Just under four decades ago, Anish Andheria’s mother noticed that odd things from her cupboard were disappearing — especially pillowcases and her petticoat’s drawstrings. Little did she know that her school-going son was rescuing snakes, capturing them in her neatly preserved pillowcases, tying them up with strings, and hiding them in the house. But this wasn’t the first time Andheria’s parents were caught by surprise. His shenanigans, by now, were expected.
Andheria, award-winning conservationist, large-carnivore specialist, wildlife photographer, president of non-profit Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) and one of the most influential voices on wildlife in the country, has lived a life away from the norm. And he started early. At five, he threw himself on the floor, crying that he wanted to see lions — not in a zoo, but a forest where they roamed free. In Class 8, he rescued his first reptile. Neighbourhood boys were chasing a rat snake, and would have probably killed it if he hadn’t interfered. In college, he was appointed the director of the nature club, and soon started disappearing for long hours in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), a protected area right in the middle of Mumbai city. When theory lectures got too dull, Andheria skipped class and left for SGNP. Walking alone, he sketched everything he saw. “I am not an artist. If I draw a man it looks like a dog, if I draw a dog it looks like an octopus,” he laughs. But his doodles, accompanied by notes, were enough. At one point, he was gone for so long, that his parents filed a missing person’s complaint. And it is here, in the heart of Mumbai, that he decided to teach himself to track leopards.
At the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) library, he drowned himself in books. Soon he began to decode how leopards moved. “Nature was instructing me and I was always testing myself. On the days I could predict the leopard’s movements, I was elated,” he says. It was these early years that shaped his philosophy — if you want to learn, the wild is your best teacher; and a forest is best explored on foot.
So, after completing a PhD in Surface Chemistry and Fluid Mechanics when he took up a job at Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading wildlife magazines, his parents may have been disappointed, but not surprised. At the magazine he went on to set up the Kids for Tigers programme with activist and editor Bittu Sahgal. The programme introduces a quarter million children to the wonders of the wild every year, for over 15 years.
It is still hard to catch hold of him. When I first call him for an interview, he is in Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, a forest he calls his alma mater. He conducted his early fieldwork here, in 1997-98 and on several other occasions until 2005, on large carnivore population numbers and behaviour — tigers, leopards, and wild dogs in particular. He lived with forest guards for several months during his Master’s research project in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, learning how to read a forest, while quickly realising how difficult a guard’s life can be. One of the first projects he led at WCT in 2009-10 was to highlight their plight. WCT’s studies revealed that over 80 per cent of forest guards had little to no access to medical first aid in the field.
Two days later, he is off to spend time with snakes and frogs in Agumbe, one of the wettest rainforests in the country. When I finally speak to him, he has just wrapped up a three-hour-long meeting with the Maharashtra State Board of Wildlife (SBWL-Mah), of which he is a member. He has been working with them to mitigate rising human-wildlife conflicts in the state. “If you have been talking for long, maybe I should call later,” I offer. “Before the meeting I was singing while driving around the city, so it’s been longer. I can never tire of this,” he says.
It is the same energy he brings to work. He realised early on that only when intimate knowledge of the wild is backed with research can one spark real change. “We all love the wild, but we can’t keep romanticising its beauty. We need to back our efforts with data and science,” he says. Among the many projects that WCT runs under Andheria’s leadership, the one that keeps him up at night is focused on the unchecked expansion of roads across the country. India has the second longest road network in the world after the United States of America — over 55,000 kms run through forests. “We are building roads at the rate of 21 kms per day, and the government plans to raise this to 44 kms per day. When roads cut through iconic landscapes, they spark protests (read about protests against infrastructure projects threatening Mollem in Goa). But when they slice up lesser-known areas, especially wildlife corridors that lie outside protected areas, it goes without notice,” he says. Many cut off critical connections between forests. One of WCT’s other contributions is the crowdsourced Roadkills app. The citizen science initiative aims to build a database on wildlife killed on roads, railways and along canals that cut through critical habitats. The app recorded over 3,500 road kills just in 2018, the year it was launched. Roads also slice through forests, often severing critical connections. When forests are fragmented animals come into closer contact with humans giving rise to conflict. “It has become glamorous to go to a village and rescue a tiger and save the villagers, but how do we make sure that a situation like this is avoided?” he asks.
The work required to do this is extensive — landscape ecologists, conservation biologists and policy professionals at WCT study existing government databases on upcoming infrastructure projects across the country, especially in wildlife focused areas. They then match that with data of tiger distribution collected by WCT in the areas it works in and from government data (collected every four years as part of the All India Tiger Estimation Programme). The studies are used to influence construction of large projects at the planning stage itself. In many cases, they have been able to push for the introduction of “wildlife mitigation structures”, small interventions such as underpasses and overpasses (bridges), that allow safe passage for wildlife. In Maharashtra alone, based on the studies undertaken by WCT, the National Green Tribunal has ordered for the construction of 26 underpasses. Maharashtra state commissioned the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to suggest mitigation structures on the upcoming 701-km-long, 8-lane Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway. As many as 1,700 structures for animal passage have been suggested including first-of-its-kind wildlife overpasses. Andheria was on the committee constituted by the chief minister to inspect the suggested sites and recommend alterations if needed. “But let’s not rejoice,” reminds Andheria. “These mitigation structures are not replacements for natural corridors, merely small interventions that might help to minimise damage.”
But despite the demanding work, wins come hard in this field. On Diwali morning, Andheria tweets: “One more leopard meets its end near Satara an hour ago on NH4 that connects Pune-Bengaluru. Sad start to Diwali.”
In times like these, he finds solace in the wild. No wonder, even after all these years, he still finds himself returning to his basics — he spent his recent trip walking at 2am in Agumbe and Mhadei in search of nocturnal wildlife. “You have to lie on the belly in the forest, jump in a stream, climb up a tree, walk with the guards, soak up the rain to really understand a forest,” he says. “I meet a new breed of scientists that are obsessed with taxonomy and finding new species. There is nothing wrong with that but I am just a tad old school — the name doesn’t matter much to me. I am concerned about how the creature interacts with everything around it, and how to make sure that it can keep its home.”