Please tell us about yourself
So friends here I am, introducing you to Kashmira Kakati, a wildlife biologist who recently announced the discovery of seven species of wild cats in the little known JEYPORE-DEHING forests in Assam…the highest concentration of photo documented wild cats species anywhere in the world.
Meet Kashmira Kakati, a wildlife biologist who was the first Assamese student to be trained as one at the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Since 1997, she has carried out most of her research in Northeast India. She studied forest fragmentation impacts on hoolock gibbons in the rainforests of Upper Assam for her PhD from the University of Cambridge, followed by camera-trap studies there and in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya where she documented several elusive and wonderful species of mammals.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
“Like most children I loved animals. I had cats, rabbits and a gaggle of geese – all my free time taken up by their various goings-on. I also had the good fortune to have a father who was a forester at heart, loved trees and planted so many in and around our house, that a neighbour once grumbled that he had signed up to live in a city and this (our neighbourhood) was no place for a jungle. It also meant that we had almost all our holidays in Manas and Kaziranga, and even that one LTC to Bombay-Goa paled next to our usual exciting holidays.
Kaziranga apart, I saw most of my wildlife on the Bansbari-Mathanguri stretch, driving down after dark, and innocently believing that our father could call out whichever animal we wanted to see that night. A tiger at a roadside kill, two bears ambling towards our car, jungle cats with their eyes shining in the headlights, the great shapes of elephants materializing out from the darkness, and once, having a rhino bump our Ambassador car – when the original rhinos still held sway there. On the river, I could put my hand in the water over the side of the boat and have fish pass over it. Another time, a peacock did a rasta roko, dancing his glorious dance on the narrow jungle track to impress a covey of indifferent peahens. Like most children also, I saw the world with wide eyes and an open mind. The impressions, therefore, were always grander.
I had only one wish – to live in the jungle. I am not sure it counted as a career ambition, and I wasn’t too concerned if it did not.
What did you study?
I studied Zoology at college, and found out about the then new Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun where luckily I made it to their M.Sc. course in Wildlife Science. It was two wonderful years of learning, with field visits across the country from the Himalayas to the desert. I went looking for red pandas in Arunachal Pradesh, for snow leopard prey in Ladakh and goral in Uttarakhand. I chose to study hoolock gibbons for my PhD, spending two wet and wonderful years in the rainforests of Upper Assam with these gentle, beautiful animals. After a break, there were two more years here I spent putting out remote camera-traps, looking for elusive animals like the clouded leopard and golden cat. My joy total when I did. Even finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would not compare.
Tell us about your career path
In 2012, I made my way to the South Garo Hills of Meghalaya. The Balpakram National Park there is an astounding site in terms of its geology and biodiversity, unknown even to many keen nature lovers of the region. There had been a proposal to de-notify part of the park to explore for uranium. I stayed for three years this time, documenting the mammals in the forest and grasslands, in the hope that knowing what is there may help to keep the forest safe. Balpakram is of immense cultural value for the Garos too, whose traditional belief is that the souls of their departed rest in the gorge, and where many landscape elements have their own associated myths and legends. The stories seeped into me, taking me back to a time when the Milky Way must really have been the path of the stampeding buffalo, kicking up stardust.
In the years spent amidst wild animals and militants, I have not come to harm. There have been close encounters, of course. But as Reinhold Messner, one of the world’s greatest mountaineers said, without the possibility of death there can be no adventure.
Late in the nights in my camps in the jungle, after a long day’s work, a bath in the clear stream and a simple meal, my meagre material possessions about me, the rich forest around me, the endless sky above me, I think ……..I got my wish. With a last listen of the jungle’s deep silence, I then fall into a baby’s deep sleep.”
How does your work benefit the community?
During her Gibbon study she worked in the Jeypore-Dehing forests as it is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Gibbons (one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world).
Let me tell you little bit about Jeypore-Dehing forest of Assam. The forest here are of unique type called the Assam Valley wet evergreen forest and is amongst the last stretches remaining. This forest was not particularly known for their wild life. During last 100 years the area had been logged very heavily and also it is a lucrative crude oil catchment where production has been going on continuously. Until recently there also used to be coalmines. Deforestation, poaching, mega hydro electrical projects, extraction of crude oil and coal is a major threat to these forests.
The evergreen forest is very important both in terms of being a watershed as well as in holding back floods — a scourge that afflicts most of Assam for months during the rainy season. Most experts agree that floods have become an intractable problem because we have been steadily destroying our original hill and valley forests — nearly three-quarters of the Assam Valley forests have disappeared within the last several decades. Forests also act as local climate regulators, a key factor for the agriculture in this region.
She used to see a lots of signs of the presence of other animals especially carnivores while she was following gibbons for her research. Even if she spent real long hours in the forest she never actually encountered any carnivores as they are nocturnal. To start and support her camera trap survey of the forest she received a small grant from CEPF(critical ecosystem partnership fund – it is a global initiative that provides assistance in safeguarding the Earth’s biodiversity hotspots) and also a matching grant from the Rufford Small Grant Foundation, U.K. around the same time – it helped her run the project for two whole years. Her research was also supported by the Forest Dept of Assam Government and the Wildlife Conservation Society of India.
As the pictures started coming in, she herself was completely surprised as she had not expected to find so many mammal species still surviving – 45 at last count, 19 carnivores, 7 of wild cats. The seven species caught on the camera are the rare and elusive -Clouded leopard (Neofelis Nebulosa), Marbled Cat (Pardofelis Marmoratee), Golden Cat (Captopuma Lemminckil) and four relatively widely distributed species of tiger (Panthera Tigris), Leopard (Panthera Pardees), Leopard Cat (Prionailurus Bengaleniss) and Jungle Cat (Felis Chaus).
Jeypore-Dehing Forests now takes its place amongst India’s Top Wildlife areas after proven to be holding one of the India’s richest carnivore communities. The pictures of the seven species of cats in fact place it top in the world in terms of field diversity recorded in forest. Kashmira strongly feels that highlighting the carnivores is only one way of getting attention to these forests as the ecological security of the area depends on it. Her efforts are surely going to succeed.
‘I hope my findings will convince the Forest Department of Assam to upgrade the protection status of this crucial wildlife habitat and watershed.’….says Kashmira