It's all about ... lions
Wildlife conservationist Ravi Chellam was in Chennai recently. In an exclusive interview to PAROMITA PAIN, he speaks of his pet project lions.
Dr. Ravi Chellam, Programme Officer, Sustainable Environment & Energy Division, United Nations Development Programme, New Delhi, was in Chennai recently to speak on "The Importance of Nature Conservation". There was also a slide show on the lions of the Gir Forest, as part of the efforts by the Group for Nature Preservation and Education (GNAPE) towards conservation. After his Masters Degree in Wildlife Biology from Baharatidasan University, Chellam joined Wildlife Institute of Iindia's Gir Lion Project in October 1985 as a research fellow. In April 1993, he joined the WII as a member of the Biology faculty. Prior to this, for a brief period, he was the editor of WII newsletter. Excerpts from the interview:
When did the wildlife bug bite? Did reading help?
In terms of obvious realisation wildlife bug was probably when I was finishing my graduation in the early 1980s but I was always interested in wildlife. I read a lot of newspapers. In fact I still subscribe to three. I learnt my English from them. Apart from that I largely focussed on reports on science, biology, wildlife and we had magazines like the Illustrated Weekly, which used to carry a lot of features on wildlife.
What was childhood like? Childhood was all about friends, playing cricket and getting an education. There was a lot of emphasis on education. Much of my schooling was at Vidya Mandir, Chennai. My parents were very supportive of what I wanted to do.
What is field biology?
Biology is a vast subject, which can be lab-based or field-based. Field biology is about observing plants and animals in-situ, that is, in their natural habitat, as opposed to ex-situ, that is outside their natural habitat, like zoos, botanical gardens or labs. We study animals and plants as individuals, population and communities. Those wanting to study field biology have to go out into the field. It could be for behavioural observations, collecting samples, data or for experimenting like burning a plot of grassland and monitoring what happens. It is science carried outside the confines of a lab. The lab is a crucial ally in analysing the data gathered, but the information has to be gathered from the field.
What are the mandatory skills for a field biologist?
The most important aspect of working in the field is patience, patience and more patience, for, nothing can be made to happen out in the field. Typically projects last at least three years. Enthusiasm and commitment are very essential. Field biology requires a large investment of time, good observational skills and the ability to think on your feet and also be able to collate the data and establish patterns based on the data and observations. We cannot jump to conclusions.
A memorable incident...
During my early field days, once around December, I heard that a big sambhar had been killed. I thought I could observe for two or three days. The first night was okay but at the end of the second night at around two a.m. I was asleep in my sleeping bag with my back against a jamun tree. And on the opposite sloping bank the lions were feeding. Next thing I know is that it is 4.30 a.m. and there's something heavy on my feet it was a lion cub sitting on my toes. I wriggled my toes in an attempt to make it get off without irritating it. Luckily that worked. I have a picture of the cub taken with a flash using a normal lens! This is not to in any way convey that lions are docile creatures.
How does lion translocation take place?
The conservation of Asiatic lions in Gir is definitely one of India's finest successes in the field of wildlife conservation. The Asiatic lions had a real close brush with extinction but the wonderful efforts of the numerous administrators of Gujarat over the last 100 years and more, the work of the various forest and wildlife managers in Gir over the same period and the tolerance and support of the local communities have enabled the lions not only to survive but also flourish. This is reflected in the recovery in their numbers from around 20 to more than 300 lions. Now it is a question of learning to manage and sustain this success. Since all the remaining free-ranging Asiatic lions are restricted to Gir, any catastrophe like a disease outbreak or fire can seriously undermine the conservation success achieved so far. As the first and essential step in translocation, a suitable area has been located in eastern Madhya Pradesh. This is Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, which is currently being managed to prepare to play host to the lions. Once a sufficiently large area is ready (at least 500 to 800 sq.km) with adequate number of prey animals, five to eight lions from a single pride in Gir will be captured and transported quickly to Kuno. Here they will be housed in a large enclosure for a maximum of six to eight weeks to enable them to acclimatise to the local conditions. All lions will be radio-collared to enable the efficient monitoring of them post-release into the forests of Kuno.
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