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Of wildlife and women

Vanshika Singh

Pallavi Ghaskadbi examining canines of a tiger in Brahmapuri forest division, Maharashtra.
Pallavi Ghaskadbi examining canines of a tiger in Brahmapuri forest division, Maharashtra.   (Photo: Pallavi Ghaskadbi)

Pallavi Ghaskadbi is a young wildlife biologist, currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. Early in her career, she has made an important contribution in understanding the dispersion behaviour of tigers in human dominated landscapes and new scent marking behaviour of Dholes - an endangered species of social canids. She talked to IndiaBioscience about how she created a niche for herself in the field of wildlife biology, and her research at WII.

How did you get interested in wildlife biology? 

I was always an outdoors person for as long as I can remember. In my mid teens, I started volunteering with an organisation that conducts nature and adventure camps. As kids, everything about nature is interesting right from a bright red bug to a tiger! So the question really is how did most of us lose this innate curiosity, sense of wonder and interest? Fortunately, I retained mine.

What has your research experience been like at the Wildlife Institute of India?

I started working with Asiatic wild dogs or the dhole, which is an endangered species of social canids for my master’s dissertation project. Understudied as they are, working with the dholes is exciting and challenging at the same time. As a part of the study that developed the first ethogram for dhole, I spent 6 months at the Tadoba-Andheri Tiger Reserve. I plan to work on the same animal species for my Ph.D. as well.

The field methods employed for the Tadoba study involved opportunistic camera traps placed strategically across roads, trails and streambeds. The recorded behaviour was encoded for different behavioural classes like Locomotion, Resting, Social Behaviour, Feeding and Scent Marking. In face of the dwindling numbers of the dhole in India, this study contributes to establish a baseline reference for dhole behaviour that can aid conservation studies in the future.

Also, I am intrigued by the “dear enemies and nasty neighbour” phenomena observed in animals, which entails that social animals respond less aggressively to their immediate neighbours or “dear enemies” rather than packs that they have never come across before, or “nasty neighbours”. I am interested in field experiments to see whether that is actually the case in dholes or not.

How do you think studying the dhole behaviour will help in its conservation?

Along with others at WII, I am trying to understand dhole behaviour by means of ethograms, which are comprehensive inventories of individual animal behaviour. A statistical treatment of animal behaviour makes it more objective and less ambiguous. Some of this work has resulted in a publication in Journal of Mammalogy, along with two other senior scientists at WII- Dr. Bilal Habib and Dr. Qamar Qureshi. 

Loss of behavioural traits that are critical for survival and reproduction, threaten a species’ survival. By employing qualitative tools to study behaviour,  researchers and conservationists can objectively pinpoint behaviour traits essential for survival.  Such data can contribute to future conservation efforts of the wild dogs. 

You were involved with a study last year that involved chasing two tigers siblings. What was the experience like? 

We were studying dispersal of tigers across the Eastern Vidarbha landscape in Maharashtra, Central India. Since we radio collared the sub adult tigers, we spent about a month inside the forest where they were born. After that, we  were on the road following the brothers through farmlands, reserve forests, wastelands outside villages, etc. As the brothers started seeking their own territories, we had to travel almost 150 kms every day to observe both of them. The idea was to monitor the tigers’ dispersal behaviour, territory selection and most importantly, their adaptation to densely human populated areas. The tigers continue to be monitored by a team, through base camps in Umred and Tadoba. 

What did this expedition reveal about habitat fragmentation and animal adaptation? 

Over the last year, we have observed tigers crossing railway lines, roads with sparse traffic, canals, etc. Our findings suggest that the tigers move with a higher velocity outside the Protected Area system than inside. They seem to extensively use forest patches near villages and at times depend on the stray cattle for their dietary requirements. Given the sensitive human-wildlife interface, the landscape is still quite conducive for the movement of tigers. However, any further unplanned change may compromise the functionality of the landscape for the movement of these large cats and have further repercussions for the inhabitants of this landscape- tigers and humans alike.

Having studied the tigers this closely, what opinion do you hold about tiger conservation and management practices in India?

One question that comes to my mind when I think of tiger conservation programs is, whether we, as a country, are ready to support the number of tigers that have been resuscitated through various conservation efforts in the recent past. Africa, for that matter, has a prudent management of its wildlife . In India, the lack of active management of tigers is one main concern, among others.

A general strategy to manage tigers is to translocate them from regions where they are excess in number to areas where they are sparse. The scientific method to do this is to identify corridors by modelling possible habitats that the tigers may choose, depending on parameters like forest cover, food and water availability etc. and then physically transporting them as a conservation effort.

As we saw the tigers of the Umred Karhandla Sanctuary cross forest boundaries and comfortably traverse human territories, we were taken by surprise as to how they challenged our theoretical predictions of territory selection. I believe that more studies need to be done to put a cap on the limits of the human-wildlife interface in general to maintain a harmonious co-existence of both.

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