An Interview with Dr. Mahi Puri


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

Today, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Dr. Mahi Puri, Coexistence Scientist, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Dr. Mahi Puri

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

Becoming a scientist or working in the field of conservation was never on my radar. Growing up, I was that annoying person who would go around switching off lights in the house or turning off the tap when someone was brushing. So, a conservation ethic was always there. Beyond that, I was unaware of any potential career paths in this field. A meaningless 6-month stint in the corporate world led me to explore options, and fortunately, I was soon hooked to wildlife conservation!

The journey has been long. With no prior background, knowledge, or mentors in the field, I dabbled in wildlife filmmaking, rescue and rehabilitation, and finally research. I was on a constant quest to keep gaining more skills and learn about different pathways to bring about conservation success. My academic pursuits, including a Masters, and later a PhD, were always aligned to making a larger conservation impact.

Of course, the journey has had its fair share of frustrations. Imposter syndrome, gender bias, cynicism and financial insecurity have remained a constant through a significant part of the last 15 years. But it has also been a journey of self-exploration that has been extremely fun and rewarding. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work across spectacular landscapes of India; from the alpine mountains of Kashmir to the grasslands and rainforests of North-East India, from the deciduous forests of Central India to the rich and diverse ecosystems of the Western Ghats. For a brief period when I studied inter-tidal gastropods, I hopped across beaches along nearly 1200 kms of the Western coastline! All these experiences exposed me to how extraordinary India was, not just in its wildlife and wild spaces, but also across cultures. Along the way, my passion for wildlife intersected with a more nuanced understanding of the myriad ways in which people navigate living with wildlife and their perceptions about conservation, livelihood security and governance issues. I have also had some incredible mentors and colleagues who’ve taught me an extraordinary amount about wildlife conservation, hand-held me through the highs and lows of academia and to pursue my passions without compromising on work-life balance. The evolution in the quality and type of work I have pursued is a consequence of all the above and is linked to my personal growth in the field.

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

Yes and no. Today I see a lot more women working in conservation, but that was not the case a decade ago in India. For most of my field expeditions, I was the only woman in a team of 4 – 10 men. While I remained safe from issues of sexual harassment at work, I’ve always had to prove my abilities to do even the most basic tasks; be it my ability to drive on dirt roads, to be able to walk in tough terrain or areas with abundant elephants or large carnivores, and to be able to lead teams. Once, a supervisor asked why I was in a forest, and not in a beauty salon! Someone else said that I looked like an adivasi because I had tanned after 3 months in the field. I’ve navigated similar questions from colleagues, forest department officers, and family members. That women should stick to social science and avoid ecological research was a common thread. Again, while these biases should not be a part of any female scientists’ experiences, in my own projects I have tried to do the opposite by including an equal number of women volunteers/interns, ensuring their safety in field camps, and creating opportunities to learn both ecological and social skills in interdisciplinary projects, irrespective of gender.

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

Speaking from a position of privilege, while my family did worry about my personal and financial security in my early years, they stood by me and supported me. I recognise that that may not be the case for many early-career women conservationists. I think that one of the big factors that built my family’s trust in my choices was the courage, determination and empathy I demonstrated. At some instances I may have even been labelled as stubborn! But my personal experience has taught me to keep striving for excellence, keep taking small steps towards larger goals, and to ignore the noise that questions your abilities. Also, take it slow. There’s no rush to fall to societal norms of when to get married and when/whether to have children. If along the way you feel you’re stuck, reach out. You’ll always find some guidance – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

In some of the landscapes you have worked 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?

This has been so interesting to observe. Within the academic/professional conservation circles, we all boast about the tolerance for, and acceptance of, wildlife among communities in India. There is an incredible amount of respect that I have witnessed for wildlife and wild spaces, be it among the Toda communities in the Nilgiris or the Gond and Baiga in Central India, or the Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir. Wildlife are seen as sentient beings with their own powers, agency and needs. There is also immense knowledge about the ecological role of different species. Once, an elderly woman went into a state of trance when we showed her a picture of a tiger for a survey. Another time, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh collected the soil from a tigers pugmark on his farm to worship because tigers kept the deer away and thus protected his crop. Having said that, different species of wildlife present a multitude of stresses to people’s daily lives and livelihoods. These challenge people’s inherent value orientations. People’s value systems are also constantly being challenged and shaped by governance institutions and the associated power dynamics. As a conservation scientist, its very important to tease apart all these complexities to prevent values from eroding while ensuring sustainable livelihoods.  

Conducting stakeholder interviews

In a paper of yours, you illustrated how the usage of media reports has helped examine leopard distribution, cases of depredation, and suggested management practices outside PAs. While media coverage can often be a good source of information for larger mammals, how can we highlight the importance of connectivity for smaller species?

This project took place while I worked at WCS-India/Center for Wildlife Studies in 2014. The organisation’s media and communication team collated daily news about wildlife from across India, and more intensely, from within Karnataka (by including regional media as well) and shared this with the employees. What an incredible asset! For us scientists (and nerds), this was data! Yes, species like leopards, tigers, elephants, bears etc. catch the media’s attention and do get reported more frequently because of their charisma, elusiveness and the nature of their interaction with people (whether positive or negative). However, I think media reporting is also linked with the kind and amount of research that’s happening on the ground. If there is good research ongoing or available, and scientists to reach out to, then it may be easier to have popular articles on different species. Conservation attention can be garnered for several smaller species by conducting long-term ecological studies on them. For example, no one talked about fishing cats a few years ago. But rigorous and long-term projects on the species’ ecology have brought attention to their needs, threats, and their overlooked wetland habitats. If similar quality of work is conducted on other species, then we can bring media attention to them as well. To start with, there is a tremendous amount of by-catch data already available from camera-trap studies that were targeted at large mammals (especially tigers). Establishing baselines from these datasets can be the starting point for more long-term work, whether it’s on species diets, behaviour, habitat use, population dynamics or interactions with people.

Setting-up a camera-trap

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?

Infrastructure development and land-use change are some of the biggest challenges. These threats are not going to get eliminated any time soon. To maintain connectivity, conservationists are faced with two approaches, which can sometimes be ideological conflicts. One, develop neo-liberal solutions that integrate market-based solutions and work around/with these capitalist challenges. Two, a radical conservation approach where forests are set aside and conservation is in the hands of communities. Personally, my research has been an attempt to bridge these approaches and find a pathway through which communities can be empowered (through financial and non-financial incentives, and capacity building) to conserve wildlife and shared lands. 

Can eco-tourism play a role in strengthening community livelihoods along corridors? Might it also serve to drive home the economic benefit of their conservation at the policy level?

The four key principles of ecotourism include environmental protection/ wildlife and nature conservation, community participation, socio-economic development, and education and awareness. In its current form, the type of tourism that’s being practiced around most nature reserves in India is not ecotourism (there are some exceptions). It is still largely an exclusionary industry with limited assimilation of any of the principles. However, I think ecotourism as a concept has tremendous potential both from the perspective of connectivity conservation as well as community engagement and socio-economic-political empowerment in conservation decision-making.

Several corridors in India are mosaics of fragmented forests and agriculture. From your work in these multi-use spaces, do you get a sense that the importance of these mosaics for connectivity is recognised by the stakeholders? 

I can only speak from my experience in Central India where I have worked in corridors. While local communities recognise and acknowledge the importance of forests and wildlife, I think the understanding of the larger role of corridors or the part that people play in maintaining connectivity is missing. Yes, there has been a lot of awareness campaigns and outreach carried out by different NGOs working in the landscape. But to a large extent, they’ve been limited to only imparting knowledge. Beyond that, the term “corridor” often has a negative connotation and is associated with another tier of protection that may bring about relocation, or increase wildlife numbers, and therefore conflict. Through my conversations and work with farmers, I have learnt that clarifying that link and emphasising people’s crucial role in connectivity conservation can be very encouraging as it has the capacity to enhance people’s self-efficacy, or the perception that they have the ability to make a difference to conservation as well as to their welfare.

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?

The cynic in me always asks this question. But to continue working in this field requires keeping hope. As a conservation scientist, we have to keep finding ways to innovate and find solutions so that coexistence can be fostered, maintained or enhanced, whatever the case may be. But it’s also important to remember that coexistence does not mean a complete absence of conflict. With conservation success, losses to both people and wildlife are inevitable. The challenge is to identify what are the tolerable levels of losses, and to revise those thresholds with changes in the local dynamics.