An Interview with Tiasa Adhya


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

Today, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Tiasa Adhya, Co-Founder – The Fishing Cat Project

Tiasa Adhya

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

It has been a journey of ups and downs and a journey that tests resilience.

I cannot particularly pin it down to a moment, (i.e., what drew me to this field). I do understand that my father’s love for nature got imprinted on me from a very young age. So, naturally as I grew up, the seeds of love continued to grow inside. Being a city kid, my neighbourhood lacked backyard ponds and even a playing ground but our alley happened and still happens to be the only non-concretised one in the neighbourhood. The trees and gardens in the surrounding plots were rapidly cut down and replaced by buildings while the trees in our alley stand tall even today. These trees along with books and films on wildlife that my father introduced me to kept nourishing a very strong love for nature in me and I wanted to do something to aid in the persistence of threatened wildlife.

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

Of course I have. From sexual harassments to getting victim shamed – in short, what many women face in various sections of society working in various types of field.

I worked in one of the biggest wildlife organisations in Bengal as a fresher. Danone Fund for Nature funds this organisation for carbon credit projects. I was the field person who took the funding agency to the Sundarbans on their first field visit – sort of the field visit based on which the agency chose to work with this organisation. The representatives who came from the funding agency were French. They were very friendly and one of them started teaching me French words. When we were returning, he slipped a note into my hand which read “This is my room number. Let’s have some fun tonight.” I was dumbfounded of course and took the note to show it to the lady in the NGO who was the Project Director. In her college days, she was the first woman General Secretary of the student’s body of one of the best colleges in Kolkata; Presidency College. She was a popular leftist student leader and a shining beacon for the women in her college. So, automatically, I was expecting a just reaction from her. Not only did she do nothing and not speak a single word about the incident to the funders, but also told me that I should cover myself up more in the field, which happened to be the sweaty, muddy terrain of Sundarbans. While I can laugh at the hypocrisy now, I am angered by the several cases of sexual misconduct and harassment that is happening to women in wildlife. To all those who have had similar experiences, I urge them to speak up publicly about such incidents. There cannot be a negotiation with such forms of oppression, we need to fight and defeat it as the only long term solution.

Apart from this, I met a lot of the older men in this field as a budding wildlifer. These men were engrossed with the idea that wildlife and wild places were domains of masculine and macho men. They tried to make me understand that women were too fragile. Thirteen years down the line I would be glad to have a conversation with these men again but I do not think they would dare speak their minds anymore, that is, if they have not changed themselves already.

Thirdly, often it is easy for men to befriend poachers and work as on ground informants since they can light a bidi together or drink alcohol together – all well-known tools to bond socially. But I cannot do so as a woman. Everyone knows why. I have to be the quintessential daughter or sister, never a friend. This is something that is a hindrance, a constant irritant. The root of it lies in patriarchy. It’s well past time now. Threatened wildlife and patriarchy needs role reversal, patriarchy needs to go extinct.

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

    If you face sexual harassment in any organisation, let your close colleagues know about it, write an official mail without fearing consequences, file a police complaint, post in social media tagging prominent people, portals in the field as well as the National Women’s Commission and the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

    On a different note, we would benefit if we moved away from using sanitary napkins towards menstrual cups. Not only does it significantly reduce our plastic footprint, menstrual cups maintain comfort levels in the field big-time.

    Pertaining specifically to the field of conservation, I feel that my management skills improved a lot because I have mostly worked outside protected areas. Often, as students of wildlife, we work majorly inside protected areas, with the Forest Department as the only stakeholder. However, working outside protected areas, really trains one in dealing with multiple stakeholders. Cultivating this skill is crucial for any conservation practitioner as conservation needs to have a landscape-level approach.

    Do not romanticize local communities and see local community conservation as a one stop solution for all conservation problems.

    It is good to be aware of the fact that conservation is a continuous process that requires engagement, presence and innovation throughout. What works today and here might not work tomorrow and/or there.

    Believe in yourself, in your abilities and in your dreams.

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

    There is a lot of variation in how local residents perceive wildlife and their inter-relationships throughout and it is a good exercise to think why in certain places there is more tolerance or why certain wild animals are just tolerated more.

    For instance, in human-dominated landscapes of southern Bengal, where I am working on Fishing Cat conservation, I feel that people have very little tolerance to wildlife in general and Fishing Cats in particular. In comparison, I observe that people in Chilika (in Odisha) do not bother about Fishing Cats.

    If we delve deeper, we would see that in the Bengal landscape, Fishing Cats prey upon fishes from private ponds. This means that people incur a loss when Fishing Cats prey on fish that people spend time and money cultivating. However, Chilika belongs to everyone and no one. It is a huge lagoon and the largest in Asia with a high fish abundance. Therefore, if Fishing Cats fish from the lagoon, no human incurs a loss and therefore animosity does not colour human-Fishing Cat interactions. My understanding is that the more private our resources become, the more defined our perception of loss and more likely that the wildlife with which we share our resources with would be vulnerable in such shared spaces. On the contrary, the more communal and vast our natural resources are, the more likely wildlife will be tolerated by local residents.

    The similarity across landscapes I have seen is the erosion of existing and cultural tolerance towards wild animals and a younger generation among the rural populace who are losing touch with their traditional ecological knowledge systems and pursuing urban aspirations.

    In the field, conducting a survey (Credit: Tiasa Adhya)

    Are there any interesting myths or stories from folklore that can better inform us about the cultural heritage and symbolic associations of the fishing cat?

    Think of Fishing Cats as the representative of a marginal community. A marginal community stays outside the mainstream consciousness. So are wetlands. People and policy makers generally think of wetlands to be plain waterbodies. They are generally oblivious to the fact that wetlands can completely dry up during the summer and flood during the winter. Moreover, society and policies see wetlands as water logged, and mosquito-infested wastelands. On the contrary, human communities that are strictly dependent on wetlands see them as homes. Unfortunately, the representation of such communities are minimal in mainstream literature and arts. Therefore, the Fishing Cat does not have any heritage tag or symbolic cultural associations.

    However, the Angkor Vat temple complex in Cambodia has an outstanding story to tell in this context. Engraved onto this world heritage site is the figure of a short legged and short tailed cat with blotches swimming among a school of fishes – small and big. Unmistakably, it’s a Fishing Cat. This temple complex; built on the floodplains of the mighty Mekong demonstrates how an ancient civilization which once thrived at the same place regularly interacted with this cat. In this context, then the Fishing Cat is symbolic to a time of thriving floodplains that sustained human civilisations.

    Many a time, media coverage focuses on large mammals traversing fragmented habitat. And habitat fragmentation is the primary threat impacting fishing cats as well. How can we highlight the importance of connectivity for fishing cats in particular, and small cats in general?

    Rather than small cats, I would suggest that we view Fishing Cats as a member of the wetland ecological community. This is because small cats occupy various types of niches and exhibit differential levels of tolerance towards anthropogenic modifications. It would be difficult to understand how fragmentation affects Fishing Cats from the perspective of small cats. However, if we try to understand Fishing Cat connectivity from the perspective of degrading and rapidly disappearing wet landscapes, it would make much more sense. Fishing Cats; being carnivores, and belonging to the charismatic felid community, is capable of garnering crowd support and much needed attention on wetland connectivity issues. Conversely, we have a strong wetland law and excellent guidelines from the Ministry, which, if followed in letter and spirit, would work wonders for Fishing Cat conservation. Thus, more awareness and education among urban communities who are likely to have more powerful voices is needed to engender support and powerful advocacy campaigns for wetland and Fishing Cat connectivity.

    Linear infrastructure can often lead to instances of roadkill. While mitigation measures focussed on large mammals are being incorporated in some places, are they likely to be effective for smaller species as well? What are some of the specific considerations for small cats/ fishing cats that need to be considered for such mitigation to be effective?

    It might. We do not know. However, our mitigation measures focused on mega carnivores might be concentrated near protected areas, which might benefit Fishing Cats but will certainly not be enough. More than 90% of Fishing Cat distribution is present outside protected areas in human-dominated landscapes. Most of these areas are located in densely areas with high human populations. Tackling road kill incidents throughout the Fishing Cat range presents a difficult frontier for conservationists. We could cordon off both sides of roads by putting nets, and keep some portions open. In these portions we need to introduce bumpers and speed meters to check the speed of cars. Proper sign boards should be put up in these sections with information on the threatened status of wildlife and an appeal to drivers to slow down their cars.

    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?

    If it is business-as-usual, we know what the answer would be. However, as a conservationist, I believe we should speak against business-as-usual. Wetlands are categorised as ‘wastelands’ under land use policies and this gives more power to socio-economic development to convert these dynamic and life-sustaining ecosystems. We must be vocal and see to it that the Indian wetland protection laws be implemented in letter and spirit. If we are able to unite our efforts and raise the decibel for wetland advocacy, we might just control the urge to accept

    What have been some of your accomplishments with regards to fishing cat conservation? The challenges? Bringing this small cat to the forefront of wetland conservation?

    Partha Dey, (my colleague), and I, co-founded The Fishing Cat Project (TFCP) in 2010. We started working in West Bengal where the Fishing Cat is the State Animal. However, awareness on the Fishing Cat was minimal then. So much so that pictures of dead Fishing Cats used to be published in leading newspapers as ‘civet cats’. We thus began spreading awareness by involving multiple stakeholders – local residents, civil administration and policy makers, student communities as well as the media. One indicator that this approach has been successful is the accurate representation of the Fishing Cat in newspapers today. Additionally, there are more eyes and ears looking out for the Fishing Cat and taking up independent conservation ventures now than there ever was. Our data on the Fishing Cat’s presence in one of the largest wetland expanses outside protected areas in West Bengal contributed to a favourable order and a landmark judgement from the court. Due to this court order, all such wetlands outside protected areas can receive protection.

    India’s legal infrastructure is one of the strongest in the world when it comes to imparting protection to wetlands and also to wildlife. However, wildlife is the least of priorities, especially at present, and people know not what it means to destroy wetlands. Therefore, the challenge is to see to it that laws are properly implemented. Litigations are a good conservation tool to ensure proper implementation of our laws. However, these could become expensive affairs. I am still to see any funding agency that would fund litigations against the government. There is a lot of unnecessary emphasis on ‘community conservation’ as if that by itself will solve all conservation problems. These combined are some of the conservation challenges which many like me face.

    Secondly, our work in Chilika led to the adoption of the Fishing Cat as Chilika’s official ambassador – a declaration which came from the Chilika Development Authority, the guardian government body looking after the health and wellbeing of Chilika and our primary collaborator in that landscape. It then led to the first population estimation of the Fishing Cat in Chilika which was done completely in a human-dominated landscape by involving fishermen communities.

    One challenge of working with government officials is that implementation depends on the officer-in-charge. One can manage to form a good partnership with a good officer and work towards a good conservation plan. But then the officer is bound to get transferred and then the conservationist is back to square one wherein they will have to build a new partnership. In rare instances do these conservation plans get institutionalised (i.e., whoever is in charge will have to implement the conservation plan).

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

    If our policies are hell-bent on destroying wetlands, not only would it spell disaster for Fishing Cats but also us. Wetlands are our supermarkets, water reservoirs, purifiers, and carbon sinks. More ecologically unsound anthropogenic development would disrupt the ecological fabric that sustains both human communities and Fishing Cat populations, leading to decreasing resources and increasing conflict. I cannot imagine harmonious existence under such a scenario.

    However, all is not lost. We still have an opportunity to make it work for conservation and for our future. Wetlands are known to be integral to achieving globally accepted and recommended Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).Therefore, wetlands have to be conserved by advocating for their value in maintaining both society and biodiversity.