Monday, August 17, 2009

On the Trail of the Hornbill: Interview with a Wildlife Researcher

Wildlife is fascinating. And Indian wildlife all the more so simply because of its magnitude, vibrancy and variety. India’s open lands, vast forests and oceans, mountains and valleys, gamut of birds, mammals, insects and trees have spurred on many enquiring minds and nature aficionados to venture out and learn more. Some do it as a hobby while others have taken it on as a burning passion – to learn of our country’s natural beauty and diversity, research it scientifically and protect it via education and legislation.

Rohit Naniwadekar is one such individual, whose life is fuelled by the love of his country’s biodiversity-specifically avian and reptilian. I have known him a long time now since my early days of forest excursions and even then he was always wide eyed with wonder at everything the forests had to offer.

Rohit Naniwadekar (PhD Student, NCF Mysore)

Armed with a degree in zoology from the Mumbai University and an unbreakable will, he proceeded to obtain the much coveted Masters degree in Wildlife Science in 2005 from the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. His sheer passion for the wild, spurred him on to do a stint at the Karnataka Forest Department as a researcher working with biodiversity inventories for a short while, before joining the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Mysore as a Research Affiliate the next year.

He is now a PhD student at NCF researching hornbill biodiversity in India and having a hell of a time doing it. Tall, bearded and with piercing yet twinkling eyes, his easygoing personality also reeks of an adventurer’s enthusiasm and an academic’s serious intelligence at the same time. These vagaries are offset of course by a comfort that often creeps into an old friendship, in this case his association with me-a fellow researcher (at one point) and ever-awestruck-by-nature woman.

I spoke to him earlier today (14 August) about his research on hornbills in India-unique birds. Hornbills (Bucerotidae) are found in tropical and sub-tropical Asia and Africa, and their long curved-down and usually brightly coloured bills make them unique(source: Wikipedia).

Rufous-necked hornbill
(Photo Courtesy: Rohit Naniwadekar)

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of India’s premier wildlife research and education organizations, has adopted the Great Hornbill as its logo and Rohit is one of the few researchers interested in its future in India’s ecology.

Here are some excerpts from a candid chat I had with him earlier today (14 August) :-

Shreyasi : (kind of uneasy talking to him so formally) Are you ready for a formal interview?

Rohit: (Laughs) Why don’t you interview my guide-she has been studying since ’96.

Shreyasi: (At ease) sure I will later. For now let’s start with you. Tell me, how did you first get introduced to wildlife?

Rohit: Well, I was introduced to bird-watching when I was in class 4, around nine years old. By the time I got to the tenth grade, I knew I wanted to make a career out of this.

Shreyasi: What was your Master’s thesis topic during your course in WII?

Rohit: My master's thesis looked at diversity patterns of frogs along an elevation gradient in southern region of the Western Ghats

Shreyasi: Frogs? Wow that’s interesting! And what does your current PhD thesis deal with?

Rohit: I am mainly interested in looking at the distribution pattern of species. My PhD thesis looks at the distribution patterns of hornbills and the role of resource distribution (mainly fruits) and abundance in governing the distribution patterns

Shreyasi: I see. But distribution can be a huge arena. Are you looking at the distribution patterns India wide? Or a localized region?

Rohit: Well... again along an elevation gradient in Arunachal Pradesh. I hope what I mean by distribution patterns is clear...for us its part of daily not sure how a neutral reader would perceive it...

Shreyasi: Most of our readers are hard core technical IIT students, so they need to understand in more basic non-academic terms. Tell me, you’re studying the Great Indian Hornbill right?

Rohit: Yes, it is one of the species I am studying.

Shreyasi: Ok which are the others?

Rohit: Wreathed, Rufous-necked and Brown Hornbills....

Shreyasi: Wonderful! Must be exciting! What according to you is the conservation status of the Great Indian Hornbill in our country?

Rohit: Unlike very critically endangered species of other animals and birds, Great hornbills are faring well in a few areas ... but they are also under grave threat in few others... because of hunting/habitat loss.
Shreyasi: Can you give me some examples of areas where they are more endangered and some where they are doing better?

Rohit: Great hornbills are faring well in few areas in Konkan in Maharashtra and in Anamalai hills in Tamil Nadu, in Pakke and Nameri landscape and in Namdapha in north-east India... and then again in few areas in northeast they aren't faring so well... so its again quite patchy...

Shreyasi: Understood. What are the significantly major threats facing them?

Rohit: The threats vary from area to area... but hunting and habitat loss are the primary ones.
Shreyasi: And is the govt lackadaisical in handling these threats? Or are severe measures being taken to tackle the issue at hand?

Rohit: Well it is rather difficult and unfair to blame the government squarely...The whole issue is quite complicated in India, as conservation issues in general are...

Shreyasi: Why so?

Rohit: We have the parks and the laws...Some places these work and in some they don’t! Potentially conservation will work with active participation of local community...and when the local communities see economic opportunities in conserving wildlife...conservation will be easier...
Shreyasi: (sighs)...Frustrating-it surely is! Coming back to basics, about Indian Hornbill species, which kind of forests do they generally thrive in? Evergreen? Deciduous? Mixed? Primary? Secondary?

Rohit: well most of them thrive in evergreen forests, but the grey hornbill is adapted to live in savanna and drier habitats. However the Oriental Pied Hornbill seems to prefer secondary forests and Malabar pied moist deciduous forests.

Shreyasi: Speaking of forests, on a general note, how is India's forest cover doing...Indian stats normally say its about 33% but I’m sure it’s not that much.

Rohit: again its a few areas it is stable while in other areas forest cover is declining rapidly.

Shreyasi: Which areas would you say are most negatively impacted in India? (Generally speaking)

Rohit: It’s difficult for me to say about the rest of the country, but in a few areas in the northeast it is surely showing a declining trend.

Shreyasi: OK. That is unfortunate. On an ending note...what would your advice be to aspiring wildlife enthusiasts of best can non wildlife people do their bit to protect India's wildlife? For youngsters who cannot all join WII, how else can they get involved?

Rohit: Well there is still a lot to be done for conservation of wildlife in India, particularly areas which are currently not under the Protected Area Network but which still harbour lots of wildlife...there is a need not only of professionals but also of general awareness, education where anybody can contribute....

Shreyasi: Great! That is good news indeed. Thanks a lot. I’m sure this will make an interesting read for all our student readers and encourage them to participate more actively in wildlife conservation crusades.

With this, I let Rohit get back to his research activities, but promised to keep following up on his work and updating my readers with his thoughts from time to time on Indian wildlife and of course, hornbills specifically.

Till the next “wild” read,


COMPLETE (from The circumambient Cetacean)

I have been maintaining this blog for the past two years now, and I have had real fun putting in little bits and pieces of animal stories, cartoons, pictures and jokes together. I have written about the dolphin that made me start writing the blog in the first place, my mother who’s passion for animals has played such an important role in my life, my father who has been my hero throughout and even Mau Rani Buskus mother’s notorious cat...I know I have yet to write about my Precious Cleopatra, my present day bundle-Kishmish and so many more animals and humans that have some my way.

But somehow somewhere something has been those little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that when lost, leave the entire picture sad and forlorn. And the picture won’t be complete till I write about my husband, my best friend and companion and one of the most emotional, zealous and passionate animal lovers I have ever come across.

Ironically my first meeting with Sushil, was in the lush deciduous mixed forest of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. We had both enrolled for a biodiversity conservation course there, and for both of us it was a haven, an escape from the clamour of the outside world. We used to find solace in walking the silent forest trails, listening to the wisha-wisha of the eucalyptus and rain trees and looking out for leopard tracks in the forest mud. I didn’t realize it then, but it was evident that he was in love with everything that the good God had breathed life into. He inspected a flower with the same awe as he did a cicada moult and I somehow found a friend in him that I could relate to.

However it was only after marrying this wonderful man, that I realized the intensity of his passion for everything that walks, runs, crawls or photosynthesizes. The down to earth simple man slowly started unfolding his beautiful soul and immense heart to me and i have been dunked in love ever since.The kind of love that I relate to, the way I love and the oneness that I feel with nature and spirit. I found that in him.

I have seen it grow manifold after Kishmish came into our lives. Kishmish a.k.a. Kishu a.k.a. Kishwanath Rajagopalan is our 4 year old chow chow-alsatian cross (or rather we are his human slaves) and his story will have to be dealt with in detail later. But yes, he has wrapped Sushil completely around his little paw (should have seen it coming) and now his life is centred around kishu. We adopted the fellow three years back, and since then Sushil has taken care of him like a father. Everything Kishu does fascinates him and I am often jolted out of my reveries with “look look twinky look at him drool,” or “Look look Twinky, look at his nose,” or “Oh my God Twinky smell his his paws...its heaven.” :-)

I would not have had it otherwise. And God has been kind to me. He knows what I needed and he has given me that. Someone to love me and everything He has made selflessly, and someone whom I could love back in the same way.
Sush, it is such a joy to open my eyes every morning and find next to me a man who is capable of loving God and his creations so much. It’s been four years, but with each passing day I only fall more and more in love with you and your good heart. I thrill with the moments you, me and Kishu have and the many more years to come. It’s not just the blog that’s whole now. You complete me.


Mile Sur Mera Tumhara-To Sur Bane Hamara

I doubt whether younger student readers would remember the cultural unity compilation “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara” often broadcast by Doordarshan till the early nineties. But I sure do. Vividly.

Those were simple days of childhood, when we used to laugh and love openly and live seemingly uncomplicated lives imbued with an intense love for our nation and pride in its diversity. Coming from Mumbai, I was already introduced to people from many different cultures, religions, languages and regions all over India. I have eaten different cuisines unique to the various Indian states and revelled in the traditions and festivities enjoyed by people belonging to different creeds which constitute our country. And it has been a most joyous experience – learning to share and tolerate, respect and love equally. Something I see declining fast in the India of today.

The “Mile sur...” video used to be something to run back to in times of crisis. Like the Mumbai riots of '92 after the demolition of Babri Masjid and the consequent Hindu-Muslim disharmony which finally erupted into widespread violence, the likes of which has remained scarred in the minds and hearts of Mumbaiites even now.

Or the riots that began after the Godhra train burning in 2002, which shocked and pained not only Gujaratis but Indians nationwide. Or even the Stein family burning in Orissa and the Sikh riots in north India. The list can go on and one. But during these tumultuous times, when I have felt helpless with sheer agony to see my country burning, I have often resorted to this video clip featuring national integration and unity, which has somehow always managed to restore my faith in the inherent tolerant ways of our great nation and its diverse yet united people.

As soon as the video begins with Pt Bhimsen Joshi singing in his typical classical tones, I feel a lump rising in my throat. It strikes me yet again that a country which could produce, nurture and house a singer of such greatness and music so thoroughly rooted in the basic scientific principles of sound and artistic fundamentals of beauty intertwined with each other, can not be anything but great.

As the video progresses featuring the common as well as famous Indian from various states like Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Gujarat and Maharashtra, the lump in my throat slowly starts transmuting into tears.

And then as the music melts into the lag portion of our national anthem, the tears flow unhindered. What beauty! What richness! What vastness! What greatness we are blessed with!

A grand history that goes back thousands of years, further than most modern civilizations. In our history and our unity in diversity, we are rooted. May we never lose sight of those roots.

Progress of our India does not mean losing our innate Indian-ness. Actually it is very hard to lose that. By getting a green card and changing one's passport details one may become an American citizen, but one does not stop being an Indian, contrary to popular opinion. One's roots go far beyond the paper passport.

I know, I have been an NRI for a long time, and every day I have pined for my country. I have swollen with pride with every Indian achievement and felt steeped with sorrow at every unhappy incident happening there. I live abroad. But I am Indian.

It is time we stopped criticizing the state of our nation. We must instead identify them and aim to rectify them. Negative criticism never gets anyone anywhere. Constructive criticism does. Why do we complain about our nation's issues when we ourselves do nothing to solve them?

Let today-our independence Day-be the first day of the rest of our lives. Let us work constructively at solving our problems, instead of being hypocritical about them. Let us change the oft heard statement “Is desh mein kuch nahin hoga” to “Yeh desh duniya ka Taj hai.”

Let us realize that we all may be different, but there is more that we share in common. We share a country. We share a history. We share mutual love and respect. We share the blessings of the great saints and sages who do not adhere to any religion but only seek oneness with God. We share the blessings of great personages of yore like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Swami Vivekanand and Rabindranath Tagore, and present day leaders like Abdul Kalam and Anna Hazare among others. Moreover we are imbued with God's strong presence in the undying faith of so many Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Chrisitans, Parsis, Buddhists and Bahai's praying as one nation. When God is with us, who can be against us?

We make the great Bharat Ganarajya. We are Indians.

Mile sur mera sur bane hamara. Jai Bharat. Jai Hind.

-----------Shreyasi Majumdar.