A lawyer by day and a bat researcher by night, Rajesh Puttaswamaiah is an intrepid explorer. He walks the tightrope between backing up his findings with scientific data and dispelling common myths and beliefs, and has set an excellent example of how a citizen scientist should be.
JLR Explore spoke to Rajesh about how he ended up studying bats and what he thinks is the future of bat conservation in India.
In today’s scenario, it is very clichéd for a techie/lawyer to take to wildlife. How did this interest come about for you?
I have been very keen about wildlife since childhood. I started observing the breeding behaviour of birds at the age of nine, while sitting in my classroom, and then in my own backyard. But I first learnt about the existence of the term ‘bird-watching’ in May 1995, when I joined a group of school kids for a field visit to Thylur Lake, organized by Mr J.N.Prasad. My friend Vishwanthar Ramaiah then introduced me to his elder brother, Chaitra Ramaiah, who was also into birding. This meeting was the beginning of regular field trips and numerous projects for both of us.
You had a brush with adventure sports at some point. What has been your experience with adventure sports and how has it contributed to your life?
My entry into adventure sports started with leading a bunch of school kids for a cycling trip from Bangalore to Kanva Dam, sometime in 1993. Since then, I attended various camps of water sports, parasailing, rock climbing, hiking, etc. In 1997, my friends and I launched the ‘Eco-Friends Adventure Club’ with an intention to promote adventure sports and eco-friendly practices. Between 1997 to 2000, we trained many folks on the basics of rock climbing, survival skills during hiking, and water sports like wind surfing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, etc.
I also had a very short stint with shooting and bagged two silver medals at the State Olympics in 1998. However, by the end of 1998, my inclination towards bird photography grew, so I gave up shooting with rifles and picked up a camera.
All my adventure sports only became aides to my activities around wildlife. Of all the adventure sports I was involved in, my climbing skill has always been advantageous. In today’s scenario, this has been a boon for my study and documentation of bats. For photography, I don’t see much difference in holding a long and heavy 500mm lens to holding a rifle, as one needs to regulate breathing to get a steady shot with either of them.
You have dabbled in wildlife photography to begin with and then also in filming wildlife, haven’t you?
I started watching birds regularly along with my longtime friend Chaitra Ramaiah, in 1995. We used to lead bird-watching groups to encourage others, and after a couple of years, we felt the need to use photography to attract more people to birding. We took a plunge into filming in 2002, and picked up a Canon XL1 MiniDV Camera. We spent nearly two and a half years in Bandipur, studying and filming its wildlife. We wanted to film the life of a hand-raised leopard called Baby, and how she became completely wild as the years passed. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in making a formal documentary for various reasons, and stopped filming.
I got back to filming only in the last few years, and have been concentrating primarily on bats, especially using infrared, so that I could study their behaviour without causing much disturbance.
You have been in the field for quite some time and have run projects across diverse landscapes. Have you had any experiences that you would call dangerous?
Fortunately, I haven’t had a life-threatening moment or encounter with any wild animals. As a rule, having won their trust, I always maintain sufficient distance from my subjects to ensure that they don’t feel threatened by my presence.
However, I survived two instances of dangerous moments while in the field, not caused by wildlife, but by humans. In one instance, I was inside Bandipur and was mistaken for a new ranger, by possibly a poacher from Kerala (as I later learnt from some guards), and was dragged, pushed all around, and threatened to be shot with his .22 rifle which was pressed to my chest most of the time. The ordeal lasted about 20-30 minutes before I was released by the involvement of another gunman and escorted back to the Karnataka border. Apparently, two of the poacher’s friends were killed during an encounter with the Karnataka Forest Department a week before this incident.
In another instance, I was in Agumbe with my wife, studying the relationship between a lone Lion-tailed Macaque and a troop of Bonnet Macaques. This time, I was mistaken to be a Naxalite by the local police, and was interrogated. All the evidence I shared about my background and references of local connects I had made over the years did not help. Fortunately, a phone call to my friends in the Karnataka Forest Department and the Special Task Force saved us just in time.
You moved away from large mammals to bats. Why bats? Why do they interest you so?
Though I was involved actively in wildlife for almost 15 years, I realised I knew nothing about bats; this was also true of many fellow friends in wildlife. I started to find answers to basic questions like identification of species of the bats I had photographed. Each question led to another, and within a few days, I realised that there was hardly any data or photographs available on bats. What was available was in the control of a handful of researchers and scientists, which wasn’t publicly available.
I also realised that the reason for such a situation was probably because they are not viewed as glamourous creatures and were marred by myths. I had seen many photographers working on nocturnal birds like owls and nightjars, but none on bats. Sometime in 2011, I decided to focus mainly on bats so that I could bring them to the mainstream.
What other nocturnal creatures interest you?
I have spent some time searching for lorises and flying squirrels, but nothing has been as fascinating as bats.
Your work to study and photograph bats probably takes you to amazing caves and unknown landscapes. Can you tell us more about the experience of shooting in such caves and rock faces?
Bats are found across various habitats, but the ones found in caves are very special to me. My initial surveys and mapping were done in and around Bangalore, within a 100 km radius, as these places have plenty of caves of all shapes and sizes. Some caves are quite inaccessible and require one to either climb up or down to reach the roosting place. Shooting bats in caves and rock faces has many challenges. There have been a few instances where I was stuck for a while.
Most caves are also home to many other species, some of which are quite dangerous. I have come across snakes moving as close as a foot away from me, while I was photographing bats.
The most memorable experience of visiting a cave was in a remote part of Nagaland, in a village called Mimi. The cave was situated in an 800 feet cliff facing the valley, and only a handful of well-built young men were allowed to visit this cave. It took me three days to convince the tribal leaders before I was permitted to accompany them to film their harvest. After battling steep slopes, loose rocks, and thorny bushes, and risking our lives, we did not find a single bat roosting in the cave. They had probably gone extinct from this roost site due to excessive hunting.
A classic example of an unknown landscape was that of a cave in the northern Western Ghats. Photographing and filming bats in this cave gave me an insight into the world of darkness, where an ecosystem of its own was thriving and teeming with various species. However, photographing in this cave was most challenging due to the atmospheric conditions inside. At 85-90% humidity and 360 C temperature, it’s quite challenging to stay inside the cave for a long duration. To make things worse, the camera and lens would fog up quickly and hamper the ability to study and photograph the bats.
Why are bat species veering towards vulnerable/threatened status? What is the biggest problem according to you?
The biggest problem according to me is the lack of sufficient data, be it on diversity, distribution, behaviour, migration (if any), etc., and even the lack of interest to document and photograph bats. This has led our policy-makers to completely and conveniently ignore such an important species while formulating our management plan and policies. A lack of clear understanding has resulted in the destruction of habitats and roosting sites.
Another big problem is that fruit bats are misunderstood. It is believed that they destroy crops and are classified as vermin under Schedule V of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This not only deprives them of any legal protection, but also encourages hunting.
You started BCIT – Bat Conservation India Trust. What is the role of this organisation?
The role of BCIT in short is to drive the conservation of bat species through scientific research and education. At BCIT, we strongly believe that every conservation initiative should be backed by scientific evidence and the participation of the community. Having realised that the data available on various aspects of bats is minuscule, one of our top priorities and long-term approaches is to gather data through field surveys. We have been mapping various roosting sites across southern Karnataka and the rest of India with respect to species diversity and population.
We have some long-term (2-4 years) research and conservation projects going on in the Western Ghats, as well as in North-East India. The outcome of these projects has led to the submission of a scientific paper, a book, and a short documentary.
What kind of perceptions do people have about bats? How much does this affect you in the field?
Most people do not know much about bats, and if they claim they know something, it most often turns out to be a myth. I have had people ask me “We know birds are important, but what is the role of bats in the ecosystem?” Most people think bats suck blood or attack our eyes or are a bad omen if they enter our homes. While such ignorance is understandable for a common person, the challenge is when policy makers, forest officers or seasoned naturalists do not know much about bats.
Lack of knowledge about bats not only deprives me of access to some critical habitats, as the officials may not see much value compared to large mammals, but it also affects my ability to drive conservation measures.
What is the first big change that needs to come into place to conserve bats?
The first big change should be that people start recognising the role and importance of bats in the ecosystem, and the existence of diverse species across India. Unless and until we dispel myths about bats, the public will not realise their value. Policy-makers and other wildlife enthusiasts who are equally ignorant should also attempt to understand more about them. Only then will we start seeing some positive approach towards conserving bats.
How has your work been received by the scientific and the non-scientific community?
Twenty years ago, when I was studying the breeding behaviour of birds, it wasn’t easy to publish my findings in a scientific journal. It wouldn’t even get accepted due to my lack of a science degree; as such, these reports were made and reviewed by academicians only. So I focused my writings towards natural history magazines like Sanctuary Asia, India Birds, etc. I have also been accepted as a ‘Fellow Member’ to the International League of Conservation Writers. However, things have changed in the last 4-5 years, not just in India, but globally, where people from non-scientific backgrounds have driven many breakthrough projects. That’s when work from a citizen scientist like me saw some acceptance and recognition.
Fortunately, a majority of the people working on bats in the scientific community have helped me in one way or the other. I have interacted with researchers and scientists across institutions, Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), and universities across India and around the world; they all have shared their views openly.
People from the non-scientific community do not care much, as long as they are not harmed or threatened. But once they understand the importance of the species, they show a lot of curiosity, which is a good sign, and can help in our objective.