The fight to conserve wildlife is not an easy one. As glamorous as it might sound, thanks to Natgeo and Discovery channels, the challenges are huge and resources are limited.

Our next pathbreaker, Ridhima Solanki, uses the power of GIS and Remote Sensing to model tiger habitats based on field samples, design camera trap layouts based on spatial mapping and help uniquely identify tigers from digital data to estimate tiger density based on statistical models.

Ridhima talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her interest in Zoology that led her to study Forestry. Ridhima currently works at the Global Tiger Forum, New Delhi as a Wildlife biologist and GIS Expert.

Ridhima, tell us about your background

I grew up in a small town in Uttar Pradesh and then did my higher studies in Allahabad. Since my father is a Doctor, his dedication and work ethic towards this noble profession always attracted me and made me stick to science after High School. However, I realized that the real subject which made me happy and inquisitive was Zoology, especially Animal Ethology. Working hard in various subjects in Zoology, Botany and Chemistry in Allahabad University, the only classes where I would keep on asking “Why” rather than learning “what” was my Zoology classes.

What did you study?

I did my graduation from Allahabad University with Zoology, Botany and Chemistry.I wanted to further explore specific fields in Zoology like Animal ethology, wildlife sciences and forest studies. I appeared for national test of Forest Research Institute, Dehradun and qualified for Masters in Forestry and Masters in Environmental Sciences and eventually did Masters in Forestry from Forest Research Institute.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

 I can’t specifically talk about any event which made me choose wildlife sciences as my career, but lots of reading did have a major influence in my foray into this field. Discovery channel wasn’t very common and accessible in those towns nor was there much awareness about birds and animals. However, my mother used to tell me stories about baya weaver birds and how she would decorate the house with lamps made out of their nests. She would also mention certain specific habits of birds and describe trees which amazed me and made me want to go to the jungle and know more. Things in urban areas are changing so fast that to experience nature, my trips to villages definitely imbibed me with new knowledge.

The Masters course required a dissertation of 4 months which I aspired to do in the wildlife field. The other option, besides wildlife, available at the department was dissertation in biotechnology, wood and science technology, remote sensing. I wanted to explore applications of remote sensing in the wildlife field. Hence, I talked to a faculty at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He guided me to take up ecology and get hands-on training in remote sensing, geographic information system and other technologies used in ecological research. Being a part of a national level research hub, I got the opportunity to explore various projects and fields. The best part was I never had any monthly/yearly gap in my CV. 

Can you explain Ecology to young readers?

Ecology is the study of ecosystems, which can be forests, wetlands, wild flora and fauna as well as humans and urbanization. GIS and remote applications are an integral part of the ecosystem. A graphical representation or modified modeling involving spatial data helps in conducting research surveys, designing camera trap layout, mapping species presence or absence across landscape and time series analysis where changes in land-use are observed due to human encroachment.

Tell us about your career path

My first assignment was vegetation characterization in Mududmalai tiger reserve where I collected flora species information from tiger habitats and then modeled it to understand the type of vegetation across the landscape. It helps to understand which habitats suit the tiger, if the forest is intact and where forest manager’s intervention is required.

After my dissertation in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (Tamil Nadu), I started my work as a Project Assistant for project “Management planning of Okhla Bird Sanctuary”. This project helped understand the nuances involved in policy making, interacting with various departments and stakeholders involved in managing an urban green space.

In Okhla bird sanctuary, mapping of wetlands based on ground data related to birds, vegetation, people and tourism was done. It helped the managers build bunds for bird habitats, plan the road and interpretation center, bird sighting spots, watchtower and also signage to spread awareness of the sanctuary. I was also involved with analysis and suggestions to convince policymakers for maintenance of the sanctuary. The mapping of an area is important before we plan a survey or modify a survey methodology. Since most of the data is surveyed based on some proposed question and not on a census, it is important to model this surveyed data for the larger landscape based on the species and the question.

Then I took a project of Cheetah Reintroduction in India during which i explored remote areas in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Besides ecological information, I got hands-on training in conducting socio-economic surveys and decision making involved in co-existence of carnivore and humans. 

In carnivore reintroduction program it is very important to understand the threat the species might face if introduced without interventions. So we collect data from field and then model the threat in the landscape so that foresters can intervene in specific areas where there is a possibility of threat to the species. That may include no water availability in particular villages and hence people venture into protected areas with their cattle. Policymakers can solve this problem by making water available in that village. Similarly the decision regarding where to establish a chauki, watchtower, or check post can only be decided once a map is submitted to the forest officials based on available data of checkposts, threats and roads etc. I used GIS to work on such issues while preparing an action plan for reintroduction of species.  

I registered for my Phd in Carnivore Ecology in the Wildlife Institute of India when I got a right project. PhD in wildlife mainly involves getting experience in the field and then securing funding for a doctorate. I got involved with the All India Tiger monitoring program and then registered for my Phd after few years after masters in forestry.

Post that I gave a written exam and interview for a post of Senior Biologist in the “Tiger Cell” which is center for research and knowledge dissemination for National Tiger Conservation Authority. Tiger cell looks into tiger number estimation, monitoring as well as compilation of all information related with tiger , its prey and habitat across India. I was largely involved and responsible in the above mentioned tasks.

I also worked on implications of sand mining in various sites in Uttarakhand. Throughout these projects I picked up new skills besides mastering GIS and remote sensing.  Besides my projects I explored the field of editing, writing and communication in science field. I am big supporter of communicating to layman about science work as well as building the case with policymakers. Hence, I invest a lot of time in writing and publishing popular articles. 

How did you get your first break?

Since it’s a research field and we keep on looking for opportunities in form of research project. I came to know about the project “Management Planning of Okhla Bird Sanctuary” through the news advertisement. I appeared for the walk-in interview and qualified.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge1: I ventured into the field of Wildlife Sciences in the years when the awareness about the same was very limited. I remember in my School in Allahabad people used to take conventional professions like Doctor, Engineer, Defense and not much counselling was available for exploration of professional studies. A school kid needs to know the options before deciding a career and if it is not provided in school, then fear sinks in. Although i now realize that there is nothing wrong in going at one’s own pace, i  initially used to get disturbed when I was not getting the guidance to apply to various institutes.

Challenge 2: People seem to feel awed by the wildlife profession and often glamorize it due to Discovery and National geographic channels. However, on the ground, things are difficult in India. The system is not in place and many a time remote areas pose a threat to life. Inaccessible medical services, sudden encounters with wild animals or maybe a slip while walking in a difficult terrain, or staying alone in remote areas without human contact, are part of the job. A person with no background in these situations may sometimes find it challenging or difficult to adjust. Born and brought up in city I faced similar challenges but eventually I learnt that the only way it would work is if we have faith in ourselves and keep our supervisor and forest department informed about our whereabouts. Situations can be handled easily and smartly.

Challenge 3: Guess the biggest challenge I faced was gender discrimination. People saw me “differently” in small towns. I faced many judgemental people, societal pressure, professional discrimination, unequal pay, age related questioning and the list is endless. However, what kept me going was my love for wildlife research and learning new skills for problem solving. Once I decided I shouldn’t be bothered with what people say, things became easy.

Tell us about your current work

Currently I work at the Global Tiger Forum, New Delhi as a Wildlife biologist and GIS Expert. The organization’s main objective is to work closely with forest department, government and policymakers in conservation of tigers globally. My responsibilities are mainly developing proposals, planning and designing of the research, supervising team in execution of research, data mining and analysis, report development and dissemination of knowledge. The capacity building of field members and staff and organization of workshop for the same is also part of responsibility. All the designing and research has spatial analysis and mapping as an integral part which I undertake as well as supervise.

In tiger monitoring the basic GIS use starts from survey design. For each area, GIS is used to plan placing of camera traps which capture photographs of tigers. Since each tiger pattern is unique, all these photographs are identified and analysed with other factors like forest cover, altitude, habitat characteristics, human disturbance etc to model and come up with a tiger density. We count each and every tiger but then model it with statistics to come with an estimate. All this modelling is done with GIS and remote sensing software.

How does your work benefit the society?

The work I am currently involved in helps in conservation of tiger and its habitat. A very important part of my work is facilitating the protection of forests, mitigating the conflict between carnivores and humans and empowering policymakers with spatial knowledge which helps them make the right decisions at the right time. I work on the satellite data and make it into certain “themes” called thematic maps depending on the research. With this knowledge, development and conservation is promoted by the Government and policymakers.

Tell us about a work that you did that is close to you

While I was involved with All India Tiger monitoring, a census which happens nationally every four years, I wanted to work with data (camera-trap pictures) on leopards and hyenas too. While tiger camera trap pictures are much more digitised, identification of leopard data was still limited to manual methods. But identification of a leopard is difficult due to its body pattern and a large dataset poses a huge problem. I researched many photo-identification software products available and after testing with datasets, finally managed to apply one algorithm for the identification of leopards. It was exciting because for the first time we would know the number of leopards in forests occupied by tigers of India. It was exciting because preparation of baseline data and doing anything for the first time after a lot of hard work is adventurous. After overcoming all the difficulties, eventually we could see the results. 

What is your advice to students?

My advice is never sit waiting for opportunities. Keep an eye on advertisements in the newspapers. Do a background check of the organization and the people working on projects that you are interested in. Exploration sometimes gives us bad experiences and we immediately think that sticking to tried and tested ways is the best mantra. But that way you can never explore what you really want to do and what you are innovatively good at. In today’s scenario where learning happens on the computer screen you need not be physically present to venture into various fields in wildlife sciences, remote sensing and GIS. In the initial days of your research, you can do free internships because you are learning but after a  few months never work for free. Pick up various skills like swimming, driving, tree climbing, trekking if you are interested in wildlife field. All these will make you fitter for the profession.

Your future plans?

I am planning to work on climate change, urban wildlife conservation and sustainable urban space planning inclusive of wetland conservation. With shrinking natural resources and larger urban spaces, I feel the subject is need of the hour.