Sanjay Gubbi is a wildlife biologist and scientist with the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation. He is also a member of the State Board for Wildlife and works at the grassroots level to mitigate conflict issues. He is one of the few in the country with a scientific background and a strong understanding of the socio-economic and political aspects of wildlife conservation.
Sanjay works with authorities and stakeholders to secure and connect tiger habitat. In 2012, working closely with the Karnataka government, he secured the largest expansion of protected areas in India since 1970 — increasing the size of protected areas in Karnataka by 37% and enhancing connectivity across 23 sites. The prestigious Whitley Award was conferred on Sanjay Gubbi in 2017, for his work towards protecting tiger corridors in Karnataka.
In conversation with Poornima Kannan, Sanjay Gubbi takes a walk down memory lane.
How did you become interested in nature and wildlife?
I think all children have an interest in nature and the outdoors, and we either focus on it or lose interest once we grow up. In school, I was in the boy scouts, which encouraged and provided opportunities for students to spend time outdoors; I thoroughly enjoyed camping, cycling and other activities, and this attraction to the outdoors continues till date. Later, I was introduced to bird-watching, and that got me interested in wildlife. My home district of Tumkur provided great opportunities to explore rocky outcrops, scrub, deciduous forests, and other fascinating habitats, which also led to my interest in large mammals. But the most important thing was the opportunity to walk in forests—including protected areas—which gave me a strong connection, understanding and passion for wildlife and their habitats.
You studied engineering but chose a career in conservation biology? Why?
Wildlife was my passion, but in our times (not very long ago), the choice of careers was limited; hence I had to pursue something I was not passionate about. But the shift from electrical engineering happened very quickly. However, there was pragmatic thinking and planning rather than mere rhetoric, behind that shift. I went on to obtain my Masters of Science in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Can you share some interesting anecdotes about conservation?
There have been so many uplifting moments! In 1998, I was working in the Kabini area of Nagarahole. One morning, while driving back to Kaimara Camp on Mysore-Mananthavadi Road, I saw a leopard cross the road. After a few moments, two tiny, furry cubs followed the mother. The same evening, I saw a tigress peacefully ambling along the road, which I followed for over a kilometre. Seeing two large cats on the same day was fascinating, but after the initial excitement, I wondered how they would cross the road if the traffic density increased here. For years, I wondered whether we could do something to ensure that wildlife had a safe passage in this corridor between Nagarahole and Bandipur. Fortunately, we were able to realise it a decade later, and after two decades now, the Hon’ble Supreme Court upheld the night closure and diversion of a part of this road.
In 2000, one early winter morning, a colleague and I were walking on a forest road in the Anantpura area of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Since we were bundled up because of the cold, it prevented us from hearing all the minute sounds of the jungles. At one point I thought that there was something sitting on the road’s edge as we were almost crossing it. I turned to my left and saw a tiger sitting at about 10 metres, staring at us. I squeezed my colleague’s hand and whispered “tiger, tiger.” It was magical to see the honey-eyed animal at such close quarters on foot. I stood still and heard my own heartbeat. After a few moments, it got up and moved away silently through the golden grass for about 50 metres, stopped, and disdainfully looked at us for having disturbed it from the place where it had warmed itself. Such encounters are pure bliss. These magical moments uplift us for many years to come, to do something to save the beautiful homes they live in.
In an overpopulated country like India, we also have the world’s largest tiger population, How is this even possible?
That has been the most fascinating thing! Government policies, public sentiment, community tolerance, committed officers, active conservationists who got their hands muddy – all helped us reach that position. Importantly, an economic model that looked at equity and socialism also largely helped. But I cannot say the same for today and for the future hereafter; the world of wildlife today is entirely different. There are too many who want to make quick money and those who want to facilitate that, and a government that’s allowing infrastructure development and exploitation far too casually. But natural resources are finite and will vanish quickly. We need to plan intelligently; there will be no opportunity to correct mistakes in the natural world. Species are irreplaceable and if we don’t course- correct soon, we’re headed for disaster. Unfortunately we are moving backwards in our attitude towards nature.
You have worked on banning vehicular traffic during nights, on roads passing through protected areas (PAs). What is the impact of such traffic?
The impact on a local scale has been very beneficial for wildlife, as the realignment and decommissioning of existing roads set a benchmark for mitigating such problems. Other protected areas in Karnataka, as well as other states, took a leaf from our book and implemented it in their own areas. That’s the larger impact, as this was used as a model. Data collection through secondary sources depict that road-kills of mammals (which are the most visible) have reduced by over 70%.
Bringing more area under the PA network must have been difficult. What are the challenges faced in these situations? How have government officials and elected representatives reacted to these proposals?
The responses were very varied – some political leaders and bureaucrats were supportive, some not so, and a few even opposed. But I think that’s the response anyone should expect in a society. We have to work with the government to get positive changes. Unfortunately, in the field of wildlife ecology or conservation, working with the government or the larger society is considered unholy; you are almost seen as a pariah if you do. We fail to realise that the government and those working for it come from the same society as us. Hence, all the good as well as the not-so good things of our society exist there.
We need to ensure land tenure for the wildlife and people who depend upon these spaces, or else soon there will be space for neither biodiversity nor people. Most public land will be under some or the other form of private use or for private benefit in the name of public utility. We still have far too few areas under the protected area network (only ~5%), while China has 15%, and Nepal has 25%. In Karnataka, we still have a lot of scope to expand the PA network. A few that I have proposed are still pending – the dream is to link Bannerghatta National Park to Aghanashini Conservation Reserve in Uttara Kannada.
Very importantly, the work on protected area expansion had a lot of ripple effects: quite a few scientists, conservationists, and even officials started proposing getting new PAs notified.
You have used camera traps extensively for your work. How has this technology changed the nature of the data you gather from field-work?
Camera trapping made us understand leopards from a new perspective: their dispersal, movement, survival, and so many other interesting facets. It helped document species that were not recorded by science in Karnataka before. Technology certainly helps, but it can also close our instincts and our learning from nature. Natural history is the cornerstone of conservation, and we need to learn it on-ground by watching, observing, listening, making notes, and getting our boots muddy. Mere computer modelling or working in a laboratory will never give the broader perspective of nature and its problems.
Any outreach programmes to educate communities on aspects of wildlife?
To our role as wildlife biologists, we must add the responsibility of being an educator and lobbyist for conservation. Outreach at multiple levels is critical. Children and students are important to reach out to, but this group also has a longer gestation period and we may never see the outcomes. Hence, we also do formal and informal outreach for communities, policy makers, political leaders at various levels, social leaders, media personnel, religious leaders, and others who can make a difference to saving wildlife. Here, our volunteer network has put in massive efforts and made considerable impact. Recently, ‘Holematthi Nature Information Center’ was created on the border of MM Hills and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, to bring nature education to communities who live in and around these protected areas.
Leopards are known to also live close to human habitation. How does this pose challenges to these big cats for food and safety? Any solutions that could help address the issue?
People will agree to a leopard’s right of existence, but they will object if it causes severe hardships to lives and livelihoods. People have feared large carnivores since human evolution. This poses a big challenge and we need to take measures that are good for both leopards and people. If we do not provide tangible solutions, especially to rural communities who are the most impacted, leopards will lose in a big way. However, we also need to be aware that human-wildlife conflict can never be brought down to zero, but we can definitely strive to bring it to tolerable limits.
- We need large-scale outreach and capacity-building activities for people who share space with leopards, forest department staff, employees of other government departments such as police, revenue, fire and emergency, and others. We have initiated this in a small way in the last two years.
- Guarding and protecting livestock in an efficient manner can reduce losses.
- Quick and fair ex-gratia for losses will reduce animosity to some extent.
- At times, taking hard decisions if an animal is causing human deaths is required.
Are there any positive examples you have come across, of humans co-existing with wild animals?
At my first wildlife job in 1992, I worked at Kokkarebellur on Spot-billed Pelicans and Painted Storks. There, one could see a peaceful coexistence, and similar examples exist in other places too. As long as animals do not cause physical or great economic harm to people, they are tolerant. But this fabric gets broken when the losses become severe. And naturally, why will anybody tolerate when their hard work is lost overnight, livelihoods are threatened, and dear ones are killed? Though times have changed due to various reasons, there are still some examples of coexistence.
What would your advice be to anyone who wants to take up conservation as a career?
Wildlife conservation is not merely about watching animals or studying them: it is about society, economics, outreach, and so many other facets. Applied conservation is a fascinating and challenging field, but the joy of winning something for wildlife and their habitats is overwhelming. One needs to understand the subject well, be persistent, work with pleasure, and hope even during trying times. Good communication skills—both in regional languages and English—will help in a big way. Being able to reach out to a broad spectrum of people is important. The media often plays a critical role; hence, working with them is crucial. Most importantly, one has to be emotionally involved with wildlife conservation.
Note: All images in the interview are courtesy Sanjay Gubbi.