Are zoos more like Jedis or Darth Vader? The opinion of a PhD student

Rajarshi Saha is a 27-year-old PhD student at Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań, Poland). He is also one of the authors of this blog and my fiancé. Back in December, me and Raj met at Zoo Stº Inácio (Porto, Portugal) and I interviewed him in a very intergalactic way. Find out if the force is strong with him!

Sofia: Hi, Raj! How are you? You are one of the biggest fans of Star Wars, right?
Raj: Hi! I am good. Yes, that is certainly true!

Sofia: Great! So, let’s start: why did you choose to take this interview at a zoo?
Raj: Tough question. After I finished my master’s degree, I wanted to pursue wildlife biology and animal behaviour. Since then, I’ve always loved to be close to animals. That’s why I chose to take this interview at a zoo, where I feel more comfortable and closer to nature. Honestly, I have never been at a zoo before I enrolled in my PhD. Maybe that’s why my curiosity got even bigger. My first time was when I visited Poznán Zoo to collect monkey’s faecal samples.

Sofia: I see. But let’s address the elephant in the room. Some people have negative views on zoos, as animals are not kept in their natural habitat and also have their freedom restricted. What’s your opinion on zoos: are they more like Jedis* or Darth Vader*?
Raj: Ahmmm… That’s again a tough question. Ok, I will be very honest with you. I am not a big fan of enclosures. But, if the animals are in danger of extinction, then I would like them to be taken care of. And I think zoos are the best place for them to thrive and reproduce, in order to save the species. I am not entirely in favour of zoos, but I still think they have a positive impact on wildlife conservation.

Rajarshi Saha at St.º Inácio Zoo

Rajarshi Saha at St.º Inácio zoo with (1) red ruffed lemurs (Varecia rubra) and (2) a Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Photos by Sofia Oliveira.

Sofia: Ok, back to you. Who or what inspired you to pursue an academic career? Was there a Yoda* in your life?
Raj: Hmmm… I would say Richard Dawkins. When I read his book “Selfish Gene”, I was so fascinated with the altruist behaviour of animals. Why are animals selfless? They shouldn’t be according to Darwin’s theory on natural selection, which predicts the survival of the fittest. Every individual animal should think of themselves first, then others. But we always hear throughout our lives that we should be selfless. I was so curious about the whole idea of altruistic behaviour when I read that book. I used to think “Uau! That’s so amazing!”. That book was very inspiring for me. And that’s why I chose to pursue behavioural ecology, more specifically, primate behaviour.

“The stinging behaviour of worker bees is a very effective defence against honey robbers. But the bees who do the stinging are kamikaze fighters. In the act of stinging, vital internal organs are usually torn out of the body, and the bee dies soon afterwards. Her suicide mission may have saved the colony’s vital food stocks, but she herself is not around to reap the benefits. By our definition this is an altruistic behavioural act.” – Richard Dawkins in “Selfish Gene” (p. 6)

Sofia: Very interesting. Now, tell me, as a scientist what are your superpowers?
Raj: I am a primatologist, so I can run after monkeys all day. In the rain, in the sun, it doesn’t matter. I can literally climb up trees just to have a better view of the monkeys with my binoculars and to write down their behaviours on my tablet. And by the way, it is very hard to follow the monkeys when they are running away! So, yes, that can be kind of a superpower.

Sofia: What are you currently working on and how are your superpowers useful?
Raj: I am currently working on mother-infant relationship. I am trying to understand how the mothers’ behaviour affects their infant’s personality. My superpowers are very helpful to collect a more complete dataset on two groups of Bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) in Kerala (South India). I collect data on how the mother is interacting with her infant and her fellow mothers. Is the mother very aggressive towards the infant? Or is she very protective towards him/her? Something like that.

 Bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata)

Bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), the species Rajarshi is studying for his PhD thesis. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari (CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Sofia: I see. But, how is your work relevant to society?
Raj: That’s a very important question, of course. My research can paint a picture of how the personality and social life of a mother can impact the personality of her infants. Non-human primates are our closest relatives. Their genome and, of course, their behaviour are very similar to humans. So, I think the results of my study can provide an insight on mother-infant relationships not just in Bonnet macaques, but also in humans.

Sofia: In your opinion, what’s the Death Star* in the context of primate conservation?
Raj: Hmm… Very interesting question. By the way, I like how you are presenting the questions in a Star Wars way. Well, I think the most important threat to primate conservation is poverty. Primates are mostly located in the tropics in South America, Africa and Asia. I will give you an example. In Africa, there is a lot of poverty. I know that in some places in Rwanda, people don’t even have electricity to cook their food. So, they cut down trees from forests, they take the logs and they burn them to cook their food. We cannot blame them because they need to survive. But in this process, they are destroying the habitat of primates. I can give you another example also taking place in Africa: people kill gorillas and chimpanzees to eat their meat. It’s known as bush meat. So, yes, I think poverty is the main threat to primate conservation nowadays.

“I think poverty is the main threat to primate conservation nowadays.” – Rajarshi Saha on @ScienceStationS

Sofia: Last but not least, can you tell me in just one sentence what you would like everyone to know about science?
Raj: Keep asking questions, you might drive the next big breakthrough of a scientist.

* Star Wars references: (1) Jedis: soldier-like characters that are responsible for maintaining the peace in the galaxy. (2) Darth Vader: one of the most iconic villains in the franchise. (3) Yoda: powerful master that trained and inspired several generations of Jedis. (4) Death Star: the biggest threat to peace in the galaxy.

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