रविवार, १२ जून, २०१६

Where science and art flourish together!

Arjun Srivathsa
Arjun Srivathsa is a 26 years old wildlife biologist and an artist! An alumnus of the graduate program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, Arjun was honoured with the Young Naturalist Award by Sanctuary Asia in 2014.
He is currently doing his PhD program in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida.

Here he shares with us his journey to becoming a wildlife researcher, how he blends science and art together to convey the message of conservation, key learning from his studies and lot more….  

Please tell us about your journey to wildlife studies? How did you turn to it?
The first turning point in my life was my first visit to the jungle as a 12-year old, as part of a three-day school trip to Bandipur Tiger Reserve. I was completely fascinated and from then on, every time that people asked me what I wanted to be, I would say “zoologist”. I don't think my parents fully understood this obsession. But they gave me the freedom to choose my career, rather than coax me into taking up engineering or medicine, which were mainstream career choices in the mid-2000s. During my undergraduate years, I volunteered with various conservation organizations, trying to understand what wildlife biology was all about. This was also the time that my knowledge of conservation issues in India deepened. These initial experiences were crucial, they made me realize that there’s nothing in the world that I would rather be doing. The second turning point was when I qualified for the M.Sc- Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences Following that, for 3 years now, I have been working as a carnivore biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society’s India program.
Arjun at a field survey
You have made an excellent mix of art and science in your work. How did this idea come to your mind?
Art has always been an integral part of my life. I have been drawing and painting ever since I was a child. And now, studying wildlife and making wildlife-themed artwork are two things I enjoy the most. Following my training as a scientist, one reality that struck me was that Indian wildlife biologists have been doing exceptionally high-quality scientific studies, but a major part of what they find or discover is never communicated to people. That is when I decided to put science and art together, through my initiative ‘Pocket Science India’.
Cartoon on Elephant poaching for ivory
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
Pocket Science India, sounds very interesting, tell us more about it 
Pocket Science India is a venture to combine wildlife science with art, to promote conservation awareness in India. The cartoons or cartoon-series are mostly information from scientific journal articles (which are either inaccessible to people or rather complicated to understand), translated into art panels. The idea is to bridge the gaps between the work Indian wildlife scientists are doing and the non-scientific audience, with a touch of humour. So far, I have successfully converted research articles on leopards, hornbills, gharials, dugongs, elephants and a suite of other species into cartoons. You can find the entire set of series on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/pocketscienceindia. In the past couple of years, my science-themed art has been very useful in communicating wildlife science to the people, raising funds for research projects and also in creating conservation awareness.
Vultures Of India
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
Where do you prefer to use your talent, in art forms or analyzing data?
I do both! In fact, I spend almost 90% of my time struggling with statistics, trying to analyze data and writing up scientific papers. If I could choose, then I would only do the art. But both these aspects have their own purpose. And I am happy that I currently do both.
Fishing Cat
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
You studied dholes, leopards, tigers and other mammals in Western Ghats, you also published a paper on leopard cats recently. What are the key learnings?
Under the mentorship of tiger biologist Dr. UllasKaranth, at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India)I have been working on ecology of carnivores. My first project involved a multi-scale study of dholes (wild dogs) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats. Our research discovered that dholes are found across nearly 14,000 sq.km of Karnataka’s forests in the ghats, nearly half of which are not under any national park or wildlife sanctuary. We also found that chital (spotted deer) and sambar deer were very important factors for supporting dhole populations in the landscape. Following that, my work with WCS-India’s research team has expanded to include studies of leopards, tigers, sloth bears, leopard cats, and also other aspects of wildlife research, like human impacts on forest systems.
About the leopard cat, having recognised that there is very little knowledge on small felids of Asia,​ my colleagues and I ​​estimated populations of the leopard cat in the Western Ghats. ​With poaching, habitat loss, and illegal pet trade threatening their survival, there was crucial necessity for such a study. There is need for similar assessments of leopard cat populations across their distribution range. Our study, which involved camera trap surveys across about 2000 sq. km area, identified Bhadra and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserves as potential population strongholds for the species. Within areas where they occurred, higher leopard cat densities were clustered around secondary or disturbed forests and forest coffee plantation ​​habitats. ​We also observed that their densities were high around human settlements, likely driven by presence of rodents. ​These kinds of annual surveys need to be combined with continuous population monitoring to understand leopard cats better, and ensure their long-term conservation.
by Arjun Srivathsa
You have a special relationship with the Dhole, tell us how it all began?
I chose to study dholes almost by chance for my MSc. I always liked the idea of studying carnivores, but the dhole was definitely not on my mind. But when I started reading about these social carnivores, I found them absolutely fascinating. They live in packs, they don't really bark, they are able to hunt and kill prey animals that are much bigger than themselves and most interestingly, they are able to carry out coordinated attacks in dense forests! I also realized that there is very little known about dholes in India, although India may be the country with the world’s highest dhole population. I am glad I chose to study dholes for my MSc and I definitely want to continue working on them.
Dhole (धोल)
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
Please share your most heartwarming experience?
There are so many memorable field experiences. In fact, every single day spent in a forest is unique and it teaches something new. But the one experience I will always treasure is seeing the full sequence of a pack of dholes hunt and kill a spotted deer near our camp in Bandipur, during my MSc field work.
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
On the current talk of development in the country, what would you say?
The current government’s approach to development is wrong. They are compromising on ecological security, the loss we will incur in this process is irreversible. What happened in the United States in the 50s to 70s is happening in India today. They built mega infrastructures like dams, which they are now destroying as the water crisis is deepening. Our population scenario is very different too. We can’t just copy and paste just any model of development here.
The government is also embarking upon the “interlinking of rivers” project. This will be an even bigger disaster than the big dams. Every river has its own course according to its geographical nature. Linking perennial and seasonal rivers will disturb both ecologies that have flourished around the rivers and adapted to their conditions for a very long time.
Even solar energy, which is clean and green, is being laid on grasslands and scrublands that the government has classified as wastelands! They are not wastelands, they are very important habitats of foxes, wolves, chinkaras and many other endangered species. Destruction of this ecology will have far reaching ill effects.
The same harm is done when you construct wind mills in Western Ghats. Roads, labour colonies and other supporting infrastructure can have immense negative impacts on forests, the flora and fauna.
We may realize the disastrous consequences of all these activities after 10 or 20 years but it might be too late.
Cartoon on Dugongs
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa
Can wildlife in India hang its hope on the young generation?
Most certainly! Compared to the 1970s and the 80s, we have so many more wildlife biologists now. There are institutions taking academic interest in the field of wildlife biology and there are also a lot more people who want to take this up as a career. But more than the young generation, I feel it is the government that needs to step-up and support long-term conservation of our wildlife and wild landscapes. It is sad that we have to fight our own government in an attempt to make our people realize the kind of ecological wealth we have in our country. It is also disheartening to see that the flawed idea of ‘development’ is making us lose something really valuable in the process.
Tiger with cubs
Sketch by Arjun Srivathsa

-Interviewed by Parikshit Suryavanshi
Published in TBI in a different form :