Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
Devanshi Kukadia (MESc 2018)’s passion for nature and wildlife started as a young child growing up in India. Her parents were avid birdwatchers and she went with them on long nature walks to watch birds in different parts of the country.
“They initially pulled me in but I became fascinated by watching animals in their natural habitat,” says Kukadia, who earned her undergraduate degree at St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad, India.
“From there I kept reading about urbanization and the loss of biodiversity, and I wanted to do something about it. That’s why I took up conservation management as a career.”
What did you study after your undergraduation?
Kukadia is a recent graduate of the Master of Environmental Science program at University of Toronto Scarborough. She completed the internship option of the program in the conservation and biodiversity stream, where she did her work term as part of the Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-a-Pond Wetland Conservation Program.
Tell us about your experiences at University of Toronto
During her work-term with the Adopt-a-Pond program, she worked on a range of conservation-focused projects aimed at research, restoration and outreach, most of it in the Rouge National Urban Park. She tracked Blanding’s turtles (part of the zoo’s Headstarting Project), tagged and tracked turtle species native to the Rouge, conducted road and snake surveys, logged frog calls and participated in public outreach.
Gathering information like length, weight and height of turtles is important to get a better sense of how populations of each species are doing in the area, not to mention where they go to eat, mate and hibernate in the park.
Road surveys involved checking areas near natural and human-modified habitats like swamps, ponds, forests and farms that house a variety of wildlife species that often cross roads.
“I didn’t really appreciate to what extent biodiversity is being lost due to roads until I started doing these surveys,” she says, adding that she often came across dead turtles and other roadkill.
“This work is important because it helps identify ecologically significant areas for wildlife crossing areas that would benefit from fences, culverts, signs or even speed bumps.”
It was while tracking turtles that Kukadia had her most memorable experience in the program.
“Every so often we would come across snapping turtles, and one day we came across a huge one – it was 28 pounds,” she says. “Initially it was a bit scary because their bite is strong enough to take off a finger, but after a month or so I gained experience and courage to handle them myself. It’s something I won’t forget.”
How do you want your work to impact the society?
Before coming to Canada to study, Kukadia worked on a marine mammal protection project in India, but she found many of the official policies were not being communicated effectively to the public. Illegal fishing and capturing of wild animals continued in protected natural areas.
“There was a big gap in people’s understanding of policies versus that of policy-makers,” she says. “The policies just weren’t being translated that well and I wanted to learn ways to bridge the gap.”
Kukadia says she was drawn to the the master’s program because of its reputation, and the chance to learn about conservation management by working alongside professionals in the field.
She plans to work with environmental consulting companies on the conservation side of the business and says what she learned from the program is invaluable.
“There’s so much selection in terms of courses, you can pretty much choose whatever you want depending on what you’re interested in and where you see yourself in the future,” she says.
Can you walk us through one of your days at work?
I got this amazing opportunity to work as a Wetland Conservation Assistant at the Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond (AAP) Wetland Conservation Programme in the summer of 2018. I am rightly calling it amazing because I got involved with multiple AAP activities such as radio tracking of Blanding’s turtles, road surveys, turtle trapping, frog loggers, snake surveys and public outreach all in just a short span of four summer months. Little had I thought that this opportunity was going to turn into the most fun job I have ever had. It was exciting to work with highly dedicated AAP staff who are passionate about wetland conservation.
I am lucky that my job is not one where I spend all day behind a computer waiting for the day to end and where the outdoors are only reserved for weekends that fly by in the blink of an eye. Each morning, I hop out of my bed just at the very thought of spending a fun-filled day outdoors in the wetlands.
My typical day at work begins with reporting in at the AAP office for a pre-planned field schedule, such as turtle trapping in the morning and road surveys in the afternoon. I go to the lab where all the equipment is stored and get ready. I pick my chest waders, collect data sheets and trap kits and head out to the trap sites. Basking traps and baited hoop traps are laid in the wetlands of the Rouge National Urban Park from May to August to monitor turtle species. Traps need to be checked daily to minimize the duration of capture for each turtle. My field partner and I reach our first site where, sadly, there are no turtles. We replace the baits in the hoop trap and move to the next site where we find a big Snapping turtle. We quickly move the trap from water to land and release the turtle. I record measurements such as carapace and plastron lengths and widths, height and weight, while my co-worker is holding its shell tightly on its hind side. This turtle is a massive female and weighs 28 pounds! We calm her down by covering her face with a cloth and quickly insert a PIT tag, which is like a microchip that allows us to track her. We also give her a unique marking called a notch code on the edge of her shell to identify her in future. We double-check all the recorded information and then happily let the turtle swim away to her sweet pond!
At the next site, we find a recaptured Painted turtle. We re-record its body measurements and read its notch code and PIT tag code before releasing it back into the pond. We check 12 more traps by noon; some traps have new and recaptured turtles whereas some are empty that day.
Turtle trapping is important to gather information about how the populations of each species of turtles are doing in that area. We check the numbers of males, females and juveniles to determine the reproductive potential of the population. Repeating this study over several years and recapturing the turtles from previous years provides an idea on their growth and survival. Monitoring turtles yearly also helps us determine disease or abnormalities in populations, which can be mitigated at an early stage.
After lunch, I prepare to leave for road surveys with my co-worker. We switch our footwear to running shoes, wear our safety vests and helmets, fill up a bottle of water and head out with our data sheets and a GPS. We walk two road transects in the afternoon. These transects are fixed lengths on the road (2.5-3 km) passing close to a variety of natural and human-modified habitats like swamps, ponds, forests, farms and urban infrastructure. These habitats house a variety of wildlife species that cross the roads to reach the other side for foraging, mating or dispersal. Wildlife often fail to make it across the road and get run over by a fast moving vehicle. We start walking on the side of the roads, keeping our eyes open intently for any animals that have been hit – be they tiny frogs, baby turtles or a huge raccoon. We record the GPS location of any roadkill and determine the surrounding habitats. We then carefully move the roadkill off the road to avoid recounting and to discourage scavengers from coming onto the road for a meal. I only realized the great extent of loss of biodiversity on the roads when I started conducting road surveys. I encountered a plethora of birds and butterflies as well as camouflaged snakes and frogs.
Road surveys help determine the extent of loss of biodiversity due to roads. It gives information on which species are found in an area including cryptic species like smooth green snakes or a star-nosed mole that we don’t see very often. Road surveys help identify and delineate ecologically significant areas for wildlife and wildlife crossing areas that would benefit from fences, culverts, wildlife crossing signs and/or speed-breaking mechanisms.
It is advisable to keep a watchful eye out on the road and drive at the posted speed limits to be able to spot and brake safely for the animals crossing the road, especially during the spring and summer when many are very active.