Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing the Rtd. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden of Kerala Forest Department, Mr. Surendra Kumar.
(Interviewed by Sourabha Rao)
In his recollections are his early days, his experience of being an IFS officer in Kerala, the challenges wildlife has been facing in the state and the measures that the forest department is taking to curb them, a work of short fiction he has authored, his assertion that conservation NGOs should work with other stakeholders of wildlife conservation, and what he thinks one must embody to get into forestry as one’s profession. Mr. Kumar’s answers are unassuming and candid, and we’re happy to kickstart the week by sharing this inspiring interview with you.
1. What (or who) inspired you to choose forestry as a profession? Please let us know the significant milestones in your journey of turning your passion into your profession.
In my case, it is the other way round. I converted my profession into passion. I spent my early years of life on the fringes of a wildlife sanctuary in Bihar. I grew up dealing with human-wildlife conflict. Deer and wild boars used to raid our agricultural field and I was often deputed to scare them away using fire-torches and by making huge sounds. Destiny brought me to Indian Forest Service and I fell in love with my job immediately, effortlessly. The sheer variety of responsibilities and opportunities offered by this service is immense, which suited my ever-inquisitive mind always looking for some sort of adventure in life.
2. Could you please tell us about the diversity of wildlife and wild places/natural habitats (including marine wildlife) of Kerala, aptly known as ‘God’s Own Country’ for its natural beauty?
‘God's Own Country’, true to its name, is home to all kinds of flora, fauna and landscapes. The vast coastlines coupled with continuous and fragmented mountain ranges, scores of waterbodies, southwest and northeast mountains, and high temperature have endowed the region with immense diversity in habitat and species composition. It is well known that habitat diversity in Kerala ranges from evergreen forest, shola forest, montane grasslands, semi-evergreen forest, dry deciduous forest to lakes and marine ecosystem. This variety in habitats has supported a multitude of flora and fauna. Every square inch of Kerala landscape is exquisitely mesmerizing.
But some of my all-time favourite places are – Eravikulam National Park, Anamudi, Pambadam and Mathikettan Shola National Parks, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and Parambikulam Sanctuary, and not to forget the Meesapulimala grasslands near Munnar, too.
3. What are the biggest challenges you faced during your tenure and what measures did you adopt to overcome them?
Forest and wildlife resources are land-based. Because of the very high density of the human population in the state, these resources are under tremendous pressure from people as well as development departments. Forest officers, while sticking to their mandates, often find themselves isolated and they are inappropriately termed anti-people and anti-development. In my career, I faced unusually high numbers of transfers for taking stands and sides in support of forests.
Fortunately, my nomadic mindset welcomed these transfers and I was able to stick to my mandate. But Kerala is still a place where you can take a stand in the best interests of the forest against the wishes of power that be and still survive and flourish. Apart from unwanted frequent transfers, I was really never persecuted or overlooked.
4. What are the major threats facing wildlife in Kerala today?
Habitat fragmentation, especially in north Kerala is the biggest challenge for conservation of wildlife.
Human-wildlife conflict is on the rise. Transgression in the human habitat, if at all it is appropriate to use the phrase because, basically, it was wildlife habitat not very long ago – elephants, tigers, leopards and wild boars are commonplace. Major chunk of the energy of the Kerala Forest Department is diverted to mitigate this war-like situation. The mindset of people at large is another challenge. Nowadays, people do not want to share the ecosystem with wildlife. They want exclusive space for themselves where presence of wildlife is not tolerated.
Because of this intolerance, people demand for impervious structures like stone walls and rail fencing which are not only expensive, but are also counterproductive in the long run. Besides, resources at the command of the forest department remain very low which prove to be inadequate to tackle the challenge facing the department.
Wild meat is another area of concern. Of late, some people have taken fancy to consumption of wild meat and I feel the tendency is on the rise.
5. What measures are being taken to curb wildlife crime in Kerala?
Largely, the forest department has been able to contain the wildlife crime. There was a major incidence of Idamalayar elephant poaching in 2015 in which nearly 20 elephants were killed over a period of 1-2 years prior to surfacing of the case. The department acted very professionally and seized the ivory from Delhi and different parts of the state, arresting nearly 70 accused. These cases are being tried and I am hopeful that they will result in convictions.
Dedication of forest officials is the biggest asset of the department – officers who are able to act even with meagre resources. Regular capacity-building, sometimes with the assistance of organisations like WCS0India and Wildlife Trust of India keep the officers ready and updated to take up challenges. Regular patrolling using Mstripes App and bringing much-needed improvement in monitoring forest offences through HAWK App are some of the newest additions in the strategy to take up the challenge.
6. How is human-wildlife interaction affecting both wildlife as well as humans in Kerala today? Are there any conflict resolutions or conflict management measures adopted in Kerala that can set a benchmark for other states with similar situations?
The measures to manage the conflict in Kerala are almost on the same lines as other states in similar situations. But Kerala has taken some very proactive steps by establishing a huge Elephant Rehabilitation Centre at Kottur near Thiruvananthapuram. Also, a tiger hospice and palliative care unit has been set up in Wayanad to take care of straying tigers which are not found fit for release in the wild. Some more such facilities are planned to be implemented in the near future. A chain of well-equipped Rapid Response Teams is another activity which can be emulated by other states.
7. How do you think wildlife conservation organisations, forest departments and other relevant government agencies must work together for the greater good of our country’s biodiversity in the coming days and years?
Conserving biodiversity, protecting forests and mitigating human-wildlife conflict should not be seen as the responsibilities of solely forest departments. Other stakeholders – for example, organisations like WCS-India – have roles to play in this important sector. Wildlife conservation organisations should come down to a meeting platform whose foundation is conservation, giving up their respective egos, misgivings and mistrusts.
8. Could you please tell us about your book, Hakim Singh and Other Short Stories?
Writing short fiction is another passion of mine. During the course of performing my duties, I came across very many unforgettable characters and incidents. It is very interesting to wrap these realities with the fictional fabric. I like the creative moments so much that this works like a stress-buster. It has a healing effect indeed. My second book is long overdue. It will come out
9. What is your advice for youngsters who dream of joining forestry?
Forestry should not be taken as a mere employment opportunity. Our actions and inactions in the job have a far-reaching impact on the well-being of the environment and people. If that passion to work as mandated is present in the individual, only then he/she should join this sector. I would like for them to come with the passion of working for the environment and lead a very productive professional life.