Saturday 6 April 2013

The pest and a civil servant

He was a renowned malacologist, albeit an amateur, and his son-in-law was one of the builders of modern Bangalore.
If the father-in-law was deeply interested in molluscs and collected several hundreds of them, the son-in-law loved buildings and greenery and he contributed some of the most outstanding buildings in Bangalore.
Both were civil servants and the father-in-law is acknowledged to be among those who had a direct hand in introducing a pest in India. The pest today is a nightmare for agriculturists, farmers and growers and the entire world has joined hands to eradicate this pest, which is found in all the continents barring Antartica.
The name of the father-in-law is William Henry Benson (1803- 1870)a civil servant in British India and an amateur malacologist.
Benson was deeply interested in snails and he had a large collection of mollusks. He described them in detail and his diaries form an important part in the study of snails.
He collected numerous species of snails from England, India and South Africa.
He was a student of Haileybury College in 1819 and joined the East India Company at Bengal in 1821.  He held a number of positions, including the post of a district collector and officiating Judge in Meerut, Bareilly and other parts of north India.
During his stay in India, Benson collected several specimens of numerous land snails some of which he sent to Hugh Cuming in England. On the return from a trip to Mauritius to India, he brought with him a couple of living Achatina fulica or African snail, which he gave to a friend in Calcutta in April 1847.
This friend subsequently released the snail in a garden at Chowringhee in Calcutta. This species is today a pest in many parts of India.
Benson’s  son-in-law was Major Richard Sankey and he was also executor of his estate and the vast collection of snails that he bequeathed to Sylvanus Hanley (1819–1899),  a  British conchologist and malacologist.
Sankey married Sophia Mary, daughter of  Benson, at Ooty in 1858. After her death in 1882,  he married Henrietta, widow of Edward Browne JP, at Dublin.
Coming back to Benson and his collections, Hanley made extensive use of these collections and published the first book on shells using the then new technique of photographs. He authored Conchologia indica with William Theobald which was a treatise on the shells of British India.
Hanley collected mollusks extensively; most of his collections are today at Leeds City Museum in Yorkshire, England. Hanley collected over a period of 60 years, and corresponded frequently with many other naturalists of his time. He acquired several specimens of Unio, now extinct.
The Hanley Collections, as it is called, forms one of the largest collections in the Leeds museum, occupying 13 cabinets and 206 cabinet drawers.
As far as Lieutenant General Sir Richard Hieram Sankey KCB (1829-1908) goes, he built the Sankey tank and designed the Attara Kacheri or High Court.
Both Benson and Sankey are remembered. To Benson goes the credit of introducing one of the most invasive species in India. Very high densities of giant African land snail have been observed in many parts of Karnataka.
These snails can wreak havoc on horticultural crops and are, therefore, classified as a major crop pest across the globe since the 1800s. 
A voracious eater, it is supposed to have medicinal properties.
The United States took up a  six-year campaign to eradicate achatinids from Florida at a cost of one million dollars. In Brazil,  the snail displaced small agricultural producers to cities and also led to low availability of food, greater food prices and food import. The snail has been India’s curse since its introduction in 1847.
A majority of the A. fulica now occurring throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific region are derived from one haplotype, the source being a single pair of specimens released in Chowringhee in 1847. 
The first time the snail came into limelight in Bangalore was in 1979 when it damaged ornamental plants and vegetables during the kharif period in Siddappa Gardens near Lalbagh.
In Kannada, the snail is called Basavana hula and, therefore, farmers hesitate to kill it.
Apart from this species, other terrestrial molluscs have based themselves in our country and they destroy native plants and interfere with the local ecology. The giant African snails are active at night and bury themselves in the soil during the day.

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