Prevention of crimes against wildlife requires a concerted effort, based on community driven policies and technology backed conservation programmes. But if we cannot build a watertight case to prosecute criminals based on scientific evidence, we will still lose the battle.

Samyukta Chemudupati, our next pathbreaker, Head of forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, creates and delivers capacity building programmes in Wildlife Forensics to various stakeholders involved in delivering justice against wildlife crime – Forest Officers, Lawyers, Judges and other enforcement agencies. 

Samyukta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about deciding to pursue a career in Wildlife Forensics to play an active role in Wildlife Conservation by enabling the use of forensic evidence from wildlife crime scenes so that lawmakers can take strong corrective action against wildlife criminals.

For students, if you want to play a direct role in protecting your favourite animals and prosecuting criminals using disruptive technologies such as Genetics, DNA Sequencing, NGS etc, a career in Forensics is for you.

Samyukta, tell us about your background?

Being an army brat, I grew up and studied in schools across multiple cities in India. From an early age, I was surrounded by animals thanks to my animal-loving dad. I had dogs and birds for siblings well before my sister was born. I spent a great deal of my childhood and youth caring for them and this shaped a large part of my life. In my spare time, I was engrossed with badminton, books, music, and generally exploring the great outdoors with my fellow army brat friends. 

I opted for science in my classes 11-12th. I had a fabulous biology teacher who made us really enjoy studying it.  A large part of my biology syllabus was genetics and thanks to this biology teacher, my love for it began right in school. When we were asked to submit reports on extra reading we did in science, I invariably did it on genetics. The application of genetics to everyday things and its ability to help one look beyond the obvious was really appealing to me. Thankfully I had teachers who could really nourish that liking for science and nudge me in the right direction. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did a Bachelors in Life Sciences from Osmania University, Hyderabad, and a Masters in Forensic Science from Amity University, Delhi. 

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

My love for animals and my deep-rooted passion to work for them has always been a driving force in my career choices. People like Steve Irwin, David Attenborough, and Jane Goodall were my heroes. Watching them on TV shows dedicating their lives to conservation really struck a chord in my heart. Like them, I wanted to make a lasting impact to the lives of animals around the world and create a body of work that inspired others to also care more for animals. 

Like most other kids in my generation, I finished school (CBSE board) and then set out to pursue a bachelor’s degree. However, unlike my peers, I had a very clear understanding early on that I wanted a career that revolved around animals. I was keen to become a veterinarian, but life had other plans for me. So, I ended up studying a B.Sc in Life Sciences (Genetics, Microbiology and Chemistry). I thoroughly enjoyed genetics as a field of study and I swiftly became keen to do something in applied genetics. During this time, I was introduced to the world of forensics through several popular TV shows and fiction books. It dawned upon me that by pursuing forensics, I could work my way into wildlife crime prevention and hence, wildlife conservation.  So, the decision to pursue a Masters in Forensics became a natural progression of these events. Today, I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to marry my love for animals with my acumen in forensics, and do work that protects India’s wild animals.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

I began my career with a teaching job at the Diploma in Forensic Science Programme at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. This lasted for six years and other than my regular course work, I also ran smaller programmes on wildlife forensics. During this time, I also floated a company, called FACTS (Forensic Advice Consulting and Training Services) with a colleague/friend. We trained several senior enforcement officers and corporates, worked with lawyers on cases, and coordinated case analysis through renowned, retired forensic experts. After spending considerable time with human forensics, I decided to make a conscious move away from it and focus on wildlife work. After knocking on several doors to make this happen, I finally landed an internship with the Humane Society International, India. This was quickly converted to a full-time role as the Campaign Manager – Wildlife and Capacity Building. During my four years with HSI, I worked on several policy-level, animal welfare campaigns, including for sharks, dolphins, elephants, birds, and snakes. I also lobbied with high-ranking government officials with the focus of pushing the implementation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) in India. While on this job, I did not use any of my core competencies in forensics and training. However, it gave me a thorough grounding in and solid exposure to the world of wildlife law enforcement. This laid the foundation for my current role as the head of forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, where I create programmes to build better forensics capacity for wildlife law enforcement agencies. So, while my jobs may all appear disjointed on the outside, they were responsible for pushing further along my dream and goal of working in wildlife forensics. 

How did you get your first break?

I heard about the forensics programme at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai from my sister’s friend. She was studying there and thought highly of it. On a whim, I decided to write to the head of the programme and tell him that I was keen to meet with him and discuss the possibility of working for him. I didn’t expect a reply at all, but it did arrive a few weeks later as an email inviting me to come for an interview. So, I went to Mumbai (then Bombay), met with the team that ran the programme, and was offered a job a few days later. The rest, as they say, is history. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Like most people, I faced several challenges in my career journey. The biggest one being the lack of many job opportunities. Unlike other professions, jobs in forensics are hard to come by; especially, if like me, one is not keen to be a lab-rat. I dealt with this by keeping my mind open, being flexible and taking any opportunities that came my way. While I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, I did not let that stop me from trying other jobs that were related to my area of study. 

Another challenge was the fact that at the time that I started teaching wildlife forensics, reference materials were not easily available and this required me to do a lot of reading and research to find the right information. Being open to learning independently and without any guidance while on the job is an important skill when you choose an off-beat career, be it forensics or anything else. While I am not a conservation biologist by training, I have developed a deep understanding of key conservation issues, especially wildlife crime, by being focused on learning about it. 

Yet another challenge is the pay package. Compared to corporate and even other technical or science jobs, forensics/animal welfare/conservation doesn’t pay handsomely, especially in the initial years. I overcame this by taking on several jobs at the same time till I found jobs that payed me well enough to be able to afford the luxury of focusing on one role. 

Where do you work now? What do you do?

The work in my current role is centered around creating and delivering capacity building programmes in wildlife forensics to various people involved in delivering justice against wildlife crime – forest officers, lawyers, judges and other enforcement agencies. 

To achieve this, I need to know my core subject, i.e. forensics well. In addition, I need to know laws related to wildlife and conservation and communicate well. These skills I have acquired through my education – both formal and self-taught. Also, I need to be able to understand who my trainees are, what their needs are, and plan training programmes accordingly. This is a skill I picked up through years of being in the education space. I need to deliver my training in a way that makes an impact and thus have good inter-personal skills. These I have developed over the years by fine-tuning my work and watching good trainers/teachers at work. Lastly, I need to be good at coordination, budgeting, proposal-writing, reporting – all skills that I have picked up on-the-job over the years. 

Depending on whether I am on the field conducting training or in the office writing reports post-training and preparing for other upcoming training prgrams, my typical day can vary. Wherever I am, I love the process of creating and delivering engaging programmes to professionals who are at the frontline of combating wildlife crime. The “aha moment” they have when they discover the potential of forensics is a huge high for me. 

Forensics comes from the latin word ‘forensis’ which means “in open court”.  Today, forensics is the use of science or any discipline of study to investigate a crime. The use of forensics in wildlife crime cases makes up the field of wildlife forensics. Let’s look at a scenario to understand this better. Hunters camp in a forest for a few days and hunt an animal. They take its skin and meat and leave only its bones behind at the scene. When forest officers discover this crime scene, they need to establish which animal was killed and who did it. So, they will examine the crime scene and collect various evidence. These could be bones of the animal, drops of blood, a footprint, and even some belongings of the hunters (like a mug, cigarette butt, clothes, etc.). With the help of a forensic lab, they will then establish which species of animal the blood and bones belong to. If they have suspects available, they will send their blood samples to the forensics lab to see if it matches with the DNA from items found on the crime scene. In this way, forest officers will make use of forensics to establish linkages in a crime scene and find strong evidence that they can present in the court. 
Another example is when the police / forest officers catch someone with a wild animal skin. The police / forest officers will need to establish the correct identity of the species to which this skin belongs, especially if a visual examination doesn’t help establish that with certainty. To do this, they send the skin to a forensic lab, which can establish the species by using hair and/or DNA. The report that the lab generates will be a strong piece of evidence and will aid the police / forest officers in proving the crime in court. 

The principles of criminal jurisprudence, on which our courts function, require a matter to be proved beyond reasonable doubt in order for it to be accepted as a fact. Hence, wildlife law enforcers (forest officers, judges, lawyers, etc.) need strong evidence to establish the occurrence of a crime and the involvement of a suspect in it. Prior to use of forensics, this was largely done on the basis of eye-witness evidence. Over the years, eye-witness testimony has found to be unreliable as witnesses can be corrupted, turn hostile, or even die before the case is solved. This is where forensics becomes useful. It helps investigators make use of reliable scientific techniques to connect the suspect to the crime and the crime scene, i.e. it provides “proof beyond reasonable doubt”.  

So, in order to make use of forensics to its full capacity, forest officers and other enforcement officers need to be trained regularly in the use of forensic evidence in solving a case, i.e. what kind of evidence to look for, how to collect and package it, which labs to send it to, and how to use the report in the investigation and in court. Lawyers and Judges need to be educated on how forensic science works, what its limitations are, and what a forensic report means. This enables all the key players to make sure that only accurate and reliable science is used in the court and that justice is delivered on the basis of facts.  

How does your work benefit society? 

Wildlife crime is the fourth largest organized crime in the world. It is estimated to be valued at 10-20 billion dollars annually. Several species of plants and animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction owing to their demand in both domestic and international markets. Wildlife criminals operate at various levels and leave no stone unturned to illegally hunt, transport and/or trade wildlife to meet these demands.  

Wildlife crime impacts not just wild animals, but also humans, the environment and economies. Studies show that several of the monies coming from wildlife crime are used in other organized crime, including human trafficking. Corruption has also been found to be closely associated with the spread of wildlife crime. 

Current criminal justice systems are not able to take significant action against wildlife crime owing to various factors, including the lack of proper investigative action, insufficient evidence, and poor coordination between enforcement agencies. Some of the ways to address these lacunae is to improve the capacity of frontline forest staff, lawyers and judges to use forensic evidence from wildlife crime scenes so that they can take strong corrective action against wildlife criminals. This is the chief goal of the training programmes that I design and conduct as head-forensics at the Wildlife Conservation Trust. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The anti-shark finning campaign that I worked on for HSI India always dominates my memory. It was my first big project in animal welfare and required me to do a lot of research, reading and interaction with shark experts. This was over and above the reading I had to do to better understand India’s wildlife and animal welfare laws as well as the reading on sharks – a species which is deeply shrouded in misunderstanding. Whether it was the letters I drafted to government agencies, the coastal locations I travelled to get data from fishermen groups, the inter-agency meetings I coordinated, or the media interviews I gave to create awareness, this project forced me to get engaged at all levels. We were able to secure a prohibition on shark finning from the Ministry of Environment and Forests within a year’s time and this made everything I had to struggle with more than worth the while. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is to always follow your dreams, but also be practical about the roadblocks that life will throw at you. Don’t let the lack of a ‘particular’ skill set deter you from doing the work you love. Understand the skills you need in order to be good at your work and strive to achieve them. 

While money is not everything, being financially fit is very important to living a healthy, wholesome life. So, know what your dreams and goals are worth and be clear about what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve them. 

I am fortunate to have always worked with stellar professionals from whom I have learnt a lot. So, the company you keep at work and who your influencers are is very important throughout your career. Lastly, do work you can be proud of and always let your work speak for itself. 

Future Plans?

My plans are to continue doing the work I love, i.e. developing capacity for various agencies in wildlife forensics and being a strong player against wildlife crime