We are delighted to see the love and interest for our Eco Warrior series, meet Meghna Krishnadas, an ecologist studying for her PhD at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. She graduated with an MBBS from Bangalore Medical College and obtained her MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the NCBS-WCS India joint program.​

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Please tell us about yourself

“​I think a love for nature was always part of me but I never had a chance to realise it until my early twenties,” says Krishnadas. “As a child​, I seemed to spend a lot of time watching ‘Animal Planet’. When I was at medical college, I visited a senior who was working at a tribal hospital in a forested landscape. That’s probably where I first realised how much I enjoyed being in a forest.”

Krishnadas took a leap of faith with her Master’s in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. Her parents were unsure of her decision, but she’s stubborn. “I enjoyed doing the MSc course, learning the basics of ecological sciences, and had opportunities to meet a ​lot of established folk in ecology and conservation. Most of all, it was fun to be with a crowd who thought about these matters,” says Krishnadas.

A doctor by training, I completed my MBBS degree from the Bangalore Medical College in 2006. Typically, after graduation most doctors step into the long and competitive race to obtain admissions into post graduate degrees of choice gearing up for a demanding and usually lucrative career as a medical doctor. However, life went a slightly different way for me. In retrospect, I think I always possessed an activist streak that made me want to do something that went beyond making a career. I was disillusioned with the practice of medicine as it were, but that is a different story. Never interested to stay within the confines of dreary lecture halls, I began to engage more in outdoor activities like trekking and bird watching. Enamored by the fascinating natural world, I tried to use every opportunity to learn more about it. Albeit at the cost of a few classes, I was soon visiting wildlife areas to see animals in their natural environs. I was hooked.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My perspective of wildlife and more importantly conservation, changed after I had an opportunity to participate as a volunteer in a transect camp organized by the Center for Wildlife Studies. There I interacted with people who had engaged with various conservation issues first hand and knew the realities of the situation faced by India’s wildlife. This was a turning point in my life when I decided that I had to do my bit for conserving the places and species that were a source of such joy and amazement to me. I attended six transect camps in Nagarhole, Bhadra and Bandipura. Subsequently, I also volunteered for the tiger occupancy survey undertaken by CWS in the Western Ghats.

Following graduation from medical college, I worked for a while in Public Health and basically tried to go wherever I could make some use of my medical degree and also be in a forest. However, after traipsing around Namdapha, Parambikulam, and B.R.Hills I decided to join the Master’s course – and it has changed my life. I had a great fun learning all that I was learning and getting to know how to do science. I was hooked again. Classes, although there were so many of them (!), weren’t so bad when I was enjoying what I was learning. For my Master’s project I worked in the rainforests of Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, spending most of time running after a group of elusive Lion-tailed macaque and even more elusive field assistants.

My main interests lie in understanding rainforest ecology and plant-animal interactions in these systems. In addition, I am interested in studying the changes in dynamics of ecological processes in fragments and due to anthropogenic land-use. I am also keen to learn more about, and involve myself with conservation policy and its drivers and determinants, and work towards the increased incorporation of science into policy.

Tell us about your career path

Krishnadas began her career in science and conservation as a volunteer with the Center for Wildlife Studies in Dr Ullas Karanth’s projects to estimate large mammal populations in the state of Karnataka. That was where she learned much of her animal spotting skills and the ability to walk carefully and attentively through forests.

Her professional journey took her to several places as a doctor and field research assistant. As of now, Krishnadas says, “I have an ongoing project looking at non-timber forest produce harvest in Karnataka and am working with a colleague in trying to identify drivers of forest cover change in the Western Ghats. For my PhD, I am studying how forests change when they get fragmented.”

What are the challenges in conservation?

Conservation has become a topic of discussion even amongst laypeople. “​I certainly do see an increase in awareness amongst the ​urban public about nature,” says Krishnadas. “There are some big generic issues like tiger conservation, human-wildlife conflict, or climate change that gets a lot of press space (not always in the right way). But I’m not sure how much of this awareness gets translated into practice in changing lifestyles or being involved with conservation issues.”

It is important that children at school realise the significance of nature, since they are the pioneers of our future. “Our modern lives are taking us away from nature and wildlife​. Most children today are brought up in a world of gizmos and gadgets,” says Krishnadas. Ecology is not taught as a subject in schools, which she thinks is heart breaking.

Gender also acts as a barrier for many women in this field, Krishnadas adds. “Whether interacting with the forest department or locals living in areas where we work, women researchers often have to bear an often implicit and unstated bias against them. In most parts of India, women field researchers have to work harder to establish ourselves as independent, capable professionals. There is an underlying attitude of condescension and paternalism, and sometimes blatant sexism and harassment.”

While it has been tough ride, for Krishnadas it’s all worthwhile. “Getting to see wildlife and understanding something about natural systems is amazing,” she says.