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The Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was established in 1983 as the first Centre of Excellence of the newly established Department of Environment of the Indian Government. It was born out of ecological research initiated at the Centre for Theoretical Studies by Madhav Gadgil, who joined the then Centre for Theoretical Studies (CTS) in 1973, having obtained a Ph.D in Biology at Harvard University with a thesis in Mathematical Ecology. Madhav pursued research in both theoretical biology and field ecology.

Madhav Gadgil initiated field studies at the newly established Bandipur Tiger Reserve in 1974 on the dry deciduous forest ecosystem dotted with man-made ponds and extensive open areas covered with grass. The area had large populations of chital, sambar, gaur, elephants, wild pig, wild dogs, panthers and tigers. Bandipur was part of a far more extensive natural ecosystem on the Mysore and Wynaad plateaus and the Nilgiri hills. Madhav conducted an ecological reconnaissance of this whole tract and formulated a proposal for the establishment of a large nature reserve in this region. This eventually led to the establishment of the country’s first Biosphere Reserve, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in 1986. Elephants were a striking component of the wildlife of this tract and Madhav Gadgil organized the first census of wild elephants in the country in these areas.

In 1974, there was an agitation by the basket-weavers of Karnataka contending that their livelihood was threatened by overuse and exhaustion of bamboo resources by paper mills. The Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology asked Madhav Gadgil to look into the ecology and management of bamboo resources of the state. The studies demonstrated that the bamboo resources of the state had been overestimated, that the harvesting practices of bamboo enhanced the damage done to new shoots by wild animals, and that there was no good basis for the so-called scientific management of bamboo resources. The studies also demonstrated that paper mills were not using bamboo resources in a sustainable fashion at all, but were engaged in a pattern of sequential overexploitation, starting with resources in Karnataka and going further afield, eventually all the way to Meghalaya.

While working on management of bamboo resources, Madhav Gadgil became involved in assessing the role of Gavli Dhangars, a pastoral caste of the forested hill tracts of the Western Ghats. Apart from quantitative field studies of the impact of their livestock on forest regeneration involving grazing exclosures, he undertook an investigation of their overall ecological role. The resulting study examined their shift over historical time from buffalo-keepers to goatherds to cultivators of increasingly marginal hill tracts in the context of forest exploitation, malaria control and the dairy development programmes. A fall-out of the study was a broader enquiry into the ecological correlates of the Indian caste system.

CTS was a purely research oriented centre with no provision for students working with faculty members. It was however proposed that students could pursue a Ph.D in Ecology through registration in the Microbiology and Cell Biology laboratories. The first two students for this programme P. Vijayakumaran Nair and S. Narendra Prasad were admitted in August 1977. A three month teaching programme in January-March 1978 in Bandipur in Wildlife Biology served to fulfill their course requirement. P.V. Nair went on to do a thesis on development of behaviour in elephants, and S.N. Prasad on ecology and management of bamboo resources of Karnataka. R. Sukumar, the third student who joined in 1980 and later became a faculty at CES, studied the ecology of human-elephant conflict on the Nilgiri-Hasanur plateau.

In 1978, the Director, Professor Satish Dhawan encouraged Madhav Gadgil to approach the University Grants Commission to support the establishment of a separate department of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science. In 1981, the Department of Environment called for special efforts in three regions, the Himalayas, the Ganga basin and the hill tracts of Western Ghats. Since the ecological field work at IISc had focused on the Western Ghats, the IISc proposal to establish an ecology programme with support from the University Grants Commission was now posed to the newly established Department of Environment with the suggestion that the programme would focus on ecological issues in the Western Ghats. The proposal was formally submitted under the Directorship of Prof. S. Ramaseshan in 1982 and was sanctioned by the Department of Environment, leading to the establishment of the Centre for Ecological Sciences in 1983.