June 2011: A talented field biologist, Goutam Narayan has probably done more to resurrect the endangered Pygmy hog Porcula salvania in the wild than any other person alive today. He started his career with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) where he worked for 15 years from 1980 onwards. During his time there, he worked on an incredible array of scientific projects, in the process picking up experiences and skills that are being put to use today in an India that is losing both natural ecosystems and species at a never-heard-before rate. He met Bittu Sahgal in Assam and speaks here of his mission and on-going conservation journey.
Goutam, I’ve never seen one in the wild, but tell me why have you spent more than half your working life on this one (admittedly exquisite) creature?
You are right, it has taken over my life! It’s an incredible creature and the only member of the genus Porcula. It’s so diminutive (55 to 71cm-long) that most people do not even know it exists! In fact, it is an evolutionary relic whose survival depends on the wet southern Himalayan grasslands that once ran contiguous from Uttar Pradesh to Assam. Porcula salvania is one of the most sensitive indicators of its habitat and is unable to tolerate even small but critical changes in grassland quality and composition. I am determined not to let this animal vanish. Thus my
near-obsession with its survival.
What was the magnet? How come nature took over your life so completely?
Initially, it was probably little more than curiosity, intense curiosity, about the wildernesses that my father introduced me to and caused me to love. And I loved reading Gerald Durrell. As I grew older, my fascination for wild animals and birds kept growing and this led to the arena of field biology where working with wild species in the field cemented my involvement forever.
‘Ordinary’ people would say you live a life of high adventure! What was the trigger?
Strangely enough, it was probably the large flocks of wild whistling teals settling on the water bodies of the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata that would grip my attention for hours altogether. This led me to Sálim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds and when I got a chance to actually work under the legendary ornithologist immediately after I graduated, I jumped at the chance.
Everyone knows of Sálim Ali but very few people ‘know’ him. That must have been some experience!
It was. Just being around him meant learning by osmosis. Not just about birds but also about human values, dedication to nature and unbiased field observations – the key to being a good field biologist. It was an enlightening and humbling experience that shaped my life through the long-term field research I conducted, the scientific reports I wrote and the conservation issues with which I had to grapple.
Assam and the Himalaya have been a huge inspiration for you right?
Yes. I can vividly remember the first time I saw a male Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis (local name: ulu moira) jump clean out of the grass in Manas about 25 years ago. I had no idea it was even there and then, suddenly, it put up this spectacular aerial display, more of an elaborate broad-jump. I had read about this but nothing had prepared me for the heart-stopping sight, which hooked me on to a new chapter in my life. I also recall the sight of a pair of Black-necked Cranes Grus nigricollis (local name: tung tung), in Chushul’s wetlands, after trudging through the vast moonscape that is Ladakh. Its true, the Himalaya and habitats that fringe it will forever be a part of me.
And when did the hogs enter your life?
Gerald Durrell was responsible! He was pretty much a hero for me and a year after I left the BNHS I was offered a chance to work with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme by William Oliver. Since then my life has belonged to the hogs! It was while working in Manas grasslands on Bengal Floricans that this, the smallest and rarest wild suid, intrigued me. Why had it disappeared from all other grasslands that still supported or had the capacity to support other grassland species? With help from Durrell Wildlife and IUCN Wild Pig Specialist Group Chair, William Oliver, I embarked on a path where even a ‘short-term’ goal of reintroducing a population with captive bred hogs took 12-13 years!
I remember the late Deb Roy was initially quite skeptical about the project, but eventually he became a major supporter right?
Right. He was a tough-as-nails field protection man and he initially felt that the captive breeding of hogs would not work. And even if it did, he believed that reintroduction would pose insurmountable problems. But he was always supportive. He wanted the pygmy hog back in force and was satisfied when he saw that our project was working. Apart from support and encouragement from people like him, the success of the project owes to its local staff in Assam, particularly our wildlife vet, Parag Deka.
What is the status of the project today and can it continue to be sustained?
Well, I have still not taken the mud off my feet after releasing 11 pygmy hogs back into the wild in the Orang National Park and we are releasing two more next week! Its been a long road and we have longer to go but we are unsure how the project will be funded after the current grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ends this year. In the past the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the U.K. Government’s Darwin Initiative, the European Union, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust itself and several individual donors have contributed to the project that has the support of the IUCN Wild Pig Specialist Group, the Assam Forest Department and the Ministry of Environment and Forests. If we are able to secure funding, I am hopeful that we will go from strength to strength.
If you had a magic wand that granted you three wishes, how would you use it to save the pygmy hog?
I would use it to banish the indiscriminate dry season burning of grasslands every February and March. I may allow some controlled fire till mid-January to clear dried grass debris and to delay the transformation of these successional grasslands into a different habitat but not the highly destructive hot burns. Secondly, I would convert hoards of cattle grazing the grasslands bare and trampling the soil hard into a few high-yielding breeds of stall-fed animals. Thirdly, I would transform the mindset of planners who want to construct scores of mega dams on Himalayan rivers. They should instead be planning for ecologically and economically viable smaller alternatives that do not cause flash floods in the grassland plains and downstream areas when water is released from reservoirs, particularly during the monsoons.
Only that the magic wands, if any, are in the wrong hands!
Do you have hope for the future?
I do. Though the situation often appears hopeless I presume humans will wake up to the fact that environmental problems will eventually harm us more than wild species. I believe that we can and will restore, revive and conserve our vanishing wildlife and their habitats, even for their own intrinsic worth. I work with young people at the grassroots level and my hopes are alive because of them.