How Sudha Ramen, IFS, brought an 18-acre water body back to life


Her positive attitude and ability to work hard helped young forest officer, Sudha Ramen, to revive Chennai’s Otteri lake in Vandalur Zoo. The dying lake had once attracted thousands of migratory birds. Now it was all dried up. Sudha took up the challenge, and in less than a year, much has changed. The lake is full. The birds are back. Sudha, a bio-medical engineer by training and an ex-techie who chose to switch to forest services, even developed an app that won her the Dr. Kalam Innovation in Governance Award for 2019. She certainly walks the talk when she says, “There is always a solution.”

“This was the lake that was dead and dried up a year back. This was the lake that had missed its bird guests. This was one of the water bodies we had worked hard on to revive and rejuvenate. Now, the water and the birds are back and our smiles, too,” read the Twitter page of Sudha Ramen, IFS, Deputy Director, Arignar Anna Zoological Park on December 5, 2019. Sudha was referring to Otteri lake inside Chennai’s Vandalur Zoo.

According to Sudha, the lake witnessed thousands of migratory birds every winter, until a few years ago. Flying in from frozen lands, covering great distances, these birds would make the picturesque lake their home for a few months. However, the number of birds swinging by started diminishing in the past couple of winters, as Otteri lake inched towards a slow death. Battered by Cyclone Vardah in 2016, followed by consecutive summers of severe drought, the large lake dried up almost entirely.

The endeavor of bringing the water body back to life was taken up by Sudha, and Otteri lake rejuvenation began in February 2019. By October, the rainfed lake was brimming with water. Come December, its guests are back! The seemingly impossible task was made possible by the IFS officer, who is also a techie at heart.

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Sudha Ramen, compiled by Manish Machaiah:

Tell us about the Otteri lake rejuvenation endeavor. How did it start and how did you achieve this seemingly impossible task?

A few years ago, Otteri lake inside Vandalur Zoo would witness thousands of migratory birds every winter. However, the number of birds sighted became fewer and fewer in the past couple of winters, as Otteri lake inched towards a slow death. After Cyclone Vardah in 2016, followed by consecutive summers of severe drought, the lake dried up almost entirely. The rainfed lake spanning over 18 acres, barring a few shallow marsh patches, went completely dry.

We never started this as a project, but just as part of our work for the year. The severe drought phase of 2018 was a big eye-opener for all in Chennai. We realized we shouldn’t be wasting a drop of water even, and that’s when we thought that we will go ahead with the desilting of the lake. The lake had not received enough rain in the past two-three years. However, it was used by the zoo and was also home to many birds visiting and roosting in this area. That was the time when the importance of this lake was realized and we decided to do something about it.

After restoration, the lake’s storage capacity has increased. In addition, bunds and weirs have been raised around the area to prevent the lake from drying. Several percolation ponds and rainwater storage units have also been dug across the zoo to maintain the groundwater table of the region. These ponds, in turn, have helped to resolve the water crisis for the zoo animals.

Tell us about the Dr Kalam Innovation in Governance Award which you won.

During my training as an IFS officer, I had developed an app called Plantation Made Easy in 2015. When I joined the department, we launched it as Tamil Nadu Treepedia mobile application in 2018 under the Tamil Nadu Innovative Initiatives Scheme (TANII). This application focuses on making the choice of tree species for plantation easier. It provides a variety of options to farmers, home gardeners, industries and individuals to choose the right tree species for their requirement. The app focuses on plantation techniques and inter-cropping and also highlights the concerns of a diminishing tree cover.

The idea behind the android app was to bridge the gap between resources and people. The farmers need to be educated about various tree species that are available for plantation. This was the first-of-its-kind app.  The main objective of this application is to guide them with plantation technique and post plantation care. Currently, it has more than 50,000 users. I won the Dr Kalam Innovation in Governance Award this year for this app. This was also recognised by the Department of Information Technology.

What are the other projects/activities you are involved in?

I was involved in the modernization of the Arignar Anna Zoological Park website, one of the heaviest traffic websites in Tamil Nadu. I initiated 24×7 Animal Live Streaming and Online Ticketing for the zoo, which were part of government schemes announced by the then Chief Minister in 2016. This made the zoo the only one in the world to provide free of cost live streaming of more than 14 animals with high definition resolution and seamless connectivity. I was also part of the launch of Vandalur Zoo Mobile Application where visitors can use map navigation, information about animals and other details. I created a website for animal adoption whereby people across the world can adopt hassle-free.

We also conduct several education camps for students and visitors like Zoo Ambassador, Marathon Run, Wildlife Photography session, etc. We have also installed Zoo-e-Eye Animal Surveillance & Monitoring System in Valandur zoo, the very first zoo in India to have 24×7 monitoring of animals by CCTV cameras and a Control Room. This helps in animal care, veterinary care and ensures security.

You started your career in biomedical engineering. How did you get into forest services?

Certain circumstances and my interest in the environment and plants made me quit IT and start afresh with the Indian Forest Services. It was during the training for forest officers that I learnt everything about forests and wildlife.

What are the challenges you had to face to reach this point in your career?

I believe that commitment and hard work always produce good results. This mantra has helped me be successful and accomplish much in a short span of time. I have always had a good working environment and my superiors have been very supportive.

What are your future plans in the field of conservation?

I plan to develop tools that will be helpful to the forest department. I want to use technology for the rescue of wildlife by coming down heavily on issues like wildlife trafficking. I want to use Artificial Intelligence in the field of forests and wildlife and for social good.

How are zoos helpful in wildlife conservation?

People think of a zoo as a tourist spot, as a place where you go for recreation, or a place where you find animals. However, a zoo plays various other roles. Many are not aware of the rescue and rehabilitation work that goes on in zoos.

Zoos play a major role in conservation. A lot of reintroductions have also been done by zoological parks. Habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and spread of invasive species are some challenges that have resulted in dwindling individuals of most animals species. This is where zoos play an important role by having good gene banks. Zoological parks will play an important role in the future. Educational and outreach activities taken up by zoos are also important.

What is your message to young conservationists?

You must have a clear vision. As a conservationist, you need to understand the reality at the ground level, and start thinking ahead. Only then can you chalk out a good plan that can be executed and secure results. The challenges in this field are really tough and diverse. Addressing everything is not possible, but there is always a solution.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society



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