India’s marine diversity is astounding ! But a large part of what remains underwater needs to be identified, classified and preserved for future generations and to ensure a sustainable and thriving aquatic ecosystem !

Anurag Rokade, our next pathbreaker, Freshwater Biologist/Fish Taxonomist at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), works as part of the Ganges River Dolphin project, sampling freshwater fishes in different river stretches in order to observe the diversity, population, distribution, habitat preferred by different species as well as the threats for fishes. 

Anurag talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being a nature freak and making up his mind to combine his love for the outdoors with the curiosity to know more about fish and their taxonomy.

For students, we compromise on a lot of things in life. But the one thing you should never compromise on is your career. Have lofty expectations and fulfill them !

Anurag, please tell us about Your background?

I was born in a small town in Maharashtra called Satara, which geographically lies in the Northern Western Ghats of India. I belong to a middle-class family; my father works in the factory, and my mother is a homemaker and used to teach school children. 

In my childhood, I used to go to the fish market with my father, and as a kid, as a student and now as a full-fledged researcher I have always been fascinated by freshwater fishes. When I was pursuing my bachelors, I used to watch the River Monsters TV show hosted by Jeremy Wade. I was motivated by that show and wanted to be an explorer and was excited to know about different species.   

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

There is a phrase in fisheries; Where there is water, there is fish, but I believe that that where there is fish, there is water; with this belief, I decided to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Fisheries and also Masters in Zoology & Fisheries from Shivaji University, Kolhapur, Maharashtra.

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

I did my schooling at K.S.D. Shanbhag Vidyalaya, Satara. My school was a sports school where teachers encouraged us to play one sport as a subject. I was a shy and average student during my school days. I used to play basketball in school and after 10th, I joined the Satara Gymkhana basketball club in my city, which helped me build my confidence and personality. I am very thankful to my coach, friend, and guide, Mr. Sandeep Shanbhag, for encouraging me in every difficult situation. When I was a kid, I always wanted to spend my day in a different forest. I didn’t want to work in a corporate office or do 9 to 5 jobs, so I spent my time exploring forest areas near my city with my friends during my early college life. Speaking about my mentors, it was the last year of my bachelor’s degree and the day was 14th  August 2014, when I was returning home from a fish breeding center in my hometown. A professor in our college, Dr. Rahul Jamdade  explained to me about a career conducting academic research, writing publications, attending conferences, and we discussed these for two hours. I was encouraged and excited about freshwater fisheries. It was a new thing to me, and no one in my family was aware of anything remotely connected to research and wildlife, so it was a bit challenging. But the question was how to start, so I discussed it with two professors from my department (Zoology-Fisheries). We decided to start from theoretical knowledge, so Dr. V. Y. Deshpande taught me about basic taxonomy and identifying fishes by morphometric (external) characteristics and Dr. Rahul Jamdade taught me about research methodologies, fish sampling techniques, sampling & identification of freshwater sponges, and identifying their habitat, preservation techniques & report writing. After joining WII, I met two most influential people in my life, Dr. J. A. Johnson, who took care of me like his son; he is like a father figure to me and taught me about freshwater fishes, rivers, ecology, morphometric measurements, taxonomy, and the other person is Dr. Vidyadhar Atkore, who is like an elder brother to me. He has always stood by me through all problems, difficulties and has always helped me in building confidence. He taught me a lot of things when I entered this field. After joining CAMPA – Dolphin Project, Prof. Qamar Qureshi, Dr. Vishnupriya Kollipakkam, and Dr. Abdul Wakid guided me in ecology-based statistical analysis. I am grateful to have all these people in my life without whom it would have been impossible for me to work in this field.  

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

Just as theoretical knowledge is essential to know about fishes, field knowledge is also similarly necessary. I used to visit fish breeding centers in my hometown to learn about fish breeding techniques of IMC (Indian Major Carps). During my bachelor’s, I studied fish diversity of Kudali River, the 1st tributary of Krishna River in Maharashtra. While sampling in the Kudali River, I was introduced to incredible creatures, Freshwater Sponges. I also sampled freshwater sponges across the Krishna River in Maharashtra and Satara city. I also attended a national conference in Pune in 2015, where I published my first paper on freshwater sponges. I completed my master’s from Shivaji University, Kolhapur, Maharashtra. I used to go for fish sampling in the northern western ghats of Maharashtra with PhD students from my department. I was able to learn a lot of things from them. In December 2016, a Senior Researcher, Mr. Dharmaraj Patil was working on Ecological niche modeling of the Indian Endemic birds species from the Northern Western Ghats of India. I worked as an assistant with him, and he told me about WII (Wildlife Institute of India). During my masters, I did my dissertation on colour pigmentation in ornamental fish using natural carotenoids. I also attended a workshop in Kerala on the Integrative Taxonomy of freshwater fishes. I learned about taxonomy, osteology, molecular phylogeny, and DNA barcoding, and I was inspired a lot by that workshop. While traveling back home, I decided to be a fish taxonomist and solve the taxonomy of freshwater fishes in India.  

How did you get your first break?

In 2017, I was in the last year of my master’s, and I was searching for a fellowship. There was a vacancy for a Fish Biologist in the Wildlife Institute of India in the Namami Ganga project, so I applied to that project. They took an online exam, and then eight people were selected for an interview. I was excited to visit WII (Wildlife Institute of India). I used to watch the Wildlife Institute of India on the internet. It was a big thing for a small-town guy to get selected for an interview at Wildlife Institute of India, one of the best institutes for wildlife in India. When I went for an interview, I had mixed feelings. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. The interview results were declared after 15 to 20 days, and I was not selected. Then after a few days, I decided to mail Dr. J. A. Johnson from WII for an internship.

Meanwhile, I applied for a Research biologist position in  WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). After three months, I received a call from Johnson sir that I have been selected for an internship and should join the institute in 10 days in Dehradun. I was on cloud nine after that call; finally, it was a step towards my dream. My family was also pleased about this because no one is from this field, and people didn’t know anything about this field. After two days, I also received a call from WWF, and they told me to join in 15 days in Delhi. Now I was confused between WII and WWF, but I decided to join WII. Then I came to WII on 1 September 2017, and coincidently I signed all papers on 3rd September, which was my birthday. This is how I got my first break. 

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

Challenge 1: 

The most critical challenge is to keep yourself mentally and physically fit in this field. There are many physical challenges. You need to stay in a boat for weeks, do fish sampling daily in a country fishing boat, you should know how to throw a cast net, and last but not the least, you should know swimming because you stay in the boat and work in the river. There are many ups and downs during fieldwork, and sometimes things go beyond your imagination and control, so you should always be ready and fit for challenges. 

Challenge 2: 

Another significant challenge is balancing work-life because of extensive fieldwork. I spend most of the months on field tours with less connectivity with friends and family. I am still struggling to maintain the balance. 

Challenge 3: 

Last but not least, there are challenges in getting funding and finding the right mentor. Funding is an inevitable part of the research. For an independent researcher, it is difficult to get a grant from organizations. It’s impossible to execute wildlife research without funding. Mentors play an important role in life and in your career, because they show you the right path to climb the steps of success.   

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I am currently working on the CAMPA initiative (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority). CAMPA is meant to promote afforestation and regeneration activities as a way of compensating for forest land diverted to non-forest uses.

I work as part of the Ganges River Dolphin project where I work on the freshwater fish component. I have done fish sampling in different river stretches of the River Brahmaputra in Assam. I observe the diversity, population, distribution, habitat preferred by different species as well as the threats for fishes. 

As a freshwater biologist, I am always passionate and curious to know more about rivers and freshwater fauna. This field is not similar to other 9 to 5 jobs; to be successful in this field, I think one should be good at identifying fish, and have sound knowledge about river systems. Statistics plays a vital role in science, and one should always be updated about his field so it will help a person to grow. 

There is no typical day in a wild lifer’s career. Usually, my day starts with assembling fishing gear, country boat, datasheets, and instruments; with all this, I go for fish sampling and carry out these exercises in different river channels, different types of rivers and collect data from each site. 

I just love fishing because one never knows what fish is going to be caught. I am always at peace when I go fishing and curious to know about different areas and habitat, threats, and to observe different species. 

Fishes are the first vertebrates to evolve on earth. Like the human race, fishes also have different body structure, different morphometric measurements, different colour, which differntiates them from each other which, helps in identifying fish on field. The more species you handle from different areas, the more your knowledge of taxonomy will increase. Students who want to learn taxonomy should start from morphometric measurement and body structure of fish. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Fishing in India is a significant industry employing 145 million people. India ranks second in aquaculture and third in fisheries production. Fisheries contribute to 1.07% of the total GDP of India. For centuries, India has had a traditional practice of fish culture in small ponds. As a fish biologist, I want to promote sustainable and traditional fishing practices across the globe. Due to the introduction of invasive and alien species in aquatic systems, there is an imbalance in the aquatic ecosystem. My study helps plan control measures on the ground by recording the diversity of fishes, distribution of fishes in rivers and most importantly, based on the status about the population of fishes in specific areas.     

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

My 1st project in WII holds the best field memories which are close to my heart. The project entitled “Fish diversity in Sahyadri Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra”, where I worked from 2017 to 2018. The day I decided to solve the taxonomy problem of freshwater fishes from India, I wanted to write a book on the Fishes of India addressing all the identification issues of fishes in a simple language that a layman can understand. After finishing work on the 1st project, our FD (Field director) wanted to write a field guide (a small book on fishes from Sahyadri Tiger Reserve). My involvement in publishing this book in 2019 was a step ahead to my dream. Here is link of my book.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It’s always best to carve your path and always believe in yourself. Then, no one can stop you from becoming the best in your field.  

Future Plans?

India has a lot of diversity in freshwater systems, but less work has been done in this area. I have always wanted to work on and solve the taxonomy challenges in identifying freshwater fishes from India and write the best taxonomic book for upcoming students and researchers. I also want to work on the telemetry of a few important ecological species.