Capturing migratory birds to ensure their well-being requires teamwork, patience, empathy and technical expertise.

Harindra Baraiya, our next pathbreaker, PhD scholar at Wildlife Institute of India, studies the movements, wintering ground, space use and migration flyways of two migratory Crane species i.e. Common and Demoiselle Crane, to learn about their migratory journey.

Harindra talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the seeds of environmentalism being sown in his mind during his school years which led him on a career path towards wildlife conservation.

For students, we only focus on conserving endangered species. However, the best strategy to prevent extinction is to protect species while they are still common.

Harindra, can you talk a bit about Your initial years?

I am from a small village named Devgana in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. I come from a middle class family where our ancestral occupation is farming. My father and many of my relatives are teachers. During my childhood, I did not know anyone who was a scientist in my surroundings and I had never heard of research as a profession until graduation.  

During secondary school, I started participating in elocution competitions and other extracurricular activities. I also actively participated in the Baal Urja Rakshak Dal (BURD), an initiative by the state government. The objective of BURD was to recruit children as energy guards to practice and promote energy conservation. I was also an active member of the school eco club. This is where the seed of environmentalism was sown in my mind.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Like every other Indian kid, I was encouraged to take up science in higher secondary school by my teachers and parents. After failing in Mathematics, I dropped the subject and took up Biology. This is where I discovered my interest and aptitude for Biology. 

I did my graduation and post-graduation in Zoology from Sir P.P. Institute of Science-Bhavnagar and The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, respectively. This gave me sound training in scientific study of wildlife. 

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

During the first year of graduation, I got a chance to attend a workshop titled “Shape the Youth to Lead the Society for the Protection of Environment” where I received a book named “Birds of Northern India”. This workshop introduced me to the beautiful world of wildlife, especially birds.

I was lucky to be in a city like Bhavnagar where a small forest was present right in the middle of the city. Regular visits to this area nurtured my passion for wildlife and I slowly started observing bird behavior, calls and other wildlife around. Also, my farm was surrounded by hillocks and thorny semi-arid scrubland. This area is home to rich biodiversity with as many as 110 bird species in such a small area. Regular visits and field notes from the surroundings of my farmland led me to publish my first conference paper. 

I enjoyed the field visits and it felt satisfying to have contributed to the expansion of human knowledge about wildlife from lesser known areas. Also, interactions with other researchers about their research experiences motivated me to get into the research career.

How did you get to where you are today?

During my graduation and post-graduation days, I got several chances to participate in wildlife population estimation programs in Velavadar National Park and Purna Wildlife Sanctuary organized by Gujarat State Forest Department. Also, I provided my services as a resource person in Nature Education camps in Velavadar National Park. This opened gates to several opportunities.

Since my graduation days, I had started thinking about scientific understanding of wildlife and their conservation. The general discussions on wildlife conservation circled around endangered species. However, the quote “The time to protect a species is while it is still common” by Rosalie Edge, a renowned environmental advocate was whirling around in my mind. Therefore, I decided to do my masters dissertation study on one of the common bird species named Baya Weaver.  With the encouragement and guidance of my mentor Dr. Geeta Padate, I carried out a small research project on the commuting distances of Baya Weaver to collect nesting material and food materials for the hatchlings.

I enjoyed the entire process of developing the methodology, collecting data on the field, statistical analysis and thesis writing. The feedback for this work from my peers and seniors inspired me to take up science as a career.

Having developed a baseline experience of research, I started looking for opportunities in prestigious research institutes in India. I faced several rejections mainly because of my insufficient field experience. Finally, I was offered a paid internship position in Wildlife Institute of India in August 2017. As part of this internship, I carried out a survey in the eastern Terai landscape to study distribution and nesting status of four species of Weaver birds with special focus on globally threatened Finn’s Weaver under the guidance of Dr. R. Suresh Kumar. 

During the internship, I learned several field and analytical methods and developed interpersonal skills. Now I was looking for an opportunity to work as a junior research fellow in the semi-arid landscape. Towards the end of internship, an opportunity I was looking for, presented itself. I applied in a project for the post of research fellow and got selected. In this project, I carried out field research to assess the impact of energy infrastructure (powerlines and windmills) on large birds in the Arid plains of Western Gujarat. The target bird species of this project were Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, Common Crane and Demoiselle Crane. As part of this project, I surveyed the entire Kachchh landscape to record the distribution of the said bird species. Also, this project involved study on the flight behavior of Common Crane around the powerlines. 

One of the crucial aspects of this project was to study movement patterns of Flamingos and Cranes to know their high use areas and movement corridors. For this, I, with the help of my team, fitted six Flamingos and one Common Crane with GPS-GSM transmitters to record their fine-scale movements. This study gave me enough experience and exposure to different field methods and GPS telemetry studies under the amazing mentorship of my project supervisors Dr. R. Suresh Kumar and Dr. Anju Baroth. This study also exposed me to the association between arid landscape and migratory Common Crane. 

Having tasted the joy of working in arid landscape and with migratory Cranes, I started thinking more about research gaps on the wintering ecology of Cranes here in Gujarat. I developed full-fledged research ideas and signed up for a PhD under the guidance of Dr. R. Suresh Kumar. Currently, I am a PhD scholar at Wildlife Institute of India. For my study, I received the Indraji Thaker Research Grant to carry out research in the Banni landscape of the Kachchh district.

How did you get your first break?

Working as an intern in the Wildlife Institute of India proved to be a great learning experience. At the tail-end of my internship, WII announced a position of a research fellow in the project looking at the impact of energy infrastructure on large avian species in the arid plains of western Gujarat. The study area for this project was the vast arid plains of the Kachchh district and study species were large birds like Flamingos and Cranes. Since I am from Gujarat and have worked in the same landscape for my dissertation, I found it to be a great fit. I appeared in the interview and got selected. This was my first big break which eventually led me to my PhD study.

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

The first and foremost challenge in wildlife research is the lack of motivation and encouragement. The society where I belong believes in 9 to 5 indoor jobs which pay handsomely. Therefore, it took me some time to get my family onboard with this kind of career. However, once I explained to them the importance and potential of wildlife research, they supported me in every possible way.

My research involved the capture of large birds and fitting them with GPS-GSM transmitters. Cranes and Flamingos can be spotted in many inland wetlands, sometimes in proximity to villages. In these wetlands, capturing birds may offend local people as they are religiously very sensitive towards wildlife. Therefore, before carrying out capture activities, I met with the local leaders, gathered people and made them aware about the threats to wildlife and how my research activities can help save them. These awareness activities were very effective in getting locals onboard for this work and eventually many people helped me.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

Currently, I am pursuing my PhD. My dissertation focuses on two migratory Crane species i.e. Common and Demoiselle Crane on their wintering ground here in Gujarat. In total, I am looking at three aspects of these species. First is to assess the distribution and identify suitable areas for these two species using the species distribution modeling approach. Another aspect of my dissertation is to study the factors that determine occurrence of cranes in foraging patches. Final part of my dissertation is focused on their migratory routes in the Central Asian Flyway where I am using GPS telemetry to map fine-scale movement along the migratory flyway. This also involves identification of stop-over sites along flyway and breeding grounds.

My work requires extensive field data collection and statistical and GIS modelling. On the field, I am required to carry out vehicular surveys, mostly more than 50 km in length to record the presence of Cranes. My work also involves trapping birds in a manner that they don’t get injured. For this, I learned trapping techniques from the expert trappers of Gujarat State Forest Department. I am also trained to attach the GPS transmitters on birds using a Teflon harness. I learned necessary statistical and GIS modelling methods from various workshops and by self-learning.

My day in the field is always exciting and filled with surprises. I, along with my team, wake up early and start the survey by 7 am in the morning and finish by 6 pm in the evening. For the surveys, we ride on two wheelers along predetermined routes, observe both the sides of the trail and record data on Crane flocks. During bird capture and tagging expeditions, we usually spend the entire night in the wetland, setting up mist-nets and noose-traps, trapping birds, taking morphological measurements of captured birds and fitting them with the transmitter.

My study area is the Kachchh landscape which is characterized by unique salt flats, marshes, vast arid grasslands, agricultural fields and coastal habitats. I love to be in the presence of arid land specific fauna and flora which shows their multiple levels of adaptations. Moreover, the extremes of an arid climate provide me with multiple challenges. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Cranes have always been a symbol of love and companionship and are well embedded in our culture. However, there is very little scientific knowledge available about migratory cranes and their life here in our landscape. When people learn about their migratory journeys, it instills a sense of admiration and evokes responsibility of hosting these long distance travelers. As a result, it will deter hunting and will help sustain a healthy ecosystem.

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

Capturing Cranes was one of the most difficult jobs on the field. We had been trying to capture cranes for almost 20 days and had no luck. However, it was a great learning curve. After a number of sleepless nights toiling in the wetlands and marshes, we were exhausted mentally and physically. Finally, on 12th March 2020, we set up mist nets very strategically, using the knowledge of our trial and errors of the last several days and caught a Common Crane. This bird was tracked for the entire migration cycle and gave fantastic information. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As my mentors say, passion, patience and perseverance will lead you to excellency. 

Future Plans?

India is known for its migratory bird diversity. However, there are research gaps in migratory and wintering ecology of these birds. My prime focus is arid grassland associated migratory birds and I want to carry out studies on their movements, wintering ground space use and migration flyways.