First woman director of 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India along with a treasure of a distinguished career as a scientist in the subjects like taxonomy, zoogeography, morphology and molecular systematic Dhriti Banerjee’s life and work is an inspiration to millions. Ms. Banerjee believes in the possibility of greener and futuristic heights in biodiversity conservation. In an exclusive interview with Travel & Environment Editor Anirban Dasgupta, she talks about her journey, milestones, research and views on climate change issues.
Personal Journey so far:
“Constantly think how you could be doing things better and keep questioning yourself”
This quote from Elon Musk summarises my journey in three words – learning, climbing, and evolving. I was born in a large joint family of engineers, mathematicians and physicists. I was the first person to take up a bioscience subject for my graduation at the erstwhile Presidency College Calcutta. Since I was awarded the Lady Brabourne College Medal in Biology and since it was Presidency College, my choice of subject was eventually accepted. I fared well in my graduation and post-graduation. The research problem of my Ph.D. program was very interesting and very different from the type of work I later embarked upon. It was one of my lab animal carcasses that sparked my interest in entomology and dipterology. I was awarded the prestigious R.K.Sur National Memorial Medal for my work in animal Physiology. Little did I realise that my constant dabbling with animals would ultimately lead me to join the Zoological Survey of India. Interestingly I was selected for the post of a very junior scientist in ZSI and at the same time, I was also selected for the post of Lecturer in Zoology, at one of the state colleges of Kolkata, West Bengal. My journey to becoming the first women Director of this 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India probably began at that point of time. When both offers came simultaneously, I chose ZSI simply because I could tread on “paths untrodden” Only when I did start working in, I realised that the work in ZSI was not about morphology, taxonomy, zoo geography alone but it is a multidisciplinary aspect which makes the work even more interesting. We would be working on various aspects of animals including faunal diversity, ecology, molecular systematics, physiology, animal behaviour so on and so forth. And it gave a very different perspective on Zoology.
About ZSI :
The Zoological Survey of India is mandated by the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change to identify, inventory, research and document the amazing faunal diversity of our megadiverse country, through an amazing array of scientific and technical activities with an aim to provide information and advice to the Government of India for formulating policies on biodiversity conservation, mitigating the impact of climate change on biodiversity, and formulating sustainable development goals. This is done primarily through documentation of the faunal diversity of all the States and Union Territories of our country, all the Biogeographic regions, the ecosystems, and the Protected Areas. This information is made available through our publications, Open Access online portals and through the National Digital Library of India. ZSI is the largest designated National Repository of faunal specimens in India. We will also be the largest DNA repository and also the largest database of DNA sequences and geographic information of the entire Indian fauna in the years to come. The ZSI Repository of tomorrow will be the largest metadata aggregate as well as the largest zoological specimen collection in India. However, it would be restrictive to say that ZSI is only a taxonomic institute for identification and documentation. The species new to science and the new faunal records of India are published each year in our Animal Discoveries and we are able to discover and describe new species from Protozoa to Mammalia. ZSI is one of the major input providers and contributors to the Government of India on the issues related to the CBD, ABS, CITES, WPA today, and we also play a major role in wildlife forensic investigations helping the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in forensic detection of crimes against animals and wildlife.
On Climate Change and its effect on various species:
We know that conservation of biodiversity is approximately related to global environmental changes and globalisation issues, such as land use and land cover changes, climate change, and sustainable developments. The ZSI, Kolkata is currently using some of the most advanced tools to understand and predict the possible impacts of climate change on the wildlife species. The focus is on the Himalayan landscape considering the fact that the Himalayan landscapes are the most climate-sensitive ecosystems. It is prudent to mention that the middle to high elevation zones of the Himalayan landscape is most vulnerable to global warming. In this area, the specialist species are losing their habitats, whereas the generalist species are clouding in the middle to higher elevations. 21 species of Galliformes with restricted ranges to the Himalayas, four (4) species of large mammals (Himalayan brown bear, Himalayan grey langur, Yellow-throated Marten, Golden Langur) have been studied so far with reference to anticipated climate changes in their distribution range.
These studies have indicated that all of the studied species such as Himalayan brown bear, Himalayan grey langur, golden langur, yellow-throated martin and Himalayan Monal, Western Tragopan, Koklass Pheasant, Cheer pheasant (21 Galliformes birds species) are losing their distribution because of the predicted shift in the climatic isotherms of the species. Moreover, for a few of them, we predicted a shift in their suitable habitats because of climate change.
To further the climate change studies the ZSI is currently working on developing the Geospatial repository of the NZC collections. This portal will provide the locality information for the species studied by ZSI scientists in the last 105 years throughout the spatial extent of the country. The locality information will be used for predicting and projecting the possible impacts of climate change under different emission scenarios.
Most recently ZSI has carried out an eDNA-based study on the Ganga River to document the total biodiversity of the river. We have used the water samples for identifying the taxons present in the Ganga water throughout the length of the river. The eDNA-based metagenomic analysis reveals an enormous number of species present in each sample.
Current and upcoming research projects:
We are presently working towards establishing international collaborations to further our research, especially on contemporary issues such as climate change, forest fire and landscape ecology. We are in communication with the University of Oulu, Finland, and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Switzerland, mainly environment, the Government of Bhutan, and the state of Ghana in Africa for implementing collaborative studies related to mountain ecosystems, carnivore ecology, climate change, and landscape ecology and Wildlife Forensics.
We have prioritised a few species like the Red panda, Arunachal macaque in Eastern Himalayas and Blue sheep, ibex, musk deer, and snow leopards in the western Himalayas for establishing genetic corridors using the landscape genetics approach. We are also validating evolutionary genetic patterns of large mammals using large-scale sequencing data of Ibex, Arunachal macaques, barking deer, goral, and red panda and revisiting their taxonomic disparities, and applying cutting-edge tools (eDNA barcoding, gut microbiome analyses) in applied wildlife management. We are also assisting Ex-situ conservation activities; we studied tigers in the captive facilities of West Bengal and provided a plan for enhanced breeding purposes wildlife forensics. We also described the new species of mammals after 40 years from the Great Nicobar Islands. Research on marine fauna by the ZSI team has led to the successful translocation of corals from the Gulf of Mannar to the Gulf of Kutchand the team has worked wonders in coral reef restoration in the Gulf of Kutch.
Insects and Entomological research:
Insects and Entomological research were always one of the pillars of ZSI, and today we are involved in a wide range of studies from describing new species to studying insect evolution, insect behaviour, insect-plant interaction, and biological control of insects. Path-breaking research on pollinators both Lepidopterans (Butterflies) and Diptera (Flies) and their gradual range shift in the northeast Himalayan region as well as in the western Himalayan region and the Co-evolution of pollinators and their flowering plants have also been studied and has yielded amazing results and highly appreciated worldwide. Today’s ZSI is also the largest DNA Barcode database for Thrips which are important pests of agricultural crops in the world and the largest DNA database for spiders in India. In the future, we will also be the largest DNA database on the Diptera and Lepidoptera of India and if God willing it would be the largest Insect database of the world.
From Deep Sea to the Himalayas:
4 product patents have been published by ZSI and ZSI has patented bio-pesticides formulation for controlling Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, mosquito surveillance techniques have been patented, and also biofilters for clearing and remediation of wastewater have been patented using Protozoan ciliates. ZSI is exploring the deep seas to the mountain tops and in the future, we would be the primary information providers for the fauna from under the sea to the top of the Himalayas.
Awareness among common people:
We have several outreach programs through which we spread the message of Biodiversity Conservation and awareness about the Indian faunal diversity, wildlife crime, and poaching of CITES-listed species and their alleged trafficking.
The awareness about our immediate environment, biodiversity and long-term climate change impact on our habitats has now increased manifold. 50 years ago, our parents had little to bother about the environment or climate or climate change. It was all about industrialization and the green revolution so far. But today we are aware of the necessity to initiate changes in our practices, the importance of a green economy and sustainable development goals, and the mitigation of climate change. Tomorrow, I hope and trust that generation Z will be trying to reverse the wheel and ensure sustainable development without impacting our environment. The awareness is definitely there and the technology will evolve too. The future will see a greener economy as well as greener earth.
The ZSI of today is an interesting combination of a 100-year-old legacy and the way forward to the next 100. The entire information housed in the ZSI collection will be the information on faunal diversity, genetic diversity and Spatio-temporal diversity of the Indian fauna entirely. It will also be the basis of climate change prediction, adaptation, and resilience of the Indian fauna and all of this will be available to the common man at the click of a mouse.
I am ambitious in my aspirations for ZSI. I feel leadership is all about learning and unlearning and relearning. Innovative leadership in today’s VUCA world is about agility, adaptiveness, strategy and innovation. My career projections were shaped by leadership coaches from whom I took professional coaching. My starting salary in ZSI was ₹6000 in 1998. However, at that point of time, we were never bothered about money. I was focused more on my personal growth. My work in ZSI was way out of my comfort zone and probably the best career decision at that point of time that I could have taken. I had stolidity, stayed on my path, worked hard, and paved my own way.
I firmly believe that life throws lemons, you make lemonade. My focus and agility were rewarded by the exceptional Women of Excellence Award by the Women’s Economic Forum in 2018. When I look back, I realise that I was blessed to have supportive parents-in-law, junior colleagues, senior scientists, retired Directors and friends who had helped me, pushed me and goaded me to keep calm and carry on. My father Kalidas, my mother Chhaya, my daughter Roinee, and my husband Sughran were my allies and cheerleaders. Life is painful without friends and I was blessed to have quite a handful of them. Maybe because of that my way forward was an interesting combination of family, friends and foes who helped me move forward and take my organisation forward.
In the 75th year of Independence, the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change appointed the first lady Director of the Zoological Survey of India in a much-awaited move toward diversity and inclusion, and that has made me realise that transformational leadership in ZSI has been initiated.
In 1998 I had started very low down the ladder, but today I can proudly say that the start point doesn’t define your endpoint. I was awarded Nari Shakti Samman Award in 2022, the H.R.Mehra medal award in 2022 and felicitated by the Bharat Chamber of Commerce as one of the Outstanding Women Achievers of 2022. From Annandale in 1916 to Banerjee in 2021, I realised that being the first lady Director of ZSI in 105 years, I have made history. I guess I don’t realise it since I’m living in it.