A baby elephant on fire flees with its mother across a road from a surrounding mob – this is the heart-wrenching image that won Biplab Hazra the Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award last year. The distressing image captured the clash of humans and animals in the age of overpopulation where human encroachment is displacing animals from their habitat. Such conflicts are becoming inevitable in the fight for survival, and humanity is often lost. Oil spills, chemical dumping and plastic are choking our marine life and it really is no better on land where a lack of awareness and initiative costs many animals their lives, some that are even critically endangered.
The importance of wildlife and marine conservation isn’t lost on us, yet very few actually take up the cause to make a difference when it come to peaceful cohabitation of the planet. India has been home to some incredible wildlife warriors like Valmik Thapar, Romulus Whitaker, Uma Ramakrishnan, Prerna Singh Bindra, Latika Nath, Bittu Sahgal and K. Ullas Karanth, to name a few, who have spent their lives working, writing and fighting for conservation and raising awareness about India’s animal kingdom.
They’ve paved the way for younger conservationists to confidently travel down this wild terrain, having set an example of just how much of a difference one person can make. Today, we look at the next generation of wildlife conservationists who are following in the pathbreakers footsteps, carrying on their work, breaking into new fields and giving a voice to the voiceless.
From protecting India’s otters in Goa to modern-day snake whisperers and a ‘Tiger princess’; these are just some of the faces repping conservation in India whose work and efforts you should really know about.
[The following compilation is in no order of preference.]
I. Purnima Devi Barman
‘Hargilla’ literally means swallower of bones in Sanskrit. The Greater Adjutant Stork, native to Assam, Bihar and Cambodia is called just that. Often dismissed as dirty and ugly, this winged scavenger was living in precarious conditions when people hungry to shed its blood were hurting them. Surprisingly, their depleting numbers got a shot at saving thanks to their human sister that arrived with an ‘army’.
The Hargilla Army of more than 70 women from 14 self-help groups in Assam doesn’t bear any arms, what they do have is their songs, stories and culture that Purnima Devi Barman, baideu (sister) of the Adjutant Storks, brought into their lives. Purnima is a wildlife biologist who works for the Aaranyak NGO (conservation) headquartered in Guwahati, Assam and has received many awards and accolades for her incredible work at mobilising a community to protect its feathered inhabitants and coexist in peace.
Read more about her work in our interview with her here.
II. Krithi Karanth
Daughter of renowned wildlife biologist Dr K. Ullas Karanth, Krithi’s initiation into the wild was at the tender age of 2. Much of her childhood was spent in jungles, nature parks and studying her natural surroundings by accompanying her father, however, it was not a chosen path for her from the get-go. She didn’t just want to follow her father’s legacy, but make a path for herself, knowing for sure that this was the field she wanted to be in.
Today, she is a conservation scientist who serves as the adjunct associate professor at Duke University, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Wildlife Studies (India) and Affiliate Faculty, National Centre for Biological Studies (India). As her interview with Deccan Chronicle points out, her love and enthusiasm for the wild turned into academics as she went on-ground to study migratory patterns, track, monitor and document wildlife, their habitats and relationship and interaction with surrounding human habitats. Her study of the human-animal relationship is incredibly important also when it comes to policy-making for the protection of areas and the depleting forest cover – causes of many conflicts between the species.
III. Nirmal Ulhas Kulkarni
While the rest of Goa would be swaying to the tunes at shacks and beach parties, Nirmal Ulhas Kulkarni would be deep in the wilds of the Western Ghats, fighting to save the forest cover and its residents in his state.
At the young age of 18, Nirmal Ulhas Kulkarni became Goa’s Youngest Honorary Warden and today, he is a renowned herpetologist, field ecologist, conservationist, and wildlife photographer. He’s also Director (Ecology) of the Wildernest Nature Resort, an eco-tel in the Chorla Ghats (Goa), Chairman of the Mhadei Research Centre, Team Lead of Hypnale Research Station and promoter of HERPACTIVE, a study initiative on Herpetofauna. That’s a lot for one person to take on, and Kulkarni does it to the max.
He was felicitated last year with the prestigious Karmaveer Puraskaar for his role in conserving the northern Western Ghats (which led to the creation of the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary) and the proposal to upgrade the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary to a tiger reserve. Of the 50 species of amphibians discovered in the Western Ghats in the last decade, three were discoveries of Kulkarni’s, but speaking to Live Mint he feels that his greatest contribution to the movement would be his “training and capacity building of young nature lovers into committed wildlife activists and researchers for over a decade.”
IV. Atul Sinai Borker
A Mechanical Engineer by profession, in 2013 Atul Sinai Borker made a career shift from a multinational software company to follow the path of his passion – wildlife conservation research, namely otters. In September 2014 he brought together a team of like-minded people as the Founder and Director of Wild Otters, a team of otter researchers working on Chorao island in Goa.
India is home to three of the five species of otters found across Asia, and with no hard data and surveillance of the behaviour, habitat and nature of the elusive small mammals Borker has spent the last year years surveying Goa’s river network with his team. He is the Continental Coordinator for South Asia and Species Coordinator for Lutrogale perspicillata for IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group, and recipient of the ‘Future Conservationist Award‘ from Conservation Leadership Programme for his work on otters in 2014.
V. Tasneem Khan
With formal training in Marine Zoology, 32-year-old Punekar Tasneem Khan is a marine zoologist, diver, educator, photographer, sailor and explorer who has spent a decade working on curating, coordinating and developing field research and education on island-ecology in the Andaman Sea.
Her new project is a floating laboratory, Earth Colab, which will provide access to hundreds of marine enthusiasts to learn about the various facets of our rich oceans, revolutionising the way we interact with our oceans. A marine learning lab that will provide a literal and conceptual learning environment in a laboratory and a studio aboard a traditional wooden sailboat, bringing together innovation, sustainability, science, practice, dialogue, pedagogy, documentation and continued learning through the creation of the ‘vessel for inquiry’.
With the vessel of inquiry, Tasneem aims to first expand to the Indian Ocean region and then to the rest of the oceanic world to create a floating, mobile, open-source learning facility for students, institutions and expeditions.
Read more about Earth Colab in our interview with Tasneem Khan here.
VI. Malaika Vaz
An athlete, award-winning wildlife documentary filmmaker, the country’s youngest certified pilot, the youngest explorer to go on an expedition to the Arctic and the Antarctic and the recipient of the National Youth Award by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in January 2018 – Malaika Vaz’s business card soon won’t be big enough to hold all her incredible titles, accolades and achievements. To top it off, she’s only 20 years old.
A National Geographic Explorer and young wildlife explorer, Vaz has always been about the outdoors. She uses her medium to tell important stories about humans’ interaction with the natural world. The Goan girl tells stories to initiate change and according to the Deccan Chronicle is currently working on an Asian conservation documentary focused on Manta and Mobula Rays.
VII. Shashank Dalvi
As a young boy, Shashank Dalvi would spend all his free time and holidays venturing through the Sanjay Gandhi National Park bird spotting. With guidance from stalwarts like Dr. Anish Andheria and Dr. Parvish Pandya, he gained the knowledge and expertise that would today make him one of the most passionate ornithologist’s and protectors of India’s wildlife.
With a keen interest in the Northeast region of the country, his became the first study to combine biogeography and genetics on bird fauna of the Northeast as part of his thesis on the ‘Role of Brahmaputra and hill ranges as a biogeographic barrier for avian fauna of Northeast India’ He was a member of the team that discovered the horrific Amur Falcon Massacre in 2012, in Nagaland, which triggered a conservation movement that went beyond borders like no other.
As profiled by Sanctuary Asia, “Dalvi served as a core member of the Amur Falcon Conservation Project that successfully stopped the hunting of these exquisite migrating falcons by triggering high-level government support, patrolling and enforcement, community engagement and a comprehensive conservation education programme.”
Read more about him here.
VIII. Tiasa Adhya
Tiasa Adhya has worked tirelessly to shed light on the killing of the fishing cat, an endangered animal and destruction of natural habitats in West Bengal. Despite being the State Animal, locales of the region seem unaware of the endangered status of the Fishing Cat who, due to a decline in marshland, ventures into human territory to feed on villagers’ poultry. Between the constant conflicts and retaliatory killings, the dwindling number of Fishing Cats is Adhya’s prime focus.
It was while working on a project in the Sunderbans that she first sighted the animal and has since been studying the landscape of human occupation and nature depletion in the state. She faced pushback from the locals about making any kind of lifestyle changes – she also happened to be a young woman out on her own in the field – but didn’t let it phase her. She reportedly got support from a local politician to raise awareness about the Fishing Cat.
In 2010, Tiasa along with Partha Dey founded The Fishing Cat Project and she has since focused her study on the behaviour and ecology of the Cat and used her knowledge and quantitative data to implement conservation policy-making.
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