An Interview with Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan
© PRASENJEET YADAV
We are excited to launch Corridor Conversations; an interview series with women working in connectivity conservation.
To kick things off on International Women’s Day 2023, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan, molecular ecologist and Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, on her journey and work.
How has your journey in conservation been thus far? What drew you to this field?
I have been lucky to have had the amazing opportunity to see India through the lens of wildlife while investigating conservation science. Through the last eighteen years of my career in India, I have worked with my laboratory colleagues on birds, lizard, and mammals. We have worked in most habitats and states (with the exception of Tripura, Jharkhand and Bihar).
Conservation science itself is a difficult field, the state of the environment can be depressing. It’s like this secret you are privy to that will negatively effects lots of people and is really sad. Yet no one seems to take it seriously! You feel like shaking people and asking them: “don’t you realise that extinction rates are very high right now? That biodiversity loss is real? That soon, the impacts of our changing climate will be devastating? That zoonoses will become more and more common, as the interfaces between humans and wildlife increases?” Many times, the results you find do not get translated into action on the ground, not because it is not good science, but because there are other considerations. But you just have to keep going. Pursuing a career in conservation science requires determination! But not everything is negative! I think we have witnessed recovery of tigers, for example, over the last decade. That’s really cool and something to be happy about!
I always loved animals, wildlife and wild spaces! Growing up, our family moved a fair bit, and my father loved to travel. I would insist on going to zoos wherever I visited! I was lucky to grow up in the Indian Institute of Science campus where I was exposed to researchers studying ecology at the Centre for Ecological Sciences through high school and college. I visited the Western ghats many times, and somehow, just loved wildlife. Conservation naturally came after.
Have you faced challenges as a woman working in conservation? What are some of the stereotypes you have had to fight against/ negotiate?
Hmm… difficult question to answer. I think the hardest part of this work is the permissions process. Not because you do not get them; I am lucky to have permits in many places and like I said, have worked in many locations, but the process just takes long and is uncertain. These spaces, that of bureaucracy, is very male dominated. I guess I have just internalised it, but recently my teenage daughter came with me for such a meeting, with forest officers, and she commented on how male dominated these spaces are. I realised this afresh. It is not that I have faced any significant challenges because if this, but just something to realise. This makes for a dynamic of a certain kind. Stereotypes, well, because I am relatively informal and laid back, many people think I am not very serious. This is not true at all! In fact, quite the contrary, I am very serious and committed to my work.
What are some valuable lessons you’ve learnt that could benefit early-career women conservationists?
Never think you are less. Even if you think your family or personal responsibilities will slow you down, don’t worry about it, everyone has them. Believe, deep down, that you are unique. And bring your unique energy, perspective and brilliance to whatever you do. Understand your strengths, and don’t hesitate to bring them to the forefront of what you do. Put simply, believe in yourself!
Many a time, media coverage focuses on large mammals traversing fragmented habitat. How can we highlight the importance of connectivity for smaller species?
A very important question. I think some of the research we are doing on multi-species connectivity might be a great way to highlight connectivity needs for varied types of species.
Also, we can try to focus on habitats, restoration and other such activities outside protected areas that will effectively result in both human benefits through ecosystem services, as well as connectivity for smaller species.
Linear infrastructure can often lead to instances of roadkill. What are some of the mitigation measures you have used/ studied/ seen in the field and feel to be effective, and think could be used in other landscapes?
In my experience, underpasses for wildlife are effective. In addition, it might be interesting to try traffic regulation (hours and types of vehicles) as well as push-pull strategies that repel/draw wildlife towards specific paths/areas. This is an area that needs more research in India, as evidence-based strategies are critical to plan and successfully implement mitigation.
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?
I am a bit of a pessimist in this regard. I think that at least for species like tigers and elephants, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain connectivity naturally. I feel that 50 or so years from now, we might have to move to a model of managing connectivity through animal introduction. But maybe I will be proven wrong!
We now understand that tigers in Ranthambhore are genetically isolated. Without connectivity to Kuno, for example, these tigers might lack the genetic diversity for longevity. How can we further this link, between corridor maintenance and genetic diversity at a policy level?
Difficult question! From a science perspective, we have shown that tigers here are inbred. I would like to be able to better understand the impacts of such inbreeding in the future. When might we see inbreeding depression (decreased individual fitness which will eventually result in lower growth rate), and how will this inbreeding depression look like? What level of gene flow from another gene pool would offset it? These are all important questions. In terms of policy, they relate to the questions above. If we are eventually unable to maintain connectivity, all populations will become isolated like in Ranthambore. How will we then devise genetic rescue strategies? I hope that in the future, such management and policy can be developed based conceptually on population genetics and demography, built on genomic data and our understanding of phenotypic effects of genetic variation. It is my dream to contribute scientifically to such a policy!
How can we map tiger connectivity in a future that is likely to have more tigers, and surely 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?
Very, very, difficult question. I think about it sometimes in the middle of the night, especially because in my lab, we have studied both: connectivity and conflict. I can only say that integrative approaches, such as those highlighted in Vasudev et al. 2022, would be a critical first step. I look forward to rigorous testing of the models and approaches they propose so that we can move towards addressing both sides of the same coin.