Mulling Over Culling with Marine Biologist Asiem Sanyal

You might not expect the – often distasteful – topic of culling for conservation to win over Wildlife Blogger of the Year judges, but Asiem Sanyal’s story did just that.

Mulling Over Culling‘, Sanyal’s informative account of culling lionfish in Bermuda (which, as it turns out, are actually quite tasty), voted him First Runner Up by judges.

“The explosion of lionfish is a huge issue that many people are unaware of; this piece does a great job of bringing this urgent story to a wider audience”, said conservation blogger Dr James Borrell.

Travel and nature writer James Lowen called it, “A fabulous tale on the globally important topic of invasive alien species”. Outdoor philosopher and writer Kate Rawles added, “The dilemma at the heart of this piece – culling animals to achieve conservation goals – is one that would be well worth unpacking and exploring further. An unexpected and interesting piece of writing.”

We enjoyed learning more about a topic that often gets shunned in wildlife conservation and caught up with Asiem to learn more about culling for conservation, nature writing and just what being an ‘itinerant islander-at-heart’ means.

Culling animals for conservation can often be a controversial topic; what prompted you to write about this?

The general perception of people regarding conservation is synonymous with the ‘protection’ of species. More often than not, these are charismatic megafauna, which are heavily promoted in order to solicit funding/grants. As I mentioned in my write-up, culling for conservation is almost an antithesis to what one would normally expect for a conservation effort, and yet it is a necessity in certain parts of the world.

However, invasive species don’t really receive their due in terms of publicity – this could be because they are not really attractive, or simply because people do not understand the severe impact they can have on native ecosystems. My effort in writing this piece was to bring invasive species into the limelight – to show that there are many different facets to conservation, based on the species and how it influences its environment.

It seems like ‘Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em’ has been quite successful at gaining public support for lionfish culling in Bermuda. What do you think has made this initiative a success?

I believe the initiative has been a success for two main reasons – one is that lionfish are incredibly attractive, which is helpful for imprinting them on the public consciousness. Charismatic species get remembered better, and linger in public memory. The second is that they are edible, which has immensely bolstered efforts to eradicate them. The thrust of ‘Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em’ has been that lionfish can be readily consumed, which does away with the problem of disposal once they have been culled.

Can any visitor to Bermuda participate in the ‘Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em’ event?

Any visitor may participate in the event, but only those with a spearfishing license are allowed to go lionfish hunting, which restricts this activity to Bermudian nationals.

You mention that you want to communicate with people who might not engage much with conservation. How do you think we can communicate to better engage people who aren’t already ‘converted’ in conservation?

Former conservation efforts aimed at the general public have, as I mentioned earlier, focussed on charismatic species. This approach has worked thus far, if only for the reason that these megafauna are often at the apex of their respective ecosystems, and protecting/conserving them has an umbrella effect on other species in the ecosystem.

However, there is more to the natural world than just charismatic species, and the way to communicate this to ‘non-converted’ people is through education and awareness programmes, or popular media simplified for consumption. Children are a very important target audience, and picture books/story books (even games, given recent trends) are a great format to teach them about the various species they share this planet with.

It is also very important to bridge the disconnect between urban spaces and spaces of pristine wilderness. People respond more readily to things they can see/ hear/experience. Technology can most certainly help with this, with aspects such as virtual/augmented reality, but simple endeavours such as wilderness walks and excursions can also be immensely useful.

As a marine biologist, how did you get into writing and what kind of writing do you enjoy?

I have been writing long before I became a marine biologist, although I have had a deep passion for wildlife for as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a house frequented by all manner of organisms – roving troops of monkeys would make a halt at the mango tree in our backyard, shy mongooses would scuttle past us as we walked in the garden, raucous parakeets would roost in trees and the occasional bat would startle us by flying close above our heads as twilight set in.

I am also (and always have been) an avid reader and it seemed a natural progression to begin writing stories pertaining to nature. I enjoy nature writing the most, and prefer to adopt a semi-fictional narrative, so that important facts are not subsumed in the writing, but easily conveyed to the reader. Important influences have been J.R.R. Tolkien (who takes great pains to describe landscapes in his stories), Richard Jefferies, and more recently, Robert MacFarlane. There is something immensely satisfying about being able to put to words some, if not all, of the wonderful phenomena which occur in nature.

You say that you’re an islander at heart? What does this mean and where does this love come from?

Following my master’s degree in Marine Science, I worked on my first job in the Andaman Islands off the south-eastern coast of India. This coincided with a book I was reading at the time – MacArthur and Wilson’s ‘The Theory of Island Biogeography’. It was fascinating to correlate aspects of the book with the practical experience of actually living on an island, and observing island biodiversity at close quarters. I was also fortunate to be sharing my living quarters with scientists who were working on various aspects of island biogeography.

Since that time, perhaps merely by chance, I have lived and worked in different islands around the world, and read more books pertaining to their ecosystems, whether it be Wallace’s ‘Malay Archipelago’, or more recently David Quammen’s ‘Song of the Dodo’. Islands are important templates to monitor speciation and extinction events, and species are subject to various selection pressures, which may sometimes result in interesting morphological characteristics such as gigantism or dwarfism. Cumulatively, I find this highly interesting.

As an amateur birdwatcher, I am also fascinated by the level of endemism I find in a lot of island birds. Besides this, I simply enjoy the laid back environment most islands offer, and since I became dive certified, the fascinating marine ecosystems I have been able to observe off islands.

What about itinerant?

I enjoy travelling, because it opens windows to new cultures, new landscapes (and seascapes!) and new interactions with people. I have been afforded the opportunity to visit quite a few places so far, and have enjoyed experiencing different languages (and gaining functional fluency in a few), food and music, apart from wildlife! Some of these have included places such as Bermuda (the location of my write-up), Canary Islands, Madagascar, Cape Verde and the place I am at currently – Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam.

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You can learn more about Asiem Sanyal via his LinkedIn profile.