One of the most popular activities at Pitchandikulam Forest is our weekly nature and birdwatching walk, on Fridays at 4pm. The man pointing our attention upwards through the forest canopy the trees as we walk along is wildlife biologist Dr. Bubesh Guptha, and to celebrate his receiving the Smt.S.P. Sarojini Memorial Young Scientist Award (2017), we decided to interview him to find out more about the man in the tiger top.
“ I can’t exactly say that I always knew that I wanted to be a biologist. I did my BSc in Botany, but I didn’t have an ambition to be a scientist or a botanist. During my degree, I was more interested in folk dancing – back in 2001 I got the state level second prize for Tamil folk dance! So after my degree, I wasn’t planning to continue on a postgraduate degree, but to get a job of some kind. Suddenly one of my teachers approached me about a place on a Masters in Wildlife Biology. When I joined, I didn’t even have any basic knowledge about wildlife.
We had to take theory papers, follow seminars – the theory was very difficult for me. Playing cricket always took priority, even during exam times. Exams were about finishing as soon as possible so I could watch the cricket.
In my MSc we had to compete a project. I told my supervisor I wanted to do my dissertation on snakes. I don’t know why I liked snakes so much, but I wanted to be a snake catcher, I thought it was crazy, something different in the field. I live in a rural area, and noone in my area is doing this kind of thing. I didn’t like birds – and my supervisor was a bird specialist. But it made sense to go with his area of expertise, and he suggested that I focus on the wetland birds in Pichavaram, and that we go on a three-week field trip. Research trips like this are very expensive – taking buses for 150km, going out on boats, food, accommodation. One day in Pichavaram, I was looking under a bridge for nests, and I fell on the molluscs in the water, scratching up my entire body. The shells in the water are like knives there. My supervisor started laughing. He said, “Bubesh, this is fieldwork. Only when you are full of blood, can you say that you are really doing fieldwork!”
I needed some financial support, and my supervisor helped me to find some work in an animal research institute in Coimbatore as a project assistant in a wetland and wetland birds study. The institute, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, specialised in ornithology and biodiversity. I went to the interview, reading up on common water birds on the way down as I really didn’t know much about birds at all – only what I’d learnt in my three week field trip. Somehow I got the job.
The project was to go to all the wetlands in Tamil Nadu and to study the status of the wetlands and the status of the birds. I went there, took photographs, and in total covered 77 wetlands in 8 districts of Tamil Nadu. After finishing that project, I knew a lot more about water birds. It was only then that I realised the importance of biodiversity, because before that project I had no money and no equipment, and in this project, I got a very good camera, good binoculars, GPS, travelling allowance, daily allowance, unlimited food, accommodation, vehicle hire, and a fellowship. I thought to myself – why are the government spending so much money on one person? What is this biodiversity? After that I started reading books, watching seminars, attending conferences. This opened my eyes to what biodiversity is. For the first time, I could see that this was the future – the way to do real work, without worrying about travel expenses or anything like that. Also, I got the opportunity to take photographs, and I was given credit when it was published – I got publicity, credit, good salary – this was a great opportunity.
After the project finished, I found another job in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu at the Central Soil and Water Conversation Research and Training Institute in Ooty. The job was to undertake a fied survey on the afforested shola (South Indian grassland forest) and swamps in the Nilgiri district, as a junior research fellow. Because I already knew about the technical aspects of fieldwork, like collecting samples and using GPS, I got the job. Thanks to my previous job, I was the only one who had experience of this type of advanced technology.
I worked there for a year, and then I was called for a vacancy in forest-related biodiversity studies in Andhra Pradesh. At that time, I knew very little about forests. I knew about wetlands, and about swamps, but not forests. The job was as a biologist working in a biodiversity inventory in the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve, the largest tiger reserve in India. That was my first forest job – a real forest, a tiger reserve. A big difference to working wiht water birds around villages or concentrating on plants, soil testing and so on in the shola. It was a big jump straight to tigers! I didn’t know much about wildlife then.
I worked there for two and a half years, but it was two days travel from my family, so I got homesick. Also I didn’t know how to speak Telugu. So I wanted to move nearer. Luckily I was called by the Nellapattu and Pulicat Bird Sanctuaries, for a job as wetlands bird specialist, much closer to home on the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – only an hour from Chennai. That was a happy time, easy for me to come home for family festivals like Deepavali or Pongal. I could enjoy my wildlife and my family life, it was perfect.
We conducted awareness camps and surveys. I learned enough Telugu to communicate with the forest staff and local children. The sanctuaries are controlled by the Conservator of Forests in Tirupati, part of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Forests, and soon I was being asked to help in other locations like the Sri Venkadeshwara National Park.
I spent two and a half years working there, in the different sanctuaries and national parks. Then the Forest Department had some financial issues, so although I was happy, I needed to do find some more work. I joined the Wildlife Institue of India, the biggest in the country, in Uttarkhand in the Himalayas, as research personnel in the All India Tiger Monitoring Project. I’d already worked with tigers, so I felt very comfortable working there, and they were happy with me.
And that time, I started to publish in some journals. The first two or three papers were a difficult experience: I didn’t know how to do analyses, how to write in that academic style. The papers were full of reviews and comments: the first one I got back from the journal was fully red with comments! So I asked for help from scientists I knew, and eventually my first paper was published in 2010, then the next paper and then the next. To date, I have 65 papers published, and 7 books.
After that project finished, again I joined the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department and used what I’d learnt in the Wildlife Institue of India. The government of India had declared the area of the national park as a biosphere reserve. I was a wildlife biologist there, working with snakes, reptiles, amphibians and different mammals. We found so many new records – new species sighted for the first time in India, like the Sri Lankan flying snake.. We also sighted a metallic tarantula, which was only the second sighting in India since its discovery in 1899.
I started my PhD in Zoology in Sri Venkateshwara University there (on the wetland birds of Nellapattu and Pulicat sanctuaries), and got married in Pondicherry, so I wanted to find some wildlife work nearby. That is when I joined Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville. I came here to work with snakes, and was brought in for Pitchandikulam’s snake venom extraction project in the area around Marakkanam. In addition to that, my work here involves butterfly studies, bird studies, and working in biodiversity educations.
We train teachers, students, government civil servants and we have carried out surveys on snakes, birds and mammals. We have published five papers in journals and conferences using research in Pitchandikulam Forest.
I have full research freedom here – this is not at all a nine to five job. Whatever I want to do – research, education, awareness camps, I can do.
I have received awards for my work – in photography, wildlife research, biodiversity, and was nominated for the Rajiv Gandhi Wildlife Conservation Award in Delhi. This month I have received the national Young Scientist of the Year award, and 2014 I received Best Presentation Award at the Indian Biodiversity Congress.
My dream is to become one of top biodiversity experts in India, that whatever happens in India, they should call me first! I need to do more research, publish more, so that everyone will know who I am! „