Starting out as the first Muslim woman Range Forest Officer in India, Shajna Karim, Wildlife Warden, Aralam Wildlife Division has since seen an illustrious career in the forest service. Her expertise comes from spearheading innovative social forestry initiatives for years, and deftly handling human-animal conflict in Aralam, all while placing the interests of wildlife and local communities firmly at the center of her work.
Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
We spoke to her about the early experiences that molded her love for the wilderness, how social forestry can engage the youth and local communities in conservation, and how her father’s career in forestry inspired her beyond measure.
How did you first get into the forest service? What drew you to this profession?
My father was actually a retired forest officer. I have an MSc. in Physics, and a B Ed. in Physical Science. I was passionate about the civil services, but I had to drop out when I was preparing for it due to personal reasons. I was a lecturer at Farook College, Calicut and then Vimal Jyothi Engineering College in Kannur. In between, I worked at Technopark, Trivandrum. But I left these jobs, due to my passion for the forest sector. I was attracted to the uniformed service because of my father. He had served in the forest department for 34 years, and everyone knew him as Ranger Abdullah.
When he was transferred, we would move with him. We stayed in the cradle of the forest and used to go to the forest with him a lot. When we lived in remote forest areas, teachers would come to our house and teach us. The forest was never unfamiliar to us. That ignited my passion. I was really motivated by my father.
As forest officers, we have to spend a lot of time inside the forest, go for perambulation, etc. I had to answer a lot of questions from relatives and friends, but my family supported me a lot.
A Abdullah, Shajna Karim’s father. When Prakriti Srivastava, Country Director, WCS-India joined the forest service, he was her first trainer. Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
When I joined the forest service, I was the first Muslim woman range forest officer in India. That added a lot to my father’s victories – he was so happy to have me in the same service. In achieving that success, all my family members, close relatives and friends stood by me. I owe my success entirely to my parents and siblings.
The Kerala Forest Department’s Social Forestry division has received a lot of recognition, even internationally. How important are these initiatives, and what is the approach towards social forestry that has set Kerala apart?
Many call social forestry the face of the forest department. Other wings are not as connected to society as they are to forest issues. But social forestry, as the name implies, deals with social commitment and responsibility. Initially the agenda of social forestry was afforestation and increasing tree cover in non-forest areas. But the forest department is going through a facelift, especially social forestry — it is now the face of the forest department. They are doing so many wonderful extension activities.
I was with the social forestry wing for quite a long time— four years. My main agenda was to create awareness among the public about conservation outside forest areas, for which we have done many extension activities. Actually, forest policy indicates that there is a paramount need to create awareness about the environment and conservation among society, and that should start with every child. So our focus was to make children aware about the importance of nature conservation. We would do a number of extension activities in schools, anganwadis and colleges, making students also participate. We always tried to be innovative, because the attitude of students has seen a drastic change. When we talk about these subjects in an old manner, they may not listen, but when we ask them to roleplay or give them a subject like bird conservation, they will do it. So we used to conduct flash mobs, quizzes, painting competitions, etc. to create awareness among them.
Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
Have there been any social forestry initiatives that you feel were very successful in impacting local communities?
The social forestry division conducts many planting programs like Enda Maram (My Tree), Haritha Keralam (Greening Kerala), Haritha Theeram (Greening Coastal Areas), Vidya Vanam, Kudumba Vanam, miyawaki planting, medicinal gardens, and other planting activities. These have all been widely appreciated by international agencies for their effective implementation. Even amid the pandemic, we could plant trees and distribute these trees across the state to increase Kerala’s greenery. We are also providing financial assistance to the sacred groves of Kerala to create awareness about how they are important to conservation.
We try to impart a touch of elegance to all our programs. For instance, on International Mother Language Day, we conducted a program for reciting Malayalam poems related to the environment, and a quiz in Malayalam for a group of enthusiastic students. Whatever national and international days come, we try to relate that to the environment and conduct innovative programs. We saw some very good results and made them understand the value of conservation.
When I was in Wayanad, we conducted a program which gained appreciation from all walks of society. It was forest fire season so we asked all art teachers of the district to come to a particular point. We had arranged drawing boards on the walls of the field station and asked them to paint their slogans or messages against forest fires on the walls. This was covered by all prime television channels and was a very good awareness message to the public about forest fires. I always tried to make extension activities innovative so people would be attracted more — dramas, flash mobs, street plays, skits, and other new artforms.
Karim painting at the forest fire awareness drive. Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
Now, social forestry’s agenda includes extension activities, awareness, as well as conservation of not only flora outside forest areas but also fauna like sparrows, cranes, and migratory birds. We are also working on conservation of Olive Ridley turtles in coastal areas, which has garnered widespread appreciation. In addition to this, we have also framed and strictly implemented captive elephant rules to ensure their welfare. In all these cases, we try to make people aware about conservation values and try to conserve these species in their own space, which has led to a drastic change in the forestry wing.
We also aim to introduce participatory management in urban and peri-urban areas, and areas outside designated forests in every district for the smooth and effective implementation of various programs across environment protection, afforestation, ecosystem services, and special activities including Green India Mission through social forestry wing, and Haritha Samithis. Participatory management will be very effective in making conservation outside forest areas important. For a certain time period, we had the notion that conservation should be limited to forest areas but we realized that this conservation should be landscape-level, including urban and peri-urban areas.
Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
This new initiative of participatory management which started three years ago in urban and peri-urban areas was implemented for all types of activities— eco-restoration, afforestation, nature conservation, river bank protection, planting, awareness programs, extension activities and field publicity. It will surely give us great results in the future and attract the local community towards conservation efforts taken up by the Kerala Forest Department.
This year, one of their innovative programs sought to replace all plastic seedling bags with coir containers to be eco-friendly.
Human-animal conflict is one of the biggest challenges faced by forest officers today. As someone who has handled these incidents before, what should forest officials keep in mind when dealing with these issues?
I deal with human-animal conflict everyday, round the clock in Aralam. Aralam is known not only for human-elephant conflict, but other types of conflicts also, due to spotted deer, wild boars and monkey menace. Despite the proactive measures of the forest department in mitigating human-animal conflict, it continues unresolved in some areas like Aralam, Palakkad and Wayanad. We have to admit that extreme damage is caused by wild elephants and other wild animals, this is also a truth. We have taken various measures like bio-fencing, and other types of preventive measures like temporary watchers, elephant patrolling teams, etc. A rapid response team in every district also attends to incidents of conflict.
Human-wildlife conflict management. Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
It is also a fact that thousands of farmers in Kerala have abandoned cultivation in their farmlands, especially those in forest patches, due to frequent crop raiding by elephants or other wild animals. Although fodder and water are available in forest areas due to our meticulous management these herds prefer hideouts adjacent to farmland or homesteads because it gives them easy access to fodder. Keralites have changed their cropping patterns over the years, so fragmentation is also a cause. Elephants do not get enough area for their travel or movement. People have encroached not on forest areas, but on unutilized land. They have started cultivating in nearby forest areas and constructing buildings, both of which have resulted in fragmentation. Elephants don’t know the boundary between forest land and people’s land, so they will come out due to the ease of getting crops like banana, pineapple, coffee, coconut trees, etc. from homesteads and farmlands. One thing we’ve noticed in Aralam is that crop raiding is more common in the night hours than daytime. The elephants come out after 5 or 7 pm, have food and go back to the forest.
Human-animal conflict to me is a major challenge in conservation, because we have to counter the negative attitudes of people towards wildlife species. We cannot have a solution without a social commitment in this case. Legally, we are bound to conserve or protect our wildlife. We may not be legally bound to protect farmers’ land, but we have a social responsibility to do it. We have to think from the perspective of fringe-area communities as well. That’s our social responsibility— to protect their life and property as well.
We think of human-elephant conflict as negative interactions, and focus a lot on the negative impact on humans. But we also have to realize that it causes similar stress to elephants to adjust and co-exist in human landscapes. They do not enjoy crop-raiding, or being driven back into the forest or sanctuary. We do it as a group of people and probably make noise, causing stress to the elephants. The elephant is a very intelligent animal. To deal with it, we need an intervention based on intelligence. We have to devise a method of getting them back into the forest through this intelligence.
As a forest officer, we should have these things in mind when we deal with human-elephant conflict. Firstly, as foresters we should know the usual hideouts preferred by the elephants and be able to identify if there is a leader in the herd. We should understand that pattern, and so many other factors in order to mitigate human-elephant conflict. We also have to do it with a social commitment. We should know the reason it is coming out, the crop raiding pattern, the herd size, whether it is a tusker or a group of 4-5 bulls. Throughout, we should keep in mind our social responsibility to protect fringe-area communities and be particular about not causing stress to the elephants.
You have worked in various divisions of the forest department. What would you say have been the highlights of your career?
I joined the forest service as a full-time range officer in Kerala in 2007. My father retired in 1999, and we struggled a lot during that time. When I joined the Forest Department, it was like coming home. Those were the feelings my father and mother had, because they spent most of their lifetime in forest quarters. I was really excited, I was on cloud nine to enter the forest department with my father and mother on my right and left arms. It was such a pleasant feeling.
For me, this profession sometimes feels like a vacation. Outsiders and tourists have to pay a lot to see the pristine beauty of the forest or are limited to certain parts of the forest. But as a forester, I can wander where I want, even into the interiors of the forest. My interest lies in trekking, perambulation through the wildlife, etc. so that is really amazing.
Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
During my posting as a range officer in Begur, we booked almost 18 cases of mass encroachment and had to arrest more than 1500 people. I also have a sweet memory of my time in Begur. When my father was a range officer in Begur, I met Prakriti Srivastava, for the first time. She was the first woman IFS officer I had ever seen, and I was just a small child at the time.
What about the biggest learnings?
What I've learnt in my career is that the earth is meant for coexistence. All flora and fauna, from the grasshopper to the elephant have equal rights. A famous Malayali writer, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer has written a book called Bhoomiyude Avakashikal, or the inheritors of the earth. In that, he says that all living creatures have equal rights on earth. That’s what I have also learnt from this career. I see grasshoppers, spotted deer, bears, tigers and elephants— they all exist in nature without creating problems, in their own space.
Another important thing is that we protect pure air and water for the next generations. If we see it in an aesthetic way also, we can say that we are the protectors of such a beautiful earth. Kahlil Gibran has written these lines that mean whenever nature hears about what we talk about our satisfaction, no river will reach the sea, no spring will arrive. If nature ever thinks of limiting her resources, how many of us will get pure air to breathe or pure water to drink? We are blessed with a job in the forestry sector, because we are serving nature for the next generation.
Forestry is an art as well as a science. During our training, we also have to study forest engineering. We have to work as supervisors, researchers, and engineers. We have to play so many roles in this career.
The final thing is about family support. No matter what profession we are in, we have to get support from our family. Fortunately, my husband works in the police department. He is familiar with 24-hour shifts, and since he is in the uniformed service, he knows the struggles we have to face. We may miss some family gatherings, but still my husband, my family and even my son, understand the difficulty of the job. We have to be away from family for weeks or months, but they still ensure everything goes smoothly.
Karim with her family. Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
In my life, I’ve learnt that for a woman, the life cycle and career cycle will progress parallelly till a certain point. Till that point, we have to balance both, motherhood and our careers. For that balance, family support is very important.
What do you enjoy most about your current posting?
I have to quote Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac. He says, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese or wild flowers is a right as inalienable as free speech.” I belong to the minority— I enjoy being in the wild, seeing the wilderness, and wild lives of both flora and fauna of my forests. I have stayed in anti-poaching camps and spent my time in interior forest areas with my staff, on trekking, perambulation, etc. So in my current posting, I enjoy being in the wild.
Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
In the future, are there any particular posts you would like to be assigned? Any aspect of forestry that you would like to venture into?
I’m not particular about any post in the future but I am particular about working with 100% satisfaction in any post assigned to me. Wherever I go, I have tried innovative experiments with the post. Even here in Aralam, we have tried to do things in our own way during the floods, both last year and this year. Now during the pandemic, we set up a mobile library when children were sitting idle at home in tribal hamlets near the sanctuary. Our staff would go to all houses and supply books to students, while keeping all COVID protocol in place. During the floods, our staff has been cleaning the highways and visiting all colonies to ensure they are in good health and have all facilities. Photo courtesy: Shajna Karim
So wherever I go, whatever post I am assigned to, I want to do it with 100% sincerity and commitment to nature and the people around us. I want to balance these. We should not cause any ill feelings to the public when they come to us for any service. That’s my ambition. Although India has only 2.4% of the earth’s total land area, it contains 8% of the world’s biodiversity, despite having billions of people and half the number of livestock. For that, we have to thank our forefathers, and the conservation measures taken in India. We still have good air and water because they protected it, without compromise. Whatever post I am assigned to, I have to ensure the same for the next generation as well. We have the forest force of India to ensure conservation, and I am proud to be in this service.