An Interview with Parvathi K. Prasad


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

Today, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Parvathi K. Prasad, Research Affiliate with Conservation Initiatives.

Parvathi K. Prasad (Image Credit: Pranav Vajapeyam)

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

My interest in wildlife began at a young age. My father was, and continues to be interested in wildlife. As a result, almost all of our family trips during my school days were to Karnataka’s protected areas. I loved being around and watching wildlife! The idea of doing something more about my interest in wildlife came about much later.

For my BSc, I studied Biotechnology; but it was during my BSc days that I learnt of Masters courses in Wildlife Biology, and increasingly found myself drawn towards a career in wildlife. I took up some short-term volunteering opportunities that allowed me to experience the forests of Karnataka on foot for the first time. It was wonderful! Following my BSc, I took some time off of academics to work at Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore. I was part of a research project that examined human–wildlife interactions around those very forests that had instilled in me a love for wildlife. It was my first experience with a research project, and the first time I engaged with local communities’ perception of, and experiences with wildlife—it taught me much.

Following a Masters in wildlife biology, I have been working in Assam’s Kaziranga–Karbi Anglong landscape—an amazing landscape that is seasonally dynamic and is home to rich biodiversity. Kaziranga is also an extremely interesting system to study elephant ecology and human–elephant interactions—the focus of my work at Conservation Initiatives, as well as my ongoing PhD at Deakin University. Working here has taught me what it takes to work in a landscape long-term, and the value of doing so.

While the journey in this field so far has been fun and exciting for the most part, I have had my share of self-doubt and low confidence. Fortunately, I work with great mentors—Dr. Varun R. Goswami and Dr. Divya Vasudev—who encourage me to push my limits and instil confidence in me.

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

To be honest, I have been lucky in this regard; being a woman in this field has not been greatly challenging for me. During the course of this journey, there may have been a few instances of restrictions with regards to field work or individuals not taking me seriously, but mostly, my experience has been positive. Mentors and colleagues have been supportive, respectful and have always made me feel secure.

What motivates you, as you continue to contribute to this field of work?

Conservation, or even just concern for the natural world, can often make you feel disheartened and generally negative, but there is also much to look forward to. I think exciting research and conservation success stories from around the world keep me motivated. It is encouraging to see research translating into policy or conservation actions, and to know that efforts have paid off.

I also think that building conservation awareness and interest in people is extremely important. With that in mind, I feel motivated each time I get someone interested in wildlife, or when research findings and conservation messages reach people—whether it is through one-on-one interactions, social media or engagement with local communities.

Lastly, and most importantly, I think wildlife itself is the biggest motivating factor. Sometimes, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day tasks and lose perspective of what drives us. In such times, spending some time just observing and appreciating wildlife reminds me of why I am here.

During a field survey (Image Credit: Varun R. Goswami)

In the landscapes you have worked in, what are some of the similarities (or differences) you have observed in how communities perceive wildlife, and the shared spaces they call home?

I have, so far, worked in Karnataka’s Western Ghats and the Kaziranga–Karbi Anglong landscape in Assam. In both regions, there is reverence, tolerance and value for wildlife—one of the main reasons for India to host vast biodiversity alongside high densities of people. In both places, I think that people are empathetic towards animals’ resource needs and understand that loss of habitat is a threat to animals.

Positive perceptions, however, do not always translate into favourable actions or behaviours—there are several factors that influence how human–wildlife interactions play out on ground. This is one of the key challenges in managing human–wildlife interactions, and where the need and opportunity for conservation arise. As an example, while people in the Kaziranga landscape generally revere and admire elephants, teasing and chasing of elephants also occur. The same is true of human–wildlife interactions in Karnataka.

Despite evidence of several species using forest-agriculture mosaics as corridors, the popular definition of corridors is still ‘linear, narrow, natural habitat linkages that allow movement’. While forested corridors are important, what does your work on elephants tell us about how they move through and use human-modified spaces?

Research carried out by seniors and colleagues at Conservation Initiatives on elephants shows that elephant movement is not restricted to forested corridors; animals move through human-use areas such as tea plantations, particularly in the monsoon to seek refuge from flooding of the river Brahmaputra. Animals’ ability to move through areas such as tea estates is important because tea estates are widespread in the Kaziranga landscape (as well as in other parts of Assam and West Bengal), and animal movement through such areas can be crucial for maintaining landscape connectivity. The same maybe true of human-use areas in other landscapes and for other species.

Human–wildlife interactions can influence animals’ ability to move through human-use areas. One important factor that affect animal movement in human-use areas is human behaviour itself, i.e., how people respond to elephants can affect how and where elephants move. This is one component of my on-going PhD research—to examine how human behaviour impacts elephant movement in tea estates and surrounding areas in the Kaziranga landscape.

As you seek to secure elephants in a large, heterogenous landscape that includes Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve and the neighbouring tea estates, how have you navigated working with a diverse set of stakeholders (i.e. from Government officials, tea garden management, local ethnic communities, as well as communities that work in the tea estates, etc)? Has being a woman made it easier or more difficult to work with some of these stakeholders?

Fortunately, my experiences with stakeholders in this landscape—Government officials, local communities, and tea estate management—has been pleasant. People I have interacted with have been respectful, and I have not really felt that I am at a disadvantage because of my gender. Here, I will also give due credit to my team at Conservation Initiatives—having members from the local communities on the team makes it a lot easier to initiate interactions with local stakeholders and address issues that may arise. I also think that learning to speak the local language helps—I am not originally from Assam, and people appreciate that I try.

Tea-gardens can be a hotspot for conflict. Are there specific times of the year, or parts of the mosaic landscape where conflict is especially high? What have you found to be the most effective conflict-mitigation strategies?

In this landscape, elephants generally use tea estates throughout the year, but human–elephant interactions peak in the Winter months (Oct–Dec) because it is the paddy-growing season. Elephants enter paddy fields to consume crops, but to access the fields, they need to move through tea estates that are situated in the intervening space, and therefore, the frequency of interaction with people in tea estates increases.

While elephants consume paddy, they do not eat tea leaves and financial loss in tea estates in minimal. However, people—youth in particular—chase elephants in tea estates. This is not the same as people guarding crops, and such interactions have the potential to endanger both elephant and human lives. Mitigating this form of conflict needs a change in people’s behaviours towards elephants. While we (Conservation Initiatives) are engaging with the youth to bring about conservation awareness and interest, the process will take time and requires our long-term engagement with the community.

Another concern in the tea estates is that of human safety where people live—clusters of houses called labour lines within large tea estates. Sometimes, elephants move close to labour lines at night, or during the early hours of the morning, and if people cannot detect elephants from afar, there is potential for accidental encounters. Our past research highlighted the need to address this concern, and so, our team installed solar lights around labour lines in 10 tea estates, where both elephant and human activity was high. This measure received positive responses from the tea community. But more broadly speaking, I think suitable measures may vary with the context of human–wildlife interactions.

A herd of elephants moving through a tea estate in Assam (Image Credit: Parvathi K. Prasad)

Can eco-tourism play a role in strengthening community livelihoods in heterogenous landscapes surrounding protected areas and along corridors? Do you have any examples you would like to share? Might eco-tourism also serve to drive home the economic benefit of their conservation at the policy level?

I definitely think that ecotourism has the potential to strengthen community livelihoods and build support for conservation of species if it engages local communities and is practiced in a sustainable manner. I personally have little experience in this regard, but Kaziranga National Park is one example where tourism builds support for conservation. The National Park’s tourism sector employs a lot of local people—as gypsy drivers/owners, in restaurants and hotels, etc. As a result, there is support for conservation in the area. During the flood season every year, local communities support the Forest Department in rescue and treatment of injured animals. This overall support and awareness also reflects in people’s responses towards animals, including elephants in tea estates and other human-use areas—areas closer to the National Park, in my opinion, are a lot more positive in their interactions with wildlife than other parts of the landscape.

Several corridors in India are mosaics of fragmented forests, plantations 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 think this may vary from place to place, with factors such as land use type and nature of animal movement. Kaziranga, for example, is a floodplain ecosystem. As mentioned, Brahmaputra floods annually, inundating large parts of Kaziranga National Park and animals move out of the National Park and move through human-use areas. The need for this flood-driven movement of animals through multi-use spaces is well understood by local stakeholders. They also understand that elephants move between forest fragments through such spaces; but, I am not so sure if they fully understand the importance of multi-use spaces in enabling movement and contributing to connectivity.

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 think both infrastructural development and human–wildlife conflict are considerable challenges to habitat connectivity. That infrastructure development can hamper connectivity has been known for a while, but the latter is only now being recognised and studied. But knowledge aside, I don’t think connectivity features sufficiently in planning for conservation and development in India. Ensuring connectivity in today’s rapidly changing world will become increasingly harder I think, but I am still hopeful that with more research, communication and stakeholder engagement, connectivity will become an integral part of conservation planning.

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?

Recent studies (Ghoddhousi et al., 2021 and Vasudev et al., 2022 for example) have brought to the fore the need to incorporate human behaviours and human–wildlife interactions into connectivity studies. Moving forward, more research in this space is needed to map connectivity and prioritise areas for connectivity. While it will be extremely challenging, I am hopeful that we can develop means to put it into action.