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Member Profile - Prajakta Hushangabadkar

Updated: Apr 12

1. How did your journey begin? - What drew you to conservation work and when did you start?

Growing up in the suburban area of Amravati near Melghat, my childhood weekends were akin to visits to the zoo or nearby forest areas, influencing my decisions later on. My conservation journey took an unexpected turn in Amravati with the organization CARS, led by Dr. Sawan Deshmukh and Mr. Raghvendra Nande, where I rescued birds, snakes, and injured animals. Although my initial aspiration was to become a veterinary doctor, inspiration struck after watching a documentary on India's first female Tiger scientist and National Geographic's 'Tiger Princess.' Despite my family's unfamiliarity with wildlife conservation, I pursued internships and volunteer work, ultimately solidifying my passion for tigers.

I faced challenges during my Master's program at a remote Tamil Nadu institute. Overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, I completed my degree, leading to a professional opportunity at Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra with M.S Reddy (Field director PTR). The supportive environment there shattered gender barriers, providing equal opportunities for camera trapping across various tiger reserves. I am always guided by mentors like Shreya Dasgupta, Dr. Sandeep, Dr. Trishna, Mr Nandkishor Kale , Dr Ramgaonkar and even volunteered with Dr. Ruth in the Kanha landscape. After 11 years into my journey, I transitioned from Maharashtra to the Terai Arc Landscape with WWF India. From saal to pine, the challenges and sacrifices were compensated by encounters with diverse species and the enchanting melodies of the woods. Living amidst Pahadi culture in the Himalayas fulfilled a dream, making life a wonderful journey filled with the songs, growls, and roars of the wilderness. But In November 2020 amid the pandemic, I ventured into the central Indian landscape again, joining Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). While the world worried about a lack of opportunities, I felt blessed to work on the ground with the TATR staff. Later, I secured the DBF Fellowship with the support of the TATR Foundation to study the human perception of wildlife in TATR-NNTR corridor.

2. When reflecting on your work from the past decade, could you share some milestones and accomplishments you've achieved?

Reflecting on the past decade, my professional journey has been a continuous learning experience. Notable milestones include recognizing the pivotal role of communities in conservation, leading to active engagement with them. There has also been a shift in focus towards enhancing the capacity of ground staff, emphasizing practical skills. Over the years, the TATR staff has made significant progress by independently conducting grid-based systematic camera trapping. The adoption of camera traps as monitoring tools has been instrumental. Additionally, TATR stands out as one of the Tiger reserves embracing the meta-barcoding method for diet analysis of both carnivore and herbivore species, with beat guards overseeing the entire sampling process. Acknowledging the TATR landscape as a conflict hot spot, I've come to realize that eradicating conflict entirely may not be feasible. However, implementing mitigation measures based on these interventions can contribute to coexistence.

3. In hindsight, looking at the trajectory of your life and career, can you identify pivotal moments or signs that guided you toward your current purpose? Was there a particular turning point that crystallized your direction?

Looking back on my life and career trajectory, I worked in the Balaghat forest in the Kanha-Pench corridor and often witnessed the cohabitation of humans and tigers in that landscape. There have been pivotal moments and signs that guided me towards my current purpose. Over 11 years as a biologist, I initially

focused on tiger movement and population ecology. However, I always sensed a gap between the community's perception of wildlife and the ongoing conservation efforts.

Despite substantial investments in conservation and mitigation, human attitudes increasingly influence the coexistence of communities and wildlife. While planning efforts often prioritize assessing landscape functionality through animal movements, they tend to overlook the significant impact of human behaviors on connectivity. Recognizing this gap, I identified a turning point in my career. Despite the millions spent on conservation, there was a need to incorporate human perception data to understand the realistic functionality of wildlife corridors fully.

This realization prompted me to apply for the DBF fellowship, aiming to study human perceptions of wildlife in the TATR-NNTR corridor. The goal is to bridge the information gap and ensure a more holistic approach to connectivity planning efforts in India.

4. What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

The most fulfilling aspect of my job is the direct collaboration with range forest officers, beat guards, and watchers on the ground. Placing camera traps in and around TATR provides valuable insights into cohabitation. Despite the heightened human-wildlife conflict in this landscape, during our surveys, I've witnessed people acknowledging the tiger's significance for various reasons. They see it as a protector of the forest, a regulator of herbivore populations, and even as a source of livelihood opportunities. I consider myself fortunate to witness the intricate bond between wildlife and humans in this landscape.

5. In the realm of conservation research and academia, what has remained a constant since you began, and what is the most rapidly evolving aspect?

Throughout my journey in conservation, a constant has been the unwavering commitment to understanding and safeguarding wildlife, evident in both my practical work and academic pursuits. The focus on deciphering how humans and wildlife interact has consistently fueled my efforts.

On another note, a noticeable change in recent years has been the increased reliance on technology in research, even by forest departments, which are now becoming major stakeholders in research and academics. Tools such as GIS mapping, DNA analysis, and remote sensing have become more commonplace, enhancing the accuracy and efficiency of data collection and analysis. This shift represents an exciting and forward-thinking phase in the realm of conservation research and academia.

6. What advice would you offer to aspiring young conservationists?

My advice to aspiring young conservationists is to recognize the pivotal role of communities in wildlife conservation. Often, people tend to overlook working with communities, but my experience, especially during the DBF-funded study in the Tadoba Landscape, taught me otherwise. I had the opportunity to collaborate with a bright intern, Priya Jadhav, from a city like Mumbai. She adeptly accommodated herself with limited resources and grasped the perspective of communities in wildlife conservation, an aspect many tend to avoid.

When I initially started working in wildlife, my focus was not on directly engaging with communities. However, over 11 years, I learned that community involvement is a crucial part of successful wildlife conservation. The true success of conservation efforts lies in establishing harmony between communities and wildlife conservation. Also, ensure that whatever work you do aligns with the goals of forest managers.

7. Do you uphold the concept of maintaining the 'Jugalbandi'* of people and nature in the Central Indian landscape? If so, how does your work or your organization's work reflect this?

Certainly. I wholeheartedly embrace the concept of maintaining the 'Jugalbandi' of people and nature in the Central Indian landscape. When I first learned about the 'Jugalbandi' season at CILS, I initially found it unfamiliar, but it turned out to be an incredibly valuable experience. It provided a platform for meaningful interactions with numerous individuals who graciously offered collaboration and support. Their involvement significantly contributed to the enhancement and extension of the ongoing study of the Tadoba landscape. This experience has underscored the importance of fostering a harmonious collaboration between people and nature, highlighting the mutual benefits that arise from such partnerships.

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