Meet Dr. Anish Andheria – Scientist, Naturalist, Conservationist, Photographer

Anish Andheria is a conservation photographer of repute and is seen here photographing a Saker Falcon in the Little Rann of Kutchh. Photo: Shashank Dalvi

Meet Dr. Anish Andheria, President, Wildlife Conservation Trust, who speaks to Bittu Sahgal about how nature took over his life, his inspirations and the conservation challenges ahead of us all at a point in time when climate change is rapidly moving into higher gear.

Dr. Anish Andheria has packed in a lifetime of wildlife conservation experiences and he still has over half his working life ahead of him. A crack field biologist and scientist with a unique background in chemistry, he is the President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), founded, funded and chaired by Hemendra Kothari. Bittu Sahgal, who has known him for decades, explores what makes this conservationist of tomorrow tick.

Anish, What triggered your love for the outdoors and wildlife?

I was always smitten by plants and animals, even as a toddler. I impersonated Tarzan during my primary school days, climbed trees and made a hideout, scaled the six metre high stone wall behind my home in Andheri (West), a suburb of Mumbai. I remember rolling on the ground to persuade my parents to take me to Gir to see lions when I was in Standard V. I also remember playing with a pet Indian monitor lizard in an ashram in what I later found out was the eastern range of the Gir National Park and Sanctuary. I rescued my first snake, a rat snake, when I was in Standard VIII, from some older boys who were chasing the hapless reptile, sticks in hand, and would have clobbered it to death. Three decades later, I still rescue and rehabilitate snakes, wild birds and mammals if needed.

How was this interest magnified?

In school, I looked forward to every alternate Saturday for our fortnightly visit to the BNHS library to identify plants and animals I had seen. I would immerse myself in the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan by Dr. Sálim Ali and Dillon Ripley; J.C. Daniel’s The book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians and H.S. Prater’s Indian Mammals. By the time I made it to Bhavan's College in Andheri, I was ready to jump into the next bus to the forest, literally. Thanks to the Nature Club run by Prof. Dr. Parvish Pandya, which was why I chose Bhavan's over Mithibai, I embarked upon a never-ending journey into the forests, deserts and wetlands of India. I spent every alternate day at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park during my graduation days, observing the inter-relationship between plants and animals, and tracking leopards. I was introduced to Sanctuary Asia, my window into India’s wilds, in the mid-1980s and still possess every issue.

I was the odd man out in my family, yet they, especially my dad, encouraged me in their own subtle ways. He would take me to buy books and VHS cassettes on wildlife and later accompanied me to the forests whenever he had the time and even sat up on machaans during leopard population estimations conducted by the Forest Department.

A pair of lion cubs in Saurashtra’s Gir forest. In Dr. Andheria’s view, “Though the numbers of many iconic species have risen.... the noose is tightening on all creatures great and small, because without expansive wildernesses to buffer climate change impacts, their long term survival is at risk.” Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria

How did this metamorphose and take over your life?

Well, the wildlife bug only got stronger when I joined the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT). I continued to spend at least two months every year, assisting field research projects, including the tiger estimation programmes organised by the Centre for Wildlife Studies, the Indian arm of WCS. Masters and Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Sunil Bhagwat at ICT, was not surprised when I stuck to the field of wildlife conservation and joined Sanctuary Asia, even before appearing for my Ph.D. viva, way back in 2000, where I spent nine years helping to initiate the now well-established Kids for Tigers programme and Green Karbon, a biodiversity-climate change programme to influence college students with help from Deutsche Bank. I continued to spend time in the field, and in a two-year sabbatical from Sanctuary in 2004, joined the first batch for the Masters programme on Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.

Who were the principal influencers in your life?

Among those who left a permanent mark on me are Padma Vibhushan, Prof. M. M. Sharma, Ex-Director, ICT; my supervisor and now a dear friend at ICT, Prof. S. S. Bhagwat, both of whom never let me feel awkward about being hardwired to wildlife even as I pursued my Masters and Ph.D. in Surface Chemistry and Fluid Mechanics. You, Mr. Sahgal, who I have known since 1987-88 taught me the art of communication and simple ways of building long-lasting relationships with people by seamlessly adjusting to them, rather than expecting them to adjust to you. Dr. Ullas Karanth, WCS, played a significant role in helping me pursue conservation biology with a mindset of an engineer, never letting go of the scientific rigour, and taking the utmost precaution to maintain the sanctity of field data. Mr. Hemendra Kothari, Chairman of WCT and DSP BlackRock, is the one whose drive has made WCT the organisation it is. An astute banker and philanthropist, he helped me hone in on key issues in the maze of conservation options and gives me a free hand to operate with dignity. He also set a high governance and integrity standard bar for WCT and helped us forge a strong, dedicated team that is, without doubt, an asset to India. So many people have impacted my thought processes some of whom are Zafar Futehally, Humanyun Abdulali, T.N.A. Perumal, Sunderlal Bahuguna, George Schaller, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Dr. Ajith Kumar, Praveen Pardeshi, ACS to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and a dear friend and passionate wildlifer, Pavan Sukhdev, Lester Brown, Gunter Pauli and, of course, my late father, Pramod Andheria.

My greatest influence has been the wildernesses and its denizens, from whom I continue to learn to unlearn my human ways. The frontline forest staff has always deepened my resolve to strengthen the protection mechanism of our forests. From them I continue to learn to keep my morale high against all odds. These unsung heroes – dharti sevaks – are providing real security to India in ways that are no less important than our armed forces. Forests, rivers and the biodiversity are our nation’s vital organs – heart, lung, kidneys and vascular system all in one. If these ‘internal organs’ failed, what would be left to protect of the nation? I want their role to be recognised and their status to be on par with that of the army, navy and air force.

In Dr. Andheria’s words, “It has been an absolute pleasure to lead WCT’s team of young, innovative professionals who are backed by scientific rigour”. Photo Courtesy: WCT

What are WCT’s future plans?

Protected Areas (PAs) and their connecting corridors are under stress from anthropogenic pressures. Our Chairman, Hemendra Kothari set a clear agenda for the Wildlife Conservation Trust to help mitigate the threats faced by large forested landscapes, which act as important watersheds and green lungs. We use the tiger as a ‘currency’ to measure the integrity of large forested landscapes as over 600 rivers either originate from or are fed by tiger-bearing landscapes. Protecting these habitats is vital to the country’s water security.

We are relatively young, but already WCT works in over 130 sanctuaries and national parks across 23 states of India covering 82 per cent of 50 tiger reserves and 17 per cent of 764 Protected Areas.

Tell us more about WCT’S vision and ground work.

We believe that landscape-level conservation of forests and the socio-economic upliftment of local communities, living in and around these forests, will only be possible through a holistic approach that places equal emphasis on a) safeguarding the existing forests by strengthening the protection mechanism of the Forest Department, b) regenerating degraded forests, c) delivering quality health care to our frontline forest staff, d) building up the capacity of marginalised communities through intensive education and livelihood options that guarantee them dignity while reducing their dependence on the extraction of forest produce, e) mitigating the rising human-animal conflicts that threaten to erode the age-old inter-relationship between people and forests. All the above need to be based on sound science and social justice, both of which should determine on-ground wildlife management policy. Essentially, we seek to enhance our impact by leveraging our strengths by collaborating with the Central and State governments, educational institutes, credible NGOs, even multilateral agencies and corporates. The huge problems confronting India demand that organisations such as ours are able to scale up and optimise resources, but only if we are able to maintain a high quality standard for all our conservation deliveries.

WCT has conducted diagnostic full-body check-ups and Trauma Care Management Training for over 16,000 frontline forest staff in several states. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Anish Andheria

How has wildlife conservation changed over the decade?

In the early 1980s, the key emphasis was on securing forests by declaring them as either national parks or sanctuaries. Protectionism ruled – safeguarding forests and species by excluding people. Human rights issues were not prioritised. Large mammal conservation was the order of the day. Most journals and magazines focused on natural history. Checklists of flora and fauna were being fine-tuned. Wildlife research was largely species-based, with an emphasis on behaviour, distribution and life-histories. The biggest perceived threat to wildlife came from hunting for subsistence, poaching for the international trade, firewood collection and livestock grazing.

And today?

Given India’s rising population and dwindling wildernesses, a landscape approach has been accepted as the strategy of choice, with an emphasis on co-existence between people and the parks around which they live. Increasingly, researchers have started studying the impact of the human footprint on wildlife and habitats. Ecosystem-based conservation is in evidence. Conservation science now takes precedence over pure natural history studies. Conservationists have also started focusing on forests outside PAs. ‘Corridors’ have become the buzzword.

Anish Andheria at Eravikulam National Park on a survey Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

Has the threat perception to wildlife changed?

The old threats still exist, but additional dangers from galloping habitat destruction at the hands of mega-projects including mines, dams and linear intrusions have risen drastically. Climate change aggravates the impacts of all these hazards to our biodiversity. Grasslands and wetlands once extensive are vanishing even faster than forests.

Is the euphoria over charismatic species misplaced?

Ironically, though the numbers of many iconic species have risen, even as their habitats have deteriorated, the noose is tightening on all creatures great and small, because without expansive wildernesses to buffer climate change impacts, their long-term survival is at risk.

It can’t be all dark!

No, it’s not all dark. On a positive note, conservation is no longer a hobby of the elite. A large number of young people have chosen this field as a reasonably well-paying, respectful, engaging career option. Wildlife photography too is offering thousands of young people a living and is being used to conservation advantage. Ditto for tourism, with many dedicating their lives towards making tourism work for wildlife and for the communities living around our wildernesses. The number of Indians visiting wildlife destinations far outweighs their foreign counterparts…. that is a most welcome trend, for only if people fall in love with the wild will they defend it.

Narrow-mouthed frog Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

How do you see the intersect between biodiversity and climate change working itself out?

Both are more inter-related than most imagine because they have a mutually reciprocating, cascading effect on each other. Climate change negatively impacts biodiversity and biodiversity loss exacerbates climate change! Broadly speaking, climate change negatively affects species distribution, breeding biology of organisms and food availability; rising temperatures enhance the frequency and intensity of forest fire, causes erratic freeze and thaw cycles on land and sea, and amplifies the spread of disease-causing pathogens… which in turn negatively impacts biodiversity. When biodiversity declines take place, the checks and balances that moderate climate are thrown out of kilter. The impacts of climate change on biodiversity are more immediate, while the impact of declining biodiversity on our climate show up over longer time spans. For instance, a shift in the breeding cycle of insects, say grasshoppers, negatively impacts predatory birds that migrate to a particular destination to avail of the abundant food source. If the insect larvae are late in emerging, migrants flying south in winter may not be able to build up the fat reserves they need to make the arduous journey north to their summer breeding grounds. A succession of such poor years, would lead to a collapse in the predatory bird numbers. There is more. Responding to the reduction in predatory pressures, grasshopper populations will rise and the insects will overgraze local shrub and tree species, which would affect regeneration and reduce the ability of that landscape to sequester carbon.

And so the cascades continue with domino impacts that end up with even more carbon accumulating in the atmosphere. Such phenomena have been documented on land and sea, where marine food chain collapses can have a far greater impact on global temperatures. None of this spells good news for a nation such as India whose people are more directly dependent on nature than almost every other large country in the world.

The Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene where humanity is having a more profound impact on the planet than the geologic changes that have taken place ever since our planet came into being. Erratic weather events, have a greater negative impact on species living in extreme climatic zones such as hot deserts and frozen poles, and these lifeforms consequently face a greater risk of extinction. Ironically, the very evolutionary adaptations that once helped them out-compete other species could now ring the death knell for creatures that are unable to adapt fast enough to keep pace with the blistering pace at which we are re-engineering the planet. Not surprisingly we are currently witnessing what could be the highest extinction rate since the dinosaurs perished over 66 million years ago. No one can possibly predict the outcome of such biodiversity loss on the intricate, delicate interrelationships that keep our planet alive and kicking.

With over 65 per cent of our 1.3 billion people dependent directly on agriculture, ours could well be the world’s worst-affected climate victims.

We still have the time to negotiate a way through the minefield of biodiversity loss and climate change, but for this to happen economists and planners will need to take time to understand that all economic edifices are built on ecologically stable foundations. If these foundations are shaken, like a house of cards, things could come apart with unimaginable consequences for all life forms including Homo sapiens. The best way out of this potential cul-de-sac is to make the revival of our natural capital the central purpose of national development.

This is possible, but not by any measure easy. Nevertheless, that is the very reason why Wildlife Conservation Trust was established.

Blackbuck at Velavadar Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

Is Project Tiger the force it once was?

That is a tough question to answer. Bear with me. Project Tiger has been one of the most successful conservation initiatives on the planet. Tigers and their habitats recovered phenomenally in the decade after Project Tiger was launched in Corbett on April 1, 1973. From the initial nine tiger reserves, the number has grown to as many as 50. Almost 2.3 per cent of India’s landmass is encompassed by tiger reserves, half as core zones and the remaining as buffers. But almost 30,000 families still live inside the core areas and about three million in the buffer zones! There is, therefore, tremendous extractive pressure on tiger reserves with as many as 15 to 20 million people depending on tiger-forest resources in one way or other. Basically, extraction is outpacing regeneration. Only a handful of tiger reserves in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam, are functioning reasonably well; the rest largely have poor protection mechanisms. Appallingly, one third of all tiger reserves such as Buxa, Kawal, Udanti-Sitanadi, Indravati, Achanakmar, Dampa, Namdapha, Palamau, Satkosia and Mukundra have tigers in such low densities (some have none!) that local extinction looms large. Reserves such as Sariska, Dudhwa, Valmiki, Pilibhit and Similipal are under severe threat from the mounting human populations living in and around these reserves, which could conceivably lose all their tigers in the future unless decisive steps are taken starting now.

Where herbivore populations have risen in the better-protected tiger reserves, the animals have spilled over into corridors and adjoining territorial forests, which are degraded and loaded with bush-meat hunters and commercial poachers. It hardly helps that crop depredations have risen, resulting in animosity among farmers who have successfully pressured some governments to declare wild pigs and nilgai (upon which dispersing tigers depend) as vermin! A collapse in herbivore populations outside PAs forces carnivores to predate on livestock, thus escalating human-carnivore conflict around parks such as Corbett, Tadoba-Andhari, Kaziranga, Bandhavgarh, and Pench to name a few. Angry communities, therefore, often fall prey to professional poachers who use them to feed the illegal international trade in wildlife. The well-publicised incidences of mobs bludgeoning/torching leopards, tigers and sloth bears to death dramatically highlight the ‘damned if we protect wildlife, and damned if we don’t’ situation in which our forest staff is placed.

Though Project Tiger is still not the force it once was when it had the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s support, it could still be, provided planners and politicians recognise forest India as a vital infrastructure that supplies water, soil fertility, flood and drought control, community livelihoods from tourism and perhaps most important of all… climate stability. But all this amounts to a mere wishlist if Project Tiger and the communities living around reserves are not afforded pride of place in India’s national development strategies for tomorrow.

As one can see the anthropogenic pressure on tiger reserves has increased manifold since the inception of Project Tiger. However, unfortunately this reality hasn’t translated into provision of bigger budgets for Project Tiger, now called the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Three regional offices (Central, Southern and Eastern) and one head office in Delhi are not enough to look into the burgeoning problems faced by the Field Directors of tiger reserves. The human-wildlife conflict management is a highly specialised field and needs trained personnel to provide site-specific solutions which are not present. NTCA, with the help of WII has come up with several quality SOPs on conflict mitigation, carnivore capture, monitoring carnivores and prey populations etc., but overcoming grassroot-level shortcomings using these SOPs is another ball game and for this NTCA neither has requisite staff nor the budget. Better governed states, with experienced officers are able to gain from the SOPs but the ones that need these the most are unable to benefit from them. As a result nearly two thirds of tiger reserves are below par as far as long-term sustenance of habitat and wildlife populations is concerned.

Certainly, a lot needs to be done, as field realities have changed drastically since the inception of Project Tiger, however, credit must be given where it is due. The contribution NTCA is making in funding voluntary resettlement of villagers out of tiger reserves is important and should be reinforced with more funds. The All India Tiger Estimation Programme (AITE) carried out by NTCA is an herculean effort and one of its kind for any large carnivore on Earth. This too needs to be strengthened with more funds so that fund-deprived tiger reserves can be supported with equipment necessary for conducting an error-free estimation process. Most importantly, NTCA should be equipped to become a central repository for crime and criminal database. The poorly-staffed Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) is currently holding the responsibility of doing this with insignificant funds. Instead of dividing resources, the two can merge with augmentation of funds for better flow of information. Another welcome addition to strengthen the security of tiger reserves with the help of NTCA could be the introduction of biometry at the range level, in both tiger reserves and corridors, for creating a database of offenders. This will not only help detect repeat offenders but also greatly improve the abysmally low conviction rates.

Finally, the Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) assessment carried out by NTCA, once in four years, is a good tool to understand a) inherent design flows, b) quality of management systems and processes and c) delivery or lack of delivery of core objectives of individual tiger reserves. The weak link however is the willingness of several states to implement the suggestions made by the NTCA. Unless, Field Directors are made answerable to take corrective actions, this energy intensive activity will remain a four-yearly data generating exercise with little or no effect on the ground.

Lion Tailed Macaques mating on a highway in the outskirts of Valparai. Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

Are young people getting involved in conservation?

More young people are being drawn to professions involving nature and environmental protection than ever before. Magazines such as Sanctuary Asia and many 24-hour television channels have helped this along. We now have one of the best Masters programme on Wildlife Biology and Conservation in India, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences and together with the Masters programme in the Wildlife Institute of India, the ranks of capable conservation biologists swells by an impressive 15 every year. And girls are outnumbering boys in this field. We also see a surge in small-grants from within India, which helps professionals and enthusiasts to pursue short-term research and conservation initiatives.

The Government of India’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Act has opened up avenues for environmentally-inclined professionals and job opportunities have opened up in the NGO sector for professionals willing to take slight cuts in their take home pay in exchange for doing what their hearts desire. If I was given a magic wand I would ask the government to allow cross-postings in the field of forest management so that passionate conservationists and capable people from different professions be appointed as Directors or Deputy Directors of Tiger Reserves or other sanctuaries and national parks, after a six or 12-month bridge course. Changing times demand more innovative ideas from professionals willing to work for biodiversity conservation, as we see happening in different sectors in India including defence, finance, human resources and even air transportation. Perhaps the greatest asset such persons might bring to the table is boundless passion, a commodity that has worked to great advantage for Project Tiger in its inception years.

Osprey Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

Are bridges being built between human rights and wildlife groups?

Never before has there been a more acute need for the two constituencies to work together. Conservation battles have moved outward from Protected Areas into Reserved Forests and corridors under both the Territorial Division and on Revenue lands in the charge of District Collectors. The interaction between humans and wild animals has increased manifold. Studies undertaken by WCT and others predict that conflicts are bound to rise. This will stretch the fabled tolerance of the people of India drastically and this could change the very relationship between nature and our people who mercifully do still revere wildlife. Without the support of local communities the populations multiplying in ‘breeding’ core areas have little chance of safely spilling into the surrounding areas. Having said this, the notion that traditional knowledge alone can work to find long-term solutions to a biodiversity renewal is sadly misplaced. What will need to emerge is an integrated approach that amalgamates traditional knowledge, scientific species conservation and landscape planning for ecosystems. All of the above would need to incorporate the global reality of climate change negotiations with other nations and, of course, a clear acceptance of social-political-economic mandate all the way to the very top, from the lowest levels of empowerment.

The cynics among us will surely say this is a pipe dream. But in my view, this is probably the most realistic scenario for a future where humans who have run out of options will build bridges because their survival will depend on it. Towards this end, one good place to start is with the two groups – the forest dwellers and those who want to rewild the planet. I see this as a distinct possibility of tweaking the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to smoothen out the rough edges, but only in ways that the biodiversity of rivers, coasts, wetlands, grasslands, forests, deserts and mountains is enhanced.

Anish Andheria at Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Anish Andheria

Can wildlife conservation be a part of national development?

With melting glaciers and the salinisation of coastal aquifers, water is destined to be the main limiting factor for India’s development. A rapidly developing nation that is trying to ape a country like China, which is known for its extremely poor labour laws, will be forced to pay a steep price, in the form of natural resource depletion, at a far greater rate than the self-repairing ability of our planet. To this, if you toss in religion, lifestyles, socio-economic conditions, disparity in education opportunities and ever-increasing inequities, we are faced with a disaster in waiting. A certain, infinitesimally small though powerful section of the society may think of India as a technologically/industrially advance nation, but the fact is that a large majority of Indians are still dependent for their survival on age-old occupations such as subsistence agriculture, fishing and livestock grazing, which as you can see are intrinsically linked with the integrity of natural ecosystems.

The 'Make in India' initiative is currently being projected as the silver bullet that will pull India out of the throes of abject poverty. This dream, on one hand, is fuelling a massive surge in infrastructure growth to boost transportation; opening up of forest lands and coastal belts for development of numerous industrial hubs and ports, while on the other, is submerging vast stretches of pristine forests in the name of water security by building hundreds of large dams in seismically sensitive mountain ranges. As mentioned earlier, though 21.23 per cent of India is classified as forest, in reality, over 50 per cent of this is highly degraded. Several groups of scientists, have independently indicated that a natural resource dependent country like India needs at least one third of its geographical area under quality forest cover to produce enough surface water that can a) fulfill its irrigation needs and b) satisfy the needs of estuarine ecosystems that are bedrocks for marine fisheries.

Dachigam National Park Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

How can development on and around the last remaining forest fragments achieve what we haven't by converting nearly 80 per cent of India (which was pristine forest less than two centuries ago) into human-dominated, polluted, barren landscapes!

If this wasn't enough, the demon called river-linking has woken up from its slumber. The proponents of this disastrous idea believe that they by diverting 'surplus' waters from one river into another water-deficient one will solve the irrigation woes of farmers. The fact, however, is that there is nothing like excess freshwater on Earth. Unless rivers pump huge quantities of freshwater into the oceans, the breeding grounds of several economically important fish will be destroyed forever. The river-linking project, which is being feverishly propagated, violates this very fact. In the name of boosting irrigation, not only are the planners going to permanently alter the character of rivers, thereby destroying the flora and fauna that is intrinsic to its health, but also irreversibly destroy marine fisheries, putting livelihoods and nutritional needs of nearly 30 per cent of India under jeopardy. This is like snatching a morsel from the hand of one hungry child to feed another!

I can go on and on. However, the above examples are enough to communicate that the present day development schemes are symptomatic in nature when what we desperately need is to target the root cause of the problem. School kids understand that the forest is the mother of the river, and that without freshwater, which is less than 0.008 per cent of all water on Earth, it is impossible to envisage a future for terrestrial lifeforms, including the largest user, Homo sapiens. However, our policy makers seem to be living on a different planet!

Wild Ass Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria 

Unless, ecology is given the same status as economy, river fronts are reforested, corridors are safeguarded like religion, deserts and wetlands are considered as national treasures, local communities are provided with livelihood opportunities closer to their homes, subsistence farming is replaced by agroforestry, subsidies on water and other natural resources are gradually taken back so that people pay the actual price of the resources they use or pilfer, stock-markets are directly linked to green capital, carbon taxes are made proportional to the carbon footprint of human activities, tourism on village-run-nature-conservancies are encouraged on reserve forests, massive investments are encouraged on renewable energy, innovation is encouraged at the school level, we will not be able to develop synergy between our development and conservation needs. I know, this looks impossible. However, there is no other option.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 2, February 2018.