Rohan Pethiyagoda – The Sri Lankan Linnaeus

The nature of our country is such, that seldom do we see people, bearing their own heritage, culture, and history, winning internationally acclaimed awards, especially in fields such as botany and zoology. But occasionally, we see exemplary individuals breaking through those invisible shackles that somehow seem to hold the others back and pushing forward, becoming a leader in their respective fields. A prime example of one such notable individual from our small island nation is Rohan Pethiyagoda, the 2022 winner of the Linnean Medal.

Sometimes called the “Nobel Prize for naturalists”, the prize of the Linnean Medal is populated with biodiversity titans like Richard Owen (who coined “dinosaurs”), Alfred Wallace, Darwin’s defenders Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. It is often awarded to scientists in the fields of botany and zoology, yet the 2022 honoree in the zoology section is not a scientist in the formal sense, but rather an author, educator and taxonomist, whose work seems to belong to an earlier age.

You see Rohan Pethiyagoda is a Sri Lankan environmentalist who, among his other copious outputs has contributed greatly to highlighting the very history of biodiversity in Asia, linking together artists, scientists, travellers and explorers from both the East and the West. His prodigious taxonomic output has been centred not only on Sri Lanka, but also on Singapore, parts of South and Southeast Asia involving institutes in the UK, US, and Australia.

His stance on the Convention on Biological Diversity is an important one, where he stresses the damage that the convention has caused to research in the fields of taxonomy and industry such as the pharmaceutical sector where he says “But in order to prevent that guy from finding that gene, we have shut down all of the biological research in Sri Lanka… The biopiracy hysteria set up by the environmental lobby has caused huge harm to research we need for biodiversity conservation”

Rohan Pethiyagoda was awarded the Linnean medal simply because he deserves it. His body of work and legacy with regard to the natural world is greater than that of many others combined and will be of assistance to both locals and the international community to cherish their own bio-diversities and associated histories.

Article by: Melaka Jude | Faculty of Medicine

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