Please tell us about yourself

Vratika Chaudhary is pursuing her PhD at the University of Florida. She is working on a research project at the Pakke Tiger Reserve (PTR) in northeastern India. Her goal is to fill critical data gaps needed for science-based management of carnivores in the Pakke Tiger Reserve and community-owned forests. Her data collection techniques will include non-invasive camera trap surveys and questionnaires.

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Vratika is also one of SCB’s 2017 Graduate Student Research Fellowship award winners. This award supports field work, including travel, materials or equipment, required to conduct research by graduate student members.

It is thanks to our members that SCB can support students doing such important work to advance the science and practice of conserving Earth’s biodiversity.

SCB held a Q&A with Vratika to learn more about her research, what inspires her, and what led her to study conservation biology.

What have been your biggest challenges in your research project with the Pakke Tiger Reserve so far?

I have started the collaborations with the forest department after pilot field work, and I plan to start my field work in August 2018. The field site is extremely remote with minimal network or other connectivity, which may be challenging at time.

What has surprised you the most?

The dedication of Pakke Forest Department towards conservation in their region. It was a very pleasant surprise.

How did you choose to do this research project in particular?

India is losing its biodiversity at an alarming rate due to high human population density and rapidly growing economy which requires rampant infrastructure development. This development comes at the cost of forested areas which are being transitioned for human use as local communities depend on forests for food, firewood and livestock grazing and rampant infrastructure and industrial development leads to habitat loss and fragmentation. Protected have been the cornerstone for conservation efforts in India, even though they constitute a mere 4% of Indian landscape. This threat is especially true for north east India, which has been away from the spotlight of rampant development.

The new wave of infrastructure development that is targeting NE India could lead to destruction of important habitat areas of species such as clouded leopards, marbled cats, Asian golden cat. This is especially dangerous when information about this species barely exists and we might end destroying their habitat without even realizing what’s important for them. I chose this project to make a case for protection of important habitats for these elusive species for which global collective knowledge is negligible.

What comes next? What do you hope this study results in?

I hope to expand this project outside of PTR and in the entire Kameng Protected Area Complex along with community owned forests. I am strong believer of technology transfer to wildlife conservation. I would want to expand this project to lead a semi-automatized citizen science wildlife monitoring protocol, in order to make a case for better conservation and protection in this extremely important landscape.

Where could we find you on any given Saturday? What do you like to do for fun?

At this stage in grad career, you would find me trying to get more work done, and finishing off tasks that I couldn’t finish during the work. I also try to take weekends to broaden my skill-set, reading papers out of my field, and learning some new tricks and tips of data analysis.

I reconnect with my family on weekends, who are the most important people in my life and unfortunately I don’t get enough time with them. I do get out and camp with my friends on and off, we go out for hikes on a nice bright day in Florida.

What are three things you always carry with you when in the field?

Compass (GPS is cool, but a compass and paper map will always help), water container, and an emergency energy bar.

Why did you decide to study conservation biology? What was your path that led you here? How did you end up in such an offbeat and unconventional career?

Funny story, I am a dentist from India and when I was finishing up my training, and was doing residency- I got a chance to set up oral health camps in Sunderbans in West Bengal, India. I got to know about human-tiger conflict and got so engrossed in the plight of biodiversity that I could not look back. I decided to take up higher education in Conservation Biology. I did my Master of Science (M.S.) in Biological Sciences from CAFLS, Clemson University, SC and PhD (Wildlife Ecology & Conservation) from University of Florida. That is where I am right now. I do miss dentistry though.

What do you love most about what you do?

Solving puzzles of nature, I personally acknowledge the dwarfness of our limited understanding in extremely dynamic puzzles of nature. However, I enjoy the joy, peace, calmness and happiness it brings me to observe, understand and decipher the patterns and processes on natures that we are part of. Also baby animals and their photos in camera traps.

Any interesting experiences?

“I conduct my fieldwork in Kanha Tiger Reserve, India for my Master’s research here at Clemson University in South Carolina.  For my M.S. research I am looking into disease spillover risk from feral carnivores to wild carnivores in central India.  I was in India for my second field season from January to May 2015.  During my fieldwork I came across a massive male tiger, too close for comfort. Thankfully, no one got hurt and I will be able to tell the story and share my memories forever.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw black and orange stripes walking down the bank, about 15 meters away from us on the same side of the bank. It took me couple of seconds to comprehend what it was and take out words from my mouth- Tiger! “Where?!,” said Dimple. As she looked across the riverbank searching for the cat, I pointed at the huge male tiger, 15 meters away, who has just spotted us- TIGER!

The driver creped behind us, peeked a look from behind me, and decided to trace his steps backwards quickly. He kept telling us to trace backwards as well, but we knew it was not an option; one wrong move on our part and tiger would have attacked us in reflex. We could not find my driver for a long time after that.

The tiger looked at us, all confused, as he was coming down the bank to drink water out of the river. But he found us…and then he sat down on his hind legs, looking intently at us. Dimple wanted to take a picture but I asked her not to in fear that the tiger would react. Now we regret it :D. I was constantly asking her to step back, one step at a time, as I thought it would be good to increase the distance between the tiger and us. I took one step back with my left foot and the tiger reacted! He moved one step ahead, ears facing front, white of ears visible, face bent, and nose peeking…(attack mode). We froze..

That was the moment when both Dimple and I thought, this is it, we’re going to die! Dimple and I kept talking to each other and looking into tigers eyes.. The tiger stared at us with intensity. All of us (Dimple, the tiger and I) stayed frozen for three minutes, which seem to have lasted forever, until the tiger decided to go back on the trail.

In that moment, we realized that we needed to run. We had two options. Either go back on the trail and take the risk of bumping into the tiger again, as tigers sometimes ambush from a different direction if there prey has spotted them, or run through the river. We chose the second option. I kept making loud noises the entire way. And somehow, we managed to get back, alive and intact!

Even when we thought we would die, I could not stop myself at being awed by that amazing animal, so muscular, so graceful, so fast, and somehow in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t going to harm us, and if it attacked, it would have been due to our stupid reaction.

Thinking about the behavioral science behind the whole event, I had a few questions in my mind. So I thought I would answer them for you.

1. Why did tiger not hear or smell us? (We were quite loud on the trail)

We were on the bank that had a four-foot drop from the trail on the either side that blocked our smell and sound. It was a hot day and we were there in the early evening. I’m going to assume that the tiger just woke up from catnap, as they do sleep up to 16 hours a day!

2. What was he thinking when he saw us?

He was as surprised to see us, as we were to see him! He didn’t expect to see us there. He was just coming down to drink water and he found us instead.

3. Why didn’t he attack us?

He was trying to figure out if we were a threat or prey. He matched his moves to ours. All of his motions were reactions and then when he perceived that we were not prey, he traced back.

4. Could the situation have been worse?

Oh yea! If it was a mother tiger with cubs, and we were in middle of the family, I would not be here to tell the story. If it was an injured tiger or a tiger protecting its kill, again, probably I would not be writing this post and hopefully someone would have published my results…

5. Did we deal with the situation well enough?

Most likely yes! Well, we are still alive ☺ The worst thing we could have done was to run and trigger tiger’s reflexes to charge.

6. So how do you try to avoid a tiger attacking you?

Here is my advice: Go in groups, carry a stick, try to look for signs like spray scents, scats, fresh pugmarks, and if a situation like this arises, never try to run, try to look bigger, shout and beat the stick and hope that the tiger would spare you. ☺

It was once in a lifetime experience, which I am never going to forget.”

On February 25th 2015, I finished my work for the day, and decided to go for a walk in the buffer area of the national park.  I asked my friend Dimple to come along. Dimple Bhati is the hostess of a Kanha Jungle Lodge, which is one of the oldest resorts in tourist zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve.

We had been planning to go for a walk for a while, but we struggled to find the time due to our busy schedules. Finally when we got a little time on our hands we went for the walk at about 3.30 pm. I had my equipment in the car so I asked my driver/ field assistant to stay back. Dimple suggested bring him along as well and he joined us on our trek.

So we walked about half a mile on the trail and we saw footprints of a male tiger, relatively fresh, maybe from that morning.  As we walked down the riverbank we heard a long grumbling noise… I thought it was tiger roar. Dimple thought it was elephant, as an elephant camp was nearby. We were confused because it was a really long and low-pitched sound. However, it shortly stopped and we forgot about it. We walked 1.5 miles further down the trail, and decided to go off the trail, following an animal tract towards the riverbank.  I can recall the three of us standing on the riverbank, looking at black ibises, as Dimple was on phone telling her chef, the recipes of beetroot soup. Both of us were a meter apart and the driver was a couple of meters behind us.

Who’s the scientist you admire the most? Why?

Dr. James Nichols of USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre, I admire him because of his efforts in making adaptive management framework mainstream. And also his efforts in bringing statistical knowledge and ecology together to make better conservation management decision. He is a wonderful teacher and very humble scientist.