Meet the New Indians

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Among the top ten new species discovered in 2008 worldwide are a pea-sized horse, caffeine-free coffee, a snake just over four inches, and a palm that flowers itself to death. But none in this list—released by the International Institute of Species Exploration, Arizona State University, and an international committee of taxonomists—are from India.

Not that nothing has been found here. In fact, there have been quite a few. Like the pig-nosed frog, such an ancient Indian inhabitant that it is suspected to have been on the Subcontinent when it banged and melded into Asia. And yet, it is only now that taxonomists have discovered it. Or, there is the Gegeneophis Seshachari, Asia’s first amphibian which gives birth like mammals. “In the group of reptiles and amphibians itself, at least 50 new species have been discovered in India in the past five years,” says Varad Giri, curator, Bombay Natural Historical Society.

India is one of the 12 countries home to 70 per cent of the earth’s biodiversity. It has 12 per cent of the total flora and 7.28 per cent of the recorded faunal species of the world. But Indian taxonomy remains unrecognised due to lack of equipment and travel grants. Indian taxonomists also need the approval of experts from abroad to confirm a new species, and Indian laws prohibit taking specimens out of India. Taxonomy is also an unpopular career choice.

There is much work still to be done. Giri, for one, isn’t convinced we’ve got the etymology of the humble household lizard right. Kartik Shanker of the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, says the majority of species’ classification in India was by the British. “We still don’t know much about the biodiversity in places like central India, Rajasthan and Gujarat,” he says.