Published online 5 March 2008 | Nature 452, 7 (2008) | doi:10.1038/452007a

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Entomologists stifled by Indian bureaucracy

'Biopiracy' concerns thwart insect hunters.

The Western Ghats mountains in India are rich in insect life.The Western Ghats mountains in India are rich in insect life.DINODIA

An international collaboration to study insects in the Western Ghats mountains in southern India has been unable to get off the ground because of government concerns over biopiracy.

The Indian–American project aims to sample insects from different ecosystems at various elevations, and incorporate about 200,000 specimens into national insect collections. “We have already identified 24 taxonomists from all over the world who are willing to work on this project,” says Priyadarsanan Dharmarajan, a taxonomist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore, who leads the Indian team.

But the project has stalled because India's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has denied the Ashoka Trust permission to export the specimens, despite assurances that they would be returned to India after identification. “We have to send the specimens abroad for identification as we do not have the expertise at home,” Dharmarajan says.

Indian biodiversity rules guiding foreign collaborations require permission from the NBA before specimens can be exported. Under the Biological Diversity Act, specimens must not be deposited in international museums but kept only in designated repositories in India.

Now Paul Tinerella, insect collection manager at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, which is involved in the project, has informed the Ashoka Trust that the venture is “doomed” without the exit permits from the NBA or relevant supporting documents from the Indian government. “Biodiversity assessment is critical to wise land-use planning and without the basics of a sound taxonomic framework across the spectrum of life, biodiversity assessment is extremely faulty,” says Michael Irwin, an insect ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

The draconian regulations on the free exchange of specimens could isolate Indian biodiversity researchers, says K. D. Prathapan, a taxonomist at the Kerala Agricultural University. “This could totally isolate Indian biodiversity researchers.” Prathapan's own recent discovery of three new species of flea beetle in India “would have been impossible” but for the loan of specimens from five international museums in four countries.

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Krishnamoorthy Venkataraman, secretary of the NBA, says that the rules aim to fight biopiracy and not to stop basic research. “There is no restriction on collection or export of a few specimens for research,” he told <i>Nature</i>. “But exporting 200,000 specimens is not permissible.” The NBA encourages Indian scientists to send photographs or digital images to collaborators abroad instead of actual specimens, he says.

Dharmarajan hopes that the Indian government will follow the example of Brazil, which repealed its initially tough rules for biological specimens after protests by scientists. 

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