Meet Dr. Ramakanta Panda

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

Dr. Ramakanta Panda, M.Ch., a Padma Bhushan awardee, is known as the ‘surgeon with the safest hands’, and is also a passionate wildlife photographer, whose works have been exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. Dr. Panda is the Chief Consultant for cardiovascular thoracic surgery and the Chairman of the Asian Heart Institute, which he established in 2002 in India. Born to a farming family, his love of nature led him to set up the non-profit Asian Wildlife Trust, an initiative of the Asian Heart Institute, to unite and support people committed to wildlife conservation. Bittu Sahgal and Kartik Shukul together spoke with Dr. Panda about his interest in wildlife photography, the rise in environment-related health issues, and his passion for birding and wild nature.

Known as the ‘surgeon with the safest hands’, Dr. Ramakanta Panda grew up in Odisha, surrounded by abundant wildlife. Born to a farming family, his love of nature led him to set up the Asian Wildlife Trust, to bring together individuals committed to wildlife conservation. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Sanjay Shukla.

BS: What led one of the world’s most respected cardiac surgeons to fall head over heels in love with wild nature?

I grew up in Odisha surrounded by abundant wildlife, and I have been fascinated with the natural world since childhood. Over the years, this fascination evolved into a deep-rooted passion. I would spend most of my vacations with my family in national parks and wildernesses, rather than in cities. The more time I spent thus, the more alarmed I became about the steady and wide-spread devastation of nature and wildlife, especially so in India and Africa. This realisation intensified my commitment to wildlife conservation and wildlife photography.

KS: Doctor, how did your tryst with the medical profession begin?

I grew up in a village where the doctor had the utmost respect, sparking a childhood interest to become one myself. My maternal uncle, who was an ENT surgeon and a role model, further solidified my decision to pursue medicine. The first heart transplant in the world was performed during my school years, a moment akin to the moon landing that dominated world headlines! This profoundly impacted me as a child, and triggered my aspiration to become a heart surgeon. Back then, only five to six hospitals in the country performed heart surgeries. On entering medical college, my fascination deepened into a passion that saw me pursue postgraduate training in cardiac surgery at AIIMS… followed by training at the renowned Cleveland Clinic, arguably the best heart hospital in the USA.

BS: Cardiac problems seem to have become rampant in India. Could this be related to the sharp rise in the toxicity of our air, water and land?

In the last two decades I have indeed seen a significant rise in heart diseases in India, particularly among the younger population. This is related to several significant lifestyle changes including sedentary habits, a lack of exercise, changes in foods consumed, from a more complex plant-based diet to a more processed and animal-based diet, tobacco use, lack of adequate sleep and yes, most likely increased pollution. Pollutants travel from the air into our lungs and then into the heart, and from our food into the intestine and then into blood circulation. These damage blood vessels, leading them to become harder and narrower. The results include high blood pressure, arterial blockages and irregular heartbeats.

Growing up in a village where the doctor had the utmost respect, sparked a childhood interest to become one himself. Today Dr. Panda is the Chief Consultant for cardiovascular thoracic surgery and the Chairman of the Asian Heart Institute, which he set up in 2002 in India. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Munshi.

KS: Are there method-parallels between the health and environmental sectors? For instance, analysing symptoms, conducting investigations, arriving at solutions, and implementing cures for surgical interventions, or for rewilding ecosystems?

In essence, there are method-parallels between health and environmental sectors that emphasise the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being. In the health sector, we begin with taking detailed patient history, and do a physical examination. This could be likened to methodologies for environmental monitoring  for pollution, habitat loss or biodiversity declines.

Once a patient is examined, an in-depth investigation, which may include laboratory tests, imaging and consultations with other specialists is conducted. Similarly, in the environmental sector, scientists may conduct field studies, analyse data, and use cutting-edge technologies to monitor the environment or rewild ecosystems.

Finally, solutions for health problems may include lifestyle changes and medical or surgical treatments. Similarly, in the environmental sector, solutions may range from policy changes and conservation efforts to rewilding projects, aimed at restoring ecosystems and biodiversity.

BS: How right you are! What could environmentalists learn from doctors, or vice versa?

Environmentalists and doctors could and should share ideas and learn from each other. This would undoubtedly improve people’s health and the natural environment as well. A shortlist would include:

1) The preventive approach – It is becoming very apparent that no country or society can afford disease management, that is waiting for diseases to develop. The emphasis is changing to health management, and encouraging and teaching the population to manage health so as not to develop diseases in the first place. This is similar to environmentalists emphasising the need to  prevent ecological harm and focus instead on preventing environmental degradation, while promoting sustainable practices. Prevention is one area where both doctors and environmentalists can learn from each other’s experience.
2) An interdisciplinary approach – Diseases are most often not limited to one organ. Doctors collaborate across specialities for the comprehensive care of patients. Environmentalists could benefit from similar collaborations between scientists, experts, policymakers and community stakeholders. Doctors too could learn by incorporating environmental factors in public health strategies and by recognising the benefits of healthy ecosystems on human well-being.
3) Community engagement – Environmentalists actively involve communities in conservation initiatives. Doctors too could benefit from community engagement, to understand and address health disparities. This would also help doctors understand and then bring the connection between good health and safe environments to human health at a community level. Talking to people and working together is important for both doctors and environmentalists.
4) Evidence based practice – Both doctors and environmentalists rely on data and research for evidence-based decisions, and they could certainly learn from each other.

KS: May we switch tracks? How do you manage your time between your passion for cardiac surgery, wildlife photography... and the family?

I have always tried to keep a work-life balance by prioritising important events. During weekdays, I focus exclusively on cardiac surgery, and weekends are for family and wildlife photography. The secret for me is being passionate about everything I do, be it my profession, family, or wildlife photography. When I am performing a surgery, I don’t think of anything else in the world and give 100 per cent of my attention to my patient. I do the same when with
my family, or immersed in my hobby of wildlife photography.

Craig, one of the largest and most well-known elephants of Amboseli National Park, Kenya, is referred to as a ‘super tusker’, with tusks weighing over 45 kg. There are less than 25 such super tuskers surviving in the wild. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Ramakanta Panda.

BS: Do you feel that voices from within the medical profession – gynaecologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, general practitioners and others, need to be more proactive and vocal on issues concerning human health and the environment?

Yes, it is important for voices within all branches of the medical profession, to actively champion issues concerning human health and the environment. This is based on the emerging recognition that societies and countries cannot afford healthcare based on treating diseases after they manifest. Not even the richest societies can afford that anymore. The essential shift has to be proactive management of population health through preventive care and action.

The interconnection between human health and environmental health is becoming increasingly apparent. Environmental factors, such as air and water pollution, along with contaminants in food, seriously affect human health, as does the disturbing spread of zoonotic diseases triggered by environmental causes.

BS: Do you feel that zoonotic diseases are likely to get out of hand because of the climate crisis?

Zoonotic diseases are emerging as serious healthcare threats on account of deforestation, biodiversity loss, global warming, habitat alteration, land use shifts and changes in the biological characteristics of pathogens and vectors that are evolving resistance against antibiotics. We also see increased virulence and reproduction. Without a doubt, the decline of biodiversity at the hands of the wildlife trade and ecosystem destruction potentially increases the spread of diseases exchanged between animals and humans.

Before the 20th Century, pandemics were rare, separated by centuries. In the 20th Century, there were two pandemics (the Spanish flu of 1918 and the Asian flu of 1957) separated by just four decades. And in the first two decades of the 21st Century, there were four potential pandemics, including SARS in 2002-2003, H1N1 influenza in 2009, MERS in 2012, and Ebola in 2014-2016. Each had the potential to escalate into a pandemic, and we were lucky to contain them. The fifth one – COVID19 – turned into a pandemic.

Craig, one of the largest and most well-known elephants of Amboseli National Park, Kenya, is referred to as a ‘super A rufous morph male Asian Paradise Flycatcher, photographed by Dr. Panda  in March 2023 at the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, in Maharashtra. The sanctuary is threatened by the rapidly-growing urban areas around it. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Ramakanta Panda.

The world miraculously escaped an Ebola pandemic because it originated in a sparsely populated rural area, unlike Wuhan, and there were exceptionally committed healthcare workers who contained it. Imagine the worldwide devastation Eboloa would have caused with its average 50 per cent death rate, compared to just two to three per cent for COVID19. The next time we may not be that lucky.

BS: How right you are! Professor Partha Dasgupta drew hard connections between the COVID19 pandemic, wildlife trade, ecosystem destruction and its impact on economies. What is your take on this?

Deforestation, which causes the fragmentation of natural habitats, is undoubtedly pushing wildlife closer to human settlements. As I had earlier mentioned,  along with wildlife trade, this does result in the higher likelihood of direct contact with wild species, providing opportunities for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. Other impacts of deforestation, such as biodiversity loss and climate change, are and will further facilitate the dominance of species more prone to carrying and transmitting diseases, the emergence of novel pathogens, or the increased virulence of existing ones.

Air and soil pollution resulting from environmental degradation can have significant implications for population health, and contribute to the spread of diseases and the potential for pandemics. Populations exposed to air pollution are positively more susceptible to respiratory diseases and likely to have compromised immune systems, and are more likely to suffer most during a pandemic. We experienced precisely this during the COVID19 pandemic.

I strongly believe that balancing human development, wildlife conservation and environment protection is essential for sustainable coexistence. Otherwise, nature will not allow total dominance of one species and destruction of the environment. It will bring about a balance in its own way and when this happens it will have a devastating effect on humans. A disease such as Ebola won’t be the last one, and we can expect many more if we don’t learn and adapt to the imperatives of nature. We have several instances of the demise of dominant species in Earth’s history.

An African leopard photographed drinking water at night, at the Olkiramatian Conservancy in Kenya. Unlike their Indian counterparts, these cats are struggling to adapt to habitat loss, and are mostly restricted to Protected Areas. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Ramakanta Panda.

KS: Back to photography. As a wildlife photographer myself, I’m curious about the kind of equipment you use. And which wild places do you see yourself gravitating to most?

In recent years, I’ve shifted to mirrorless Sony cameras. My preferred lenses for wild animal photography include a 70-200 mm., 24-70 mm., and 400 mm. Occasionally, I opt for a 100-400 mm. lens. For bird photography, I rely on a 400 mm. or 600 mm. prime lens. I spend about two-thirds of my time in India and a third in Africa, specifically Kenya and Tanzania. Among my favourite places in India are Mumbai and, of course, various national parks in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Corbett. Recently, Tadoba, Satpura and Bandhavgarh have become my preferred destinations.

BS: Your take on Artificial Intelligence as it relates to both your passions... medicine and wildlife photography?

AI will usher in a paradigm shift in both medicine and wildlife photography. The influence of AI on medicine is my favourite topic. In short, AI combined with the increase in computational power and big data analytics will completely revolutionise medicine over the next few decades. Medical care will change from current intermittent episodic care, when a person is ill, to continuous health management preventing as well as predicting disease, and the point of care will shift from hospitals to homes. This will be brought in by various wearable devices, wearable or implantable sensors, and other technological innovations that will continuously monitor the health parameters of a person. AI will be at the heart of all these technological innovations. It will enhance and speed up new drug discovery, making it cheaper, and usher in personalised medicine.

As with medicine, AI will have sweeping impacts on conservation photography with an intelligent autofocus system, enhanced image recognition, predictions of wildlife behaviour, which will empower photographers to anticipate and capture unique moments, integrating augmented reality and many unimaginable creative techniques.It will also revolutionise post-processing with automated composition assistance and intuitive editing suggestions, bringing in a new era of creativity. The impact will be far more profound than the introduction of movie and colour photography.

AI will also play a pivotal role in environmental management by providing real-time monitoring, capturing data on habitat changes, including predictive data akin to predicting impending diseases in people, thus aiding conservation initiatives.

A family photo taken at one of Dr. Panda’s exhibitions at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. From left to right: Dr. Panda, his son Saswat, daughter-in-law Poornima, and his daughter, Sonal. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Asifa.

BS: Any life advice for the generation destined to soon take charge from us?

Find a career with purpose at the heart, aligned with your interest and values, and be passionate about it. This will intrinsically motivate you, bringing professional and personal satisfaction. And try to maintain a holistic work-life balance. Learn when to prioritise work, and when to prioritise personal and family well-being.

Lastly, beyond personal success, you must contribute positively to society and environment protection.

BS and KS: Thank you Dr. Panda, for your on-the-nail responses and insights. At some point we would like nothing better than to take this conversation forward while sitting quietly in the heart of one of the many wild places that all three of us love.


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