Working in wildlife conservation requires understanding the human dimension by working with people, rather than animals.

Divya Karnad (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at Ashoka University is also Co-Founder at InSeason Fish (www.inseasonfish.com), India’s first sustainable seafood initiative, established through a network of fishing communities, restaurants, chefs and seafood eaters and supported by Wipro Foundation.

Divya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work on conservation of sharks and their significance in maintaining the delicate balance in the marine ecosystem.

For students, this is a time for unprecedented opportunity in the conservation sector, because companies and governments have woken up to their responsibilities with respect to the environment and climate.

Divya, your background?

I grew up in a coastal city, where I was involved in a number of different activities alongside my school and college. I participated in theatre, dance, singing, martial arts classes, as well as acquired lots of skills at home such as baking, stitching, embroidery and so on from my grandmother. In high school, I decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian. My parents supported my decision and encouraged me to learn through hands-on experience. So I spent all my weekends, and even some weekdays after school volunteering in a veterinarian’s clinic. Eventually, though, I was unable to score the required marks to get into veterinary college. Although I was very sad about this for several months, I realized that I could still have a career involving animals if I got into wildlife conservation. 

While I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I was a part of professional theatre groups and also volunteered for wildlife conservation activities on weekends and at night. My parent’s support allowed me to do all these things from a very young age. These experiences were crucial in helping me hone my abilities to do many of the things that I do now as a part of my career.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have a B.Sc. in Zoology, a M.Sc. in Wildlife Biology and Conservation and a PhD in Geography

What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I was always interested in working with animals, and my family supported my interests as a child. My whole family would be involved in rescuing and rehabilitating injured feral or wild animals, such as a black kite, a fruit bat and a juvenile rhesus macaque, along with many kittens. However, when I wanted to convert this interest into a career, my family had a few hesitations since it wasn’t a “standard” or safe career choice. 

Meeting and working with some of India’s finest wildlife conservationists, such as Romulus Whitaker and Arun V from the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network, allowed me to understand the realities of what was involved in a career in wildlife conservation. I realized that beyond the romantic perspective that we are shown in documentaries, are the daily struggles of being in a field that is not related directly to economic growth. Despite this, my interest and enthusiasm remained. Thereafter I had to do my part to convince my family, by proving my capacity to continue in this field even under difficult conditions. I undertook internships during my holidays with different wildlife conservation organizations in different forests and wildlife sanctuaries. After my college, I took a solo trip to forests of the Western Ghats, living in extremely basic conditions, without electricity or running water, and participating in wildlife research and conservation. This gave me the confidence to understand what I was capable of, as well as the clarity to decide what my interests within this field were.  

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 knew that the first step to get into the field of marine conservation was to do a postgraduate degree. However, there was no such course available in India at that time. There were only some courses in Marine Biology, which was not directly related to what I wanted. Therefore I thought it would be better to study wildlife conservation. I got into one of India’s premier programmes – The M.Sc. Programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (previously affiliated to Manipal University). This was a crucial step in launching my career in marine wildlife conservation. The key institutions and people who supported me in this programme are the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Wildlife Conservation Society-India programme and the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and most importantly Dr. Ajith Kumar. 

It is through this programme that I met influential people in this field, and found my first few job. First, I joined Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), to continue my Master’s research work, and participate in setting up the Turtle Action Network. As a part of this job I had to train NGOs across India’s coastline on ecological research protocols. Thereafter, I shifted to working on hydrology using Geographic Information Systems at ATREE for a short time. Doing these two jobs helped me realize what my interests are and what I really wanted to pursue in the future. Thereafter I raised seed funding to conduct research on fisheries independently, and simultaneously held a job as a science journalist. These jobs helped me learn project management, team building, leading a field expedition, and juggling multiple types of work commitments successfully. Completing this project taught me that most of the work in wildlife conservation requires working with people, rather than animals. Since I was not trained for this, I decided to get the required training through further studies.

I pursued a PhD in Geography at the Department of Geography, Rutgers University, USA. This allowed me to study how to think about the human dimensions of fisheries, and introduced me to social theory and Western philosophy. This programme allowed me to conduct my research on fisheries in India. Working with fishing communities from the Konkan region of Maharashtra as well as fishing communities in Northern Andhra Pradesh taught me about the limits of theoretical knowledge. It also showed me that fishing communities care deeply about the sustainability of the oceans. For my PhD I studied how fishing communities in India have created indigenous fishing governance systems, outside the bounds of state legislation, to ensure that it works effectively to manage resources and conflicts in the fisheries.

After my PhD, I co-founded InSeason Fish (www.inseasonfish.com), India’s first sustainable seafood initiative. Supported by Wipro Foundation, we established a network with fishing communities, restaurants, chefs and seafood eaters. We also gained experience in producing recipe videos! This experience led to my being recruited as a consultant for a multilateral organization, the Bay of Bengal Programme, an Intergovernmental Organization. 

Finally, after all this experience, I was offered a job as an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University, Haryana. 

How did you get your first break? 

As I explained above, my post-graduate programme was critical in enabling us to network within the field

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

Challenge 1:  The first challenge I faced was being a woman in a field involving low budget travel and staying in remote parts of India, often alone. There have been a few scary situations, but not as many as one would expect. I learned to keep my wits and also to quickly assess who I could approach for help in every situation.

Challenge 2: Figuring out how to earn a livelihood while doing something I loved, involved not only learning skills career-wise, but also getting my whole family onboard. 

Challenge 3: Getting recognized for the work I am doing took a lot of time. There is no overnight fame, especially if one wants to work with integrity. Having the grit to continue even without fame and fortune, for many years have allowed me to become the person I am today.

Where do you work now?

Currently I am an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University, and I continue to work on the InSeason Fish sustainable seafood initiative. Alongside this I work on shark conservation as a part of the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN SSG). My work on sharks and rays have focussed largely on their interactions with fisheries in India. For instance, I have studied shark and ray fishing in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. My work has revealed that many large sharks are disappearing from India’s oceans. The result is a trophic cascade; i.e. where the population of the shark’s prey explodes, causing imbalance through the rest of the ecosystem and finally resulting in an ecosystem collapse. As top predators, sharks are important for maintaining high populations of other fish, especially the ones we eat. 

For all this kind of work, I am required to do a lot of public speaking, research, writing – both academically and for general audiences, and fundraising. All my past experiences, from theatre in school and college, to my previous jobs, have helped me acquire these skills. With the pandemic, there is no such thing as a typical day anymore, but certainly teaching undergraduate students, visiting a fishing village or fish market, working with my research teams, writing funding proposals, writing academic papers, collaborating with chefs, nutritionists and so on form a part of an average day. I love the diversity of things that I do, and that it all boils down to getting more people involved in marine conservation.

How does your work benefit society?

At this time, it is clear that our climate and environment is going through drastic changes. For our own sakes, it is imperative that we halt the negative impacts that our economic actions have inflicted on earth. Therefore everyone needs to be interested in what is happening to the environment and wildlife around us. This is also a time for unprecedented opportunity in the environment sector. All companies and governments have woken up to their responsibilities with respect to the environment and climate, therefore there is far more funding and far more jobs in this sector. While the marine field was nascent until recently, with the advent of diving as an adventure sport in India, more people have become concerned with what is happening in the sea. I would encourage everyone to contribute – whether they have a job in the marine conservation sector or not! Everyone has to play their part to make sure that we can survive the next few decades and centuries.

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

Working with fishing communities has been an inspirational experience, but being able to pay something back to them by finding them jobs and marketing opportunities for sustainable seafood has been one of the most rewarding aspects of InSeason Fish.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Always persist. Persistence pays

Future Plans?

To keep working towards achieving marine conservation and seafood sustainability in India.