Illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest forms of organised and sophisticated crimes the world has ever seen. Taking on such criminal syndicates requires an equally well coordinated system and network of professionals who can curb these crimes !
Onkuri Majumdar, our next pathbreaker, Managing Director at Freeland India, an anti-trafficking organisation, develops tech tools, online training platforms, data analytics and fusion centres that help disseminate critical information to combat wildlife trafficking.
Onkuri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transforming her fascination for animals into a lifelong commitment to ending animal exploitation through technology, media outreach and undercover investigations.
For students, a career in wildlife protection doesn’t require a specific qualification, but it does require dedication to see through your vision of a better world for everyone – animals and humans !
Onkuri, can you tell us a bit about your background?
I always had a love for animals, but never dreamed that I could make a career out of it. As far as I knew, the only options were for me to become a veterinarian or a field biologist and I wasn’t interested in either of those options.
My parents were very supportive of any career choice, and left it up to me to decide what I would like to do. Growing up in Lucknow in the 80’s and 90’s was a great experience – there was a lot of greenery (more than nowadays), and we had all the advantages of a small town while still living in a mini-metro. I took a typical science based path in senior school, without much of an idea of how to incorporate my love for animals into it. However, with the advent of cable tv, there was so much exciting content based on wildlife and science, and I would devour all of that.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I studied statistics, which is not at all related to my love for animals! But I was still clueless as to how I could convert that love into an actual career.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
There was no particular person who was responsible for my choice to work with animals – that love was inborn. However, I loved reading the works of authors who worked with animals: Gerald Durrell, Jane Goodall, George Schaller, etc.
There was no one in my personal life who could serve as a mentor, since I was interested in a field that was quite uncommon.
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
Sometime in the early 2000’s, there was an incident in Nandankanan Zoo, Orissa, where several tigers died. That struck a chord within me, and it seemed like a sign from the universe that I needed to start doing research on wildlife related career paths open to me. The internet was not very helpful those days – there just wasn’t as much information online as there is today. However, after contacting the Zoo Outreach Organisation, I received an assignment to write about the Lucknow Zoo. This article was published, and well received, and gave me the hope that there were avenues leading to wildlife related work that were not strictly veterinary or field biology related. After that, I applied to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), explaining that I had no actual educational qualification in wildlife, but was passionate about the subject. I was accepted in a junior position, and that was my first step in an actual wildlife related profession.
In WPSI, I learnt a lot by doing a little bit of everything. I drafted legal petitions for a Supreme Court committee. I corresponded with lawyers who were supporting prosecutors in wildlife cases. I organised, and later trained in workshops for Forest and Police officials across India. I took part in a tiger census, living in an abandoned building in Ranthambore tiger reserve with another colleague, and starting each day at dawn to collect information on tiger presence and movement. I started speaking to the media on behalf of the organisation. In this way, I built up my profile and capacities.
After about five years, I moved to Bangkok to work in Freeland, which has offices in Asia, Africa and South America. Here, the scope of my work was much larger, and our impact and footprint was much larger. I did much more investigative support work for law enforcement, including training, and analytics on criminal syndicates. When the popularity of smartphones grew, we started developing tech tools to support wildlife crime interdiction (check out WildScan on Android and iOS platforms). The media outreach here was much larger than before, and my work was featured on National Geographic.
How did you get your first break?
I approached each organisation I wished to work with, explaining my background and interests.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The main challenges are that in many countries, wildlife is not seen as a serious crime and therefore criminals are let off with a small fine. We address this by doing ‘follow the money’ type investigations and trainings that show law enforcement that wildlife criminal syndicates are making tons of money and are a threat to national security and public health as well.
Secondly, most people still believe that wildlife crime is a problem for governments to solve. In fact, airlines, shipping companies, couriers, postal services, banks – they all have a role to play in stopping wildlife crime since their facilities are used by traffickers. So we have also worked with aviation and banking companies to train their staff to detect and report wildlife crime.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role
Freeland is a frontline anti-trafficking organisation with the vision of a world free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery. We develop tech tools, online training platforms, data analytics and fusion centres that help us visualize wildlife crime and disseminate that information – either by training law enforcement and private companies, or by sharing information publicly.
There is a vast spread in the types of backgrounds and skills you may need to work at an organisation like ours. We have people from law enforcement backgrounds (like retired police and military officials), former advertising and communications specialists, field biologists and researchers as well as data visualization specialists. Any kind of background can provide skills that can be applied to an ongoing project.
There is no typical day! Some days are very desk bound, with reports, budget projection and planning, research and design work. Other days (for eg, when we are doing anti-poaching training) can be completely out in the field, in a protected area with Forest Guards and Rangers, starting at dawn and ending late at night. It just depends on what is happening at the moment.
The chance to help vulnerable people and animals, and add a real legacy in terms of making the earth better is what i love doing.
How does your work benefit society?
Protecting vulnerable people and animals makes the world better for everyone. Criminal syndicates that exploit animals and humans are often involved in other crimes as well (narcotics, firearms, human trafficking, etc). Wildlife trafficking increases the risks of pandemics for everyone, with the consequent loss of health and damage to economies that all of us have experienced for over a year now. And finally, while the job may come with its own set of challenges, you will get the thrill of influencing policies and decisions that make a real impact on other people’s lives.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The latest thing I am working on right now is expanding the WildScan app to slowly cover the entire globe. It is available for download for Android and iOS phones, and makes me proud to see the number of users!
I have had lots of interesting, exciting and fun experiences over the years! One of the biggest syndicates we have been tracking for years is described here:
For a more general idea of the kind of work we do, you can check out some of my talks here:
Global Biodiversity Fest (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHCjd9BRu7c)
TEDx Limassol (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQELXEoSYe0)
National Geographic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrySn0kAwoI)
Your advice to students based on your experience?
If you are interested in working with animals, remember there are many variations on the same theme. Think carefully about what it is you actually desire:
- Do you want the experience of physical interaction with animals? Then you could be a veterinarian, a positive reinforcement based trainer, a behavioural therapist for traumatised animals, a grooming specialist for pets, etc. Even under those categories there are further specialisations – as a vet, you could specialize in livestock, or rehabilitation of injured wild animals, or house pets. As a groomer, you could be a regular pet groomer or work with expensive animals like show horses.
- If you are fascinated by animals, but don’t require physical interaction, then you could be a field biologist, a photographer or filmmaker specializing in animals, a researcher studying animal behavior, animal rights lawyer, etc.
I hope to continue to influence humans that animals have a right to live and a right to the planet’s resources as much as humans do, and are not props for human entertainment and research, or victims to human greed.