Ask the Expert

World Wildlife day- An interview with Mr. Abhirup khara

World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to commemorate the enticing and varied forms of wild fauna and flora and also to raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that their conservation provides to people. The official theme decided for this year is “Recovering key species for ecosystem restoration”. It falls on the 3rd of March, 2022. 

On the occasion of World Wildlife day, team Knowbel had the privilege to interview a passionate wildlife explorer Mr. Abhirup Khara. He is also a current phD student at IISER Pune.

About Mr. Khara: I am from Kolkata where I have studied till I finished my Masters in Zoology. As I went on learning about ecology and wildlife, I grew more interest in it. As I started birding and looking at natural entities, I felt more strongly about pursuing this field. I got a chance in the Masters’ programme on wildlife and conservation biology in the National Centre for Biological Sciences, I completed my second masters. My dissertation work took me to the beautiful mountains of Trans-Himalaya in Spiti valley. In Kibber wildlife sanctuary, I worked on blue sheep and its forage clump exploitation behaviour and how pasture quality, body size and seasonal changes alter their decision making. It was a great opportunity for me to work with the local people to understand the conservation issues and it was wonderful to spend five months in winter with the lovely people of Kibber and Tashigang village. I then immediately joined NCF as a research affiliate which is giving me a great opportunity to explore the beautiful mountains of Himalayas. I wish to understand the ecological processes driving different ecosystem properties and to use my scientific research to understand conservation issues. The only thing that can rival my interest in working in this landscape and looking at animals and plants, is my love of playing football.

Atharva Valanju: How did this entire journey of exploring wildlife begin? At what point did you realise that this was not just a hobby but something that you wanted to actually pursue as a career?

Abhirup Khara: I did my masters from Calcutta University on zoology and that was an unfortunate accident in a way because I never wanted to study zoology during my BSc, but when I started studying zoology I started liking it.But then again when I did my Masters, ecology was never a very big part of the zoology course and there not a lot of people interested in ecology so there was slightly lesser competition as well. At the same time I started developing a liking towards birding and when I learnt that NCBS also provided a master’s course for it, I applied. This is how I eventually ended up pursuing ecology and wildlife.

Asmi Gaikwad: Most students generally go for a PhD program after completing their masters, what prompted you to complete a second master’s degree from NCBS ?

Abhirup Khara:I think it’s more of a personal thing than anything else. When I started looking for job opportunities in ecology, I realised I did not have enough exposure as to what research takes place in ecology since Kolkata was not a big ecology hub. When I started looking for Ph.D. opportunities, mainly the names of the many NGOs came up. And right now, I know how big these NGOs are and how good they are. Still, at that time, I had no idea. I had applied to the Wildlife Institute of India, and I did get a JRF position there. At the same time, I got a master’s position in NCBS, but I always knew that I wanted to be at NCBS because its environment is very rigorous in terms of academia. There were also many renowned and eminent biologist who take the course at NCBS so that was also exciting

Atharva Valanju: Since you have worked on population assessments of snow leopards, could you tell us about any thrilling or potentially terrifying experiences you have had while you’re out in the wild?

Abhirup Khara: You mostly don’t see snow leopards up close. It’s advised to never be on the same pasture as them, you can observe them say across a river. There was an encounter that we had with a saltwater crocodile while diving in Andaman and we had to abandon the exercise for that day. You also need to ensure that you work safely so we often observe animals from far away using binoculars and make sure that they remain undisturbed

Asmi Gaikwad: Not only changing prey predator numbers, but also climate change has severely impacted the biodiversity of these species especially about the snow Leopard and Uriel. What, according to your research, should be done to save these rare species from extinction?

Abhirup Khara: This is  a very tricky question and I don’t think anyone in this world has any perfect  answer for this because it’s extremely difficult. Like one of the aspects that Urial’s face is hunting in Kargil,and it is mostly done by Islamic populations. Now, the moment you say this, it’s a very, very controversial topic. There are a lot of social, economical and historical connotations to it, because there are a lot of gun licences given without any need and you see more hunting in those regions. You go to the northeast and find people hunting bats and eating them. Urial are also facing the problem of livestock grazing as there are a lot of sheep and cattle which reduces the amount of food left for the wild Urials. If you decide to stop these things, there are huge consequences for the people who live there. So we have to continuously engage with people and make sure that ecosystems can thrive along with local populations. 

Asmi Gaikwad: You mentioned that you also like to do birding. According to you, what is the best place one can visit for viewing or observing a plethora of vivid bird species?

Abhirup Khara: I have a very different way of looking at birds, so you will find a lot of birders who actually go and search for magnificent birds, which are good looking and rare, which you’ll see probably once in your lifetime. I like to observe and view birds which are commonly found around us like the common house crow or a jungle crow. I’m not a very good birder, sSo half of the time I have to use the book to identify different birds. If you are interested, just go and look at birds from your terrace, you’ll find a lot of variety. 

Atharva Valanju: You enjoy looking out for insects, spiders, trees and rocks. What do you find so exciting about them?

Abhirup Khara: I’ll start with rocks because I think I have grown more interested in history than anything else. In the last six years since I joined NCBS, I think I have grown interested in rocks as I feel they are something incredible to look at. I like Chemistry and that probably gives me the motivation to learn and read more about rocks. The rock formations in the landscapes as well as the vegetation are amazing nature’s creations. Stepping into the campus, you suddenly realise that this must be our grassland just like the Panchavati hills! About the insects and spiders, many people tend to show a hatred towards spiders.As a kid, even I was afraid of them. But now with their behavioural studies, I find them pretty cool! I believe they are the prettiest creatures.  

Asmi Gaikwad: How many places have you travelled  for your wildlife expeditions? And what, according to you, was the most exciting part of these explorations.

Abhirup Khara: I haven’t gone on any expeditions till now. Expeditions are something people generally do in bigger groups. But for the purpose of completing my studies, I travelled to some places. I went to Spiti for my Masters’ work. I stayed there for five months in winter in the temperatures of -35 degree Celsius. You enjoy the locals there, their food especially, their traditions and winter festivals are nice to attend. Moreover, you need to walk nearly 16 kilometres to reach your destination! It was an amazing experience that we got from our course in NCBS that gave us the opportunity. 

Atharva Valanju: Have you ever tried expanding your research explorations outside India / do you have any plans in the near future? 

Abhirup Khara: Of course! Who doesn’t want to? Especially the African jungles or the tropical rainforests or the Patagonian deserts of Argentina! I haven’t explored it yet. But someday when I get a chance I will surely. 

Asmi Gaikwad:  What do you look forward to exploring next?

Abhirup Khara: I don’t know yet. I have no clue what I’m going to do for my PhD. So, that will take five to seven years of my life next. And maybe at the end of my phD level, think of whatever the question that you ask just right now, I’m trying to survive. I would really love to take my interest forward in understanding the grassland ecology of the Indian subcontinent. A lot of things are written in terms of culture and history. This may have been around 2000 to 5000 years ago. But, how did grasslands come into being? It’s something that no one has ever looked up before. But many people have started studying it now. Grasslands have a really tricky ecosystem. One of the most important is carbon storage which most of us don’t realise! And we are literally talking about why we aren’t planting trees on grassland when grasslands store tons of carbon under the soil. There’s a high turnover when every year they die and the carbon builds up creating another ecosystem. You see a variety of flowers and flowering plants but according to Indian laws, grassland is a wasteland. So, there is no grassland unless protected within national parks. It’s actually one of the most threatened ecosystems in India.  

Atharva Valanju: What message would you like to give to our readers, especially the ones who are keen to explore wildlife just as you do as well as in general?

Abhirup Khara: I don’t know. I am not in a position to give any message, though (laughs). It’s simple, if you are keen to explore the wildlife then start looking at the different wildlife species! Look at cockroaches. They might sound disgusting but they can survive attacks as harsh as nuclear attacks! And that’s incredible indeed. Look up more about tribal history if you want to know more about it that we were never taught in school. Most of the wildlife that was associated with them and their life.

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