Conservation biologist based in Karnataka: An unsung hero of wildlife protection

By Parth Ranjan*

How many people do you know of who are wildlife biologists! Well, it is a unique field, more so if you had pursued this domain as your career nearly 20 years back, when conservation, environment weren’t as trending as they are today. That’s Dr. Sanjay Gubbi for you, a conservation biologist based in Karnataka. Currently, he works as a Senior Scientist with “Nature Conservation Foundation”, an NGO focused upon wildlife conservation in India. He has a passionate and dedicated team under him, where he leads the ‘Western Ghats programme’, which focuses on work in Karnataka. He is a recipient of the renowned “Whitley Award” also referred to as ‘Green Oscars’ in 2017. He had also featured on the ’25 Leaders of Tomorrow’ list released by Times of India in 2012.

He has gained expertise in conservation matters through his range of work over the years. He does research work on leopards specifically, as he finds them very interesting. Their habitats range across forested landscape, semi-urban areas, to non-natural habitats like sugarcane fields, arecanut plantations, maize fields, etc. Also, being a ‘conflict-prone animal’, they have a huge impact on wildlife conservation, therefore involving many stakeholders. He has done ground-breaking work in the field of expanding ‘protected area network’ in Karnataka by working with the government. This work is especially critical in the long-run, given that protected areas receive greater scrutiny compared to ‘reserved forests’. Due to his relentless efforts, around 3,000 sq km of forested land have been added into the protected areas. He was actively involved in the landmark Nagarahole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves ‘night traffic closure’ measure, which has later been emulated by various states. This has been a pioneer step towards preventing fragmentation of habitats and wildlife road accidents. His sustained initiatives in ensuring social security measures for the lower frontline staff (for watchers, guards) of the forest department of Karnataka bore fruit as well. Additional allowance (aka ‘wildlife allowance’) and insurance schemes to frontline staff working in protected areas was secured. He is also involved in resolution of man-animal conflict issues, wherein he is focused on building models that can be further emulated. Nextly, his involvement in community-based conservation work like- providing alternative to firewood, alternate livelihood opportunities to forest-dependent people have been widely commended. Lastly, he along with his team actively work on public outreach activities, which goes beyond involving just the school children. They also formally and informally sensitize the forest department staff and media personnel. In continuation, he also writes articles that get published across major newspapers both in English and Kannada, as well as has authored many books. His recent works include- “Leopard Diaries: the Rosette in India”, “Second Nature- Saving Tiger Landscapes in the Twenty-First Century”, the latter regarded as a must-read for future conservationists, as well as a bi-lingual titled “Land of the Honey Badger”.

Dr. Gubbi was born on 4th February, 1971 in Pavagada, Tumkur district of Karnataka. Hailing from rural part of Karnataka, he developed interest in nature, and not specifically wildlife, right from his high school days, which consisted of activities like camping, hiking, outdoor travel. His involvement with ‘scouts’ gave him a platform to explore nature and broaden his horizon in this direction. Later, this metamorphized into interest in birds and could be designated as the starting point of his journey as a conservationist. Bird watching in rural areas gradually led him to getting first-hand exposure to problems like cutting of trees and their impact on birds. This gave him impetus to engage with such problems via awareness campaigns, IEC activities in villages around Tumkur. But he met with opposition from the locals who cited the havoc that wildlife was causing to their livelihoods, for example leopards used to eat away their livestock. Though he didn’t have immediate answers for them, but it helped him gain intricate understanding of man-animal conflict as well as develop a larger picture of conservation, which goes beyond just ‘beautiful birds and animals’. He honestly admits that gaining such an understanding isn’t possible by just ‘sitting in classrooms’ compared to the real-world experience.

He vividly remembers that in mid-1980’s, he started visiting Nagarahole National Park and in those days accessing them was relatively easier compared to today, given the fad that ‘nature tourism’ has become now. This led to his first encounter with large mammals and helped him observe their behaviour, responses to humans by walking in forests as well as sitting all day long near water-holes. These experiences provided him with sheer joy and some unforgettable memories for life. At this point of time, he was pursuing his electrical engineering and into his 3rd year he had realized that this was not something that he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Thus, he quit and joined World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to do bird work in Kokrebellur Bird Sanctuary in Mandya district. But after working there for around 1.5 years, he realised that to make significant impact in the domain of wildlife conservation and to pursue a career in it, getting a degree is a must. He then returned into the engineering fold, attained his degree and started working too. In 1998, he finally quit the engineering domain profession for good and turned into a full-time conservation professional. Though in the heart of hearts his parents had concerns regarding the associated financial security in this new career, but moving ahead they completely supported him. Consequently, in 2006 he completed his Master’s degree in Conservation Biology from University of Kent, followed by a PhD.

One thing that he learnt early on in his journey was that to be successful in wildlife conservation one needs to be able to network with a variety of stakeholders, ranging from forest department, political leadership, religious/social leaders, media and the masses. Though it might seem difficult, frustrating at times while dealing with the system, but to be able to make sustainable and large-scale results, it is important to work closely with the government authorities. The simple reason for this being that the kind of scale that the government possesses is simply unmatchable. Hence, if the non-governmental bodies can facilitate this process and build it into the government system, then it becomes a permanent solution. Just like there are goods and bads in a society, the same goes with any public authority as well. Thus, instead of sitting at the fence and criticizing the system, he has tried to engage with them and work out solutions.

He has a holistic take on what ‘wildlife conservation’ entails. It is not just about animals per se, but also involves people, economy, politics, and a gamut of social issues. These inter-linkages led him to believe that ‘science’ alone is not the answer to this, but communication and perseverance are equally, if not more important. Also, he believes that to make the transition from wildlife science to conservation one needs to be ‘rooted in the landscape’. To drive home the point, he cites that the kind of impact he can make in Karnataka, won’t be possible in say Rajasthan, as here he is familiar with the local language, socio-cultural aspects leading to inherent acceptance from the masses. Though, he has worked on ecological issues, data collection in other states, as well as helped & guided other NGO’s that work there locally. He believes in collaborating this way, where his knowledge and their local expertise can be better harnessed and synergized.

One of the battles for him while taking up conservation issues has been that the society itself doesn’t prioritise conservation-related issues that much, compared to say health, education, or caste issues. Society may like to take it up, but somehow it falls behind in the priority ladder. Hence, it is important to be aware of the ground realities and plan out accordingly. Also, one of his mantras of success is of having subject expertise in one’s domain (a specialist and not a generalist) and then talking/acting upon it. There are numerous instances where people get involved in a multitude of topics, say urban pollution, tree planting, national park preservation, all at the same time. You may then become the ‘darling of the media’ but what ultimately matters is the depth of your knowledge. Only when you can talk authoritatively and respond to issues, will people start taking you up seriously.

To sum it up, even though there are ups and downs in his career, yet there has never been even a single day when he has regretted his decision of becoming a conservationist. The entire experience has been extremely satisfying and humbling to say the least. He places ‘man-animal conflict’ as the most important issue that will surround the discussions around conservation in the coming future and looks forward towards tackling it in a just and humane manner, given the intricacies involved in it.

*PGP 2020-22 Batch, IIM Bangalore

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