A massive fire that broke out at the Zoology Department of Kolkata’s Ballygunge Science College last month has destroyed priceless rare zoological finds – some which could have well been the only ones in the world, and others that could be a century old.

The college is part of the University of Calcutta. The Zoology Department, which was established in 1919, had a collection of approximately 4,000 exotic specimens including mammoth hairs, a rare glass sponge, several rare snake species and stuffed red pandas, a duck-billed platypus, a pangolin and a sea lion. These were being restored and prepared for public display under a project led by Ena Ray Banerjee, associate professor at the department, and head of Calcutta University’s Immunobiology and Regenerative Medicine Research Unit.

The destruction of a major part of the collection is a huge blow to the preservation of, and research into, our fast-depleting biodiversity. It has also laid bare a rift between members of the Zoology Department over the restoration project.

Priceless archives

The potential of the collection is evident from the comments of the state archives of West Bengal, which strongly recommended conservation during a survey before the grant of funds. It said:

"Their photography, digitisation, archiving and information disbursement in an interactive format are necessary for a greater audience and popularisation of natural history on the one hand and scientific exploration and furtherance on the other.”

Ray Banerjee said the collection was unique not only because it was a valuable biodiversity archive, but because it offered the scope for scientific research “using proteomic and genomic technology.” She added: “[This is] something that I, as a molecular medicine expert could do and that a regular taxonomist who is likely to be associated with a museum wouldn’t.”

A long journey

Over time, the specimens had fallen into disuse and came to be stacked in boxes or shelves in vacant corners of the Zoology Department. In 2009, Ray Banerjee joined the department and was entrusted with the task of restoring the specimens and arranging for them to be exhibited. She recognised that the collection could form part of a heritage museum-cum-interactive educational centre where visitors would be able to see these rare species and reconstruct when and how they lived. But restoration posed a huge challenge; the specimens were in a pitiable state. Also, since different specimens called for specific methods of restoration, the process would be time-consuming, and skill- and resource-intensive. The department did not have the funds.

Ray Banerjee initially diverted a part of her own research grants to start work. Funds from the National Archives as well as a significant one-time grant from the West Bengal State Education Department came in towards the end of 2013. In 2015, the department joined the International Barcode of Life project, touted to be one of the largest biodiversity genomics initiatives ever undertaken. Many specimens, which could not be recognised by their form or structure, were now identified through DNA barcoding.

In order to catch the imagination of visitors, five dioramas – three-dimensional models – were built to showcase some of the most vibrant species in the collection against a backdrop of their natural habitats. These included a juvenile leopard seal from Antarctica, a South Asian river porpoise, a platypus from Australia, a marmoset, a pangolin, a giant squirrel and several primates. Most of these are now either charred beyond recognition or badly burnt. Meticulous technical restoration, painstaking research and collaboration have come to nought.

Lost to the fire or apathy?

A few days before the fire, The Times of India reported that Dr Alan Warren, one of the curators of the Natural History Museum in London had expressed a personal interest in collaborating with Calcutta University on this museum. Warren believed that the project would be a big leap in conserving India's biodiversity.

However, the project seems to have caused a split in the Zoology Department itself. Ray Banerjee said some faculty members didn’t seem keen on it. “A section of teachers have been opposed to the restoration since 2013 ever since I got approval for the grants and I started publicising the importance of the work,” said Ray Banerjee. “Moreover, to my surprise, some of my colleagues seemed obtusely opposed to allowing students from colleges… to visit.”

The rancour only seems to have grown following the fire. Ray Banerjee and her team are no longer in charge of the project, and the initiative now lies with Parthib Basu, the Head of the Department.

Basu admitted that the project had led to some acrimony. He said the rift with Ray Banerjee primarily concerned her unilateral and not-so-transparent decisions. “The museum collection was an internal resource and collective property,” said Basu. “Any grant is for that collective property, and not individual research. Even if one member has worked on it and arranged for the funds, she cannot decide how it is to be spent without consulting other departmental members or higher university authorities.”

Ray Banerjee, however, said that all such decisions were taken, when the grant proposal was submitted, through proper channels; all expenses only follow what had been proposed therein, so there was no question of withholding any information from anybody.

Basu was also of the opinion that the collection should exclusively remain an internal teaching resource, but according to Ray Banerjee, there are university museums all over the world, and the department's own collection used to be open to students from all parts of India when it was the nodal centre for Zoology studies.

There also seems to be concern over the storage conditions of the remaining specimens. For over a month, they have been stored in a laboratory room in containers covered with soot, debris, and exposed to heat, dust and humidity. Ray Banerjee said that this could irrevocably destroy the nucleic acid components in these specimens, thus preventing any further scientific work. She cited a recent letter from Alan Warren that echoes her fears:

“I am also concerned to learn of the conditions in which the specimens are currently stored as a result of the fire… if stored for any length of time in such conditions, damage to the specimens and their labels is inevitable.”

Basu disagreed. According to him, external experts from the Zoological Survey have identified only a few samples that can be restored and a committee has been formed to steer the process. But Ray Banerjee said she and her team have identified a total of 176 specimens from those discarded. They have already restored 31 by cleaning, changing the preservative and transferring them to new containers. A total of 45 bones have been recommended for restoration. Ninety-four soot-covered containers have been replenished with fresh preservatives. Samples for DNA barcoding have been collected from 44 samples badly damaged in the fire.

Thus, there seems to be some merit in trying to preserve the specimens, instead of killing the project. Each specimen is a mine of information that may be decoded as more advanced technology becomes available. “We waited a hundred years for DNA barcoding to be available,” said Ray Banerjee. “If we have to wait a hundred years more, the least we can do is ensure that the specimens are stored properly.”

But will that happen now? Will Kolkata get its own natural history museum, albeit a smaller version of the one that could have been?