By insisting on using these Latin or scientific names, are we missing the forest for the trees?

Trips to our forest areas often raise questions. These range from the absence of functional interpretation centres to the presence and spread of exotic species and monocultures. From the need for civil engineering in the form of boundary-walls and water-holes to the energy and interest levels of the forest-department personnel. A recent addition to this list of questions, for me, has been the use of Latin names!

I came across trees, in one of our managed forests, with small metal tags nailed to their trunks. My appreciation for the effort turned to bewilderment when I noticed that the names were Latin (or as commonly referred — 'scientific'). Was I supposed to remember these? Freedictionary refers to scientific name as “A name used by scientists, especially the taxonomic name of an organism that consists of the genus and species. Scientific names usually come from Latin or Greek. An example is Homo sapiens, the scientific name for humans.”

 By insisting on using these Latin or scientific names, are we missing the forest for the trees?

Would it make you happier to know that 'dhok' is called 'Anogeissus leiocarpus'? Image via Wikimedia Commons

A friend, just back from another such forest, mentioned that the guide, who accompanied him for a safari, referred to mammals and birds by their Latin names. This, he added, made as much sense as the shlokas read out by pundits during religious ceremonies. I wondered if an urban population, that these tags and guides primarily cater to, would make the connect with Latin names? This is a population which many a time identifies birds and mammals at zoos with references to characters from Walt Disney films. Latin names would have their advantages and utilities, but this does not appear to be one of them!

What was the point? Why use terms which few comprehend and seldom use in any case? Majority of those who would know the Latin terms would have anyway identified the trees. If one is moving, for example, in and around Ranthambore Tiger Reserve would s/he be happier to know that Dhok is ‘Anogeissus pendula’ or that it is, to quote from Jungle Trees of Central India by Pradip Kishen, ‘Respledent in new leaf, lovely in red-brown tints as its leaves prepare to be shed, and gauntly asture even when leafless, dhok is changeable and full of surprises’? Our tourist guides move in and around the forest more than most of us and many of them would have grown up in the landscape. As a corollary they would not only have a host of experiences but also a trunk-full of folklores and stories to share. Could they not share all these in a manner which works best for them and tourists.

In environment education books too it is not uncommon to come across healthy doses of Latin names. Some even carry tables with Latin names in the finishing pages. Why burden school going children with these? Richard Feynman put this succinctly, ‘You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts.’ In journal articles, many a time, English names are mentioned alongside Latin names for birds and mammals. Not so for the plants. They, for some reason, make do with only Latin. For someone like me, whose ignorance of plants beats his ignorance of mammals hands down, this is anything but helpful. And the lesser said, on this issue, about presentations at conferences the better; some of them spew mystery on slides.

Plants_Stamp1 Plants_Stamp2

Why not use the local names? Does it not make sense to know more of these especially in a linguistically rich country such as ours? Local names appear to be lower in the hierarchy vis-a-vis Latin or even English names. Perhaps indicating to the stature, in today’s world, of those who speak these languages. A caste system of sorts. Books in recent times, however, have begun to showcase the rich repositories of local names. These include two mammal field-guides; Vivek Menon’s Indian Mammals and Anwaruddin Choudhury’s The Mammals of North East India. Confusions do occur with local names and they do not always satisfy our craving for standardisation and order. But they carry with them knowledge, of the area, of people who share the landscape with wildlife.

Coming back to our managed forests would it help if we had better and functioning interpretation centres? Vibrant spaces managed by trained people unlike the scenario today where centres at even some of our cash rich tiger reserves stand forlorn or locked. These interpretation centres would not just be repositories of information but spaces that make us think, question, wonder, agree, disagree and look with awe at the forests before or after our safaris. Spaces which attempt to rekindle our connect with nature. They could also tell us the history, beliefs, behaviour, numbers and stories concerning some of the species we could encounter.

The writer enjoys cycling and many a time is seen borrowing and exchanging books; he blogs here.

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Updated Date: May 20, 2017 18:13:25 IST