MEET OUR STAFF: Dr. Vidya Athreya
Her work on leopard ecology has helped bring a new dimension to understanding human-wildlife conflict.
Setting up a camera trap
A woman in a male-dominated field of large cat biology, Dr Vidya Athreya, is the only one of her kind to be featured in a popular Indian film on wildlife ecology. The Marathi film ‘Ajoba’ is the only one made in the country where a real wild leopard is the protagonist. Vidya pays the leopard “the most adaptable of all cats” a big tribute, when she says “this species has taught me so much - not only the science part but about life as well.”
Her extensive work across two decades in understanding human leopard interactions has given her a totally new perspective, often at variance from others in the field of wildlife conservation. Vidya, however, sticks to her guns. Wildlife is not restricted to protected areas. They recognise no such boundaries and have been living since ages in close proximity to humans in our country. The need for such species is not in creating inviolate spaces, but encouraging coexistence, she avers. Her work has showed leopards living in unexpected peaceful coexistence with people, even in areas of high human density. Besides opening up new areas for conservation, this has also stressed the need to ensure connectivity of landscapes.
“Getting acceptance from my fraternity to the fact that wildlife does share space with humans in our country and that it is more the norm than not, was perhaps the most challenging part,” says Vidya. “The entire Natgeo, Discovery, etc all show wild spaces without humans. Even when they are showing heavily used human landscapes such as our semi-arid lands, it is only wildlife they are focussing on, and that makes people believe humans are the ‘encroachers’ into anything natural. However, a country like India with such an old civilisation has no such purely pristine spaces and has so much to teach others on the complexities of shared spaces.”
Besides her attempts to change the notion of what constitutes wilderness, Vidya has been toiling to alter misconceptions of the leopard as a “man-eater baying for human blood” and instead, as a shy and very adaptable animal that shares human use landscapes and stays unseen by the human eye, most times. The leopard can attack under some circumstances, she knows, but sadly the media focusses on these rare events, whipping up fear. Added to that is the drama built, on merely sighting a leopard, which leads to mobs gathering and making it difficult for the authorities to handle the animal. The stressed animal could end up hurting people in its attempt to escape the mob. In a vicious circle, more fear is generated.
It was her radio-collaring of a few leopards that resulted in positive evidence that the practice of translocation of ‘problem leopards’ was in fact leading to more attacks on humans. When an animal was removed from its territory, a new one soon enters and establishes its home terrain there. The translocated animal often attempted to return back home and, in the process encountered human habitations, leading to more confrontations. A better solution would be for people to protect livestock and ensure fewer feral animals around their habitations, as also just and fair systems of cattle loss compensation, says Vidya.
Vidya radio collaring a leopard
A recipient of the Kaplan Graduate award, Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation award, TN Koshoo Memorial award and the Maharana Udai Singh award, she is also member of the IUCN cat specialist group. Her work has not only helped understand leopard ecology and behaviour, but also contributed to policies at the Centre and State in managing human-leopard conflict.
The wilderness lab
But it was all the result of hard evidence obtained from years of walking the trail in the rural landscape of Maharashtra. This involved liaising with the department, talking to more than 600 families to understand the losses they faced due to leopard presence, and tracking leopards – the last of which not only meant GPS collars fitted on a few of the carnivores, but often things as simple but tedious as walking or cycling around sugarcane fields, stream-beds, town streets or hillocks, to collect precious leopard scat! The scat had to be washed and sieved to leave behind only the hair, claws and bones that were then analysed to understand the leopard’s diet.
Knowledge is the key, says Vidya. To a query if she ever felt fear during radio-collaring a leopard, she says, “No, because that procedure was done by a qualified vet who knew what s/he was doing. Also knowing the effects of the drugs and the constant monitoring of the animals meant you watch for the signs when they are coming out of the effect of the drug. As in other spheres of life and work, when you understand the issue better, your fear of the issue reduces.”Farmer and his wife learning about camera traps from Vidya
Was it difficult being a woman? “Not while working, though of course large cats is a hugely male dominated field. But working with the forest department I did not face any problem at all. The only really tough part was being a mother and travelling so much. I know now that for my daughter those years were the hardest.”
Vidya did her MS in Ecology from Pondicherry in 1993 and a MSc in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from University of Iowa, USA in 2000. She obtained her doctorate from Manipal University in 2012 for her thesis, ‘Conflict resolution and leopard conservation in a human dominated landscape’. She has been with Wildlife Conservation Society-India since 2011.
While she stands by the need to be guided by science-based information, Vidya is equally respectful of traditional knowledge which has helped people live in peace with the leopard. She points time and again to the fact that India with a human density of more than 400 people per sq km and severe pressures on land, still retains most of its wildlife species, including the dangerous ones. This is due to the tolerance Indians show for other life forms. “We as a culture do not see the difference between them life forms and our life forms. If you see, lot of countries (extreme example is Scandinavia) has a fraction of our population but much higher resources and forests and yet have extirpated all their large carnivores a 100 years ago. So, whether large wildlife will persist or not lies more in the realm of perception of the people, whether they want the wildlife or not.”
A tolerant culture
Pointing to how animals, domestic or wild, are positively incorporated into our culture, religion and life, Vidya stresses that tolerance is required for the persistence of the charismatic, big wildlife. “Wildlife will remain only if the local people let them remain. For this they need to be made aware of the complex issues related to wildlife and shared spaces. It is not simple enough to say save wildlife and expect people to save them. You need to tell them in simple terms, from scientific and traditional knowledge, and once they understand an issue, then more likely they will be to accepting the presence of these animals in their areas. Lack of knowledge about any issue, only creates more fear than acceptance.”
Vidya traces her fascination for animals to childhood days and parents who loved animals. But it was not the leopard she set out to study. “What was fascinating to me was the interactions between wild animals and humans. Like most people I had notions that wildlife and people should have separate spaces. Only once I started working on the ground, I changed my misconceptions. It was the realisation that it was not all conflict, that peaceful shared spaces were more the norm whereas what we are bombarded with is conflict, thanks to media. Again, that is interesting to me, as to why does this happen. What affects mindsets of people and why do they think a particular way, this is a new field and we are trying to understand that,” she says. If our policies were more bottom up than top down, their effectiveness would be greater, she adds. Authorities must understand the problems the communities face on the ground and then make policies and action based on that.
A firm believer that any conservation is possible only in working with the forest department and communities, Vidya also works with the media to influence positively on reportage of human-wildlife “interaction” (or encounter) as she would rather term it, instead of “conflicts”. In this regard she has worked with many media clubs and reporters to change the narrative around human wildlife conflict.
To the youth
To youngsters treading the wildlife biology and conservation path, her advice is: “Dare to do what you want, don’t be scared of mistakes, life is all about accepting the mistakes, learning from them and moving on. If you work on something you are passionate about, you will always succeed.” Yet another very important requirement of succeeding in the conservation field is to be humble and listen, she adds. “It is a very complex and new field and I have seen many youngsters going in as if they know everything. We need to go in knowing we know very little so that our eyes are open to absorb and learn - it is all about using that learning and humbly interacting with everyone else we meet on the way.”
Awareness the key
Leopard kills three year old. Woman mauled by leopard. Leopard fatally wounded by speeding vehicle. Leopard drowns in well. Leopard skins seized. Leopard trapped and translocated… the news is despairing to say the least. The year 2018 saw 460 leopard deaths from various reasons.
As Dr Vidya Athreya, sees it, “the entire issue of shared spaces is about species like the leopard, the most adaptable large cat species trying to use the same space with humans who are the most adaptable species on the planet. If species like leopards did not adapt and lived only inside Protected Areas, they would be dead by now. However, we need to understand the phenomena of co-adaptation better.”
Written by Jayalakshmi K