A decade ago, the Bombay Natural History Society in tandem with what was then the Ministry of Environment and Forests invited citizens to send in reports on the house sparrow. It was called Project Citizen Sparrow and the initiative was quickly welcomed by birdwatchers. All one had to do was record one’s observations of the common house sparrow and send it in. There were no restrictions, no demands of academic qualifications or of a background in science. All that the project initiators wanted to document was the presence of the sparrow, which had gone into a serious decline.
There was an enthusiastic response to the project, including from this correspondent, who documented the decline in the full-throated chirruping at 5 a.m. of at least a hundred sparrows in a nearby mango tree. This pre-dawn chorus had been growing quieter over the years, which was worrisome, so something like Project Citizen Sparrow was a godsend. It meant that others too had noticed the existence of the problem and, hopefully, it would lead to a solution being found.
While the sparrows have made a comeback (though not on the same scale as before), there was poor followthrough for the respondents to Project Citizen Sparrow—a pity, since a vast untapped resource of amateur environmentalists or “citizen scientists” exists. Some 6,000 “citizen scientists” participated in the year-long project to monitor sparrow populations.
Citizen Sparrow was by no means the first such attempt at “citizen science” as First Steps: Citizen Science in Ecology in India shows. Authors Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil, both well established in the fields of ecology and environment, have put together a much-needed documentation of citizen involvement in ecology.
The book is based on research they conducted for a year and a half, delving into existing reports and analyses that either relied on “citizen science” or was completely based on it. They studied 17 such projects, the earliest one from 2005 and the latest in 2018. The first in 2005 was Project PteroCount or the South Asian Bat Monitoring Programme.
Studying the Indian flying fox, or fruit bat as it is popularly known as, was quite the ideal study for “citizen science” for a number of reasons. The mammal is easily identifiable, easy to count, and though not dependent on humans, it often roosts near human habitations, making it visible during daylight hours. All this adds to a familiarity that made it easy to put together information on the bat.
Coordinated by the Zoo Outreach Organisation, the all-India project also included reports from reporters in neighbouring countries. The final outcome was notable information on over 200 roosts and at least three doctorates resulted from the information gathered.
In 2018 there were two projects, both on animals that died because they were run over by vehicles. Project Roadwatch, by the Wildlife Trust of India, found that reptiles seemed to top the list of animals killed on the road. Project Roadkills, started by the Wildlife Conservation Trust, extended itself to railway traffic as well but Sekhsaria and Thayyil say it did not publish any notable outputs on observations gathered. Roadwatch had over 1,000 “citizen scientists” participating and it generated over 2,200 data points.
Some projects were huge. Project Bird Count India-eBird India was coordinated by the Nature Conservation Foundation in which 12,000 “citizen scientists” participated “to increase the collective understanding of the distribution, abundance, and smart trends of Indian birds”.
The data points generated included more than 10 million birds studied across 1,300 species and comprised over 2 lakh audio and visual recordings. The notable outputs of the project were so many that the book suggests looking at the “Bird Count” website.
Other projects generated fascinating information. Project Big4 Mapping by the Wildlife Trust of India, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, and Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences carried out a survey on snake bites that revealed that the maximum risk of being bitten was between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. The “citizen scientists” who contributed to this study were mostly from the snake rescuing community.
While First Steps looks at the outcomes of “citizen science” projects, that is not its primary objective. The authors are more interested in “the assumptions, conceptualisations, and institutions that constitute citizen science projects and some of the methods that these projects use and mobilise” for their studies.
The authors are also interested in exploring the history of citizen science in India, its place in the global history and narrative, why it has grown so much in the last decade, how it is different from “people’s science”, its tools and methods, and so on. But, as the title of the book suggests, there are no answers to all this. The authors are still feeling their way and, in their documentation, “present an account of the First Steps of Citizen Science in Ecology in India as a very interesting and important juncture in its history”.
According to them, “citizen science” may not have “come of age as a scientific methodology” but it has definitely caught the attention and fascination of amateur ecologists as well as scientists, leading to a mutually satisfying relationship.
The data used by the authors show that “citizen projects are expanding rapidly in the country”. But above all, “citizen science” makes science inclusive and more democratic.