Dr. Soubadra Devy is a senior fellow at the Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. She started her career as a pollination ecologist, studying pollination systems of evergreen forest trees in Tamil Nadu. Over the years, her interests have spanned realms of canopy ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation biology. Her research pans across India, from the distant Andamans in the ’90s to Darjeeling and Sikkim over the last couple of years. A pioneer in studying canopy biology in India, she organised the 5th International Canopy Conference in Bangalore in 2009 and has edited the book, Treetops at Risk: Challenges of Global Canopy Ecology and Conservation, in 2012.
I chatted with Dr Soubadra to get glimpses into her career as a biologist working in the field of ecology and conservation.
How did you get interested in ecology and conservation?
I guess it all began with my ardent love for animals from an early age. I used to bring home stray cats and dogs and care for them. My vacations spent in a village at my grandparents’ home close to Cuddalore were both rewarding and memorable. I would encounter many birds and snakes in the garden. Being a coastal town, we were close to the estuary and I would hang out with my cousins, playing in the garden and sliding on the dunes on the beach. During my college days, I would never miss the National Geographic TV series on Jane Goodall which used to be broadcast on Doordarshan. Since then, I have been fascinated by the tropical forests and it took many years to land up in one, become an ecologist and work to conserve nature.
You were among the first batch of students to graduate from the erstwhile Salim Ali School of Ecology in Pondicherry. What made you join the programme, especially after having studied geography in your undergraduate course?
Back then, there was no course in ecology even if I wanted to enroll in one. The logical choice then was to choose geography because it had a lot of outdoor time. It was only after I finished my undergrad at Chennai that the MSc in Ecology programme at Pondicherry University was announced. What more could I ask for? I dived in. All my batchmates had a lot of prior experience and had some exposure to ecology. I never even thought I will make it till the end. I was afraid that others would outperform me, if I was asked about say a bird or a mammal. Fortunately for me, Rauf Ali chose to test me on my claims as a programmer. I must have done reasonably well because I had learned to write programs in Turbo Pascal! We had some amazing professors like Priya Davidar, Rauf Ali, and Parthasarthy who have inspired me.
Were your parents supportive of your career choices when you decided to pursue your master’s degree in ecology and then a Ph.D.? Have they come to terms with what you do now?
I guess they did not have a choice. My mom used to be disgusted seeing me all worn out and tanned after every field trip. I have put them through traumatic times for not being accessible while working in remote places like the Andamans. In the early ’90s, there was just one STD booth in Port Blair. So, my parents had to wait for my calls which were generally staggered. It got worse when I started to work in Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in Tamil Nadu. We moved from phones to telegrams, which would arrive as ordinary post on a bus after four days, if luck was on our side. Fortunately, we have never had any mishaps during my stay in these remote places. Now, in the cell phone and messaging era, I guess they have settled down and accepted that this is my life. Of course, my mom still asks “won’t you stay put in a place ever?” I tell her, “maybe after retirement?”
Your work ranges from pollination biology, setting up butterfly parks, studying canopy ecology to understanding pastoralist ecosystems. Can you tell us more about what compelled you to work on such a diverse array of questions?
The canopy as an ecosystem fascinates me. It is my passion and that is where is my heart is! But, it is a costly affair, not only in monetary terms but also in terms of risk. We need people with a certain risk-taking mindset to work there and I will say very few people have that. Many have got stuck mid-air and we have had great difficulty in bringing them down to terra firma. The turnover rate is very high as people regularly quit, either because the job is demanding or their interests lie elsewhere. For example, my Ph.D. work involved climbing trees before sunrise and waiting for flowers to open so that I could note down which pollinators come to the flowers. That is when I found that the tallest of the trees in the forests are pollinated by a great diversity of insects including moths, beetles, and thrips. These days, we have safe climbing techniques such as the single rope technique but very few enthusiastic people to go up and explore the canopies, which are dubbed as the eighth continent or the frontier of the biotic world.
I am getting back to canopy research, but transforming from discovery to climate change-related questions. Doing so enables me to step away from a taxa-centric approach to more to a functional approach and pollination offers an excellent canvas for addressing evolutionary/ecological and conservation questions. This is a natural trajectory, as I did work on pollination in the canopy. I have also integrated my work on pollination ecology into an ‘ecosystem services’ framework. This gave me a chance to collaborate with economists and social scientists — which helped give a full picture and has more learnings for management, conservation or sustainable use. After all, pollination as a service is about the benefits to us. Of course, the work with pastoralists appears off my track but, instead of forests and agriculture, I was focussing on grasslands. Although the trajectory appears to be in disarray, the theme of ecosystem services binds them all together.
You have been associated with KMTR for nearly four decades. How did it all start?
When you grow up in an arid landscape, you have an urge to look at something rather contrasting, I guess. Also, I grew up in the era of posters that would often capture and depict something of beauty — somehow, the milky streams of rainforests have captivated me. My mentors, Rauf Ali and Priya Davidar took us to KMTR in 1988, which was my first field trip and I fell in love with the place. Who would not? Even now, having traveled to many parts of the Western Ghats, I can vouch that these are some of the best patches of evergreen forests. I always recall Rauf saying, “Where else can you hop out of the bus and enter a virgin forest!”
I also have vivid memories of Priya nudging us to ask the ‘evolutionary questions’. One memory from our field trip was coming across Helecteres isora, a shrub that was flowering all over in Mundanthurai. Flowers of this plant turned from dull blue to a vibrant red with age. The question ‘why?’ becomes such an interesting one to address. We found that the colour change was to do with pollination and when we wrote it up, the editor of Current Science chose to highlight it in the editorial. For up and coming students of ecology, this instilled confidence that we could do wonderful science by using just a pair of binoculars to unravel some evolutionary mysteries.
KMTR surely has so much in store and I never miss an opportunity to visit the place. My colleagues and I carry on the tradition by taking Ph.D. students at ATREE for a field methods course every alternate year. The secret agenda is for us to go hang out there!
You also have the distinction of studying forest canopies. How did you end up being fascinated by the forest canopies?
The boredom of the dark understory of the forests is what drove me up! Dan Janzen and Henk Howe’s work is all about the spectacular plant-animal interactions in South American forests. You go to the Western Ghats expecting similar scenarios but to my utter dismay, there was not much action. All I saw was an occasional fly on the flower and some insectivorous birds. That is what pushed me to look up. Around this time, I got a chance to work with a leading pollination biologist, Kamal Bawa, a distinguished professor at the University of Boston. Having him as a mentor at the right time helped me scale up the canopy. Until then, all I heard were warnings about how dangerous it was even to attempt to access the canopy, but my colleagues Ganesh and Ganesan were a source of endless encouragement. I still remember my first climb up a rickety ladder and on to the canopy platform – I saw a completely different world. Of course, our team now accesses the canopy through a much safer single rope technique.
Can you tell us some memorable experiences of working in the forests? Perhaps an interesting anecdote or a funny (in hindsight) misadventure?
Misadventures are perhaps the best part of fieldwork. They range from accidentally stepping on a pit viper and not getting bitten to being stuck in the canopy late into the night because an elephant herd was hanging out right underneath us. One of the scariest experiences was an unsavoury encounter with Apis dorsata, the rock bee. In the mid-’90s, we landed a fancy Sony Handycam and I was desperate to have a video of rock bees making a wave on their hive. I asked Ganesan to first climb up a tree opposite to the hive to have eye-level footage, followed by Ramesh, my field support staff, and me. Ganesh was waiting below, behind the wheel of our jeep, a little distance away. Once we were set, Ganesan began to record and the autofocus function of the camera put out infrared light. All hell broke loose. Despite being three meters away from the hive, we were swarmed by the bees. We tumbled down the tree as fast as we could and ran for our lives. Once in the jeep, Ganesh sped away with the bees in pursuit for nearly a kilometre! The next couple of days, the three of us had a pumpkin for a head!
Along with your colleagues, you have established the Agastyamalai Community Based Conservation Centre. What does the centre do?
The centre was established to understand human-nature interactions in the Tamiraparani basin abutting KMTR. The vision is two-way learning — community to researchers and vice versa for conservation action. It also adheres to ATREE’s mission of socially-just conservation. The focus is to have a participatory approach of reconciling community needs and biodiversity support.
We have successful models like Vagaikulum heronry – where the community and ATREE, together, have managed to conserve an area that otherwise would have been lost to tree felling. Apart from wetlands, the focus is on the grasslands, the dependent community, and associated biodiversity. We are planning to focus on other threatened habitats such as mangroves, sacred groves and unique heritage trees in the landscape. The centre has its focus on working with the youth and children who are the custodians of this landscape. If we were to build their stewardship, we would succeed in conserving this unique landscape and its natural heritage.
You are based out of Bangalore. Could you give a few glimpses of when you worked in Coorg with coffee growers or help set up the Bannerghatta Butterfly Park?
In Karnataka, apart from being involved in setting up the Bannerghatta Butterfly Park in collaboration with GKVK, I have studied the response of pollination in Coorg. We compared pollination services in coffee plantations across three shade regimes: remnant native forest trees; native fruit-yielding trees; and exotic, timber trees such as Silver Oak. My findings show that the current situation may not be bad because it is still a mixed matrix in the landscape. However, if we continue using Silver Oak as shade trees, there would be a drastic fall in pollination services, which will affect the coffee crop badly.
My current project in Bangalore is about the implications of urbanisation on pollination. Considering that by 2030, India’s city-dwelling population is likely to double to 590 million, there is an urgent need to understand how to make our cities liveable! Interesting results are emerging from our research, which shows that the cityscape of Bangalore, with its mixed vegetation, can support pollinators that are very different from the peri-urban or suburban areas. If we manage our natural infrastructure for pollinators, we could cultivate several pollinator-dependent crops, including fruits and vegetables in balconies/terraces. This can help increase the ‘locovory’ (eating locally grown food) and reduce the carbon footprint of putting the food on the table in cities. China has demonstrated that growing food in cities, in a reasonable quantity, is a feasible venture and if we plan well, it could be done in our cities too.
You have spent a lot of time in the field. What is like to be a woman working in the field of ecology and conservation?
In the field, it must have been a strange sight for the locals to see a woman in trousers, carrying a backpack and a butterfly net, wandering the forests and driving a jeep. They seemed to be new to the idea, and if I walked into a tea shop, they would empty the entire row of seats! Gradually, people began to accept me but did not stop seeing me as a poor city girl who toils day and night and never quite understood why. I owe it to a lot of field assistants who helped me build relationships with the tea estate folks, from managers to tea workers, who later went on to pamper me as one of their own. All goodies would arrive at the living quarters! The state transport bus drivers would pick up essentials for us from the town and ensure we were comfortable. After a while, I felt I was at home there and my trips to Pondicherry became rare.
How do you think one could reduce hurdles women face to get into academia and succeed?
I still feel men have a problem of accepting women as equals, at all levels. For some time, I was the lone gender representation in many interview panels and it used to annoy me. Many times, during the maternity and child-raising phase, women scientists lose out in terms of publications, resulting in discontinuity. We ought to have compensatory mechanisms for that. Current policies are just not enough and simply put, they are unfair.
All my Ph.D. students are women and they have helped me become a better mentor. These women who worked with me had tough fieldwork and other challenges that they overcame with ease. Over the years, I also realised that the ones who decided to work with me were inclined to be outdoors and loved field ecology. They landed on their feet, despite all odds.