Dr. Anand M. Osuri is a deeply passionate and focused ecologist who has worked extensively in the Western Ghats, conducting research on ecosystem functioning through the lens of plant-animal interactions and carbon cycling. His love and concern for the rainforests of Karnataka have resulted in him applying his research for restoration and long-term conservation efforts. In this interview by Ishika Ramakrishna, Anand reflects on his journey and walks us through his outlooks on the avenues closest to his heart, with the same ringing clarity and pragmatism that can be found in his science.
1. You have had a focused career in wildlife academia: moving from a master’s, to a PhD, to Post Docs, and now mentoring students in your fields of interest. Where did these interests first develop?
I inherited a fascination for nature and wildlife from my parents, who nurtured it with many memorable wildlife trips in my childhood. I remained keenly interested as I drifted through high school and engineering college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but although I closely followed issues such as deforestation, biodiversity declines, and climate change, I did not see myself pursuing a career in this field. I think this is partly because of my aversion to biology (dissecting cockroaches), and partly because of societal misconceptions at the time that ambitious youngsters study engineering or medicine, not life sciences. I was very fortunate to get an opportunity to volunteer at a rainforest restoration project in the Anamalai Hills towards the end of my engineering study (and even more fortunate to be working with the same project and people once more, 20 years later). That opportunity, followed by two wonderful years studying for a master’s in wildlife biology, gave direction and set the platform for my career in ecology.
2. You seem to have a keen love for the Western Ghats, both personally and professionally. What is it about this landscape that draws your attention?
Growing up in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Bangalore, I was enchanted by the notion of these towering mountains of the Western Ghats, with majestic forests and remote wildernesses, being just a few hours’ drive from the city. I realise now, of course, that these youthful impressions of grandeur were quite exaggerated, but I still love visiting and working here. Personally, I am drawn to the Western Ghats for its remarkable biodiversity, especially the rainforests. Professionally, I’d like to understand what best we can do to try and secure the futures of these species and habitats, as landscapes transform and the climate changes.
3. Western Ghats is a biodiversity hotspot and has attracted researchers for several decades. Was it challenging to find new avenues for research in such a well-studied landscape?
As a scientist, you are trained to use existing research as a platform on which to develop new ideas and studies. In that sense, having other researchers in the landscape can turn out to be mutually beneficial rather than a disadvantage. For instance, when I set out as a novice to study birds in the coffee plantations of Chikmagalur, I benefitted greatly from reading papers by and speaking to scientists who had studied birds in coffee and other plantations in the Western Ghats of Karnataka and elsewhere.
That said, I would argue that despite there being several studies over the decades, there is still LOTS more research that can and needs to be done in the Western Ghats – some of it, quite urgently. There are numerous endemic and endangered species of plants and animals (including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates), and geographic sub-regions within the Ghats, about which we know too little, and it might already be too late. And we need more long-term research to understand whether and how species, biological communities, and entire ecosystems are able to cope with changes in the quality of their habitats and the climate.
4. Speaking of the need for long-term effort, much of your conservation work has focused on ecosystem restoration. Why is restoration important and what does it entail? What are the challenges associated with this complex work?
I mainly conduct research on the ecological restoration of rainforests, which includes working with practitioners to identify cost-effective restoration methods, and evaluating the performance of restoration efforts. Restoration is important because many ecosystems today are so highly degraded and altered that external assistance is necessary in order for them to begin to recover. For example, a forest fragment in a landscape of tea gardens may be too isolated to attract seed-dispersing birds and mammals, and therefore require restoration focused on reintroducing animal-dispersed species. Similarly, ecosystems can remain invaded by non-native plants such as Lantana camara over indefinite periods, unless steps are taken to remove invasives and restore native plant communities. Restoration using appropriate methods and species can help conserve threatened species, improve habitat quality for native biodiversity, and benefit human societies.
Restoration work involves several steps – collecting native seeds, caring for them in a nursery until they’re old enough to survive on their own in the forest, and finally, planting saplings in degraded forest patches during the monsoon months. It is critical to recognise that ecosystem restoration is a gradual process, its outcomes are highly uncertain, and success is partial at best, because even the most successful restoration efforts cannot come close to replacing existing natural ecosystems.
5. Be it research or restoration, it seems like deep, long-term efforts are the way forward for Karnataka’s forests. We are now facing new developments, wherein large swathes of the state’s protected areas are being de-notified to make room for public projects. How can we balance long-term monitoring and restoration with the need for quick and timely research that could influence policy?
If we imagine that scientific knowledge influences conservation and policy, then both short- and long-term research can play important, complementary roles. For example, a rapid survey across a wide landscape might be essential for mapping the last surviving populations of a highly endangered species and addressing any immediate conservation threats. At the same time, long-term monitoring of that species’ dispersal patterns, reproduction, life history, and interactions with other species and the environment, would be key for framing robust conservation strategies in the face of emerging threats and climate change.
Ideally, short-term and long-term research should be prioritised equally. In reality, the latter is far less developed because of logistical difficulties with sustaining projects over long periods, combined with the general tendency of funding agencies to favour projects with near-term deliverables. Taken together, perhaps long-term research warrants greater priority at this time.
6. You have researched a lot about ecosystem functioning, and by extension, what could happen if we lose this crucial biodiversity. We are also seeing a reduction in forest cover across the Western Ghats, and your work has advocated the importance of preserving the patches of forest we still have. What are your arguments for saving these places, and how can we make it happen?
Many species in the Western Ghats are habitat specialists. For example, the Malabar Trogon is highly dependent on forested habitats. If you happen to encounter this species in a coffee or areca nut plantation or a home garden, chances are there is a nice patch of forest somewhere nearby. Likewise, the Broad-tailed Grassbird is a grassland specialist that is likely to disappear if natural grasslands get replaced by tree plantations. Similarly, if we look at an ecosystem function such as carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and its storage, many of the tallest hardwood rainforest trees which store the most carbon are forest specialists too. Forest fragmentation and degradation diminish populations of these species, and can reduce the forests’ capacity to sequester and store carbon.
Thus, the more successful we are at protecting and restoring high-quality patches of forest and other natural habitats in human-dominated landscapes, the better the chances of these landscapes retaining habitat specialists, and all the important ecosystem functions sustained by them.
7. While our focus tends to fall on the charismatic animals of the Western Ghats, let’s talk about the parts of a forest that help sustain that very life – the trees. Much of your research has focused on understanding tree communities and their regeneration. What led you to this work, and what have you learned about these woody beings over time?
I work on trees because they do not move, are easy to measure and count, and play a key role in many forest ecosystem functions. I would argue that trees are just as charismatic as animals. I would encourage anyone who is not convinced about this to immerse themselves amongst the giant rainforest trees of Bramhagiri or Kudremukh, or in the shade of a sprawling banyan in any of our drier ecosystems. In any case, the lives of rainforest plants and animals are closely intertwined, and it often makes sense to not study them in isolation.
For example, seed dispersal by frugivores such as hornbills and primates, and seed predation by rodents and small ungulates such as Indian Chevrotain, are important factors that can influence the composition of tree species regenerating at a site. Fortunately for me, my research interests give me ample opportunity to focus on charismatic plants as well as charismatic animals.
8. Karnataka has proven to be a wonderful place to live in for anyone pursuing a career in wildlife. After having worked in diverse landscapes within India and abroad, you too have found yourself based out of this state at present. What is keeping you here?
Karnataka has been my home for over 25 years, and I feel a close connection with its land, ecosystems, and people. Karnataka is also a leading hub in India for ecological research and nature conservation organisations, which makes it a great destination professionally. Of course, there are several amazing biodiversity hotspots and landscapes in other parts of India too where I hope to have opportunities to work someday.