Six aspiring young zoologists of Bangladesh are paving the path for scientific illustration and exploring endless conservation possibilities
Imagine a book on wildlife - be it on plants or animals - that is without a single drawing. Or, name a field guide - the unique genre of books that assists species identification - without any artwork. It's exceptionally hard to name one example.
Bangladesh, despite being one of the smallest and densest countries, is home to nearly a thousand different species of fish, about a hundred species of mammals, more than 700 species of bird, and, when it comes down to insects, the diversity is unfathomable.
For plant species, the diversity meter will hover around the 5,000 mark. In stark contrast, there is no one in this country who dares to sketch out these myriad life forms in the present day.
So I started looking for artists who make both scientifically accurate and visually appealing animal artworks. Tania Zakir, Sukanya Hasan, Anika Tabassum, Noor Aida Arfin, Tasin Ahmed and Rafsana Rahman Tista have one thing in common - they are all being trained in science from the Department of Zoology at the University of Dhaka. And now they are boasting skills in illustrations.
I approached each of them, asking them how their passion for the arts had started and what they thought about the merging realm of science and arts. From them, I received one incredible story.
An inseparable sphere
Art is always there to assist in tracking observations from nature. Even from the cave-paintings that date back 30,000 years, researchers found out about 13 different species. That one drawing of the mammoth with a red smear right where its heart is supposed to be is likely the first scientific drawing to ever be recorded. The lost library of Alexandria had aisles full of books containing depictions made by Greek scholars.
In the Age of Exploration, illustration became the best tool to showcase any discovery. In the past, being a polymath earned one the badge of an artist.
Many self-proclaimed scientists of the Renaissance era were skilled craftsmen and artists and vice-versa. Recall the Vitruvian Man by the famed polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
It was not until the 1800s when cameras had stepped up to the job. It took another few decades for science to design cameras fit and compact enough to perform in the field. Even now, when some of the best cameras are tagged along with our phone, scientific illustration holds power. Unlike a photograph, an artwork can capture numerous perspectives at once.
Try describing a tiger in words only. What shade of yellow is the tiger? What is the stripe's pattern? Where are all the muscles that produce the explosive energy? Or try understanding a diminutive life form. Say, a tiny beetle or an even tinier worm.
Now try describing with both words and photographs. How do you see the full body in complete focus? How do they fare in a macro world? How does a worm parasitize its host? How thick is it? How do its organs work? Or does it have any organ at all?
No word or photograph can answer these queries. The answers can always be found within the blend of science and art.
Coursework and inspiration: The kick-starters
So, I asked the Zoology students: How did the drive for scientific illustration sprout? Everyone pointed out a timeline that fell within their graduation days. "My friends and I did an assignment where everything was sketched out," explained Tasin and Rafsana, who are currently pursuing their Master's degree.
"Our course teacher loved the work and offered us some serious drawing tasks," said Sukanya, adding, "Back in 2018, I started sketching randomly. The feedback from my teachers and friends inspired my interest in wildlife illustration."
Anika and Noor, both on the verge of completing their Master's, however, give credit to their academic coursework. "As a student of life science, I had several courses that required both morphological and anatomical illustration of diverse organisms," shared Noor.
Anika further explained, "I have always been interested in sketches and tried to make the lab drawings as perfect as possible."
On an interesting note, although they were approached separately, both said that art helps them, in a strangely similar tone. Arts help Anika "to relax and control inner peace"; for Noor, it is a "bliss".
Another young zoology professional Tania said, "I attended a lecture on wildlife conservation during the final year of my zoology major. I couldn't take my eyes off the slides showing beautiful and brilliantly painted birds, but sadly, all have gone extinct." From then on, Tania adopted this habit seriously as a means to keep the disappearing wildlife alive in the form of sketches.
A rough road without a guide
Undoubtedly, scientific illustration is the most unusual yet exciting ride one can be offered while studying zoology. I asked the young artists about the struggles in their journey so far.
"Science illustrations are not very familiar in Bangladesh," Sukanya shared her despair. Rafsana is also unhappy about people's perception. "In Bangladesh, people mostly think good biological illustration is a waste of time," Rafsana said.
Sukanya pointed out that inadequate career opportunities push away potential science illustrators. This is another difficulty young wildlife artists must overcome.
"I looked in vain for a platform or community in our country that teaches and endorses wildlife arts. The scarcity of platforms for wildlife or scientific illustrators in Bangladesh is severe," she added.
After discovering my interest, I tried to find out people in Bangladesh who work with scientific illustrations, but to no avail," Tania said.
"The number of practical learning opportunities and internship programmes on science illustration are not even close to the standard mark," Noor added.
The absence of a community leads to another problem. "Science illustration must have accurate scale-model detailing, so there must be enough reference material," Tasin informed.
I cross-checked the standard materials necessary for a professional artwork. Coloured pencils from brands like Polychromos, Darwent, Prismacolor, and Caran d'Ache are extremely difficult to get in Bangladesh.
Tania came up with the best solution to the problem, "This discipline should be properly introduced both in biological sciences and fine art faculties to let people explore, get interested about and build a career in this sector."
An untapped power
How impactful can the illustrations be in turning the tide in conservation practices? What can the artworks do so efficiently that these young artists are desperate to overcome all possible struggles?
Firstly, illustrations of wildlife are indispensable to untie the knot of taxonomy. "Science illustration can elucidate the life cycle, postural movement, behaviour and any other ecological aspects of the cryptic wild species -- from historical plants to majestic dinosaurs," said Tania, emphasising on the necessity of scientific illustration.
"It helps to differentiate between the species describing the traits in the most-detailed manner possible, even in 3D, whenever required," Anika added.
A science artwork, like any other work of art, can tell a thousand stories and be an ideal attention grabber, says Rafsana, Tasin and Sukanya. Noor picked another interesting scope where illustrations can be effectively sewn together, "It is also applicable to informal posters, pamphlets, and on websites to provide a comprehensive explanation of subjects."
Tania summed up, "This is the most explicit way to reach, excite, and inspire the local communities and youth, through conveying the message for building up a good understanding of conservation needs."
Dr M M H Khan on science illustration
I reached out to Dr Monirul H Khan, professor of zoology, Jahangirnagar University and an eminent biologist, with special interest in scientific illustration.
"I started from school life and continued mainly up to university life," he recalled his first experience with wildlife arts. Likely, he is the first among Bangladesh zoologists who tried brushes and colours to describe wildlife.
To establish illustration as an accepted practice, Dr Khan stressed on changing usual social norms as it regards any form of art as a lesser practice. However, he resonated the thoughts of the young artists on the scope of wildlife arts. "Illustrations show the characteristics better than photographs and these are more attractive to general people," the biologist said.
Young artists are getting heard
These young women of Bangladesh have already started breaking the barrier. Tania has been featured in two different books, and one of them is being featured by the World Bank. The biology journal "Check List" featured one of her fish illustrations.
Rafsana, Tasin and Sukanya have teamed up for another elasmobranch conservation endeavour, aiming a full series of shark and ray drawings.
Anika completed a series on sharks and fishing vessels for a shark conservation project. She has also joined Tania in a carnivore conservation project supported by Conservation Leadership Programme. They will make some serious carnivore sketches to promote conservation awareness from a scope never attempted before.