Over the years, the Centre for Ecological Sciences has consistently contributed to outreach activities, as well as national and international projects and policy relating to the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity, eco-development and climate change. Even before CES came into formal existence, ecologists at the Indian Institute of Science were actively involved in wildlife conservation. For example, when the high-profile Project Tiger was launched during the early 1970s, Madhav Gadgil served on its steering committee (1978–82). In 1980, the Indian government decided to join the Man and Biosphere Programme of UNESCO, and Madhav Gadgil was involved in preparing the action plan for the country’s first biosphere reserve in the Nilgiris covering the states of Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Kerala. Narendra Prasad and R. Sukumar, then doctoral students in the Ecology programme, participated in the initial surveys and preparation of the first document for the proposed Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) that aimed to conserve representative areas of biodiversity across this diverse landscape, reconcile conservation with human development, and provide a site for long-term ecological research. R. Sukumar steered modifications to the original design over the next five years, leading to the establishment of the NBR in 1986. Since then CES has been conducting long-term research on forest dynamics in Mudumalai, a part of the NBR.
Prof Gadgil also steered efforts to create the Western Ghats Development Programme with the help of students and teachers of 28 colleges in Karnataka in 1990-91. With a fellowship from the Pew Foundation in 1993, a network of undergraduate colleges, university departments, and NGOs came together to investigate the biodiversity of the Western Ghats. This Western Ghats Biodiversity Network (WGBN), extending over the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, elicited enthusiastic participation by science teachers and students. An important component of the programme was to document the perceptions and knowledge of the local communities regarding the landscape over which they gather resources such as fuelwood and medicinal herbs, and the status and ongoing changes in the soil, water and biological resources.
A natural sequel to the WGBN was the preparation of People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR) as a part of the Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Programme sponsored by World Wide Fund for Nature (India) over 1996-98. Fieldwork was spread over fifty-two sites throughout the subcontinent with at least sixteen studies pertaining to protected areas, including six national parks and ten wildlife sanctuaries, three being Tiger Reserves and two Bird Sanctuaries. The entire programme engaged 350 researchers, 200 local assistants, and as many as 1000 villagers drawn in for their extensive knowledge of local areas.
Madhav Gadgil and R. Sukumar have served on the Indian Board for Wildlife (now the National Board for Wildlife), the apex policy-making body for conservation that is chaired by the Prime Minister. And hence, CES has been involved in drafting some of the most influential government policies, such as the Biological Diversity Act, enacted in 2002. This act aims to promote conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits of India’s biodiversity resources, including habitats, cultivars, domesticated stocks and breeds of animals and micro-organisms.
At the international level, Madhav Gadgil has served as Chair of the Global Environment Facility’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (1998-2002) to address a variety of urgent global environmental issues pertaining to biodiversity, climate change, international waters and land degradation. Climate change has added a new dimension to the challenges facing the sustainability of the planet. N.H. Ravindranath and R. Sukumar have contributed substantially to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in particular the working groups on impacts and mitigation of climate change, since the mid-1990s. They have also served on the Expert Panel on Climate Change set up by the Indian government in 2007 to chart out a programme for adaptation in various sectors such as forests, hydrology and agriculture to future climate change in the country.