Meet Dr. Ravi Chellam
Wildlifer and conservation biologist, Dr. Ravi Chellam is a faculty member at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun. He was among those who undertook the earliest studies on the behaviour of the Gir lions with the specific objective of finding a new home for them in Madhya Pradesh. Lakshmy Raman spoke with this brilliant, unusual wildlife biologist and delved into a world that few outside the realm of science have explored. He has walked with lions, risked all manner of exotic diseases and still plays cricket. Known by some as the angry young man of natural history, he has ruffled feathers all his life, particularly those in authority! Young would-be field biologists seem to take heart from Ravi Chellam’s story. And most who meet this quintessential scientist come away with mixed feelings of admiration and envy because he manages to do almost every day of his life, what others merely dream of doing once in a lifetime.
Dr. Chellam, the perception is that you lead a very exciting and adventurous life. Is this true and when did the natural history bug bite you?
Please call me Ravi. Yes the life of a field biologist can be adventurous. Within three months of my joining the Wildlife Institute in 1985, for instance, I found myself taking the rectal temperature of a tranquillised elephant that had been administered the revival dose in Rajaji. I was still holding its tail and had just removed the thermometer when the elephant got up into a sitting position (almost on me!) and then gently walked away into the moonlit forest. It had been a long day, but that is another story. I could write a book about such adventures.
There was no one defining moment when wildlife hooked me. As a kid I can remember exploring about in our garden, looking for bugs and worms, sometimes to the dismay of my mother who would have to deal with grimy fingernails and dirty clothes. I used to collect the strangest 'pets' that would keep me occupied for hours. I can remember devouring wildlife comics like Tarzan and The Phantom. I particularly remember being absorbed by the Adventure Series, which described the escapades of two brothers. The Whale Adventure, for example, virtually took me on a journey into the world of marine mammals.
Comics and fiction as motivation? That's certainly unusual!
Not really. I know many people whose inspiration came from such apparently unlikely sources. As I grew older, of course, my parents and friends continued to be supportive of my strange fascination for nature and on my part I would pore over the few wildlife reports that I found in newspapers like The Hindu or magazines like The Illustrated Weekly. Then there was My Country Notebook, M. Krishnan's long-running column in The Statesman, which was a major influence. When they came to town, I loved seeing wildlife films.
I always loved being outdoors. I have vivid memories of visits to relatives living in rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I sort of fancied myself as a naturalist and would try to observe birds and identify them on the basis of what I read and what I thought they must be. The Black Drongos perched on the telephone wires, I was certain, were swallows. Pariah and Brahminy Kites soaring above were huge eagles… possibly Bald Eagles? The funniest misidentification was the Barn Owl that I thought was a Snowy Owl because of its whitish plumage. I now know, however, that the process of making such errors is vital to the process of learning. When I was out on birding trips, even in Madras, I would keep careful notations and these helped me correct myself. I think I learned as much through my mistakes and by watching the way experienced naturalists behaved on outings as I did through meticulous study. In more ways than one, the path of natural history was being chosen for me without my taking a conscious decision.
So what was the final trigger? Something must have nudged you towards your chosen direction.
More than any one trigger, I think it was a process of osmosis. My interest in nature and biology just kept building up through the years. When I was in school between the mid-sixties and seventies, career options for us centred around engineering, medicine, chartered accountancy, law, banking and possibly business. There was then not even a remote chance that someone could actually make a living studying wildlife, or working in the area of nature conservation or environmental protection. Given my interest in biology, medicine seemed the natural thing to take up, but for several reasons, I joined a BSc (Botany) course in the Vivekananda College, Chennai, instead. To put it mildly, the course was badly taught and the experience almost convinced me to give up my studies. The good thing however was the amount of time I had on my hands. I'm talking about the late seventies when the Madras Naturalists' Society and the WWF office in Madras both used to hold meetings that I would regularly attend. It was here that I began to get a real sense of what natural history fieldwork and conservation meant. I got into the habit of noting down almost everything of import that I saw, leaving as little as possible to memory. I also understood the value of a decent pair of binoculars and how important it was to cross check facts before shooting off one's mouth about identifications or behaviour.
In April 1981 I would have laughed if someone had gazed into a crystal ball to tell me that in under five years I would be based in the Gir forest conducting field studies on the ecology of the Asiatic lion for my PhD. Thanks to a relative, I had landed a job as a Marketing Executive with Krish & Associates, a firm dealing in industrial and textile chemicals. I could hardly believe my luck. I was staying with my parents, took home a very decent salary, was able to travel and meet interesting people (something that I still enjoy very much) and was able to play cricket over weekends because I worked a five-day week. Life seemed almost too good to be true!
Photo: Otto Pfister.
From industrial chemicals to wildlife… that seems a long way to have walked!
Well the first year sort of whizzed by like a dream. I loved the work and enjoyed the lifestyle. With enough money in my pocket, life was one long party. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the idea of studying overseas. I even toyed with the thought of joining the Indian Forest Service at some point. But clearly, I had no indication at all of the course my life would take. While I worked as a marketing executive, however, I did manage to start a small nature club for the children of my school.
What about the money? How were you able to make two ends meet?
I have to confess that I had become used to the basic comforts of life and the entertainment that large cities present on a platter. But I was emotionally supported by my family and I was determined not to allow financial considerations to cloud my choice of career. In that sense, you might say I was driven by the flush of optimism so typical of youth. Though memories of my marketing days did occasionally recur, I was never disappointed on the money front. You see I loved being out in the wilds… and my trips to such destinations were actually paid for! On top of this, I was paid a monthly salary. How on earth could I complain!
Someone must have influenced you. Who were your heroes?
The late M. Krishnan. I never missed a piece of what he wrote. He was an amazing man whose gift with language was almost as brilliant as his natural history observations. In terms of direct influence, however, the most important person was undoubtedly Preston Ahimaz, who was the State Administrator for WWF-India, Madras. He was already smitten by the natural history bug, which ultimately bit me too! Between 1981 and 1983 Preston was studying the ecology of Shaheen Falcons in and around the hills near Gingee, a place famous for a fort of the same name. My first overnight trip and organised field work was with him. Here I think I learned the right values, the right way to observe animals and also the right attitude. I was greatly stimulated by the experience and realised that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In January 1983, I volunteered my services for a WWF-India nature camp at Point Calimere. This was my first visit to a real protected area and I was hooked. I'd say this was a turning point in my life. The Bombay Natural History Society operated a field station at Point Calimere in 1983 and here I met many researchers and spent time talking about their work. I learned about AVC College, the first in India to offer a full time Masters course in wildlife biology. My choice was virtually made. This was going to be a full time career.
We had family friends living close to the college and they helped me get the necessary forms. With some difficulty, I did get in and almost immediately, I began asking around about job opportunities in wildlife research. I chose to attend the BNHS Centenary symposium that was held at Powai in Bombay in December 1983. This was another eventful decision. I interacted with such greats as Dr. Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley. I also met with scores of other scientists and conservationists, some every bit as confused and in search of answers as I was. Many of the relationships I struck up then have lasted me all my life.
And your wife Bhooma? Does she complain?
Not any more than any family might. Bhooma, our daughter Roshni and I have learned to adapt to this life. We are a unit and none of us has unreasonable ambitions or demands. Nor do we compare our lifestyles with those of others. The question of my taking up another career never really arose and has never been discussed. The life of a field biologist is actually reasonably comfortable, even though there are very limited luxuries. As with all other aspects of life, one must see things in the correct perspective. We live in the Wildlife Institute campus in Dehra Dun, which is the envy of everyone who comes here. We get to travel to wonderful places and we breathe clean air and lead a healthy life. Many of our friends own homes, multiple cars and the associated trappings of a gadget filled life. Bhooma and I still move around on a two wheeler. But I would not change this life for the riches of the world.
How do friends in unrelated professions react to your lifestyle?
What you do never really affects your friendships. My classmates at school now include professional sportsmen, lawyers, accountants, financial big wigs, computer professionals, doctors, engineers, MBA graduates… you name it. We never feel isolated or left out when we meet up with them. If anything it is the other way round! Friends are vocal in their admiration of the life we lead, the places I get to visit and the kind of work I do. While they do sometimes cringe at the idea of risking snakebites, contracting exotic viruses, or being infested with leeches and ticks, our conversations often centre around the exciting tales that I tend to relate from one or other of my various field trips and expeditions.
And what about the Wildlife Institute? Are you happy here? Does the WII hold out a promise of job security for future wildlife biologists?
Happy? Yes I am happy here. Though I can think of a hundred things that I might like to see being done differently. I also think it is a mistake to look at the WII as a kind of employment agency for wildlife biologists. That was never its mandate. It merely helps to train individuals so that they know the ropes better. In terms of job security, my job is as secure or insecure as any other government job. Put another way, it is most unlikely that I will lose my job until the day I retire… unless I seriously screw up. In fact I sometimes feel that this job is too secure; that it does not provide the required impetus for people to perform. The system has no effective way to deal with those guilty of non-performance. Job satisfaction is a completely different issue. This is determined by individual aspirations and motivations. Ideally the leadership of an institution should set long-term institutional goals, articulate a definite agenda and develop a philosophy that provides the framework within which individual professional aspirations can develop. We, who help frame the character of the WII, must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the institution and develop our own strategies and mechanisms to deal with situations and enhance its effectiveness.
So how effective has the WII been in promoting wildlife conservation and research in India?
The WII, like other institutes, has its fair share of successes and failures. It has tremendous strengths in terms of personnel, infrastructure and students. There is so much we want to do and we are working hard at developing inner strengths by building a strong work ethic and a philosophy to guide us. But we have a long way to go before we can claim to be shaping the strategies and policies governing wildlife conservation in India because we have no authority to enforce the policies we recommend. It would help if we took a more independent stand on issues, backed by unassailable logic and unimpeachable data.
Commercial projects are posing a major threat to wild habitats and species. Are field biologists selling out to the development lobby by taking lucrative consultancies to deliver Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) that recommend projects, even when they are against the interests of biodiversity?
I recognise the problem you mention, but sweeping generalisations are unfair. Besides, most such consultancies are not even undertaken by field biologists. Misunderstandings arise when people confuse scientific fact and opinion. But yes, EIAs are often rushed and this prevents the collection of reliable ecological and natural history data. This encourages fly-by-night operators in the guise of natural history experts to step in, particularly when reputed institutes refuse to be associated with assignments that provide neither time nor resources to undertake complex studies.
Photo: C.H. Bassapanavar.
There have also been accusations of late that WII faculty members are more keen on dollar consultancies rather than conservation priorities.
We have all heard these accusations. No one can deny that there is some truth to such views, but largely they are exaggerated. There are positive aspects that come to the fore when overseas consultancies are accepted by faculty. For one thing, there is greater exposure to problems, solutions and people. The financial rewards that come with such assignments should not be grudged. Just because people work for a 'cause' hardly means they must adopt voluntary poverty for the rest of their lives. What is needed is an ethical, rational and very objective approach to the choice of consultancy projects, and more importantly, a policy that virtually prohibits the taking up of consultancies that either dilute or compromise the conservation objectives for which the WII was set up.
I think we need to keep in mind that only a very small fraction of field biologists have actually taken up the kind of consultancies you are talking about. My view is that everything about such consultancies should be transparent, including the nature of the assignment, the fees being collected and the terms that funding agencies stipulate. If this is done then no one should have any objections or criticisms at all. Besides, once true transparency exists, even if agencies offering consultancies have hidden agendas, it would be difficult to impose them. At another level, the science we produce could benefit from global peer review and public debate.
You worked on the relocation scheme for the Asiatic lion at Palpur Kuno. Are things going the way you wanted?
By Indian standards, the lion translocation project (Sanctuary Vol. XVIII No. 5, October 1998) has really moved fast. We did a survey of the potential sites in 1993-94, submitted our report in January 1995 and this was almost immediately accepted by the Government of India and the State Government of Madhya Pradesh. The MP Forest Department had their plan and budget ready by April 1995 and soon after the Government of India released the funds. But not everything has moved according to plan. The emphasis on infrastructural development, basically civil engineering, has dominated biology, ecology and the social and anthropological aspects. But Kuno is an excellent site for the translocation with a large and contiguous forest tract and low human densities. I am optimistic about the final result. Villagers were very keen to move out from the lion introduction areas and saw the sensible rehabilitation package as a chance to improve their lives. Unfortunately, sociologists were not in control and this coupled with the lack of a consultative approach on the part of the Forest Department has led to some resentment. Communities were also probably not given time to adapt and settle down, but this damage can be rectified with genuine transparency and consultations. The obsession with civil engineering 'solutions' actually damages the habitat and diminishes the naturalness of the area. I am anxious to see the next stage of the project being implemented, that is the building up of the prey base. The project has also suffered from a lack of communication between the WII, MP and Gujarat Forest Departments, Government of India, concerned NGOs, and from a lack of positive public opinion, which leaves the project vulnerable to politicisation.
The good thing is that recently, an expert technical committee has been constituted with J.J. Dutta as the Chairman. If it has political support, this Committee could provide the impetus for proper monitoring and implementation of the vital lion translocation project. We simply cannot afford to mess up because a second free ranging population is a pre-requisite to saving the Asiatic lion in the long run.
Are field biologists sort of free radicals moving from one disconnected project to the next? What are your post-lion plans?
It may seem so, but in truth most field biologists tend to specialise either on species, or habitats, or perhaps on processes. I am for instance involved with a project dealing with the effects of rainforest fragmentation on the herpetofauna and small mammals of the Western Ghats in southern India. By 2000-2001 we hope to survey rainforest fragments from Goa down to Kerala. In some ways, this is a huge jump from lions - dry forests to rainforests. But everything in nature is linked and organisms often evolve convergent survival strategies. Every assignment we undertake influences our thinking and determines our future capabilities. Right now, I am supervising an MSc dissertation that deals with the behaviour of leopards in captivity. A project with which I will be involved includes the study of leopards with an emphasis on predation ecology, ranging, habitat use and dispersal. Others involve biogeography and conservation planning in India using birds as the reference taxa; social behaviour and dispersal in lions and the effects of forest fragmentation on Hoolock gibbons in Assam. I love the diversity of my involvement, which in some ways represents the diversity we are all fighting to protect.
What are the three most important priorities for wildlife conservation in India?
1. Finding the political will to integrate nature conservation into national planning. Environmental groups must not be reduced to a policing role. We are a vital part of national development, for the habitats and processes we defend hold the key to the water and food security of the Indian subcontinent. The political will should extend to ensuring monitoring and compliance.
2. The public at large must be educated on issues surrounding nature conservation. Not just the urban elite but even those living close to wildlife habitats. The effort must transcend education to involve empowerment of communities so they have a stake in the protection of habitats and the species that reside therein.
3. The management of our national parks and sanctuaries must become more transparent and more scientific. Committed and capable persons must be appointed to the right job in the right place. Such individuals hold the key to the success of all our conservation objectives and they must be trained and equipped. The need of the hour is a management that is driven by research and monitoring, not political compulsions.
How can Sanctuary readers help field biologists protect wild places?
The Sanctuary readership is vast and motivated and cuts across the social milieu of India. Vigilance can be their first contribution. They could be an early warning system to vocally highlight damage being caused to wildlife. They can also help gather data for conservation research, but this requires some training, which can easily be imparted. Another critical contribution would be to practise conservation in everyday life. We must recognise that the largest damage is being done by the unsustainable lifestyle of millions. Sanctuary readers who really care can set an example by making small, but significant changes in their own consumption patterns.
Would you advise young persons to follow in your footsteps?
Yes. Wildlife research and conservation presents exciting and challenging career opportunities. In a nation of a billion people, I imagine we have no more than 200 well trained conservation biologists! A good sign is the fact that the financial returns for such professions are improving. In 1985 as a Junior Research Fellow, I was paid Rs. 800. Today the same fellowship is worth Rs. 5000. I would be very willing to act as a sounding board for interested youngsters who read Sanctuary.
Given the chance would you choose a different, more financially rewarding, life for yourself and your family?
Not a chance! I love my job and my life. I was warned over a decade ago that my peers would be richer than I. But richer in what? Sure they have more cars and air-conditioners. But is that what life is all about? I am rich in experiences and am emotionally and intellectually fulfilled. I wake up each morning looking forward to new discoveries. How can that be compared with money and what it buys? Even as I say this, of course, I must count my financial blessings. My family has never wanted for anything. You can be as rich or as poor as you wish. I have seen very rich people sacrifice family, self-respect and happiness in the quest for still more money. No. The grass is greener on my side of the fence!
Sanctuary readers can contact
Dr. Ravi Chellam at:
The Wildlife Institute of India
Post Box 18, Dehra Dun 248 001.
Tel.: 91-135-640112 to 115
by Lakshmy Raman, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XIX No. 3, June 1999.