Restoration is “the act of restoring to a former state or position ... or to an unimpaired or perfect condition”. Restoration is usually carried out for one of the following reasons: (a) to restore highly degraded but localized sites, (b) to improve production capability in degraded but localized production lands, (c) to enhance conservation values in protected/productive landscapes. Evidently, this means restoration can be applied at various spatial scales: beginning with the largest, that is, ecosystems, followed by habitats, communities, species, water or soil quality or in some unusual cases even conditions such as degraded soils, contaminated water etc.
While the intention behind a restoration initiative is never doubted, very often, naturalists and biologists bemoan the fact that restoration efforts fall short in their grounding in science. That science needs to form a strong basis for restoration is certainly not a point of dispute, but at the same time, it also needs to be recognised that the benchmarks for such an approach are either missing or inaccessible to the proponents.
Of the many examples that can be cited to illustrate this point, the one pertaining to natural history is most appropriate. That Tamil Nadu is characterised by a veritable diversity of ecosystems, habitats and species is well recognised. It is a state that is home to some of the most charismatic mega fauna of the country, and also has the distinction of having the least area of forests being diverted to non-forest purposes. Against this backdrop, it is but natural to assume that the State has a centralised repository or a museum of natural history. Which unfortunately, is not the case. This knowledge that is so critical for restoration therefore remains with certain individuals or institutions – once again the who or which of this is not available in the public domain. One may be shocked to know that some of the most robust data on the natural history of Tamil Nadu and the erstwhile Madras Presidency is available in libraries dedicated to language research, well known libraries such as the Adyar Library, Connemara Library and the State Archives, buried as Board of Revenue Transcripts. The same is true of historical maps and toposheets dating back to 1900s. The Government Museum is Egmore has in its records, collections of insect specimens of the region. Private Trusts and Societies that are dedicated to conservation of biological diversity such as the Chennai Snake Park Trust, Care Earth Trust, Madras Crocodile Bank have collections that could form the bedrock for defining the natural history of Chennai. Academic institutions such as the Madras Christian College, Loyola would also have the privilege of holding some very critical information in multiple formats such as collections, herbaria, photographs, visuals and so on.
Unless this knowledge of natural history is organised into a system like a Museum of Natural History that can lend itself to a science based restoration agenda for the State, and Chennai, we may continue implementing programmes that are well meaning programmes that are erroneously defined and ill suited for the State.
— The writer is Managing Trustee, Care Earth Trust