Wildlife Conservation requires a multifaceted approach that involves collaboration with a wide gamut of stakeholders for a common goal, namely the preservation of our planet and conservation of its wild inhabitants !     

Avinash Krishnan, our next pathbreaker, Director at A Rocha India, works with his team to constantly develop and put into practice strategies to cope with conflicts between humans and wildlife.

Avinash talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his expertise on elephants, and the grave conservation challenges related to elephants which warrant more efforts to save them!

For students, being a wildlife researcher requires a certain level of physical fitness, analytical thinking, intellectual capacity, and good communication skills, particularly the ability to speak various(local) languages.     

Avinash, were there any early influences that steered you towards a career in wildlife?

Growing up in Bangalore, India’s IT capital and the country’s third most populous city, I was fortunate to have received a good education from prestigious educational institutions. Up until class 10, I studied in Frank Anthony Public School followed by St. Joseph’s Pre-University College and then my Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous). By then, my passion for wildlife and making it a career choice was quite ascertained, which led me to pursue a Master’s degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.     

What were your growing up years like?

I was fortunate enough to spend my summer vacations from school in the Niligiris, where my Late Father Mr. L Krishnan hailed from. Those drives from Bangalore, passing through some of the fascinating forests of southern India really developed my keen interests in forests and wildlife. My mother Dr. Devika being a medical practitioner was quite insistent of me becoming a doctor as well, however I was very clear that I wanted to be associated with a cause/job that safeguarded the natural world even at a very young age. Added to that, were the many influences on television and soap shows that showcased wildlife that cemented my desire to make a career in wildlife conservation.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied chemistry, botany, and zoology for my undergraduate degree, and then I pursued a master’s degree in wildlife management for conservation.

Can you mention some of the other influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Ian D. Hamilton, a zoologist well-known for his research on elephants, and George Beals Schaller, an American mammalogist, biologist, conservationist, and author who was born in Germany, were two major influences on my decision to pursue this career.     

I had the good fortune to receive mentorship from important figures in the conservation sector. My mentors were the Late Dr. Vijay Anand, the founder of A Rocha India, the Late Mr. Ajay Desai, also known as the Elephant Man, a wildlife conservationist who pioneered the use of radio collars to study elephant movement, and Dr. Ajt Johnsingh, a Distinguished Wildlife Biologist who started ground-breaking field research on free-ranging large mammals in India.

I took part in the 2007 “All India Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation,” which is conducted in the states where elephants are found once every five years.

I took part in the mammoth counting operation along with a fantastic group of volunteers and the forest staff to make sure it was successful. This happened to be my first technical field exposure that cemented my interest to be a serious wildlife biologist. 

The opportunity to volunteer at A Rocha India was undoubtedly the turning point in my professional life. The moment I began volunteering at A Rocha India in 2007, I knew I wanted to work in the Bannerghatta region. After that, I joined the team as a permanent member and learned about a vast array of new advancements in wildlife science and conservation.

After doing your bachelors (CBZ), did you consciously decide on a degree abroad?

One of my first steps to entering this career was to pursue a degree in wildlife science. I spent my spare time volunteering with various wildlife NGOs to better understand the frameworks used in wildlife conservation. I had many opportunities to shape my career path and create networks within the industry on a global, national, and local level thanks to my extensive on-the-job training at these NGOs.

Well, to be honest – I tried applying to several [although limited] courses that were offered in India for a post graduate degree in wildlife. Unable to secure admission in Indian colleges led to me look for education options abroad. The course at the University of Reading was centered on large mammals and had a very practical approach to wildlife biology which interested me. I applied to 7 universities all of them accepted my candidature – however University of Reading responded first! I hadn’t clearly looked enough for scholarship options which eventually made me self-fund my degree which I took a really long time to pay off! 

I applied for numerous volunteer as well as internship opportunities with reputed wildlife NGOs toward the end of my masters degree.           

I assisted with a number of field surveys during my jobs and internships, took part in data collection, and frequently interacted with forest communities. 

You took up your 1st position during your masters at The Rescue & Rehabilitation – Urban Wildlife Wing at Bangalore. Tell us about that role and your career path after your masters

Well, this was a honorary position and the remuneration was based on services provided. I held this position for the said period during the transition phase between my masters degree and the full time role at A Rocha India. Since it was part-time and had the flexibility in work, I gained invaluable experiences working with local government bodies on wildlife management and understanding the nuances of wildlife conservation in India which sadly isn’t covered in education courses!    

I held a series of positions in the wildlife sector owing to the fact that they were hardly any offerings [back then] for an early career biologist like me who was keen on being a serious one. I took every opportunity be it full-time, part-time, honorary, volunteer etc in order to gain practical knowledge about the subject. This meant that I overworked myself to be of any value to the cause/organization I was associated with. 

My first role was at Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) which was to build a network of informants to tackle and curb illegal wildlife trade in India. This continues to be the mission of WCCB, a premier government body in India. Since the work at the municipal body dealt with handling casefiles of trafficked wildlife sourced from city limits – the WCCB role compounded it. 

At WTI, in my consultant capacity – I oversee protection of elephant corridors of southern India and their conservation needs while mobilizing stakeholders.

Any real world field experiences that you want to talk about?

I have had tonnes of real-world wildlife encounters that were no less adventurous than a James Bond sequence while nabbing poachers – I’d save that for my book!

How did you get your first break?

My first NGO, A Rocha India, gave me the chance to volunteer and work on a consistently paid basis there, and that was how I got my big break.   

I had numerous breaks in volunteering and internships with wildlife groups before and after my masters. This was also during the time I was trying to find a more permanent job in the sector. I didn’t want to keep myself idle and wanted to be out in field or be associated with organizations that did some wildlife work.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced ? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: There was a lack of undergraduate education in wildlife conservation in India, which is why I pursued a higher degree in the field.     

Challenge 2: During the early years of my career, I lacked a mentor, but I made up for it by reading a lot of books and academic articles to educate myself on wildlife conservation.     

Challenge 3 I had to choose non-wildlife jobs in the early stages of my career due to a lack of full salaries.     

Where do you work now? 

At A Rocha India, I currently serve as both the Director (Conservation Science) and chief executive officer. An organization where I started off as a volunteer!     

What are the kinds of conservation problems you address at A Rocha?

My team and I are constantly developing and putting into practice strategies to cope with conflicts between humans and wildlife as well as its consequences.       

Well, conservation is a very dynamic career with wide stakeholderships. This means dealing with more people and less animals in a realistic sense. I have expertise on elephants, hence it would be apt to say that my exposure with that species would be the longest considering that their conservation issues are quite grave and warrant more efforts to save them! But, one must not get falsely lured into this career [at least in India] in the belief of lingering with wildlife all the time. I tell students that wildlife conservation is a career meant for people with patience, grit, passion, commitment, and a strong devotion to a cause – which in a holistic sense requires a lot of personal sacrifice.   

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Being a wildlife researcher requires a certain level of physical fitness, analytical thinking, intellectual capacity, and good communication skills, particularly the ability to speak various(local) languages.     

What’s a typical day like?

Working both online and offline is part of the job. Since the timing of the work is determined by task completion, there are no set hours of work per se.     

What is it you love about this job? 

I have numerous opportunities to help people, forests, and wildlife. I also get to spend time in nature, interact with individuals from different walks of life, and travel the world.     

How does your work benefit society? 

Through my work, I have been able to influence positive change in a variety of societal areas, including health, education, and the environment as well as in the conserving of landscapes. I work hard to put my firm belief—that effective conservation requires a multifaceted approach—into practice. This entails taking into account not only wildlife conservation but also community empowerment along park edges and cooperation with governing bodies and other NGOs for a common goal, namely the preservation of our planet.     

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

In recent times, we at A Rocha India took the initiative to set up a Covid isolation [rural] center for the benefit of agrarian communities living alongside forests in the midst of the chaos of the Covid19 pandemic. I was able to work on a social cause with great passion and dedication, making this a memorable experience for me. At Rocha India, we take pride in tackling every issue that affects our communities by bringing together devoted, committed individuals who want to improve the world.     

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Do everything in your power to pursue your passion, and never forget that wildlife is life!     

Future Plans?

Through the use of impactful science, I seek to establish better policies and programs for the protection of people, forests, and wildlife.