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. Excerpts from the interview:

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How did you turn to an offbeat, unconventional career such as wildlife studies?

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 biology 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?

It was in 2010, on an erstwhile hunting road dominated by Pandanus and thick semi-evergreen forest, where I first saw tiger pugmarks in the Sahyadris – as the Western Ghats are known in their northern ranges. I was surveying a landscape spanning 5000 square-km in the region to assess the distribution of large carnivores, which also included the Dhole (Cuon alpinus), leopard (Panthera pardus) and Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) that co-occur with the tiger. Through my research, I also assessed landscape connectivity and habitat-use of these four large predators. All four large carnivores are threatened, with the tiger and Dhole being far more susceptible to local extinction because of habitat fragmentation and prey depletion in the ‘Sahyadri corridor’. 

Corridors are the last tracts of remaining natural habitat which are essential to keep protected areas from becoming isolated for terrestrial wild mammals in a sea of humanity, i.e. human-induced land-use change. The importance of corridors for the persistence and genetic diversity of large mammals is now being understood by scientists, and efforts have begun in India to declare wildlife corridors, so that commercial development and land-use change can be restricted in these areas. My research portends a grim future if governments pursue the ‘business as usual’ approach. The Sahyadri corridor is severely threatened by linear intrusions (roads, railway lines), hill-station development, wind farms, and mining, and this is the last stand for the charismatic tiger in its northern range limits in the Western Ghats. If we don’t act now, the species and many natural habitats will vanish, forever.

The region where I have conducted my research spans from the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve in the north, which comprises of Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary and Chandoli National Park, and stretches to the Tillari region in southernmost Maharashtra. The Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary, famous for gaur (Bos gaurus), lies halfway between Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Tillari, and is a cosmic mix of moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forest. Although there are no estimates of tiger density currently, the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary has a sufficiently large continuous habitat (350square-km), with good potential for recovery of tigers if well-protected. Tillari, which is located at the southern tip of Maharashtra, is vital to make this happen, as it lies connected to Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and Bhimgad in Karnataka, with a breeding population of tigers in all three regions. The corridor, which comprises of patches of Reserved Forests and private forests, connects these protected areas and is vital remnant habitat for a suite of large mammalian wildlife and biodiversity.

Tillari supports a fair density of large herbivores, and together with Mhadei and Bhimgad, forms a habitat that’s important for conservation of tigers. Tillari also has a small resident population of elephants, but they are the cause of much antipathy given their disposition to raid cash crops and their tendency to retaliate when driven away by irate farmers. However, improved management and conservation actions can reduce these conflicts and large mammals can continue to persist if timely steps are taken.

Coexistence would require introducing innovative measures for crop protection, such as erecting chilli fences, trip alarms, and electric-fencing around croplands, meanwhile shifting local livelihoods and economies to more environment-friendly sources of income such as ecotourism to replace intensive cash crop cultivation. Although not a silver bullet, well-managed ecotourism can change people’s attitudes towards large wildlife in human-dominated landscapes. Once protection and management improves, recovery of large herbivore prey will help in increasing tiger densities, which can eventually help resurrect Radhanagari and even Sahyadri Tiger Reserve.  

By using concepts from physics, such as current flow and resistance, scientific models help researchers assess connectivity to understand how animals would move through a landscape. An area where tigers are breeding and their population is growing would be able to support only a certain number of individuals, given limitations of habitat and prey. Therefore, young tigers usually tend to disperse into adjoining habitats where they may reside or disperse farther, based on a number of factors which include prey density, human disturbance and the degree of favourable habitat for residence or movement. Tigers have been known to make long-range dispersals between protected areas, sometimes even a whopping 650 km. Such movements may be seasonal, or sometimes even take place over generations – many of these intriguing facts we are just about starting to unravel. Similarly, other large carnivores also move and disperse based on area-range requirements.

From my research, I have found that landscape connectivity is threatened for all four large carnivores in the Sahyadri corridor, and it is more severe for the larger-bodied tiger and Sloth Bear, than for the Dhole or leopard. For instance, if a dispersing tiger were to travel from Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary to Sahyadri Tiger Reserve, it faces ten times more ‘resistance’ (or obstruction) than it would to travel to Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located midway. This is mainly because the corridor north of Radhangari Wildlife Sanctuary to Sahyadri Tiger Reserve is broken and tenuous in most parts; so resistance to movement is high. This resistance to movement results from a number of factors such as distance between PAs, degree of habitat contiguity, terrain, density of human settlements, and edge effects due to roads, among others. 

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.

Parikshit Suryavanshi is a researcher, translator and write