Biodiversity Conservation is at the heart of all developmental activities, and requires understanding of animal behaviour and mitigation of human-wildlife conflict !

Malavika Hosahally Narayana (PhD), our next pathbreaker, works as Biodiversity Specialist at Fauna & Flora International, having technical responsibility for scientific research and data analysis and serving in an advisory role on general species conservation interventions.

Malavika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about specializing in animal psychology, and her fascinating experiences while implementing the first eDNA survey in southeast Liberia, focused on pygmy hippos, and detecting 166 species from 20 water samples, including six endangered species and the first record of Tai Toad in Liberia.

For students, exploring the intricacies of animal behaviour is not only fascinating but also gives you the opportunity to conserve nature through intervention strategies, and provide benefits to the people as well as wildlife !

Malavika, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Bangalore and mostly experienced city life. My father is a radiologist and my mother, a botany graduate, is a homemaker. I pursued classical dance and music for over 15 years and continue learning dance forms whenever possible. Dancing has always been a way for me to express and experience emotions, life, people’s relationship with nature, society and the future. As a family, we enjoy reading different genres of books, and National Geographic Magazine was a part of our reading list. However, I had little interactive exposure to nature in the wild or conservation activities. Growing up, my affinity for animals and nature was through the pets at home, rescuing animals such as squirrels, turtles or monkeys, or summer vacations spent at my grandparents’ homes in the countryside. In addition, watching wildlife documentaries and movies were inspirational.

My engagement with ecology and conservation began relatively late in my academic career when I joined MSc in Psychology at the University of Mysore, where I opted for Animal Behaviour as my specialised subject in the second year. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have a BA in Psychology, English Literature and Journalism from Bangalore University and an MSc in Psychology (Animal Behavior) from the University of Mysore. After working for six months, I pursued my second MSc in Evolution and Behaviour, leading to a PhD in Behavioural Ecology at the University of Stirling, UK.

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My first support for pursuing a career in conservation came from my family. When I was exploring the options to pursue a Master’s, my father discovered the MSc in Psychology course offering Animal behaviour as a specialisation. My parents, who had little knowledge about conservation, supported and encouraged me to pursue this line of work from the beginning. However, since I did not know anyone in the conservation or ecology field, it was hard to get started, and I had to do a lot of research to find the right people and avenues to pursue.

Studying under Prof Mewa Singh, India’s finest primatologist and conservation biologist at Mysore University, provided a glimpse into the fascinating world of animal behaviour and ecology. My interest was fuelled further by meeting and learning from wildlife conservationists, such as Dr Ananda Kumar, Dr T. R Shankar Raman, and Dr Divya Mudappa, which gave me a deeper insight into wildlife conservation and the field realities. 

My learning and experience during my Master’s influenced me to choose a career in wildlife. Working as a Senior Research Fellow at Kodagu in challenging field conditions gave me further clarity about my interests in ecology and wildlife. But, it made me srealise that my capacity to pursue research was still limited, so I studied for a second MSc in Evolution and Behavior. I was fortunate to be trained under professors such as Prof Phyllis Lee, Prof James Anderson, Prof. Hannah Buchanan Smith and Dr Sarah-Jane Vick at the University of Stirling in all aspects of ecology and animal behaviour as well as the research methodology. This gave me the confidence to pursue doctoral research in behavioural ecology focused on human-wildlife interactions under Prof. Phyllis Lee and Dr Sarah-Jane Vick. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? 

During my bachelor’s degree, I volunteered in an institution to gain experience and knowledge in counselling and clinical psychology. Although I enjoyed the experience of working with people, I quickly realised that I was not interested in pursuing a career in clinical psychology. 

After graduation, exploring the options led me to pursue MSc in Psychology (University of Mysore) with Animal Behaviour as a specialisation. As mentioned earlier, this was my first engagement with the ecology and wildlife conservation field. 

I got my first job as a Senior Research Fellow at the College of Forestry, University of Agricultural Sciences, Ponnampete. I supported the designing and implementation of bird surveys in coffee-agroforestry ecosystems across Kodagu and supported tree diversity data collection. The work involved working in rugged and remote areas with basic conditions, which gave me confidence that I could work in challenging conditions. This job gave me an understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and clarity of my interests in the field. Although I was fascinated by elephants from earlier on, it was on this job that I got curious about learning about them and their use of various landscapes. 

I decided to pursue a course that would offer a strong theoretical knowledge of ecology, research methodology and analytics. However, unlike now, the options for a psychology student to study wildlife science in India were very few, so I decided to pursue my studies abroad, where the psychology department offered courses like evolution and animal behaviour.

The MSc in Evolution and Behavior offered by the Psychology Department at the University of Stirling had modules of my interest, and the course evaluation was through assignments and research at the time. Unfortunately, as the enrollment happened close to the application deadline, I had no opportunity to apply for scholarships and had to be self-funded. The people who supported and encouraged me during this programme were Prof. Phyllis Lee and Dr Sarah-Jane Vick. With Dr Lee as my supervisor, I pursued my interest in elephants for my Master’s thesis. My research was about the cultural and socio-economic impact on people’s attitudes towards elephants in Kodagu. As a psychology student, I was keen on exploring the intricacies of human-human dimensions and animal behaviour in determining human-wildlife interaction.

Tell us about your career path after Masters 

I pursued my PhD in Behavioral Ecology at the Psychology Department, University of Stirling, UK, under the supervision of Prof. Phyllis Lee and Dr Sarah Jane Vick. The PhD provided me with the platform to continue my research on elephant behaviour and their interaction with the landscape and people. My research focused on understanding the use of the coffee-agroforestry landscape in Kodagu by elephants and determining whether there was a movement pattern between individual elephants or groups. I interacted with the coffee estate owners and workforce communities (mostly migrants) on their perception of elephants’ presence and how it affects them. Interacting with the local communities, I realised people’s knowledge about elephants and their behavioural and movement patterns could support developing and implementing a context-specific mitigation strategy. 

As support to pursuing my PhD, I was awarded Scotland’s Saltire Scholarships for my tuition fees. I received a grant from Rufford Small Grant for Nature Conservation and small funding from the Department of Psychology to support my fieldwork and other logistics. I gained teaching experience as a tutor for Animal Behavior Module. My PhD journey provided me with the platform to meet and learn inspiring people in the form of my teachers and colleagues from whom I continue to learn and evolve.

Post PhD, I held various short-term research positions supporting data processing and its analysis from various surveys. I tagged along with a good friend in Ladakh working on human-carnivore interaction. It was a great learning opportunity in a landscape that was new to me. 

I joined Keystone Foundation based in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, as a consultant and coordinator to implement a project assessing the feasibility of the Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) in southern India, i.e., whether a conservation agreement is the most suitable tool for the site. This resulted in securing funding for a two-year grant awarded by Conservation International to pilot the CSP in India. Along with a capacity-building program which included training and mentoring interns and students, I supported the program working on human-wildlife interaction, mainly focused on the Indian gaur. 

I joined Fauna & Flora International (FFI) as a Technical Specialist (Species Conservation) for the Liberia Programme. In my role, I provided technical oversight and backstopping of FFI’s biodiversity programme in Sapo National Park (SNP), and was responsible for grant management and delivery of projects relating to landscape-wide Pygmy hippopotamus (PH) conservation. My current role as a consultant involves technical responsibility for scientific research and serving in an advisory role on general species conservation interventions. This includes leading the designing and implementation of the pilot bee-hive fence as a measure to mitigate human-elephant conflict in southeast Liberia.

How did you get your first break? 

Networking and maintaining contacts are critical within this field of work. I got my first job through my classmate at the University of Mysore.

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

Challenge 1: Entering the field with no academic background in the environmental field for my Master’s was highly challenging. A lot of self-doubt in the initial phase impacted my capacity to build networks with the who’s who in the conservation world. As a result, I enrolled in another year of my Master’s degree to improve and advance my skills and knowledge.

Challenge 2: As a woman in the conservation world, working in remote and diverse cultural settings may cause some challenges. In some cultures, it is not acceptable for women to accompany men into forests for work, especially alone. Meeting with the communities at the beginning of the project activities and introducing the team and their mission is a good way to ease any tensions or discomfort among the community members and build trust for future engagements. I have learned to be more patient with people and confident about my skills.

Challenge 3: This is an ongoing challenge, especially for a technical role. Learning new and advanced skills is necessary to perform the demanding job profile. A full-time job leaves little time for learning. Based on the needs of the job, I learnt particular skills that would enable me to perform my responsibilities. When there is more time, I enrol in online courses and workshops to acquire more in-depth knowledge.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a consultant with FFI Programme in Liberia, having technical responsibility for scientific research and data analysis and serving in an advisory role on general species conservation interventions. Establishing legally protected areas to ensure the persistence of healthy ecosystems in which both wildlife and people thrive is a key ambition of FFI. It is well established that the role of local communities is crucial in establishing and managing these protected areas. Towards this, all the conservation projects and interventions have a huge community engagement component where we work closely with the local communities to manage forest resources efficiently and sustainably while protecting the biodiversity. These efforts to improve local livelihood while conserving nature ultimately have to influence a change in the policy level where biodiversity conservation is at the heart of all developmental activities.

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

A career in conservation requires a lot of passion, hard work and patience. My role requires technical skillsets and experience in biodiversity research and monitoring, capacity building, coordination, fundraising and project management. An analytical mindset and knowledge of conservation technology are essential. Good communication skill and the ability to work as a team or independently is crucial to develop and maintaining partnerships with all stakeholders. These skills were acquired through my academic and various work experiences. 

What’s a typical day like?

My work varies depending on whether I am at the office or the field site. A typical day at the office involves attending meetings, preparing work plans with the team, providing training, mentoring interns, writing reports, or responding to emails. In the field, based on the mission,  I provide training, accompany the survey team into the forest, and engage with communities and local authorities. Every day is a new experience and learning when you are in the field and working with the local communities. I love the diversity of activities I get to do on this job, from developing the project concept and implementing the activities in the field to delivering the final report and the opportunity to contribute to the capacity development program. I also get to travel to remote locations and meet many people.

How does your work benefit society? 

Working in conservation, I have contributed positively to many aspects of education, behavioural change and the environment. Throughout my work, I have been an integral part of the capacity-building programme, focused on empowering the youth, local communities and partner organisations to help realize their potential in protecting biodiversity. People are at the heart of conservation, and conserving nature is about securing a better planet for future generations. 

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

During my time at FFI Liberia, I had the opportunity to supervise and mentor interns who joined the project for research and field experience. Interacting and working with them was a great learning opportunity. When six of the interns decided to continue their careers in conservation, I was happy that I was able to be a part of their journey toward protecting nature. 

Implementing the first systematic camera trap survey in Sapo National Park, Liberia’s largest and oldest protected area, was a great learning experience. The survey focused on determining the occupancy of captured multispecies. We achieved a coverage of ~80% of the area, which is a first at the park.

Another fascinating learning experience was implementing the first eDNA survey in southeast Liberia, focused on pygmy hippos. In total, we detected 166 species from 20 water samples, including six endangered species and the first record of Tai Toad in Liberia.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be humble, resilient, passionate and believe in yourself. Keep learning, as every discipline gives you the opportunity to contribute to protecting nature. Every small win matters, and everyone should make an effort to contribute to these wins. Protect nature.

Future Plans?

I want to engage more in policy and decision-making processes to positively influence the government and businesses to keep nature at the heart of the process and encourage adopting more appropriate nature-based solutions. I want to be involved more in community-led conservation projects, that actively engage with communities in implementing conservation interventions and provide benefits to the people. In addition, I want to continue to explore working with advanced and new conservation technologies for biodiversity monitoring.