Our society’s obsession with selecting a stream of study after class 10 is so strong that we often miss the bigger picture. But some dont !

Varun Dutta Gupta, our next pathbreaker, Wildlife GIS Analyst, works on multiple projects for wildlife conservation through geospatial analysis and by creation of GIS databases for effective tracking.

Varun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from  The Interview Portal about choosing Commerce after 10th, pursuing an Arts degree during his undergrad and then Science for his postgrad, with the single minded goal of pursuing a career in Wildlife Conservation.

For students, having a “bigger picture” vision is much more important than selecting a stream.

Varun, tell us about your initial years

I was born and brought up in Delhi, India. My schooling is from Delhi Public School and then I did my Bachelors (B.A: Geography) from Dyal Singh College, Delhi University. I wanted to take up conservation related subjects for my masters programme, unfortunately that option was not available for me as I came from Arts stream. So I chose to do my masters in Geoinformatics and Remote Sensing from AMITY University, Noida. Interestingly it is an M.Sc programme.

I was never an excellent student.In fact I was a mediocre student in my school days. I am one of the very few people who have tried their luck in all the three disciplines (Science, Commerce and Arts). I had Commerce in grade11, Arts in grade12, Arts in bachelors and Science during Masters programme. Ever since I can recall, I have been fascinated by wildlife, various habitats, bird calls, and the scent of the jungle. For this, all credit goes to my parents as they are also wildlife enthusiasts.

Till recently my father was working as a Creative Director for Sports Illustrated Magazine. He has worked for almost all major journals of India including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, India Today etc. He is an avid Photographer. In fact he is the one who gives me tips for better Photography.

My mother works in the field of education. Currently she is working as Subject Matter Expert with Scholastic India. She now gives training to teachers on Pedagogies and is an amazing story teller. 

My wife is a Coordinator working for an International Organization called “Fueled”. Her support has been monumental and has had a big impact on my work.  She has been through the ups and downs of my life and no one can be as supportive and caring as her.

I love to see and capture the wildlife in all its glory. Since one of my interests is also wildlife photography, I have visited numerous National Parks of India and have participated in numerous Inter-College and National level photography competitions and have won laurels and acclaim. I was also the Founder and elected President of the Film and Photography Society (Xposure) of Dyal Singh College.

Wildlife photography is one of the toughest disciplines of photography as it teaches you not only to respect nature but also patiently observe the natural beauty and creations of god that we may otherwise take for granted. One can say that it teaches you to see the world through a different perspective.

Through my photographic skills I was able to contribute as a freelance contributing photographer to Discover India magazine on numerous occasions such as feature story on Dudhwa (October 2014 issue), Kumbhalgarh ( September 2014 issue), Diu (August 2013 issue), Gir National Park (April 2013 issue) and the cover story on Bera (November 2013 issue). Currently I am contributing photographs to the Tigernet website as well as the Quarterly WWF ENVIS Newsletters.

I was also influenced by the stories my Aunt used to tell me while she was writing a biography on Jim Corbett. She was a conservationist and a writer. Her story telling sessions were just phenomenal. This sowed the seeds of becoming a conservationist in me. 

I have always had the support of my parents throughout my life and all my decisions. For me they are more than just my parents, they are my friends, my sounding board partners, my mentors and my guiding light.

What did you study?

I completed my Bachelors in Arts specializing in Geography from Dyal Singh College, Delhi University. 

The connection between people and the environment, built and natural, is the crux of both geography and conservation. Geographers study and conservationists worry about the environment over the same breadth of space and time. Both geographers and conservationists believe that they have to integrate many disciplines. 

I learnt various subjects while completing my Bachelors. One subject that brought me closer to my goal of conservation was biogeography. The biggest challenge was that there is not a single university in India that offered that course, so yet again I was forced to rethink how to get into conservation. 

This is when I decided to learn more about geospatial analysis for conservation. I did my Masters of Science in Geoinformatics and Remote sensing from AMITY University, Noida. 

A geographic information system (GIS) is a framework for capturing, storing, managing, and analyzing data. It is rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps. With this unique capability, GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and situations—helping users make smarter decisions. Remote Sensing is the science of collecting data regarding an object or a phenomenon without any physical contact with the object. That is by using Satellite images. 

So, one may ask how does GIS help in wildlife conservation? Well it is used for multiple purposes, such as mapping of population, changes in habitat, understanding the distribution and preferences among many others.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

In Indian society, parents have a preconceived notion about the career path their child should choose. However, my parents had a simple philosophy in this regard, that one should wake up happy every morning to go to work. One’s job should make one happy. I was never pressurized into choosing a career of their choice. There are many people who guided me into this path of the less trodden but it was solely my decision. 

I had a crystal clear focus on what I needed to do and my ultimate goal was getting into the field of environment conservation

Some of the subjects that I have studied in the past have been GIS, Remote sensing, GIS in Wildlife Conservation, Project Management, Behavioral Science , Geomorphology, Climatology , Oceanography, Environmental Geography, Geography of Natural Resources, Biogeography, Contemporary Environmental Issues etc. which have served as the first impetus to pursue a career in conservation of environment.

Tell us about your career path

The first internship I did was in the Species and Habitat Division of WWF India (June 2012 – July 2012).It was under the guidance of some of the brightest minds in the field of conservation and it was here that I worked on the “Rajaji TX2” project. This project was about identification and classification of individual leopards from camera traps and I was tasked with tabulating the data and identifying leopards.This further inspired me to work in the field of wildlife conservation.

I did my master’s thesis with IGCMC (Indira Gandhi Conservation and Monitoring Center) division of WWF India from January 2016 to June 2016. This division has one of the best GIS mentors one can ever ask for. Their in-depth knowledge has been beneficial for my career progression. My thesis was titled “Habitat Suitability Modeling of Leopards in Bera (Rajasthan)”. For this I did a field survey to attain the Presence and Absence data of leopards in the area through GPS. 

I had also interned under the division previously in 2015. I had worked on the Project “Creating a Map of all the Tiger Reserves in India using GIS and integrating it with Google Interface”. This was a unique approach to GIS technology as it was used not only to display all information about the tigers on click as a pop up window but also integrate GIS and Google interface. It was made in effort so that anyone one who doesn’t own the high end software could see the said maps with just basic internet connection. 

All the internships I did were connected and had the objective of finding the entry route into the field of conservation.

After my internships I also worked on a Freelance GIS project for InGenious Studios Pvt. Limited for creation and digitization of a ward wise map with polling stations for North Amritsar, India.

After the Freelance work and Internships I started working as a full time Project Officer for Wildlife Protection Society of India in 2016 wherein I was solely responsible for looking after and handling satellite survey related data and creation of maps for various Projects. The major highlight of my work was on creating Elephant threat zones for various districts in Odisha. I was also tasked with representing WPSI at various national events and seminars.

Tell us about your first break

I worked there for almost two years before getting an opportunity to work with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as an Information Officer & GIS Analyst. I have been working here for about 2 years now. I am required here to work on geospatial analysis, creation of GIS databases, creating proposals and advisories, creating quarterly newsletters, facilitating as well as managing, training and mentoring students.

If you want to get the best possible job, it is a necessity to submit your applications to organizations and MNCs that you believe are the most suitable for you.

The first big break so as to speak was getting into WPSI (Wildlife Protection society of India). I got the honour to directly work under Ms Belinda Wright,O.B.E, an icon in the field of conservation. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India. Her work on exposing tiger part trade has been instrumental in the arrest of numerous wildlife criminals.

Tell us about some of the challenges that you have faced

The biggest Challenge is that there is a lack of knowledge for the field of GIS in India, its applications and importance in day to day life. In other developed countries, everything has to be geospatially linked. Many countries have a vast and ever expanding openly sourced data available for public use but in India a lot of data is kept under wraps. The data availability especially with regard to wildlife is exceptionally low. 

The best way to address the scarcity/dearth of data is to create your own datasets. Field data is always the best. You know that it has been attained by you and you know its authenticity as well as its applicability and hence you should always have a field visit to personally verify the datasets or collect data. 

A big personal hurdle that I faced was that while I was doing my Masters I had a major accident and broke my femur. This was a major setback as I was not only stuck in bed for over 9 Months but also had to learn to walk again. I could hardly sit for a few hours at that time. During this period I had to complete my Master’s thesis and as I had mentioned earlier I do believe that for any research to be effective and have the best possible results one must obtain field presence data. The region I had selected for my thesis was over 700 kms from Delhi.  I wanted to obtain the field presence datasets so that no one can challenge the authenticity of the work. Everyone I knew chipped in to help me and keep me motivated  – from university lecturers, friends, family members and neighbours. During this period I also started doing various online courses to improve my skill sets. 

What are you doing currently?

Currently I work with one of the biggest wildlife conservation NGOs in the world – WWF India as an Information Officer/GIS Analyst. I work in the ENVIS (Funded by MoEF&CC) and IGCMC Division of WWF India. The division is headed by Dr. G. Areendran (Director IGCMC & Coordinator ENVIS) under the direct supervision of Mr. Ravi Singh (SG & CEO WWF India) and Dr. Sejal Worah (Programme Director).The division has been pioneering the GIS based conservation activities from 1994. It supports biodiversity and natural resource conservation in India through the collection, management, and accessibility of relevant data and knowledge. For this purpose, IGCMC uses GIS and remote sensing techniques to procure data to facilitate WWF-India’s work as well as other partner agencies  in the field of conservation.

I work on multiple projects for wildlife conservation. I have also been mentoring Green Skill Development Programme (GSDP) students who have taken Wildlife Management using geospatial techniques and another course on bird identification and basic ornithology as well as Masters and summer interns in my Division. Till date I have mentored and trained over 150 students. I specialize in writing proposals as well as project management. 

I had co-authored a research paper titled “A systematic review on high conservation value assessment (HCVs): Challenges and Framework for future research on conservation strategy” in Science of the Total Environment published by ELSEVIER in 2019

I had recently gotten selected for a commission membership in IUCN CEC (Commission on Education and Communication). The prestigious IUCN CEC members are professionals from across the globe volunteering their time and talent in pursuit of Sustainability. They have about 1500 Members at present.

I hope to solve problems that are faced within the organization by creating analytical solutions to modern day environmental issues. I work on creating maps and educating the youth.

You need to specialize in various GIS and Remote sensing software for the job. Colleges do help in a way to obtain those skills. However I believe that the best way to obtain a certain skill set is on the job training and problem solving using R&D. 

A typical day for me is working on my workstation and multitasking on various projects. My field visits are present, though not very often. I do love being in the field and using my photographic skills. 

The best thing about this job is that I work with the best of minds in the field of conservation and have developed good networking skills. I have learnt a lot from their experience. I would like to mention that I have a great team, without their support the work I do would never have been possible.

How does your work benefit society?

The biggest way that I believe that my work is benefiting the society is by inspiring, mentoring and training the GSDP students who come to learn at WWF. I believe that even if they do not choose a career in conservation, they will always subconsciously make decisions that protect nature. 

Tell us about a work you did that is very memorable to you

It is actually very difficult to pinpoint and say that this was the most memorable work that I had done. There are a few that I would like to mention.

Last year I worked on the project for creating an Advisory by WWF India for SMART CITIES (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs) on Urban Biodiversity and Green cover. This work was particularly challenging because not only did I have to represent my organization’s view but also translate the Ministry’s objectives for the document.

During the stressful times of the COVID19 Pandemic I was also tasked with creating a Story Map for India and as a case study for Delhi. This Story map graphically represented the lockdown locations.

The satisfaction gained through training and mentoring students is unparalleled to anything else and so yes the GSDP Courses and the students have a special place in my heart.

Advice to students?

I would like to say a few things to the readers.

The best way to work towards your career is to work backwards. Make clear cut goals. Goals that you would like to achieve down the line. Maybe say become a director of an organization that you admire, 20 years into the future, then you must see the qualifications required for that and then you would like to be a senior manager 10 years in the future and look into the qualifications for that opening. And then from henceforth how do you need to move forward would be your main objective.

There are numerous things in life you can’t control and because of this you should always have a plan B. Something that you are good at or can fall back on.

Hard work is the biggest asset in your arsenal and remember that it will pay off the greatest of debts. With a mindset like this you can never fail in life. 

My grandmother always used to say keep smiling and have a positive attitude in life and have faith that whatever is happening is happening for a reason and that has become my mantra in life.

Your future plans?

As there is a lot of work being done internationally on environment issues and wildlife conservation, I would love to get exposure from various organizations and implement similar strategies in India.Ultimately my goal is to keep working for an international body contributing in the sphere of environment. As nature is not restricted to just an area, I believe that my conservation work should be of value to a larger humanity.