India’s Wildlife Defenders - The Sanctuary Wildlife Awards 2023

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 12, December 2023

A Sanctuary Report

Lifetime Service Award
Protectors of wild habitats who have been in action for decades, inspiring millions, sparking movements, unearthing natural history knowledge, building conservation strategies, and shaping communities…

The self-effacing Dr. Erach Bharucha stands tall yet humble among his peers, students and friends as he continues his journey as an environmental educator and conservationist. Photo: Prachi Galange/Sanctuary Photolibrary.

Dr. Erach Bharucha
Environmental educator, conservationist, photographer, surgeon

Sitting pillion on Dr. Sálim Ali’s bike and whizzing about to discover Baya Weaver colonies, a young boy in Pune rode into a lifelong passion for the natural world. He grew to become an architect for environmental education and conservation, shaping the lives of thousands, and protecting the wildlife and ecosystem he was extraordinarily passionate about. Alongside, but just as dedicatedly and with deep commitment, he became a surgeon, a surgery teacher, and administrator of two major hospitals! At the age of 80, with over five decades of wildlife conservation under his belt, he honoured the Sanctuary Nature Foundation by accepting its Lifetime Service Award 2023 for his commitment to wild India and for being a straight-talking spokesman for Earth’s biosphere and its connection with the quality of human life.

The self-effacing Dr. Erach Bharucha stands tall yet humble among his peers, students and friends as he continues his journey as an environmental educator and conservationist. He has variously served on multiple committees and organisations. including the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Central Zoo Authority, WWF-India, Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Wildlife Trust of India, and more.

Dr. Bharucha has contributed greatly to conservation research projects on diverse species including the Great Indian Bustard. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Erach Bharucha.

Persuaded by his inspiration, Dr. Sálim Ali, Dr. Bharucha served in various capacities on the management board of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for decades. In the process, he contributed greatly to conservation research projects on diverse species including flamingos, rusty spotted cats, blackbuck, wolves, and the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, and its vanishing grassland habitats. Down the years, he found himself specialising in environment education, biodiversity management, land use planning, forestry, and even zoo planning and management.

A critical juncture in Dr. Bharucha’s life was the birth of the Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research (BVIEER), which he developed from the ground up, designing its programmes and its ecologically sustainable campus. As the Director of BVIEER, Dr. Bharucha nurtured, literally, thousands of students and teachers who are now practitioners in the field of environmental conservation, all with a healthy blend of theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience.

As the Head of the Department of Surgery at the Bharati Vidyapeeth Medical College, he has played a significant role in highlighting the connection between good environmental practices and human health. And as if this were not enough, Dr. Bharucha is an accomplished photographer and a prolific author who has published several books, using his own images shot by his trusty camera that accompanied him to dozens of India’s finest wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. As a virtual shadow of Dr. Sálim Ali, for most of his life, he learned the value of keeping detailed notes on locations and these were what he turned into articles and papers, too numerous to count, in national and international publications.

Dr. Bharucha sees himself primarily as an educator and a communicator. He is an accomplished photographer and a prolific author who has published several books. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Erach Bharucha.

One contribution he is exceedingly proud of is his academic textbook on environmental education, now translated into eight different languages! This has now been guiding undergraduates for over a decade. Childlike himself, he has penned several children’s books including his delightful three-volume Wonders of the Indian Wilderness and the immensely readable Sálim Ali: The Charismatic Birdman. In characteristic fashion, the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the children of long-serving staff of the BNHS, which has been his life.

Dr. Erach Bharucha continues to leave an imprint on people, institutions, policies, India’s landscape, and all our hearts.

For his unwavering commitment to conservation education, his love of the wilds, and his undiminished passion for the natural world, we salute him.

Young Naturalist Award
Driven youth leader, who sets an example for his or her peers and older generations alike, through a thirst for knowledge and conservation entrepreneurship… motivated by hopes of a sustainable future on planet Earth.

Aswathi Asokan
Nature educator, naturalist, community campaigner

Aswathi is a dedicated nature educator, researcher, conservationist, and an accomplished Carnatic vocalist and veena player. Photo Courtesy: Aswathi Asokan.

What do nature education, Carnatic music, and the butterflies of Chennai have in common? Winner of the Sanctuary Young Naturalist Award Aswathi Asokan!

A dedicated nature educator, researcher, conservationist, accomplished Carnatic vocalist and veena player, Aswathi is also co-author of a bilingual field guide Butterflies of Chennai and Seashells: An Activity Book for the Beach and Ocean – all at the age of 22!

Brought up in Chennai, Aswathi is dedicated to protecting Tamil Nadu’s biodiversity and making nature education accessible to all. With ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ rampant in today’s children, it takes passionate youth to rebuild the connection between children and the wild. Reconnecting kids with the environment through hands-on nature walks is crucial not only for their physical and mental health, but also to create the next generation of eco-warriors, and Aswathi is among those leading the charge.

A nature-educator and Programme Coordinator at the Palluyir Trust over the last two years, Aswathi is now studying for her Master’s in Wildlife Conservation Action – where she is researching the invasive Charru mussel Mytella strigata and its impact on local fisherfolk and coastal biodiversity. She is dedicated to propagating nature education among the broader public and legal advocacy for environmental issues, particularly in her home state.

Aswathi says that the stories of shores, tides, spiders and trees are not meant to be secrets. They are meant to be sanctuaries that belong to everyone, and everyone could belong to. Reaching out to the public, in her view, is essential to build connections and a sense of belonging between people, their environments and landscapes. And she walks her talk. Aswathi started off as a member of the Young Naturalists’ Network (YNN), Chennai where she was the Content Editor and then Chief Editor of an e-magazine called Nature Trail. As part of YNN, she started organising more outreach in the form of walks and workshops for people in the city. Aswathi then joined a small team of youth from YNN and the Madras Naturalists Society (MNS), and worked along Tamil Nadu’s coasts. This has been a great effort in documenting the region’s ecology and biodiversity in scientific literature, identifying threats, and preserving and communicating local knowledge. All this to create documentation vital to argue the case for protecting these sites for posterity. Through this work, Aswathi and her team also published a scientific paper, and created field guides and other nature education material focused on coastal biodiversity. Wanting to expand her horizons into other habitats and ecologies, while making nature education more accessible, and a culture across the city, Aswathi joined the Palluyir Trust.

Aswathi sees herself as a catalyst for a society, which is more nature oriented. She is bridging the gap between people and their surroundings, particularly in her home state. Photo Courtesy: Aswathi Asokan.

At the Palluyir Trust, Aswathi played several roles. She has co-facilitated the fisherfolk apprentice programme for fisher-kids, creating field guides, educational games and posters, handled social media accounts, and led nature walks and workshops. She has helped develop the Climate, Biodiversity, People curriculum, currently being used in many Chennai schools to communicate the importance of conservation. Aswathi has also continued her work in research and environmental advocacy.

Much of Aswathi’s work involves youth and children of climate-vulnerable communities such as fisherfolk, using a habitat familiar to them as a portal for learning and connecting with their home-landscape, with a focus on empowering them and hopefully, leading to a shift in culture. There’s more. Through this work, she has also been involved in documenting local Tamil names for field guides, and along with her team has been meticulously recording local knowledge to make natural history more accessible, and to preserve the fast-eroding traditional ecological knowledge.

Aswathi is deeply passionate about all the life bustling in her immediate urban landscape, while working with local communities and hoping to make nature-based learning a norm everywhere, for everyone. She has worked along with other young naturalists to create a comprehensive field guide titled Butterflies of Chennai, which was released earlier this year, based on the documentation work of many contributors over the last 10 years. She is increasingly involved in and excited about urban wildlife through documentation and outreach. She considers urban biodiversity “one of the last remaining portals to tap into the nature-shaped gap in people’s hearts.”

For being the lighthouse that guides children towards safer ecological inheritances. For being the reason countless young minds stand before their oceans, swamps, marshes, estuaries, wetlands and ask, ‘What is your story?’ For being all this while still a student, Sanctuary honours her.

Wildlife Service Awards
Inspired wildlifers, forest employees, researchers, villagers… anyone currently involved with nature conservation and the battle to protect our biosphere. Sanctuary searched for true heroes who display extraordinary courage, dedication and determination and set high personal standards for others to follow…

Ritesh Sarothiya
Deputy Conservator of Forests, jurist, anti-poaching crusader

Ritesh Sarothiya is an Indian Forest Service officer and Deputy Conservator of Forests in the Madhya Pradesh cadre. He is also the Regional Deputy Director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) based in New Delhi. Photo Courtesy: Ritesh Sarothiya.

“Dear Sir, the forest is not a convenience store”. That’s what Ritesh Sarothiya and his team have to keep reminding hordes of people far more often than they would have liked.

Besides this, he must deal with mountains of paperwork. Coordinate hundreds of staff covering thousands of square kilometres of forest on foot. Undertake late night patrols and early morning meetings. On top of this, his mission includes staff training, wildlife research, wildlife population monitoring and wildlife crime investigations.

This is only a short list of what it takes to protect India’s Protected Area Network. An Indian Forest Service officer and Deputy Conservator of Forests in the Madhya Pradesh cadre, Ritesh Sarothiya is the Regional Deputy Director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) in New Delhi.

His team’s many adventures take place in near anonymity, but could well be justice and enforcement headlines in themselves:

“Deployed dog squads called ‘Super Sniffers’ across all tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh.” “Fastest conviction of a pangolin case.” “Highest conviction in tiger poaching case.” “International syndicate of turtle smugglers – busted!” “Successful capture of a poacher with 300 tiger hides and 1,200 leopard hides.” “Infamous tiger poacher arrested after six years on the run!”

Ironically, this wildlife defender whose life is focused today on the prevention and investigation of wildlife crime studied to be a mechanical engineer and lawyer. Over a seven-year stint as the Officer-Incharge in the Madhya Pradesh Special Task Force (Wildlife) in Bhopal, the Incharge of the State Forest Cyber Cell, Bhopal, and, now the WCCB, Sarothiya’s long list of arrests, investigations, and convictions related to wildlife crime range from turtle and timber smuggling to tiger and pangolin poaching. Familiar with the latest available forensic technologies, he has collaborated with several international organisations as well.

India’s rich biodiversity coexists with poverty and porous borders thanks to our innate reverence for life. But this has also turned it into a target for the lethal international wildlife trade in animal parts and the exotic pet trade. To his dismay, India is currently counted as one among the top 20 countries in the world for wildlife trafficking, and among the top 10 for wildlife trafficking by air. Even in the country’s heartland, despite the superhuman efforts of individuals such as Sarothiya, poaching continues to be rampant. Madhya Pradesh tops the list of blackbuck poaching cases; with at least 170 poaching cases currently pending under trials since 1972. As many as 34 tigers died in the ‘Tiger State’ in 2022, some on account of natural causes, others unknown. Under Ritesh Sarothiya’s leadership, his team and the MP State Tiger Strike Force arrested over 700 people over a span of six years, with 172 of them involved in pangolin-related cases. Responsible for the deployment of super sniffers (dog squads) in all the tiger reserves and sensitive forest circles of MP, Sarothiya has dedicated his life to the protection of some of the most biodiverse, tiger-rich forests in the country.

Ritesh spent most of his childhood in the vicinity of forested areas, to which he credits his understanding of the importance of the harmonious trijunction of natural resources, wildlife and humans. Photo Courtesy: Ritesh Sarothiya.

The list of achievements continues to stack up with every passing day. But Sarothiya wishes it wasn’t so. He dreams of a day when people across regions were not motivated to poach, plunder or steal from our fragile forests. When people give more than they take. And when India harks back to days when we treated forests as the sacred spaces they have always been.

In his words, “Conservation goes beyond fieldwork, especially when it comes to wildlife crime and successful convictions.” This is why he considers it his function in life to take time out to inform and sensitise Judicial Magistrates, Customs Officers, District Collectors, police officers, field forest officers, bureaucrats, prosecutors and more. Ritesh Sarothiya has been deservedly awarded a host of recognitions, ranging from the Clark R. Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement International Award, given in 2016 by the CITES Secretary-General at COP 16 in Johannesburg, a Commendation Certificate from the Forest Minister of the time, and a Gold medal from the State Government of Madhya Pradesh, India in 2016, the WWF-PATA Baghmitra award in 2019, the Inaugural WeNaturalists People of Nature award in 2021, and the Eco-Warriors Award in 2023 by the Indian Forest Service Officer Association.

For his passion, bravery and dedication way beyond the call of duty, Sanctuary celebrates and honours the spirit of this remarkable man who insists the credit must go to his team and not just to him!

Hans Dalal
Sound engineer and producer, conservationist, filmmaker

Hans was inspired by a split-second tiger sighting  in Kanha in 2007, which led him to shut his studio and move to Ranthambhore. Here he met with the late Fateh Singh Rathore to learn about the striped cats and how he could be a part of the team that worked to save them. Photo Courtesy: Hans Dalal.

Five seconds. That’s all that it takes for life to change. It did for Hans Dalal, the talented and incredibly committed conservationist working in and for the forests of Tadoba through his NGO Preservation of Wild Landscapes (PROWL) that was started by him and his wife Avantika to promote human-wildlife coexistence and wildlife conservation in the fringe villages of the tiger reserve.

After spending five years in the music industry, Hans launched his own music studio, which he ran independently for five years. Along with his work, he would make annual pilgrimages to the Himalaya to trek and camp in what he describes as heaven. On one such trip in Kanha in 2007, a five-second tiger sighting moved his soul and changed his life. Within the year, he shut his studio and moved to Ranthambhore where he met with the late Fateh Singh Rathore to learn about the striped cats and how he could be a part of the team that worked to save them. The first task he was given was to meet the Moghiyas, a traditional hunter-gatherer tribe that had turned to poaching to eke out a living. Combining his sound engineering skill with his love for the wild, he and a friend Sidd Cutto painstakingly shot a documentary titled ‘With a Little Help’ in which he relied on the Moghiyas’ incredible musical talents. The three lakh rupees they earned from the film was used by Fateh Singh’s team to rejig the life of the fabled tribe, away from hunting to protecting tigers.

That was just the beginning. Hans then began to travel through forest after Indian forest to document their biodiversity and understand the complexities of human-wildlife interactions. Today, Hans has given up city life to settle on the periphery of the tiger forests of Tadoba. Nothing has, of course, been easy. Hans developed cerebral palsy soon after birth, but went on to live a ‘normal’ life. With his typical wry sense of humour he asks with a chuckle: “What exactly is ‘normal’? Everyone is abnormal in their own way!” Hans credits his parents for his successes in life as he goes about doing his bit to improve the lot of local communities and create linkages between them and the Maharashtra Forest Department. Today PROWL conducts intimate training programmes for forest guards, by familiarising them with camera trapping, emergency first aid, and the use of technology to monitor the movement of the tigers next to which they live. He also helps the Forest Department staff in human-animal conflict situations. And his wildlife documentaries not only capture the sheer beauty of India’s forests but also tell compelling stories on those working to protect them. Hans is driven by tigers and the need to protect them. Just one phone call from Sanctuary saw him heading for Umred, where he helped Rohit Karoo, the Honorary Wildlife Warden, set up some of the first camera traps to monitor the tigers of this then virtually unknown forest. His work also helped confirm that tigers were moving across human-made boundaries, between southern Maharashtra and northern Telangana.

Having given up city life to settle on the periphery of the tiger forests of Tadoba, Hans works to improve the lot of local communities and create linkages between them and the Maharashtra Forest Department. Photo Courtesy: Hans Dalal.

He credits his passion to those first five-seconds of a tiger sighting that cast a spell on him, and hopes that others upon whom the tiger weaves its spell, also turn their professions and talents to save the magnificent cat and its fabled forests.

For his love of the wild, persistence and purpose… and willingness to walk the less-trodden path, we honour Hans Dalal.

Kedar Girish Gore
Wildlife conservationist, environmental educator, strategist for nature

Kedar believes in working at a grassroots level and demonstrating scalable solutions to mitigate biodiversity and habitat losses. Photo Courtesy: Kedar Gore.

Looking at a tiny bird through his binoculars when he was just 10 years old opened Kedar’s eyes to the fascinating natural world, and to his future. His passion as a birdwatcher won him a Master’s in Zoology, which flowed organically into a full-time, committed involvement with India’s conservation movement in 1996. Today, with over 25 years of experience under his belt, he is a leader and a driver of conservation actions across India.

In 2009, Kedar took over as the Director of The Corbett Foundation (TCF) established by the late Dilip D. Khatau, a former Member of the National Board for Wildlife in India, and his wife Rina Khatau in 1994. The NGO is dedicated to wildlife conservation and its purpose is to involve, consult and work with local communities, whose knowledge Kedar says is vital to all conservation objectives. Kedar credits Dilip Khatau’s close oversight and shared beliefs for the ongoing success of The Corbett Foundation, and its continuing ability to walk the tightrope between nature conservation imperatives and ensuring human-wildlife coexistence.

Kedar’s nature conservation repertoire is extensive – human-wildlife interactions and mitigation, biodiversity and ecosystem protection, responsible ecotourism, sustainable livelihoods, environmental awareness, strategy planning, resource management and hard core administration. A tough, but immensely likeable leader, he has been involved with conservation issues across the Indian subcontinent, including the Terai Arc Landscape, Western Ghats, the central Indian landscape, and the Northeastern states.

Kedar’s passion, expertise and commitment is well represented by the many hats he wears. He is a member of multiple IUCN Commissions – Commission on Education and Communication (CEC), Species Survival Commission (SSC) Bustard Specialist Group and World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). He is also a Member of the Indian National Committee of IUCN-India and is a Member of the BNHS Governing Council. A Conservation Fellow of the iconic Born Free Foundation, he has worked with WWF-India and TERI, and Kedar was presented the first IUCN CEC Excellence Award 2019 for South and Southeast Asia, Excellence in Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Awareness by Think Wildlife Awards in 2018, and was honoured by one of the 50 Most Impactful Social Innovators Award by World CSR Congress in 2018.

Since 2009, Kedar has been the Director of The Corbett Foundation (TCF), established by the late Dilip D. Khatau, a former Member of the National Board for Wildlife in India, and his wife Rina Khatau in 1994. Photo Courtesy: Kedar Gore.

A hands-on leader, he lobbied to stop an ecologically destructive dam in the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, and demanded the realignment of a railway line away from the Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. All this in addition to uncounted urban nature conservation programmes – beach clean ups in Mumbai, highlighting the issue of idol immersions during festivals, protecting the integrity of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and fighting against mangrove destruction in Mumbai.

A quintessential all-rounder, he sets a high quality bar for young entrants into the critical field of nature conservation in the midst of our planet’s most serious climate emergency. All this while he guides the work of The Corbett Foundation towards the conservation of less recognised ecosystems such as the grasslands of Kutchh, upon which the future of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard is linked.

For his indomitable spirit, commitment to wild India, relentless and consistent efforts, we honour this valued conservation leader.

Seema Meena
Assistant Forester, defender, advocate for wildlife

Seema Meena is an Assistant Forester working to preserve the biodiverse forests of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena.

Seema Meena is an Assistant Forester working to protect the miracle that is the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Posted in the core area, together with her frontline staff, she walks the forest to monitor the wild species in her charge, including tigers. She has been part of several operations that resulted in poachers being apprehended and taken to court. Though she could have any ‘safe’ job after her MA degree, she chose to be a part of the army of men and women putting their lives on line to save the forest.

Seema joined the department in April 2011 as part of the elite Flying Squad. This was her training ground, where she learnt from experienced seniors. As part of the Forest Department, she has come face to face with, and stopped, illegal activities in the forest such as tree felling, hunting, mining, encroachment, and fought forest fires. In the face of climate change and outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, the work done by wildlife rangers like Seema is of great, if little acknowledged, importance. Besides, studies have revealed that female rangers tend to diffuse difficult conflict situations better, without the use of force.

Over the past 12 years, Seema has been a part of several operations to track and capture poachers; she has also filed FIRs and escorted those she arrested to court. Since 2019, she has been in charge of the Neemchouki Forest Check Post, which covers three beats, necessitating patrolling several kilometres through forests over rough terrain and monitoring tiger movement day and night. Danger from conflicts with animals, or aggressive intruders comes with the job. Seema has broken glass ceilings and demonstrated how indispensable women guards are to the Forest Department.

Seema’s indomitable spirit makes her a force to reckon with as she patrols the forests to monitor wild species and apprehend poachers. Photo Courtesy: Govardhan Meena.

The life of frontline staff is tough enough, but even today women are often exposed to stereotypical disapproval from their community. Seema’s persistence and dedication is a personal success for her, her supportive family, and her community. She is an example and inspiration to other young women of many villages that surround Ranthambhore. Aware that she has become a recognised figure, she interacts with young children, including those who are
part of the education and awareness drives undertaken in villages and schools under the tutelage of Sanctuary’s Kids for Tigers Coordinator Govardhan Meena and other accomplished naturalists.

Individuals such as Seema Meena are the critical load-bearing pillars destined to support successful wildlife conservation efforts long into the future. Ranthambhore is far more secure today, and the relationship between people and parks is improving measurably because of her dedication, understanding and defence of the wild.

Future generations will recognise her service as the finest form of patriotism, and for this we honour her.

Sudha Chandran
Nature guide, birder, homestay owner, climate warrior

Sudhamma stands as a living example of how empowering and including people from local communities strengthens wildlife conservation. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Parvish Pandya.

At 68, Sudha Chandran, or Sudhamma as she is fondly called, wears many hats – licensed forest guide, homestay owner, cancer survivor, mother, grandmother, and more. Ask her to name bird species in the wetland wonderland she has adopted and she will rattle off name after name with practised ease. Widowed at 30, she brought up two children by running a small tea shop that she and her husband had established on the outskirts of Thattekad in Kerala. She credits Dr. R. Sugathan, a protege of Dr. Sálim Ali, and a hugely respected BNHS scientist, with moulding her into the naturalist-conservationist she has turned into. At one time, she used to supply food, refreshments, and support to those attending BNHS nature camps. Always curious and smitten by nature, she would peek through doors and windows as Dr. Sugathan taught his wards, and her spirit of inquiry soon turned her into an expert! Noticing her interest, he invited her to accompany them to walk the forests and wetlands around Thattekad. In time, Sudhamma’s knowledge grew and she in fact became a source of knowledge even for many experts. Not surprisingly, she soon became a licensed guide. Today Sudhamma stands as a living example of how empowering and including people from local communities not only strengthens wildlife conservation, but helps to create real conservationists of tomorrow.

The past does determine the future. Way back in the 1930s, it was Dr. Sálim Ali’s Travancore survey that ended up with Thattekad being declared a bird sanctuary in 1981. The tiny park covers an area of 25 sq. km., nestled by the Periyar river, and was Kerala’s first bird sanctuary. Sudhamma now hosts ornithologists and scientists at her homestay in Thattekad, with guests arriving from across the world. Fluent in English, which she picked up from her guests down the years, she is somewhat of a linguist, and apart from her mother tongue Malayalam, understands French, a touch of Tamil and Hindi.

At 68 years old, Sudha Chandran, or Sudhamma, defies ageing as she spends anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day guiding visitors through Thattekad’s bird wonderland. Photo Courtesy: Sudha Chandran.

Today, Sudhamma is celebrated as the ‘Lady Guide of Thattekad’. She is the quintessential all-rounder, equally at ease when birding, driving a four-wheel vehicle, or captaining a boat, and even riding a motorbike! Each day she spends anywhere from eight to 12 hours guiding visitors through Thattekad’s wonderland. “This is my temple; my duty is my prayer,” she says. Soon after her 25 radiation and five chemo sessions, she was back in the forests she loves. Her sheer will and passion for nature shines through every moment of her life. “My advice to every woman is to tap into the strength they have and forge on. Never let anyone take you for granted or take advantage of you,” says Sudhamma.

For her courage, determination, her love of wild nature and her desire to share all she has with others, we honour her.

Green Teacher Award
A skilled educator who challenges norms and inspires youth to connect with the wild and who joins the Indian conservation community as an informed and concerned individual. 

Suchandra and Joydip Kundu
Conservation campaigners, teachers, nature worshippers, wildlife defenders

The Sundarban, a crucial mangrove tiger habitat, is renowned for its rich biodiversity. The region accommodates 4.5 million inhabitants, with over half lacking land ownership, resulting in its classification as a disadvantaged area in West Bengal. This archipelago consists of 102 islands, 52 of which are inhabited, while the others are dense forests. The estuarine mangrove forest acts as a natural barrier against sea surges, but faces challenges including human-wildlife conflict and climate impacts. Cyclones, floods, and salinisation have disrupted livelihoods, exceeding the ecosystem’s capacity.

The vast Sundarban mangrove forest requires diverse and mammoth efforts to protect it for tomorrow. Working simultaneously in Kolkata, Sundarban and other wildlife impact areas of southwest Bengal, this giant effort requires not only the Forest Department, but those who support, train, and work alongside them, such as Suchandra and Joydip Kundu, who work seamlessly with the fringe population and foresters from all levels of the Sundarban Forest Department.

Wildlife conservationist Joydip is a Member of the West Bengal State Board for Wildlife and Suchandra is the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Kolkata. Both are the founder members of SHER (Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches), an organisation begun in 2011 devoted to mitigation of human-wildlife conflict through multi-faced activities in the Sundarban and other wildlife areas of southwest Bengal.

Suchandra and Joydip are founder members of SHER (Society for Heritage and Ecological Researches), an organisation devoted to mitigation of human-wildlife conflict through multi-faced activities in the Sundarban and other wildlife impact areas of southwest Bengal, which they began in 2011. Photo Courtesy: Joydip Kundu.

SHER has been active in helping marginalised communities living around the periphery of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve towards mitigation of tiger-human conflicts and building a climate resilient society in the delta through its community-based activities. The Society’s focus is on conflict mitigation through extensive field studies and consultations based on ground realities. It facilitates skill development programmes for promoting sustainable and diversified livelihood opportunities amongst the economically weaker sections, and redresses health and hygiene concerns towards creating a viable balance between humans and the environment. SHER believes that winning over the fringe population of the tiger reserve area is the key to conservation here. Toward this, SHER consistently makes people aware of the need to conserve this coastal bionetwork through different modules of awareness generation campaigns and by imparting nature education.

The Kundus work closely with the Forest Department to conserve the Sundarban ecosystem and its large human community, which is plagued by cyclones, floods, health problems, fuel and water shortages and the lack of employment opportunities. The main focus is biodiversity conservation by reducing forest dependency through raising awareness, skill development and promoting sustainable and diversifying livelihood options for
local communities.

They have been working for almost three decades to mitigate negative human-animal conflicts through multiple initiatives. To make the lives of fisherfolk easier, SHER has been providing LPG cylinders to them so that they don’t venture into the forests for firewood to cook – increasing risk of predation by tigers. This scheme is the first of its kind in the history of the Sundarban. Professional development, spoken English training and skill building for eco-guides towards making them advocates of climate change has been another first-time-ever concept that has made a meaningful impact on the community.

Many years ago, they realised that with the magnifying threat of climate change, it was vital to rope in young residents of the Sundarban, so that adaptations necessary for their survival as adults can be imbibed, while the elasticity of time was still available. This triggered the couple to set up BAGHBON – a multipurpose community resource centre located on the fringe of the tiger reserve. The centre is aimed at bringing the reality of the climate crisis under spotlight and the options available to the locals to temper its worst impacts. Till date, they have trained 125 women who have been forest dependent and exposed to conflicts with wildlife by imparting tailoring-skills. Post cyclone-catastrophe left several fringe-dwelling communities across the tiger reserve with reduced livelihood options. SHER took the first-ever initiative to restore the livelihoods of such cyclone-hit fringe farmer communities at one of the worst affected areas through a three-layered approach – distribution of salt-tolerant paddy seeds, rural organic fertilisers and dewatering of inundated freshwater ponds that are a major livelihood source for the communities.

Suchandra and Joydip Kundu work seamlessly with the fringe populations of the Sundarban mangroves and foresters from all levels of the Forest Department. Photo Courtesy: Joydip Kundu.

Their work does not end there. Recognising the crucial work done by the forest field staff working in the world’s most vulnerable terrain, the SHER team supports them through field gear, training and workshops, and even felicitating them for their continuing, tireless work.

Outspoken defenders of the mangroves, Joydip and Suchandra  often write for Sanctuary Asia about the threats that are challenging the biodiverse ecosystem. Through the Kundus, SHER’s focus has been on strengthening the bridge that connects foresters and locals. Such close collaboration allows mutual trust to flourish, and encourages more effective, inclusive conservation efforts where communities are consulted and involved with solutions. A large part of SHER’s work has also been in various districts of southwest Bengal where campaigns have been conducted to minimise human conflicts with elephants and other wildlife.

Towards that end, being Green Teachers they conduct educational courses and workshops for school and college students who serve as climate communicators for their elders. For over two decades, they have been sensitising forest-fringe children to become tomorrow’s defenders of the natural-legacy that they belong to. They have introduced Certificate Courses on wildlife and biodiversity conservation in the context of changing climates. Classroom lectures and nature trails help bring the youth of today closer to nature, and drive them to protect the wilderness.

For the work done by them over decades, their passion and belief in both the tiger and its worshippers, and their visceral belief in the use of education to prepare tomorrow’s generation to face the climate hurdles that lie ahead, we honour Suchandra and Joydip Kundu.


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