just remarkable. And of course, the three OTS stations, Palo Verde, Las Cruces and La Selva are centers of rigorous research activities. I found that in these stations, which contain dense forests of more than a thousand hectares, there is always some researcher to answer your question, be it about plants, animals, invasives, natives or just anything! Even in the most remote parts of these forests, I saw flagging tape hung up, indicating that someone is studying something here. And then, when one has to make a decision, say to construct a bridge or figure out what if some plant is invasive, OTS researchers have an enormous amount of data which can precisely show ‘what is happening’ and suggest ‘what can be done’ and ‘how it should be done’. It took time to realize that conservation decisions should not be made based on the human feeling, but on proper evidence and knowledge about the organism. For example, because deserts are a dry habitat, it would not be intelligent to put camels in the swamps, based on a feeling that they would have more water that way. A proper knowledge about the organism’s habits and habitat would clearly demonstrate why this action is inappropriate.

OTS has conducted 100s of courses led by established biologists, taken by students from all over the world. This gives the students a unique experience of studying along with contribution to studies in the stations. The funding comes mainly through the course fees and donations, and this massive organization has thrived in that way for more than 50 years now.

Before summing up, I would like to make a suggestion to include the enthusiastic Tico citizens in documenting local biodiversity. In India, two prominent citizen science initiatives are DiversityIndia and the India Biodiversity Portal (www.indiabiodiversity.org/) where different animal and plant groups are being documented by citizens and monitored by the experts. Both of them can be accessed through an Android phone. The SpiderIndia group on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/SpiderIndia/) has more than 7,000 members and has about 25 posts daily, recording pictures of spiders and their location. Similarly, we also have InsectIndia and TreesIndia documenting other taxa. Cumulatively, this will form an excellent database to study the patterns and processes of these taxa in coming years.

Having said this, I think it would be an excellent idea to understand the way that the OTS system works and try implementing it in India. Doing so could establish a strong baseline of data for further studies and guide us on real sustainable development.

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