Where did you grow up? 

Bangalore, India. I did my Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) in Biotechnology from RV College of Engineering. Iam currently pursuing my Masters in Conservation Biology from Columbia University.

What drew you to your field? 

Growing up in the concrete jungle that is Bangalore, I made every excuse to be outdoors as often as possible. I would not say I fell in love with wildlife as a kid, but I really liked being outside. As an undergraduate in engineering, I was not keen on the path I was pursuing, and decided to volunteer with the Wildlife Institute of India. There, I received my first opportunity to camera trap tigers in the wild and learn the intricacies of the tools and techniques involved in the study of wildlife. I was hooked thereafter.

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How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field? 

I am working toward understanding how we can conserve wildlife for the future. Primarily, my research focuses on the effects of anthropogenic and climatic factors on birds in southern India. I study how deforestation, mining, and increases in temperatures, for example, affect the persistence of birds. This involves taking long walks in the forests to survey birds using binoculars, pouring over dusty yellow diaries from a century ago that contain information on these birds, and using advanced statistical measures to analyze the data I collect.

My work lies at the intersection of spatial ecology and conservation genetics. For my dissertation, I am working towards innovating approaches to conserving biodiversity in the tropics.

What resources or opportunities that Columbia provides have been most valuable to you?

The opportunity to network with scientists in fields such as philosophy, history, and art. Columbia also has allowed me to take classes at the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden, and the City University of New York. This has proved to be immensely useful in developing my ideas and the way I think.

Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct? 

People often assume that fieldwork in the forests is a holiday. While it is enjoyable, it is hard work. Sometimes, you do not have access to hot water or cannot eat more than once a day.

Tell us about your work

Working with freely available data-sets and using machine-learning techniques, young ecologist Vijay Ramesh and his collaborators have shown that at least 17 bird species in the Western Ghats face graver risks of extinction, and their survival is more threatened, than previously held to be. The results of this study were published on April 25 in the journal Biological Conservation, a leading international journal of conservation biology published by Elsevier, the Dutch publishing house which also publishes prestigious journals like The LancetCell, and ScienceDirect.

Firstly, why is this data important? That’s because the conservation status of any animal or plant species is a hugely significant ecological parameter, which is used to determine efforts that go into eliminating risks to the concerned species, as well as accurately assess the ecological threats facing the habitat.

Ramesh, a spatial and computational ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and his colleagues found that range maps used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) fall short of protecting birds endemic to the biodiversity hotspot of the Western Ghats. When current range maps used by the IUCN, supplied by BirdLife International (BLI), a global partnership of conservation organisations focused on bird species, were assessed using modeling techniques that incorporate data on species sightings, land cover, and climate, 17 out of 18 species included in the study were found to be inaccurate and overestimated. This directly impacts the conservation status of these species.

“Of the 18 species in our study, 17 of these birds’ ranges have been severely overestimated by BLI and IUCN,” says Ramesh. This data directly impacts conservation efforts. “Moreover, we found that half of these species are not actually found in over 60% of the areas mapped by BLI. For instance, the Nilgiri Pipit, which is currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN, has a range of less than 1,392 sq km, whereas BLI lists its range as 11,558 sq km, thereby overestimating the range by a staggering 88%, thus moving its threat status to ‘Endangered.’”

Other examples include the Nilgiri Flycatcher, whose range has been overestimate by 63%, the Wayanad Laughing Thrush, whose range is approximately 24,000 sq km whereas BLI lists its range as approximately 154,000 sq.km.

In fact, many species that are currently listed as “Least Concern” actually need to be listed in the threatened categories, says Ramesh. For example, the Rufous Babbler has a range of ~35,000 sq km but BLI lists its range as ~178,000 sq km. “That is a huge discrepancy, as you can imagine,” he adds.

In fact, many species that are currently listed as “Least Concern” actually need to be listed in the threatened categories, says Ramesh. For example, the Rufous Babbler has a range of ~35,000 sq km but BLI lists its range as ~178,000 sq km. “That is a huge discrepancy, as you can imagine,” he adds.

“Machine learning is a relatively new field in ecology. Essentially, you provide information that is used to “train” a model — in our case, we are providing environmental information on where these birds have actually been recorded. This information will be used by the model to search across the entire Western Ghats landscape to find similar locations where such environmental information exists. We did this for each species,” explains Ramesh.

The machine learning approach the researchers used is called a Boosted Regression Tree (BRT). Ask Ramesh about the other technology, however ‘basic’, they used, and he rattles off: “Google Earth, ArcGIS (for spatial visualization and partial analysis), Python (programming language that has proved to be extremely useful in batch-processing of data, and saves a ton of time) and most importantly, the R programming environment for all the machine learning models that were built (which I have spent days on end trying to figure out a simple error).” He points out that all of this software is freely available except for ArcGIS, although there is an alternative which is called QGIS.

Technology plays a very important role in conservation today, say Ramesh and his cohorts. “Starting with a simple compass that has been used since time immemorial, to using apps to identify a bird species or record a bird song, technology has become an integral part of science and conservation today,” he says. He gives some examples of the best work: real-time monitoring of deforestation using satellite imagery by NASA where you can see images almost every 8 hours over a location to see which region might be deforested next.

Who are your heroes in real life?

My mother. While I was growing up in India, my mother was my mentor, pillar of support, and friend. I admired her for taking care of two boisterous kids, working ten-hour days, cooking for us, and still having the time to read us English novels and check out books from the library for us. I learn so much from the way she handles life.

Whom in your field do you consider a role model?

Since I joined this field, I have been in awe of the way Dr. Vijayakumar SP does science. He has been tremendously supportive and inspiring. At Columbia, Professor Don Melnick and Professor Ruth DeFries are my role models. I love the way they think about science, in completely different ways.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

scarlet finch, hands down.

What music have you been listening to lately?

FalkenbachGod is an AstronautTame Impala, and Led Zeppelin.