Saturday, August 17, 2013

Interview with Suniti Bhushan Datta (Wildlife Biologist)

Wildlife is something that has always fascinated me. In fact it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to claim that had I not gone into writing, I would probably have tried my luck at doing something related to wildlife. From a very early age, I was captivated by the wildlife documentaries shown on television and had a strong urge to lose myself in those dense jungles.

This fascination of mine is however being led by many others across the globe who work tirelessly to care for our forests. One of them is Suniti Bhushan Datta, a wildlife biologist and nature educator from Dehradun, India. Author of the book ‘Birding in the Doon Valley’, Dutta has been into the various facets of wildlife for about a decade now.

There had been several questions in my heart regarding our wildlife that I could never get real answers to. Suniti Dutta, through this interview, gives me and many others like me the perfect opportunity to have their questions answered as he sheds light on various aspects of wildlife that every citizen of this country should be aware of. Read on.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. I have always been fascinated with how a wildlife professional works. Please elaborate on the kind of job(s) you do in your field?

Suniti Dutta: I am basically a consultant wildlife biologist and nature educator. In the former capacity, I am sometimes hired by NGOs or the Forest Department to conduct population surveys or research on a particular species, population or certain aspect of wildlife or its habitat.

I have also, of late, started working with various schools, through certain organizations, as an outdoor/nature educator- basically introducing children to nature, letting them experience it firsthand, outside of the often misleading and sensationalist confines of Nat Geo, Discovery and Animal Planet. I have been doing nature education ad lib work for the better part of 10 years now, but I have only recently taken it up professionally and full time. I tend to enjoy doing it much more than research and find it more meaningful from a conservation point of view!

Fieldwork is the fun part of wildlife biologist’s work! The science that we do is only one part of it. Everything...the birds and other wildlife, walking through the forest, the fresh air, the silence in the night, the is just magical. Every day you learn something new; see a new sight, or a new creature, an animal behaving in a different way... It can never be boring.

Q. Looking at those wildlife documentaries, I have always considered the work of wildlife professional to be very exciting. Is it always like that?

SD: Yes, working with wildlife can be exciting, in terms of being able to encounter or observe animals that are usually not easy to approach, or even see in the wild. Though, for the most part it is usually mundane collection of data and analysis for research.

As I stated earlier, Nat Geo, Discovery, et al, does tend to sensationalize wildlife work more than it is, or is necessary.

The excitement also comes from obtaining the results of that research, being able to answer questions about the natural history, ecology or behaviour of a species, or about a habitat.

Whatever else it is, I can tell you that wildlife work is never ‘routine’!

Q. How did your interest in wildlife take birth? Did you always wish to get into this field?

SD: I have been interested in animals since a very young age, though I’ve never really worked out how that interest started exactly. My mother and eldest sister are both avid birdwatchers and my sister used to read to me from Gerald Durrell’s books, and I spent many of my school holidays in the then wildlife-rich tea estates of Assam and North Bengal, all of which were certainly factors that encouraged that interest. My family has always encouraged and supported my interest in wildlife and the outdoors.

While as a career choice, I wanted to do something related to the outdoors, I never specifically thought of working with wildlife until much later. As a child, all I was sure about was that I never wanted work within the confines of an office and/or behind a desk. I’m allergic to offices!

Q. Tell us what a person needs to do in order to become a wildlife professional? As in what is the approach he must have right from the beginning, the courses he must do etc.

SD: To become a wildlife professional, there are several avenues that are now open. If you want to pursue wildlife research, there are several post-grad courses in wildlife sciences that are offered. The two better ones are from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS)-Bengaluru and Wildlife Institute of India (WII)-Dehra Dun. The academic criterion for both these courses is a graduate degree in any life science with 55% aggregate. Although this has recently been waived, having an adequate good grounding in the basics of science is good for understanding biological systems.

With a graduate degree, you can also apply to work as a nature guide in a wildlife reserve, since there are many resorts and wildlife tourism camps that are constantly on the lookout for guides. Also, many NGOs related to environmental advocacy, research and activism also recruit interested persons.
In general, an inquisitive mind, and a love for and aptitude for living in the outdoors are essential. Many field sites are in remote locations, well away from the comforts of urban existence, which you should be prepared for.

Q. Please share your experience of studying at the Wildlife Institute of India. How different is it from other normal institutes; meaning is the environment there just like a normal college one? As a student, what did you do there?  

SD: I joined the Masters Degree (Wildlife Sciences) course at the Wildlife Institute of India in the XIth Batch (2007-09). This is an extensive and intensive course that prepares you for a career in the field of wildlife research and conservation. WII is an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and hence, has unparalleled access to India’s forests, which is a big advantage. During the course, we were introduced to a diversity of habitats across the country, from the Himalayas to marine ecosystems.

The institute also holds Certificate and Diploma Courses in Wildlife Management for Forest Service personnel, which allows students to interact with officers directly working on conservation and wildlife management issues, allowing one to get a perspective of the ground realities. This also helps in networking as well as bridging the gap between researchers and managers.

I would say that the WII’s M.Sc course is very different from most other colleges in that it actively encourages you to pursue original research and thinking, rather than be spoon-fed by professors. During the last semester of the course students have to propose and conduct an original research project for 6 months that culminates in a dissertation, which has to be defended before one’s peers.

Q. As a young wildlife professional, what are your views on the current situation of wildlife in India? Additionally, what do you think we should do to improve it?

SD: Overall in India, wildlife is not doing as badly as people make it out to be, though I would caution that it is not doing very well either. India is in a state of flux and how wildlife fares in the next few decades is dependent on the attitude of the government and the people.

With current government policy of unsustainable development, there is little to stop the indiscriminate clearance of forests, except the voice of the people. Wildlife cannot vote and hence, it is very low down the ladder in terms of politicians’ priorities. It is ultimately we, the people of India, who must speak out in defense of the natural wealth of this country. As far as the government is concerned, the forests and the environment are yet another resource to be plundered to conform to the current destructive growth model.

Development in itself is not a bad thing. It has to take place. But, while many countries, especially in Europe, have adopted sustainable, green solutions for development, here in India, we are hell-bent on pursuing the most destructive course. Our government and politicians seem to have no foresight.

Q. I have currently been reading in the papers as to how the tiger is making a comeback in our wild. I have a sinking feeling that the numbers being put up are grossly inflated. Is it true or is the tiger situation in India really improving?

SD: Tigers need three essential factors for their survival- adequate protection from poachers, a good prey-base and minimal disturbance. If these three things are taken care of, tigers will thrive in a given forest area.
The tiger is one animal that is actually not doing so badly actually, at least in most places. With the high-profile campaigns to protect the tiger in the media and amongst the general public, there is an increased media spotlight and hence, pressure on tiger reserves to step-up patrolling and anti-poaching measures. As long as this initiative is sustained, tigers will survive.

The next step has to be to look beyond tiger reserves at wider landscapes, such as the Terai Arc Landscape along the base of the Himalayas or the Satpura-Maikal Landscape in Central India. Connecting populations, through viable forest corridors is crucial to maintaining the genetic viability and the long-term survival of tigers in India.

As for numbers, no wildlife census is entirely accurate. The secretive nature of most wildlife makes them difficult to count, even using advanced techniques. That is why the correct term is ‘population estimates’, and not ‘censuses’. The days in which state wildlife departments published ‘exact’ numbers, usually concocted, are long gone. Also, absolute numbers mean very little in terms of conservation application, and have been replaced by the more meaningful population density and habitat occupancy.

As such, the figures published in the NTCA-WII report are as accurate as possible.

Q. Since you are already conducted Elephant census, can you please tell us as to how the census of an animal is conducted in our country? I had once read Valmik Thapar claim a few years back that the way the tiger population is conducted in our country isn’t very proper. What are your views on that? Also in comparison to other countries where does our animal census method stand?

SD: Different animals and habitats require different methodologies.

With elephants, for example, there are several techniques that are used in combination, depending on the terrain characteristics and estimated density of the animal. These can be waterhole count, dung-density estimates along transects and block counts. Transects and waterhole counts are used for estimating prey and ungulate densities.

Carnivore populations are estimated using camera-traps, placed systematically in a particular area.

The tiger population estimation exercise in the country has come a long way from the days of the highly inaccurate pugmark census. The camera-trap method used today is as accurate perhaps, as it will ever get. Of course, the efficacy of any estimation method used, is dependent on how it is carried out.  In my opinion, the tiger and prey estimation exercise should be carried out by a competent independent agency, in conjunction with the state forest departments. Left to their own devices, the latter can inflate figures to suit their purposes. Also, the methods and analyses should be peer-reviewed, as is the practice by the scientific community worldwide.

The census techniques in use in India are the same that are used to estimate various wildlife populations around the world.

Q. The Alipore Zoo in Kolkata has recently launched the ‘Adopt an Animal’ scheme. This is already quite popular in zoos like Nandankanan and the Darjeeling Zoo. One thing I always wondered was is the scheme just another way for our stars to get some limelight when they ‘adopt’ an animal or does it have its benefits?

SD: Given the current state of Alipore Zoo, and most any other zoo in the country, the scheme is just eye-wash. It is just another way for stars to show how, ‘concerned’ they are. The animal, as long as it remains in the same pitiable conditions throughout the year, does not benefit at all.

Q. I have had the opportunity to visit many zoos across the country on different occasions but find only a few of them in acceptable conditions. What are your views on the condition of zoos in India? What according to you is a model zoo?

SD: The primary function of the modern zoo, a concept developed by Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg in 1907, was to exhibit animals in as near replication of their natural surroundings as possible so as to educate the public about them. As conservation interest grew in the general public in the latter half of the 20th century, interpretative facilities were added to new zoos and management was improved. With Gerald Durrell’s Jersey Zoological Park, they also became captive breeding centres for endangered animals. The idea being that, if for multifarious reasons, an animal becomes extinct in the wild, there is a repository of the species in captivity that can be used to repopulate the habitat, once the reasons for its extinction have been removed.

Somehow, this renaissance has not taken place in India and by large, zoos in India continue to follow the Victorian concept of keeping animals in bare cages with minimal decoration. Interpretative facilities, where they exist, are inaccurate at best. Captive breeding (or conservation breeding as it is now known) is again haphazard and unscientific, where it exists. There has been no real move to change this system over the years and despite having a Central Zoo Authority and published guidelines, zoos continue to be neglected by an apathetic administration.

Q. While we are on the topic, I would also like to talk about enclosures for animals in our zoos. I find them quite inadequate in space. Do you feel that should be improved throughout the country?

SD: There are issues much graver than just the space. An example of this is the Delhi Zoo, where a Lion-tailed Macaque- a highly endangered rainforest primate- has been kept in a vast unsheltered paddock, with a single snag in the centre. No attempt has been made to provide this animal with anything remotely resembling its rainforest habitat. Never has an animal looked more miserable.

There are possibly two zoos in India worth mentioning, where at least some attempt has been made at improving the situation. The Nainital High-Altitude Zoo has large, open enclosures with natural vegetation, where the animals have some privacy and adequate separation from the public; they are well maintained and fed quality food. Attractive bilingual, interpretative signs are abundantly placed to educate the visitor about the animals in the enclosures.

Darjeeling Zoo is similar in its approach to displaying animals, and has of late been quite successful in breeding the endangered Red Panda.

Q. Would it be viable to completely abolish the concept of zoos and only keep the animals in the national parks i.e. in their natural surroundings?

SD: The less said about other zoos in the country the better. As they currently exist, zoos in the country should be demolished and rebuilt, or shut down permanently, because they serve no purpose other than to torment their captive inhabitants.

Q. Talking about national parks, I had the opportunity to visit one. While on the safari, I noticed how congregated it can become sometimes on one route with canters and jeeps all falling over each other to get that shot of a particular animal. I found it quite disturbing that an animal was being blatantly disturbed in its natural surroundings. Doesn’t that in a way kill the concept of a national park itself?

SD: National Parks and Sanctuaries were established to conserve certain habitats and their wildlife. That was their primary mission. Tourism was meant to be an incidental, secondary and highly regulated means of generating some revenue. However, in recent years tourism has overshadowed the original purpose of a protected area. Increased revenue means better promotion prospects for the officer in charge of a high profile park or sanctuary. There are also vested interests from locals and politicians who have stake in the business. All this eventually boils down to lax regulations and an unplanned, haphazard growth of resorts around a protected area that suck resources from it and contribute nothing, except garbage and litter.

The emphasis in India is not on quality tourism, but quantity: stuff as many people as you can into a canter/jeep, and show them a tiger. Most tour operators, guides and resorts subscribe to this model, because it generates quick revenue. They have no affinity towards the park, except for this. Many however, do bandy about the words, ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘eco-friendly’ without having the slightest idea of what these entail, because it looks good to a non-discerning tourist on a flashy website.

Corbett NP is a prime example of this. The resorts that line the Kosi River bordering the park have dance floors and bright lights, hardly the ambience for an ‘eco-friendly, wildlife’ experience. None of this would have happened without the complicity of the forest department, or if resort owners had the even the slightest interest in the welfare of this beautiful landscape.

Q. I also noticed that on a safari in a national park, people keep shouting and flashing their cameras at the animal, completely ignoring the laws of the jungle. I had wondered that wouldn’t it be prudent for forest officials to brief all the public before they enter the park on the basic rules they have to follow inside?

SD: There are exceptions, few and far between but, as I have said above, the forest department has little interest in regulating tourism for reasons mentioned. Guides too, have little motivation to do so either because this could lead to not getting a handsome tip.

Also, most protected areas are short-staffed and it is a strain to have to assign valuable manpower for tourism regulation, rather than protection and management duties. In most cases, the former takes precedence and ultimately conservation suffers.

Briefings certainly help of course but, unless these rules are enforced, nothing happens. We have traffic rules in India, but does that stop anyone from double-parking, overtaking from the wrong side and driving in the wrong lane?

In my opinion, tourism should be stopped in National Parks and Sanctuaries, and large open-air safari parks developed that are well stocked with tigers, lions and other showy wildlife, where tiger-centric tourists can be driven through to see these creatures at their heart’s content, for a small fee. It won’t make a difference to the general tourist whether he gets a ‘wildlife experience’ or not. He’s seen a tiger, the guide got his hefty tip, and the forest department its revenue, and wildlife remains undisturbed. Everyone is a winner.

Q. Correct me if I am wrong, but there seems to be hardly any interest among the larger part of the public in wildlife as a career? Does that stem from the fact that there is no genuine love for animals in our country?

SD: I don’t think it has anything to do with any less love for animals or wildlife, as such.

For one thing, there isn’t much publicity about wildlife as a career and the field is still rather limited in this country. In terms of a general shift away from conventional careers, we in India are still conservative about taking up something outside the box and parents are as much to blame for this as anyone. Doctor/engineer/businessman/software professional/civil servant/lawyer/accountant are still very much the careers to take up.

In recent years, I have seen an increasing number of young people, especially in the 30-35 years age-group, moving away from their ‘mainstream’ careers and taking up something different, especially in the outdoors, whether as adventure tourism operators or wildlife guides. It is a refreshing change and hopefully it will grow.

Q. Is there any way we can change the general sentiment related to animals in our country?

SD: Education. That is the key to everything, I think. The better people understand the natural world and the environment around them, the more they will appreciate and hopefully conserve it.

Q. On a lighter note, tell me about some of your career highlights. Any particular achievement that you are truly proud of?

SD: Given my academic track record, I was greatly surprised when I was selected to join the M.Sc programme at the Wildlife Institute of India! That and doing the course itself, was definitely a highlight. I guess I could be proud of that!

Having my first book, ‘Birding in the Doon Valley’ published, gives me a lot of satisfaction. It is a book that I have wanted to come out with for a very long time- since school days, actually- and to have it published and on the market, is a dream come true. It’s come a long way from random scribbles on the back of my Maths exercise books (the subject I day-dreamed through the most!) to its present form!

Q. What are your future plans now? How would you, as a wildlife professional, like to contribute towards improving the standards of our wildlife situation?

SD: I have always been curious about animals, and one of the reasons I wanted to become a wildlife researcher, so that I could gain skills to answer various questions I had about them.

However, some years ago, I read a quote attributed to Dr. George Schaller (without a doubt, the world’s most accomplished wildlife biologist), where he said that, “It is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conservation. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combination of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist—an ecological missionary, balancing knowledge and action.

This made me think hard about where I was headed in terms of contribution to conservation. Research is one way to go but, all too often and especially in this country, research findings seldom get incorporated into conservation action on the ground. Publishing papers in high-impact journals brings personal satisfaction, but I couldn’t see it contributing much to conservation.

As stated earlier, I had been conducting nature and outdoor education programmes with various schools in Dehra Dun, whenever I was here from the field, but have recently decided to take this up full time. Growing up here, I was fortunate enough to have teachers who encouraged us to explore this beautiful valley and its diverse habitats. My appreciation and love for the outdoors was greatly honed by this experience. This valley is a fantastic outdoor laboratory to introduce children to nature, with mountains and forests and streams galore, all within easy access.

I feel that children today are losing touch with the natural world. Television channels like Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet are all right, but there is nothing to compare being in a natural environment and experiencing things for oneself.  Children are the future. The idea is to capture a child’s natural curiosity and sustain it.

Every child who appreciates and cares about wildlife and the environment today can potentially make the world a better place tomorrow.

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