Can you tell us about your background?
Way back in 2002, Uttara Mendiratta remembers being enthralled by the sight of two tiger cubs playing in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. A few years after that encounter, as a senior researcher with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, she was investigating tiger poaching on the basis of several reports that Panna was experiencing a high level of organised poaching.
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Examining the seized skins of poached tigers, she would often wonder whether the cubs she had seen had fallen to the poacher’s gun. Then Panna followed Sariska, lost all its tigers, and won the dubious distinction of officially being acknowledged as the second tiger reserve to have suffered the local extinction of tigers. The difference this time was that scientists had anticipated the situation and had warned the authorities about the danger eight years before the event! Unbelievably a wildlife intelligence report subsequently claimed that science, not poachers or the illegal wildlife trade, was responsible.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
While pursuing her honors in History in 1996 at Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi, Uttara Mendiratta had a wild side to her. She loved wildlife and everything to do with its conservation. When in college, she volunteered with the Ranthambhore Foundation that was then headed by Valmik Thapar and Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Once you enter the forest you never come out the same they say, and that’s exactly what the forests did to her. When NCBS started an MSc in Wildlife Biology & Conservation programme in 2006, Uttara left ‘history’ behind her. “As this course admits students from non-science backgrounds I found a great opportunity to learn the science behind conservation. I wanted to understand the ecology of the forest and wildlife that were by now my passion and career,” says Uttara.
What do you do?
I am interested in working on anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts in Asia. In addition to helping design and develop capacity building for enforcement departments I am also interested in taking on trade studies and research on poaching pressure faced by wildlife in this region. Given the recent internationalization of illegal wildlife trade, I feel there is an urgent need to find new solutions to this problem, which are based on an understanding of both local and international drivers of poaching and trafficking of wildlife.
Fast forward to six years and Uttara is now a consultant with Freeland Foundation, Bangkok. “I work on anti-poaching and wildlife trade issues in Asia.” She is also helping set up the Freeland Trust of India. “In a few months, we’ll see the launch of a Wildlife Legal Help Centre. With this we’ll help enforcement officials across India get more convictions against wildlife criminals.”
Can you tell us a bit about your past work?
1997-2002 – I worked for Ranthambhore Foundation where I edited the Tiger Link Newsletter. During this time I also volunteered for some field based research assistantshipsthat involved tiger and prey-base monitoring, socio-economics of villages around snow leopard habitat and short projects like that on study on relocation of villages from Tiger Reserves in Karnataka.
2003- 2007 – I worked with Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) on poaching and trade related issues as the Senior Conservation Officer. It is during this period that I worked closely with anti-poaching efforts and developed a deep understanding of wildlife trade in the region. I was part of trade studies and surveys of illegal market in India and China. I was also part of the International Tiger Coalition team at CITES in 2007. (Note – 2004-2006 I was on sabbatical from WPSI to attend the MSc course).
2008-2011 – I worked as the coordinator of the Citizen Science Programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). The Programme is one of the first in India to use volunteer networks to record and monitor bird migration and plant phenology in order to study the effects of climate change on ecology.
2011-Present – I currently work with Freeland, which is committed to help reduce wildlife and human trafficking across Asia by providing direct training and technical assistance to police, customs and environmental agencies to combat poaching, illegal logging and human trafficking. In India, Freeland will initially focus on giving legal help and training to enforcement staff to help tackle the growing menace of wildlife crimes that plunder India’s biodiversity to cater to the ever-growing illegal markets in other parts of Asia and across the globe.