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Wildlife is fascinating. And Indian wildlife all the more so simply because of its magnitude, vibrancy and variety. India’s open lands, vast forests and oceans, mountains and valleys, gamut of birds, mammals, insects and trees have spurred on many enquiring minds and nature aficionados to venture out and learn more. Some do it as a hobby while others have taken it on as a burning passion – to learn of our country’s natural beauty and diversity, research it scientifically and protect it via education and legislation.
Rohit Naniwadekar is one such individual, whose life is fuelled by the love of his country’s biodiversity-specifically avian and reptilian. I have known him a long time now since my early days of forest excursions and even then he was always wide eyed with wonder at everything the forests had to offer.
What is your educational background?
Armed with a degree in zoology from the Mumbai University and an unbreakable will, he proceeded to obtain the much coveted Masters degree in Wildlife Science in 2005 from the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. His sheer passion for the wild, spurred him on to do a stint at the Karnataka Forest Department as a researcher working with biodiversity inventories for a short while, before joining the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Mysore as a Research Affiliate the next year.
He is now a PhD student at NCF researching hornbill biodiversity in India and having a hell of a time doing it. Tall, bearded and with piercing yet twinkling eyes, his easygoing personality also reeks of an adventurer’s enthusiasm and an academic’s serious intelligence at the same time.
The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of India’s premier wildlife research and education organizations, has adopted the Great Hornbill as its logo and Rohit is one of the few researchers interested in its future in India’s ecology.
Here are some excerpts from a candid chat I had with him earlier today (14 August) :-
Shreyasi : (kind of uneasy talking to him so formally) Are you ready for a formal interview?
Rohit: (Laughs) Why don’t you interview my guide-she has been studying since ’96.
Shreyasi: (At ease) sure I will later. For now let’s start with you. Tell me, how did you first get introduced to wildlife? why did you choose an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career such as this?
Rohit: Well, I was introduced to bird-watching when I was in class 4, around nine years old. By the time I got to the tenth grade, I knew I wanted to make a career out of this.
Shreyasi: What was your Master’s thesis topic during your course in WII?
Rohit: My master’s thesis looked at diversity patterns of frogs along an elevation gradient in southern region of the Western Ghats
Shreyasi: Frogs? Wow that’s interesting! And what does your current PhD thesis deal with?
Rohit: I am mainly interested in looking at the distribution pattern of species. My PhD thesis looks at the distribution patterns of hornbills and the role of resource distribution (mainly fruits) and abundance in governing the distribution patterns
Shreyasi: I see. But distribution can be a huge arena. Are you looking at the distribution patterns India wide? Or a localized region?
Rohit: Well… again along an elevation gradient in Arunachal Pradesh. I hope what I mean by distribution patterns is clear…for us its part of daily lingo…am not sure how a neutral reader would perceive it…
Shreyasi: Most of our readers are hard core technical IIT students, so they need to understand in more basic non-academic terms. Tell me, you’re studying the Great Indian Hornbill right?
Rohit: Yes, it is one of the species I am studying.
Shreyasi: Ok which are the others?
Rohit: Wreathed, Rufous-necked and Brown Hornbills….
Shreyasi: Wonderful! Must be exciting! What according to you is the conservation status of the Great Indian Hornbill in our country?
Rohit: Unlike very critically endangered species of other animals and birds, Great hornbills are faring well in a few areas … but they are also under grave threat in few others… because of hunting/habitat loss.
Shreyasi: Can you give me some examples of areas where they are more endangered and some where they are doing better?
Rohit: Great hornbills are faring well in few areas in Konkan in Maharashtra and in Anamalai hills in Tamil Nadu, in Pakke and Nameri landscape and in Namdapha in north-east India… and then again in few areas in northeast they aren’t faring so well… so its again quite patchy…
Shreyasi: Understood. What are the significantly major threats facing them?
Rohit: The threats vary from area to area… but hunting and habitat loss are the primary ones.
Shreyasi: And is the govt lackadaisical in handling these threats? Or are severe measures being taken to tackle the issue at hand?
Rohit: Well it is rather difficult and unfair to blame the government squarely…The whole issue is quite complicated in India, as conservation issues in general are…
Shreyasi: Why so?
Rohit: We have the parks and the laws…Some places these work and in some they don’t! Potentially conservation will work with active participation of local community…and when the local communities see economic opportunities in conserving wildlife…conservation will be easier…
Shreyasi: (sighs)…Frustrating-it surely is! Coming back to basics, about Indian Hornbill species, which kind of forests do they generally thrive in? Evergreen? Deciduous? Mixed? Primary? Secondary?
Rohit: well most of them thrive in evergreen forests, but the grey hornbill is adapted to live in savanna and drier habitats. However the Oriental Pied Hornbill seems to prefer secondary forests and Malabar pied moist deciduous forests.
Shreyasi: Speaking of forests, on a general note, how is India’s forest cover doing…Indian stats normally say its about 33% but I’m sure it’s not that much.
Rohit: again its regional…in a few areas it is stable while in other areas forest cover is declining rapidly.
Shreyasi: Which areas would you say are most negatively impacted in India? (Generally speaking)
Rohit: It’s difficult for me to say about the rest of the country, but in a few areas in the northeast it is surely showing a declining trend.
Shreyasi: OK. That is unfortunate. On an ending note…what would your advice be to aspiring wildlife enthusiasts of India…how best can non wildlife people do their bit to protect India’s wildlife? For youngsters who cannot all join WII, how else can they get involved?
Rohit: Well there is still a lot to be done for conservation of wildlife in India, particularly areas which are currently not under the Protected Area Network but which still harbour lots of wildlife…there is a need not only of professionals but also of general awareness, education where anybody can contribute….
Shreyasi: Great! That is good news indeed. Thanks a lot. I’m sure this will make an interesting read for all our student readers and encourage them to participate more actively in wildlife conservation crusades.
With this, I let Rohit get back to his research activities, but promised to keep following up on his work and updating my readers with his thoughts from time to time on Indian wildlife and of course, hornbills specifically.