An Interview with Aradhana Sahu


Welcome back to Corridor Conversations, and the final interview in our series on women working in connectivity conservation.

Today, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Ms. Aradhana Sahu, IFS Officer(2003), Chief Conservator of Forests (Junagarh Wildlife Circle), Gujarat Forest Department.

How has your journey in conservation been thus far? What drew you to this field?

As a botany student, my fascination with the world of plants and animals has always been what has motivated me to pursue a career in this field. I have spent the majority of my childhood in the tribal areas of Orissa. I grew up in a forest area, (as my father was a dam construction engineer). Thus, knowledge of the natural world and of those who lived close to it came naturally. I realised that nature is the very essence of life and a means of subsistence at a very young age. Since I first joined the Indian Forest Service (IFS) in 2003 and entered the field in 2005, I was given the opportunity to work in the agroforestry, wildlife, and high forestry sectors. Ultimately, it has been a wonderful journey with the Gujarat Forest Department so far.

Have you faced challenges as a woman working in conservation? What are some of the stereotypes you have had to fight against/ negotiate?

I have had a great time working in the conservation field. The locals (the general public), staff and officers have always been quite helpful. Nonetheless, I have to admit that the initial days were difficult. Doing fieldwork and leading various teams were some of the biggest hurdles at first, but everyone gradually warmed up. In fact, my co-workers and seniors began offering better resources and platforms. So, it was challenging to be one of the first few women in the state working in this sector, but the drive to protect the forest and wildlife made the challenges seem less imposing.

What are some valuable lessons you’ve learnt that could benefit early-career women conservationists?

I have been working in this field for the last 20 years, but it has taken decades for women to shift from being completely forbidden from pursuing careers in wildlife to being accepted as the norm. So, it is crucial to recognise the opportunities that young women are currently receiving and I urge them to never take your work for granted. Yet, there is still a long way for women to go. As a woman conservationist, the following two lessons have been really helpful to me, and I hope that they will be for other women as well:

  1. You have to work harder than your male counterparts to be recognised in this field. This is my personal opinion.
  2. Many of the battles are won in your own mind because the society in which we grew up probably doesn’t project many women capable of working in tough postings/ interior postings/ field postings or just doing well in male-dominated work places.

In the landscape you work in, what are some of the similarities (or differences) you have observed in how forest-dwelling communities perceive wildlife, and the shared spaces they call home?

The landscape that I currently work in is the Gir Protected Area, which is the only home to Asiatic lions. The “Maldhari” and “Siddi” are the two tribes that live in this area. These people are deeply connected with nature and the wildlife here and have a strong sense of place and belonging, and this connection is reflected in their culture. There are a lot of fascinating tales about the forest where kids play in the fields and lions sunbathe nearby in the same field. They understand that they are sharing their homeland with the big cats and they take great pride in that. In addition to this, they also participate in numerous community-led conservation activities.

What role do you think able leadership plays in ensuring equal opportunities for women?

A capable leader is one that does not take bias into account and offers practical tools and support to assist females in succeeding at the same rate as their male counterparts. The leader should help the organisation in recognising the differences between real-world scenarios and societal expectations, preventing gender-based discrimination, and moreover, not be critical of female employees who are returning to the workplace after maternity leave. Therefore, a strong leader is always useful in ensuring that women have equal opportunities.

Many a time, media coverage focuses on large mammals traversing fragmented habitat. How can we highlight the importance of connectivity for smaller species?

It seems to me that a particular area’s flagship, keystone and/or umbrella species have been the focus of media, rather than purely a purposeful differentiation between larger or smaller animals (ecological importance of the species rather than size of the animal). Also, it is usually the large carnivores that travel long distances to find new mates, food, and territory.

These species are usually selected for making conservation-related decisions, typically because protecting these species indirectly protects the many other smaller and larger species that make up the ecological community of its habitat (the umbrella effect), and thus this umbrella species is in the media and other animals are not. So, from a conservation point of view, all species that have ecological importance should always be highlighted.

Linear infrastructure can often lead to instances of roadkill. Are there examples of mitigation measures from the areas you were posted in (or elsewhere) in Gujarat that you feel have worked and feel to be effective, and think could be used in other landscapes?

Each conservation plan is specific to the environment and the animals that inhabit it. Even so, some mitigation strategies are useful worldwide. For instance, signs have been placed in the prospective corridors warning the public of potential wildlife crossings, the speed restriction for vehicles on roads close to environmentally-sensitive areas has been set at 20 to 40 km/h, and speed breakers have been installed on those same roads. Such efforts have been effective across many landscapes.

Most corridor work in India focuses on tigers and elephants, species not found in Gujarat. Has that resulted in reduced focus on corridor conservation in the state?

Most corridor work in India focuses on tigers and elephants because they are in fact found in various parts of India and hence receive wider attention and focus from the centre, as they should. When it comes to Gujarat, it is also the only abode of the Asiatic lions in the world, so efforts or focus have never been lacking. In fact, in recent years, more and more studies have been conducted on corridors and connectivity of Gir PA. Geospatial techniques play a pivotal role in identifying important corridors and help in taking adequate conservation measures by the Gujarat Forest Department. Most times, radio telemetry data from radio-collared lions are used to estimate their home ranges and evaluate their habitat suitability preferences, and then systematically figure out the best possible route depending on their natural dispersal pattern.

What is the current status of large-mammal connectivity in your landscape? For example, sloth bear movement in the Ratanmahal-Jambughoda corridor. What does the future hold?

I previously worked in the Ratanmahal and Jambughoda landscape and we had discovered the natural dispersal patterns of sloth bears between Jambughoda, Shoolpaneshwar and Ratanmahal. They sometimes ventured out of the sanctuary. Therefore, we had taken up a project of maintaining an ecological corridor in that landscape in collaboration with a University.

Where I presently work, in Gir, various other PAs have been established near the Sanctuary. For instance, Paniya Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS), Mitiyala WLS, Ambardi Safari Park, Girnar WLS, Barda WLS. All these WLS have good connectivity with the Gir National Park and Sanctuary. The local people who have joined in as Vanya Prani Mitra (to help manage instances of human-wildlife conflict) and trackers help in spotting/managing these animals through the landscape and act as first-responders; communicating immediately with Forest Department officials. So, updates about wildlife whereabouts are provided. Hence, the future looks promising as several upcoming projects about lions highlights the importance of much-needed safe passage for other wildlife as well. Additionally, because of the Forest Department’s consistent awareness campaigns, even the locals of the landscape are aware of the value of corridors.

What are the foreseeable challenges in maintaining habitat connectivity? Realistically speaking, can they be maintained in the long-term, or is the arm of socio-economic development bound to cut through this longevity?

No matter how many times we check the weather, it can change within the hour. Similarly, just when we think we understand wildlife conservation, we are exposed to some new behaviour and our thinking is completely altered. Science is constantly evolving and so are people. I think there are, and always will be, challenges in this field. As habitat continues to be fragmented, degraded, and lost to development, the need for a coordinated connectivity network is growing. Better habitat connectivity will allow wildlife to migrate and disperse with the changing seasons, boost biodiversity and resilience in degraded ecosystems, safeguard genetic flow between populations, and ensure species are better able to adapt to our changing climate. Sustainable practices are the need of the hour, smart investment in habitat connectivity projects will help connect protected landscapes in the long-term.

With corridors not recognised as a legal category, how does the Forest Department navigate that space? Is there internal clarity/ policy in place? What are some of the challenges here?

The Department relies on the natural dispersion patterns of lions. We have a High-Tech unit at Sasan-Gir where constant monitoring of the radio- collared animals is being done. This data along with the valuable input from the locals on the whereabouts of the lions are highly useful in establishing connectivity for wildlife here. Recently, one male Asiatic lion started naturally dispersing towards the Barda Wildlife Sanctuary and reached the Sanctuary on the night of 19th January 2023. The team of forest staff then continuously tracked and monitored the individual. Local people also informed the forest staff about lion sightings when it crossed roads. Staff also found pug marks in the reserved coastal forest also. The Porbandar Forest Division staff deployed camera traps to confirm the lion’s presence.

As the individual was in proximity of Porbandar city and to avoid any conflict, a rapid response team was made by Porbandar Forest Division to continuously check the individual’s movement. Therefore, to avoid any mishap, awareness sign boards and vehicle speed control measures were taken. As people were new to the presence of a lion in their area, it was crucial to spread awareness and sensitise them. The Porbandar Forest Division staff took the help of various stakeholders to spread awareness among the local people. The awareness materials were distributed in the lion movement villages. The help and support of local NGOs were also taken. The people were also sensitised regarding beneficiary-oriented schemes (Machans, cattle kill compensation, the construction of parapet walls around the open wells, etc.) of the Gujarat Forest Department. So, although there is no specific law or policy regarding wildlife corridors, stringent measures are taken to protect the animal. Challenges would be the attitude of the local people towards wildlife. Thankfully, the people of Gir PA have revered the wildlife here as a God-given entity and have always been cooperative, but there have been instances of harassment and retaliatory actions which can occasionally be a problem.

How can we map wildlife connectivity in a future that is likely to have more humans, and therefore more human-wildlife interactions? Is that a disaster waiting to happen or a global case-study in co-existence?

Overlapping boundaries of forests and human communities have many times resulted in the occurrence of human-animal conflict/interaction. What I have observed so far is that it is not merely the presence, absence, or number of people, but it is the utilisation of the same landscape over the same time which is crucial in wildlife-human conflict management; so definitely more case studies will contribute towards better co-existence of both.