Please tell us about yourself
Wildlife biologist Girish Arjun Punjabi recently received the Carl Zeiss Award for Wildlife Conservation in New Delhi. The award was in recognition of his efforts to conserve wildlife in the northern Sahyadris, through on-ground research and outreach. Here he talks about his love for foxes and how technology can play a role in conservation.
Girish is an alumnus of the post-graduate program in wildlife biology & conservation, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India and National Centre for Biological Sciences. He studied Indian foxes for his Masters dissertation, under the guidance of Dr. Ravi Chellam and Dr. Abi Tamim Vanak and examined how this small canid selects den-sites in a fragmented grassland landscape.
Girish’s interest in wildlife sciences remained latent until he visited Ranthambore in 2006. There he stayed with forest personnel and understood how hard life was at the frontline and the complex issues conservation involves. He continued visiting protected areas across India for the next four years and learning immensely from interactions with peers, researchers, and conservationists as part of his Masters degree.
Please tell us about your career path
Immediately after the Masters course, Girish joined Dr. Advait Edgaonkar on a project funded by CEPF-ATREE (http://www.atree.org/cepf_small_grants) to examine large carnivore occupancy in the northern Western Ghats. This project revealed fascinating insights about how large carnivores persist at landscape scales.
This was followed by short surveys in Intanki national park in Nagaland, monitoring a GPS-collared tigress in Umred-Karhandla in Central Maharashtra, and population surveys for herbivores and stray dogs in Sanjay Gandhi national park in Mumbai. He worked with Dr. Vidya Athreya from WCS-India on an Indo-Norwegian collaborative project (http://www.nina.no/ninaenglish/Researchprojects/IPBES.aspx) and conducted short camera trapping surveys for wildlife outside protected areas in Rajasthan and Western Ghats.
Girish is presently working with the Wildlife Research & Conservation Society and The Nityata Foundation in the Sahyadri-Konkan region of the Western Ghats on a project examining large carnivore connectivity, funded by CEPF-ATREE (http://indiabiodiversity.org/project/show/74). He is also associated with Researchers for Wildlife Conservation, formed of a subset of the alumni from the Masters Program, that strives to voice views and provide solutions on diverse conservation issues.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I think it happened when I was in Balas in Sawai Mansingh wildlife sanctuary in Rajasthan, which is now part of the Ranthambore Tiger reserve. I was a novice then, but living for 10 days in a forest guard’s shoes taught me something that I was yearning to learn. I was sitting on a cliff-face with a few others and watching the sun go down after a heavy downpour. I decided to take the plunge then. I took up wildlife studies for my masters at National Centre for Biological Sciences in 2008. That course, no doubt, was a turning point in my life.
Why did you choose foxes for your masters dissertation?
I’ve always loved foxes! They’re the smallest wild Canids, so I was always keen to learn more about them. I remember doing a mad bike trip with a colleague in the heat of May across Rajasthan looking for them. We traversed 1,200 km of the state trying to locate the desert fox, a species found in north-west India. When the time came for my dissertation, it wasn’t very hard to choose what I wanted to study. I studied den-site selection of Indian foxes in a human-dominated landscape near the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Solapur. We found that on a large scale foxes primarily chose grasslands when denning in the agricultural matrix. At a small scale, even manmade structures can play an important role. Grasslands are highly threatened habitats in India today, and we found that they were important habitats for this species, but at the same time foxes appear to have opportunistically used human-made structures as well.
Your projects and interests have taken you to wildlife areas all over the country, what have been your observations?
The diversity of wildlife and habitats is immense and spectacular, and as a country we’ve done a great job in conserving this diversity up till now. But suddenly I feel things have started turning turtle, and we seem to be losing this regard for our wild heritage. Most places I go now, there’s this talk of ‘development’, habitats are being fragmented, biodiversity being lost, and yet little do we know how this loss in biodiversity will affect us in the future.
You worked on a project which examined large carnivore occupancy in the northern Western Ghats. Please tell us about it.
Yes, I was on this project under Dr Advait Edgaonkar to understand what proportion of area (aka occupancy) tigers, leopards, dholes, and sloth bears occupy in the north Western Ghats, a region seldom studied for mammals. We also tried to understand how forest area, large prey availability, and human presence affected large carnivore distribution at a landscape scale.
What is Sahyadri Corridor project about?
This project’s my brainchild, but I’m thankful a lot of organisations and people have supported my endeavour. It focuses on retaining and improving connectivity for large carnivores in the north Western Ghats. This is not possible without stakeholder involvement, so we’ve also focused on creating partnerships with people working in different parts of the region. Importantly, the project works closely with the Maharashtra forest department and we’re collecting some incredible information through camera-traps placed outside of protected areas in the corridor region.
You have also done important work in Tillari region of Maharashtra, please tell us about it.
Tillari is an amazing region at the tri-junction of Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka. I saw the area for the first time during the large carnivore occupancy survey in 2010. Ever since I’ve been captivated by Tillari. Now, we’re meticulously documenting what wildlife exists in the region through camera-traps. We’ve found evidence of tigers, elephants, and there seems a reasonably high density of sambar and gaur. This area has great potential for wildlife conservation, if only we can prevent it from falling prey to silly development ideas.
You support science-based conservation, how do you think recent technological developments can help conservation?
Technology can help conservation in many ways, especially by helping managers and researchers monitor areas. Take the case of camera-traps as an example — I’ve been using them to document wildlife that was until now never or rarely reported from these parts. Especially in human-dominated landscapes, where wildlife is usually very shy. In one case, we also managed to catch poachers who had killed a sambar deer, as we got clear shots of their faces. Nowadays, camera-traps even come with email/MMS facilities so monitoring can become real-time, helping us act in time.
How do you look at human-carnivore interactions?
Yes, these interactions are an important aspect in carnivore conservation. Whether attitudes are positive or negative towards a species does determine if they occur in human-dominated areas or not. It’s amazing to see that in some areas where I work, tigers and leopards are treated as gods and people want to have them around their village. But how these dynamics change in a market-driven world is something we should keep an eye for.