Ordeal by Fire – Dr Sosamma Iype’s Struggles to Save the Vechur Cow

She is a visionary. She is a fighter. She is a champion. She is Dr Sosamma Iype, the famous animal conservationist and Padma Shri awardee.

Today, she is admired and feted as Vechur Amma, the protector of the Vechur cow, the diminutive cattle species native to Kerala that was on the brink of extinction until recently. But when she began her self-driven project to save this indigenous breed more than three decades back, it was a bold decision because concepts like biodiversity, environmental conservation, organic farming and scientific animal breeding were relatively unknown, let alone understood or appreciated. Not only were they not considered important, they were even opposed tooth and nail. There were even government policies and measures that sought to wipe out native breeds of cattle because they were considered burdensome and uneconomic, steps that look regressive and blasphemous when we look at them with modern eyes!

What was even more difficult to withstand was the venom spewed by Dr Iype’s own scientist-colleagues at the Veterinary College of the Kerala Agricultural University in a bid to destroy all her efforts at conserving the Vechur cow. At first, they spread false stories about her, accusing her of favouritism towards a certain set of students, of being greedy to gather central government funds for the conservation project, and so on. When these weapons failed to put down the researcher-activist in Dr Iype, her enemies turned to more evil and unpardonable acts. They poisoned her precious cattle, they set fire to the cowshed that housed lactating cows and their calves, they fed the local newspapers with utterly blasphemous stories about gene smuggling, and so on.
Still worse, Dr Vandana Shiva, the celebrity-environmentalist of India joined the smear campaign and, without a shred of evidence to support her claim, accused Dr Iype’s college of biopiracy. Dr Shiva stated that the Kerala Agricultural University had permitted the famous Roslin Institute (the creator of Dolly, the cloned sheep) to smuggle the genes of the Vechur cow out of the country and sell it to a foreign multinational company for the sake of creating clones, and made a neat profit from the bargain!

Undeterred by these low and shameless acts of jealousy, Dr Iype, supported by a very faithful group of students and encouraged by a few scientist-administrators of national stature, proved all her accusers wrong. To her, all that mattered was the significance of the cause she championed. Her astonishing reserves of courage and self-confidence saw her through days and months of agony and uncertainty, when she saw her favourite cows die at the hands of her vile colleagues, some of her colleagues ganging up against her, many of her students misunderstanding her and moving away, enquiry commissions conducting farcical investigations, police interventions quashed by vested interests, and culprits not identified or punished. Dr Iype had her ordeal by fire, and came out of it stronger and more tempered. Now all her visionary ideals stand vindicated and a grateful nation has honoured her by conferring the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award of the Republic of India.
Today as she receives that prestigious award, she also celebrates her birthday. Let us wish her greater happiness on this auspicious day, sounder health, and all success to her memoir in Malayalam Vechurpashu Punarjanmam [The Vechur Cow: A New Lease of Life].

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