What most people don’t realise about wildlife researchers is how little time we actually get to spend out in the field. Most of it goes into preparing a sound study, and then raising money for that study. Most people don’t really get what we do. They tend to confuse the professions of environmentalist (strictly, someone who works on urban and rural pollution issues), lobbyist (so-called ‘tree-huggers’), animal-rights activist (commonly framed as ‘puppy-kitten lovers’), and ecologist, field biologist, conservationist. I belong to the latter category, and the idea is to understand the species in the wild, so contact is minimal. No wildlife-hugging involved! Personally, I’ve attracted this kind of confusion ever since a friend posted a picture of me rescuing a darter chick. It invited lots of comments, variations on ‘Awwww so cute’, and friends have considered me a ‘bird-rescuer’ since.
Being out on the field is not all holding bird chicks and newly hatched turtles, though. If you want your research to make a difference, you need to stick your neck out, and that can be dangerous, since most conservation work in India is at loggerheads with powerful development-oriented interests. The deaths of RTI activists like Amit Jethwa and Shehla Masood are revealing what those interests are capable of. Our work often throws us in the path of thugs of various type. One researcher in Dudhwa got caught by poachers, who tied him to a tree, took all his money, and threw his bike into a wetland. He was found after many hours. Another friend researching otters in the Chambal Valley found none other than Phoolan Devi outside his tent. She left him alive for a modest fee: his binoculars, apparently useful to keep an eye out for other gangs and the police. Another friend was given drugged sweets by people who seemed like friendly villagers. He woke up to find they’d gone, along with his belongings.
(The interviewee has studied reptiles in southern rainforests, and has studied several endangered bird species, including in the Chambal Valley)
As told to Shruti Ravindran