Let’s talk corridors!


Dr. Divya Vasudev, from Conservation Initiatives, was recently awarded the Maxwell Hanrahan Foundation award in the Field Biology category. We spoke with Divya about corridors, her work, and her experience working in India’s Northeast and Western Ghats.

Dr. Divya Vasudev (Credit: Varun Goswami/ Conservation Initiatives)

You were recently awarded the Maxwell Hanrahan Foundation award in the Field Biology category. Congratulations! What have been some of the other highlights on your conservation journey? And what inspired you to work in wildlife conservation?

Thank you so much! It was completely unexpected and is such an honour!

I was not one of those who always knew I wanted to be in this field, I guess I just drifted in. I liked the outdoors and I loved watching monkeys – bonnet macaques, to be specific – playing, interacting with each other, ever-curious, always up to something. This drew me to the post-graduate wildlife course at NCBS. When I joined the course, it was somewhat of an adventurous step into the unknown. By the time I completed the course, I was immersed in the field and could not imagine myself doing anything else! Two things continue to inspire and motivate me: one, the immense pleasure I get from being in the wild; and second, the knowledge that we are losing wilderness on a daily basis.

If I think about a few other huge influencing factors on my life, one would be my venture into the still relatively unexplored Northeast India two decades ago. The Northeast provides fascinating landscapes to explore and a diversity of human–nature relationships to understand. And, I’ve had the most amazing role models and guides: one of them, the incomparable Dr. Robert Fletcher—my Ph.D. advisor—who didn’t make my doctorate easy by any stretch of imagination, but I came out a much improved scientist, and in my own assessment, a better professional; Dr. Ajith Kumar, who is a pillar of strength and someone I have always turned to for advice and guidance; and Dr. Ullas Karanth, my first boss after my Ph.D. Dr. Karanth gave me the space to explore and shape my own research and conservation program, while also providing support and the most uncannily useful advice when I needed it! And many more people I cannot list here.

What inspired your interest in primates and elephants? And what ultimately led you to working in wildlife corridors?

My interest in monkey behaviour preceded my interest in conservation, actually. I’ve always been fascinated by how animals behave, how they interact and how they respond to cues. This, combined with a motivation to work towards conservation led me to work on dispersal and corridors. I guess it is also the knowledge that somewhere, we have some sort of formula for protecting our core wildlife populations—stop poaching, preserve habitat, don’t allow encroachments or clearances. But we are still searching for answers when it comes to dispersal and connectivity conservation.

Bonnet Macaques (Credit: Varun Goswami/ Conservation Initiatives)

What is Conservation Initiatives doing towards the conservation of wildlife corridors in Northeast India?

Conservation Initiatives is a science-based conservation NGO that I co-founded with my colleague and husband, Dr. Varun R. Goswami. We both think it is important to work on landscape-scale conservation, which includes both the preservation of viable wildlife populations, and connections between these populations.

At Conservation Initiatives, we do a few things towards connectivity and corridors. In the Kaziranga landscape, our work focusses on elephants. Elephants are wide-ranging, it is in their ecology to move. When they move, they come into contact with people, and this sometimes can lead to conflict. There is therefore, a clear interaction between connectivity and conflict—we work to address this. How can we allow free and unimpeded animal movement, while minimising conflict and negative impacts on people? We do this by answering questions related to animal movement and human–wildlife interactions through research—where do animals move, why do they choose certain paths over other, what triggers conflict, what are the consequences of conflict for people and animals? We also work with people who live with animals—currently our work is focussed on tea estates, a major large landholding in Assam—to collectively figure out ways in which we can facilitate connectivity while minimising conflict. Additionally, we work in the hill states of Northeast India, towards supporting communities in managing their forests. These forests are of differing sizes, but even the small patches of forests are important in the larger green network.  

In some of the corridors you have worked in, be it in the Northeast or in the Western Ghats, how do local stakeholders perceive these spaces? Are they aware of it being a ‘corridor’?

Oh yes, they are! We’ve been to a village right in the middle of a corridor, a space where there is a narrow gap of agricultural land between the grasslands of Kaziranga and forests that stretch into the Karbi Hills to the south. People who live there have given up farming rice—“when we plant rice, elephants eat it up, so what’s the use?” But they also recognised that their location was on a corridor, and that elephants, by their very nature, move. Further, Kaziranga is a floodplain ecosystem, and the Brahmaputra river floods annually to inundate it; when this happens animals need to move, and everyone who lives there is aware of this.

In other cases, people are not as attuned to the connectedness of lands. Take, for instance, the tiger that was recently shot dead in Almora, or the elephants that dispersed into Hassan. These are all connected areas—tigers can move up to 300 km and such long-distance dispersals are critical for genetic viability. Yet we often refer to these dispersers as ‘straying animals’, and sometimes shoot them or take them into captivity. We don’t know as yet what the consequences of these actions are on wildlife populations.   

To you, what are the foreseeable challenges in maintaining habitat connectivity in India at large, and in Northeast India more specifically?

Maintaining the human–wildlife interface, for sure. India’s protected areas and natural ecosystems are, for the most, fragmented, and interspersed with multiple-use lands—lands that people and wildlife share. We’ve always lauded ourselves as being tolerant to animals, and allowing them on ‘our’ lands. But this part of our identity is steadily eroding. Animals disperse through lands that people use—for agriculture, extracting forest produce, residing. We need to figure out how to balance people’s and wildlife needs in these places. But, the consequences of a loss of wildlife connectivity will not always be immediately detectable, and fire-fighting conservation may mean that connectivity remains an overlooked wildlife need. Which brings me to the other big challenge—we need to mainstream wildlife connectivity into policy.

Is there a relationship between corridor loss and human-elephant conflict?

Increased fragmentation—breaking up—of habitat means an increased human–wildlife interface. Forest fragmentation also means that wildlife need to travel more through lands used by people, to access resources. An increased human–wildlife interface, for animals like elephants, can lead to increased conflict. There is a direct connect therefore, between conflict and connectivity. This is well recognised—we did a review of human–elephant conflict studies across Asia and found that solutions related to habitat consolidation and corridor preservation were often cited across studies. But these remain recommendations on paper, while we instead opt for conflict mitigation measures that, ironically, can block connectivity—e.g., fences, capture of dispersing animals.

Basically: (a) habitat fragmentation increases the human–wildlife interface and has the potential to increase conflict; while (b) conflict mitigation measures can block connectivity and impede animal movement across corridors.

Human-Elephant Conflict in a Tea Estate in Assam (Credit: Pragyan Sharma/ Conservation Initiatives)

When one hears the word ‘corridor’, we typically think of a strip of forest in between two forest patches. But in reality, India has a mix of human-modified and natural corridors. Given fragmentation, how can we sustainably maintain these multi-use corridors?

I hope all of us who are working towards conservation on these lands can come up with solutions, but here are my few thoughts. One, there are forested corridors and these are important. They may not be primary forests, and may not host high-density populations of species, due to which they are sometimes not accorded the highest degree of protection. Yet these forests are important and forest loss or clearance in important corridors should be avoided. Two, we all know the impacts of linear infrastructure—roads, railways, canals and powerlines—on connectivity. Animals like lion-tailed macaques or hoolock gibbons which are arboreal see these as breaks in canopy connectivity, while species like deer, jackals, and small cats frequently face mortality while trying to cross roads. These linear infrastructure need alternative alignments or mitigation measures. Three, we need to incentivise human actions that allow wildlife movement through multiple-use lands, and de-incentivise processes and factors that impede connectivity—through land-use planning, zonation and regulation of certain human activities. Lastly, we need to encourage and support science that can inform connectivity conservation.

As a conservation practitioner, what role can education and awareness play in corridor maintenance and conservation? Who are the key stakeholders that need to be engaged with and involved in this endeavour?

Dispersers move through lands shared with people. Hence, involving them—people who own, reside in, and work on lands important for connectivity—is critical. Education and awareness can bring knowledge and enhance support for connectivity conservation. It can help shed light on the consequences of corridor loss, and the impact of human behaviours and actions on wildlife. Yet, we need to go a step further and make efforts to transform that knowledge into wildlife-friendly action that is amenable to animal movement through such lands.

What are some of the learning tools you have used in University classrooms? And how have these tools helped in developing the capacity, skill and interest amongst the next generation, especially around corridors and connectivity (both inside and outside of the classroom)?

Students interested in ecology and the environment today generally are somewhat aware of connectivity and corridors, at least at a basic level. Being myself interested in conservation and practical implications of science, I try to encourage students to connect theoretical learnings with real-world incidents and contexts. With so much information at our fingertips through Twitter and WhatsApp, they often have the opportunity to be informed of incidents that capture our attention—e.g., road kills on highways. At an academic level, it is actually easy to understand the importance of connectivity, and of balancing people’s and wildlife needs. In some cases, students are surprised that mitigation measures on linear infrastructure, for instance, a proven solution, is not more often used on roads that cut through forests. What is more challenging is for me, colleagues and future generations to find ways to systematise nature conservation and connectivity into our overall discourse of progress. Only then will conservation of nature—be it preservation of ecosystems and species, or connectivity conservation—be truly and effectively achieved.