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Ep#5 Show notes (edited)
Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #5. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.
In full bloom
Sejal with visitors
Visitor with Viru the guide
Lalitha Krishnan: A 20 min walk from my home is a natural forest that forms a wildlife corridor between the Shivaliks and the middle Himalaya. Over the years, I have seen this stretch of land being converted into the incredible Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. This is the only privately owned and managed wildlife sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It came about thanks to the vision and effort of one woman. She practically commuted every weekend from Delhi or whenever she could get away from her demanding job to make this happen.
I am so pleased to introduce you to the woman who truly needs no introduction. She’s Dr. Sejal Wohra, Programme Director at Worldwide Fund for Nature- India. She has been working for over 25 years of the field of environmental conservation and spearheads a team of over 300 professionals tackling the whole gamut of conservation concerns. Welcome to Heart of Conservation podcast Dr. Sejal Worah. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Thank you
Lalitha Krishnan: My first question to you is, as a woman leader who’s in a very influential and enviable position at WWF India, what has your journey been like through all the years?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s hard to really explain the journey because some things were things I was determined to do and some things just happened in life. I grew up in and around Mussoorie so we’ve always grown up in nature. Ever since I was little, I kind of had this affinity for nature and as I grew up, I knew I wanted to do something. Something that would keep me close to nature and ecology. So I went to school like we all do, I went through university like we all do. Then after I finished my bachelors in Mumbai I kind of looked around for something that would, you know, help me learn more about nature.
At that time in India, there was no university that offered anything in conservation. There was no Wildlife Institute of India. There was no NCBS. It was also a time in the 80s when—I mean nothing has changed today—when people were looking to the US as a future study option. So I said, OK, let me look around. And lo and behold, I was amazed to find that there were so many universities in the US that offered degrees in wildlife conservation. I did my Masters in wildlife conservation. But, I realized, after I finished my Masters that while I enjoyed the courses and the learning in the US I really wanted to do something on the ground. I really wanted to do applied conservation…and I didn’t think I wanted to do it in the US. So I was thinking, what should I do. Should I do a Ph.D.? Should I go back to India? My worry about coming back to India at that time was not that I was a woman in this field but that I wouldn’t get a job. I just thought, who is going to give anybody a job with a degree in wildlife biology, wildlife conservation in those days? Funnily enough, the day I was graduating there was somebody from India who came to give a talk. …in the US, at my university. It turned out that he was the CEO of WWF India at that time.
Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Bizarre. Anyway, he gave his talk and at the end of the talk—he looked at me because I was obviously Indian…I was the only Indian in that class–he asked me, “So, what do you want to do next?” I said, “Well I would love to come back to India but no one is going to give me a job?” He said, “Why don’t you come meet me, we’ll give you a job.” So, I said, “OK”. I packed my bags and landed up in Mumbai.
A week later, I was at the door of WWF India saying, “Here I am, you promised me a job.” Yeah, that was my first job.” My first job really was doing nature education at WWF India in Mumbai. It was great fun. We used to run these nature camps. There were these iconic nature camps that WWF ran in those days. And I think a whole generation of conservationists in India, you know of my generation have come through those nature camps. It is kind of something that has died out.
Lalitha Krishnan: You think?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Well, it’s happening but in a very different way than what we used to do. But, yes, that was my grounding in conservation. When I came, I was thrown right into the deep end. We used to spend weeks and weeks and weeks in the forests with small kids teaching them about nature. What more do you want?
Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Anyway, I did that for a while then I kind of started getting itchy feet. Again, I wanted to do again, something that would ground me and take me back to conservation. We used to travel a lot in those days with friends; we used to hike and trek in the Sahaydris. There was one place, that caught my imagination. This was a place in south Gujarat called the Dangs which was a tribal district, which was very unique in those days. And I thought it would be fun to spend a few years just studying the ecology of this place. So I managed to get a grant and I went off to…study ecology in the Dhans and that was challenging.
Let me tell you. That was the first time that I felt that—you know you had asked me what it is to be a woman in this field?
Lalitha Krishnan: Right, Yes.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: That was the first time I felt a little bit alone and I felt this is not what I am meant to do in India. Which is live completely alone in the forests with tribals… you know? Spending hours in the forests, driving a jeep at four in the morning, through remote areas, all by myself… People would come and you know, and visit me once in a while, and many of them would remark on this and say, “What are earth is a woman like you doing here sitting here in the middle of the night in a remote forest guest house surrounded by maps and dead insects.” “What’s going on?”
Lalitha Krishnan: In low light?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: In low light, No light. The good thing about it was my family never questioned me. That was the great part. That, despite my doing something very unconventional in those days, I had the full support of my parents and my family which is what helped. Because without that I don’t think, I could have survived those years.
Again it was serendipity. I was sitting in the forest rest house one fine day and a group of university professors from Pune University walked in. And they said, “What are you doing?” And, I told them what I was doing. And they said, “This is amazing work and you have amazing data. Why don’t you register for a Ph.D.?” So I said OK, why not?” So that’s how my Ph.D. started.
Lalitha Krishnan: Oh…Ok
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I registered with the University of Pune. I finished my Ph.D. and then again, I was at a loose end. Believe me, it was not an easy sector to find a job in.
Lalitha Krishnan: Still isn’t, is it?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Still isn’t. So there I was, with a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and was wondering how what do I do? Funnily enough–so what happened then?– there was an international conference on parks and protected areas. This was happening in Venezuela, of all the places. Someone suggested to me, “Why not go to this conference because your work is really interesting?” “And you should present a paper.” So somehow I managed to get a grant and went off for this conference and presented my paper. A gentleman walked up to me after the presentation and said, “That was very interesting. Would you like to work with us?”
Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I was like, “Who’s this? Who are you?” “Work where?” He said, “I’m the programme head of WWF in the UK and I would like you to come work with us in the UK and head our Asia team.” I said, “ No, no I don’t want to do that…
Lalitha Krishnan: This is just from your speech…your presentation?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yah. Just from my presentation. I said, “No way, I am a field person, I do not want to sit in an office. I definitely do not want to go to the UK. I want to go back and sit in another forest you know? This is what we think in that stage in life because we are so passionate about what we do we think we want to do it forever. Be close to nature. Be close to wildlife. Anyway, a lot of my friends convinced me and said, “You should try this for a couple of years.” “You’ve done enough.” “Why don’t you give it a shot?” “What’s the harm?”
So, I said, “What’s the harm?” I packed my bags and went off to the UK. I spent a couple of years there—about three years in the UK. It was an interesting job but I was just aching to get back.
Lalitha Krishnan: Really?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I just could not handle…it was fun…but I just thought, one more miserable winter in the UK and I’m just going to die. So then, I wrote my own proposal. By that time, I realized that I was very interested in capacity building, training, and teaching. So I wrote up a proposal, I got a grant and then and I moved to Bangkok.
Then, I spent five years in Thailand but it was more of a regional hub and at that time I was working in 15 different countries. It was amazing.. so everything from Pakistan to Fiji.
Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like a dream.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It was. It was really interesting and really, really fun. I saw so much conservation. I got so much experience in learning what goes on in different countries. But then, once again I realized that I had had enough after five years and I always knew that I wanted to come back to India. It was never in my mind that I would stay away from India forever. I had been away by then for more than 10 years. I felt like if I don’t go back now I am going to be out of touch. I don’t know what’s going on in my own country. So, I packed my bags. I came back to India and landed up in Mussoorie, which was home. I worked out of Mussoorie for several years. I was doing consultancy for the UN; I was travelling, I was working in India… After three or four years of doing that I again started getting a little bit of, you know, this feeling, that I’m doing great stuff, I’m doing well as a professional, I’ve got a good career but am I making a difference. I’m doing lots of little things, I am advising a lot of people on how they should do things but what difference am I making to India, to a place or to a people? Again, the WWF India job just happened. It was something that people have been telling me for a long time, saying, “You’re in India, you know WWF, why don’t you go and work for WWF India? I said, “No way I’m going to be a manager, I hate management, I have never been trained in management. I’m a conservationist. What do I know about people management?” But all that was in vain. I got into the job and I have been there for over 10 years. We have a great team. I am proud to say I built up a fantastic team and a great programme. Today I feel pretty satisfied that I have made a difference not just in the people I have trained…anywhere in the world, it’s amazing. I go to so many places in the world and people come up to me and say, “That training I did with you changed my life”.
Lalitha Krishnan: Really? Wow.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Or “changed my career or changed the course of my thinking”. And that is an amazing feeling. Also in WWF, I think we have gone on a long journey. Things have changed a lot. Finally, my little project in Mussoorie, Jaberkhet, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects in my life.
Lalitha Krishnan: We will definitely talk about that a little later.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: So that’s my journey. It’s been fantastic and I’ve never really felt hampered being a woman in this journey. Except when I came back to India and didn’t have grey hair. Because people would not take you seriously. But now that I have grey hair and I look kind of experienced.
Lalitha Krishnan: Haha, you are experienced
Dr. SejalWohra: The woman factor doesn’t come in the way and people take me more seriously.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s pretty incredible. You were talking about your journey in the last 25 years. What has changed since you started and what is the state of conservation in India?
Dr. SejalWohra: Let me talk about the good and not so good. On the good side, what has changed is just the sheer number of people in this sector. As I told you when I started, I didn’t know where I would go, what I would do. There were so few people who were in this sector and most of us were wondering what would be our future. My parents, my relatives would get a lot of pressure;. “What is your daughter doing?” “How is she ever going to get a job?” “Just get her married off.” Because this is a crazy field to be in.
But today, it’s amazing. The number of universities offering this course in conservation and wildlife biology…the number of young people opting for this and the amount of cross-fertilization that is going on… It’s no longer a sector in conservation and wildlife biology… it cuts across everything. It cuts across law, communications, policy… The sector has exploded in a very positive way. There are lots and lots of people and lots of momentum. Lots of good research going on…lots of activism, going on. That part to me is the good part in terms of what’s changed dramatically.
I think the challenge is that we are not winning too many battles. That sometimes gets frustrating. In the last 10 years I’ve started feeling a lit bit –what should I say, depressed is not the right word—a little bit less optimistic than I used to. This is a sector in which you have to feel super optimistic. You have to keep telling yourself that every little victory is a battle won. And that whatever you save, whatever you delay, wherever you can get a small win, you have to celebrate it. Now we are finding that even the small wins are getting harder and harder to get. All the news that you see today is negative—it’s depressing…it’s how much we are losing. Certainly, on some fronts, we are doing well but overall the picture is not looking great for India.
The challenges are just starting. For a country that’s on an economic precipice, where things are going to boom, one just wonders how we are going to balance the conservation requirements and ecology with the development that we need. I am not saying that we don’t need that development.
Lalitha Krishnan: Is it because we are not highlighting the positive? Is it because media tends to just highlight the negative? Do you think that’s (one of) the reasons?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s a bit of both. Yes, media, of course, like sensational stuff. And usually, sensational stuff is negative. Very often and I can tell you this. When we’ve tried to put out positive stories, and we’ve tried to put out positive stories, and we put out a lot because nobody wants to hear gloom and doom all the time we are often told by the editors of the newspaper said, “this is too boring”. “It’s too bland.” But, the minute there is a negative story we get approached by a hundred of them saying, “Give us a sound bite, tell us what’s going on?” And the other problem is nobody wants to hear the story. Everybody wants a sound bite. And sound bites are often negative. Or they don’t tell you the story. When you try to connect the dots, they cut out all the stuff. So really we do not understand the full picture… we do not understand the complexity of what’s going on. We are just working on sound bites and single sentences and twitter and stuff like that.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right, and we tend to believe what we hear or see (on social media).
Dr. Sejal Wohra: That is a challenge I think. Trying to tell the story in a smart way. This is what we keep telling ourselves. We challenge ourselves to say in this era of short attention span – where everyone has a short attention span – how do you grab the attention but also sustain it? We need to get smarter too. We need to get smarter at how we communicate. I think we conservationist haven’t learned the art of communicating with today’s generation. Unless we do that, we are going to lose their interest.
Lalitha Krishnan: I would have thought today’s generation is more aware than our generation.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: They are more aware but they also want short-term solutions
Lalitha Krishnan: True.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s like …we do this ‘Earth Hour’ thing, every year. You’ve heard about it? It’s a single action.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: You switch off your lights and you feel good about it. Stop using straws and you will feel good about it. Give up this and you will feel good about it. Which is all good and they’re very quick to pick those up. Those are snappy messages that you can send out on social media and stuff. But really, it’s about a lifestyle change.
Lalitha Krishnan: And that’s hard for them.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, that’s hard And the danger is by giving people these short fixes you make them feel that they have done their bit. And that’s enough.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK
Dr. Sejal Wohra: So, there is a good and a bad side to it as well. The good side is that people are doing something. The bad side is they think it that is enough. Unless we tell the whole story.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK. You worked in over 20 countries in south-east Asia, thePacific and East Africa. Can you tell us your most unforgettable experience? It could positive or tell us positive and negative? Do you remember (them)?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let me start with the negative. I am not sure if it was negative but it was shocking. If you’re in the conservation field and in your sort of formative years, one of the places that make an unforgettable impression on your mind that you read about and you dream about is obviously rain forests. Rainforests are the thing. And, Borneo is another place we all dream about. We have this picture of Borneo in our heads. I got a chance– of course as part of my travels in South East Asia– to go to Borneo. I was excited beyond belief. I was so thrilled to be going to Borneo. I had this image in my head. I had read all the books, seen all the movies. There I was, landing in Sabah. We were driving, actually, to a very remote village where we were working with the community there. So, I was excited. This was the place on the border of Sabah and Kalimantan as deep in Borneo as you can get. And, we drove for something like seven hours on makeshift roads mostly. And it was probably one of the most depressing drives of my life.
Lalitha Krishnan: Why?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Because the only thing you saw was logging trucks. The only thing you’re so was logged over forests. Or burnt forests. Or forests, that has been converted to palm oil. And literally, I must’ve counted thousands and thousands of trucks with these enormous rainforest trees…
Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nooo. Your dream must have just shattered.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I just thought… Frankly, I don’t think I have recovered from that. And I never wanted to go again. I’ve been since to other parts of Borneo–they are amazing and remarkable –it just made me realize that there is no stopping the amount of resources that humans need.
Lalitha Krishnan: How long back was this?
Dr. SejalWohra: About 20 years ago.
Lalitha Krishnan: And, they’re still at it?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, still at it. And it’s relentless. I think that was my wake up moment to the reality is that going on. Of course, I realize that there are so many issues. We work on logging, all kinds of issues related to logging but at that time, I was just starting. And it was an eye-opener.
In terms of something exciting and really positive… I sort of shifted my career a little bit in terms of pure conservation to working with people and communities and looking at the interface between social issues and conservation. That was very interesting for me… something I was deeply interested in.
So as part of that, we were working in Thailand with the fishing community. The problem here was there was a small fishing community, which was heavily threatened by trawlers. So the trawlers were coming in and scooping up all the fish and destroying the entire ecosystem small fishermen were just being left out in the cold. And we wanted to work with them to devise strategies on how we could help them conserve their resources and you know, deal with the trawler menace.
It was amazing. We were sitting with these fishermen… they would go out fishing all day and come back dog tired at the end of the day. Then we would start a discussion with them. Literally, we would sit through the night— they were Muslim fisherman, in southern Thailand —they would go, say their prayers, come back and we sit and sit and sit, talk, drink coffee and talk, drink coffee and talk all the way into morning until they had to go for prayer again. Literally, we would spend night after night sitting down and devising strategies and thinking about how we could solve the problem. And to me, just this incredible connect this community had with their issues, their resources… and how eager they were, how committed they were to solve their problem made me realize that the solution to conservation problems doesn’t lie with governments, doesn’t lie in policies, doesn’t lie with conservationists but it lies with the people.
Lalitha Krishnan: With the people.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: And again, that was an eye-opener for me. For me, it is just a career, a job but for these people, it’s their life. It was a mind-blowing experience for me to spend a week just talking through the night and coming up with a solution. I still think that was one of the most successful projects that I have been associated with.
Lalitha Krishnan: So that must have been hard because I’m sure none of them spoke English and you needed a translator. But over and above all of these issues, you still managed to solve the problems.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah. We had an amazing team in Thailand. Some people were very connected. I learned over those years –those five years in South East Asia to do a lot through translations. I did speak a smattering of Thai… and you realize when you work in different cultures how quickly you start picking up body language, how quickly you start picking up words, phrases, tones…
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s not really a barrier in the end.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah. Exactly. If you’re on the same side then actually you can communicate without languages.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing.
Lalitha Krishnan: Dr. Wohra, the Himalayas, I know, is a big part of who you are today. You grew up here as a child; you worked here as a young professional in the past and even now you continue to be passionate and immersed in projects in and around these hillsides. I was wondering if you had any apprehensions at all or concerns about the future of these beautiful mountains we are living on.
Kind of Thistle
Dr. Sejal Wohra: The Himalayas are of course unique. You and I both know this and we live here because we love the place. I genuinely think that in India, we don’t realize the value of the Himalayas although; we pay a lot of lip service to the Himalayas. We talk about Himalayan ecosystems… there is a number of missions. The Ministry of Environment has a mission on the Himalayas. NITI Aayog has a sustainable Himalayas sort of mission as well. We have tourism things that focus on the Himalayas. We have adventure people who are focusing on the Himalayas. We have so much that in theory is dedicated to sustainable development or sustainable tourism. The word sustainable…
Lalitha Krishnan: The most commonly used word.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Every time they talk about the Himalayas they say it’s going to be about sustainable development. But the actual development that you see in the Himalayas, particularly in Uttarakhand I should say, is anything but sustainable. I mean anyone can look around these mountains–not just Mussoorie, but anywhere you go– and see that and neither is the road building sustainable, neither is the infrastructure sustainable. And by sustainable I don’t just mean ecologically, I also mean from the human point of view. Neither is our river management sustainable. Neither is our tourism sustainable. Absolutely, to my mind, this is a disaster waiting to happen, you know? The sad part to me is that disasters are happening- both small and big; annually, yearly. But that does not seem to change the paradigm or the trajectory of development.
So what saddens me the most is actually when I look at the formation of Uttarakhand – and you and I were probably both here when it was formed from UP—the battle cry at that time for Uttarakhand was around ‘Jal, Jungle Zameen.’ It was all around resources. You know the ‘Chipko’ movement started here. This was a watershed movement in Indian environment activism. So this is the home of resources and resource management, and people’s activism. And today when you look at what’s going on; today when I actually look at people sitting in dharna to be allowed to cut hundreds of trees; to be allowed to build roads…I am not denying or saying we don’t need roads. But isn’t there some way to balance the kind of development we are doing? Shouldn’t we give some leeway to the future generations? Shouldn’t we think about what it is going to look like in 15 or 20 years if we trash every piece of these amazing mountains that we’ve got?
Today, I looked out of the window and saw another big part of the mountainside being gouged out… just literally being gouged out of the mountain to build another huge development. Just in front of my eyes on a steep slope.
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s already packed with this. There is hardly any ground left to build on.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Every hill slope that I’m looking at is now just a series of buildings. Again, this is unsustainable. This not good for people, or for the environment. The challenge I think, which we face in the Himalayas is, on the one hand, we say we need to treat these mountains differently because they are different from the plains—that was the whole argument for getting different mountain states but the development that we are doing in the mountains is no different from the development we are doing in the plains. The greed that we are seeing in the people of the mountains to make as much money as quickly as possible is no different from what we have seen anywhere else. So I think this whole pride that separated us—and we felt, you know, we are from the mountains and we are different—to me is a tragedy. Frankly, it’s just a tragedy.
So if there is one thing that depresses me more than anything else it is the seeing the way the way Himalayas are being destroyed systematically in front of our eyes.
Lalitha Krishnan: And you’re talking about the whole Indian Himalayas? Or you feel its worse in Uttarakhand?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I’m talking of the western Himalayas more. The eastern Indian Himalayas are still, of course in a better shape. We work in Arunachal. It’s still very different.
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s hard to get there.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s probably the reason, right? Sikkim is interesting. Second is an interesting model. Because Sikkim always claimed they have a different development paradigm. They have a different form of tourism. But if you look at Sikkim today — look at Gangtok— it’s no different, right? Gangtok looks no different than Darjeeling or from Simla– Again, another urban disaster in the making. Some parts of cleaner, it may be better managed but at the end of the day, it looks like in an urban disaster in the making. Sikkim has just opened its first airport. We know what happens. I saw Ladakh change dramatically in the last 20 years once the flights started coming in and it is unrecognizable today.
So, with all the good intentions…Ladakh had probably the strongest tourism sector. It had a really good association of tour operators who were really trying to keep Ladakh special and separate. It’s gone.
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s gone. I hope it doesn’t happen to Spiti.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Spiti, is on the way. Arunachal is on the way. Because there’s a big push to move tourism into Arunachal. They want to open up more areas in the Himalayas – they want to open more peaks for mountaineering, they want to open more areas for adventures sports. Trekking tourism, you know, it has taken off in such a big way but unmanaged.
Lalitha Krishnan: There’s hardly much to trek to, I remember we used to take two days to get to (specific) villages, Now the road reaches there. And also there are new rules about not camping on bhugyals (meadows).
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Not camping on bhugyals is interesting. It’s a reaction to really, bad management, right?
Lalitha Krishnan: I know.
Sejal Wohra. I agree that bans are bad but they way they have treated our bhugyals…
Lalitha Krishnan: We need to give them a chance to revive.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Nag Tibba is right next to Mussoorie. It’s a place where we used to hike when we were kids. It was pristine. I went to Nag Tibba recently and I was shocked. It is a garbage dump. It is a garbage dump. Why are we not able to manage tourism in this country? I do not understand.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, but there are operators who take 50-100 people at one go and if you now go to some of the places I used to (trek) to or have been to, its full of dug out toilets pits…
Dr. Sejal Wohra: And toilet paper everywhere.
Lalitha Krishnan: There are no places to really camp. It’s ruined. And we used to go there to see the flowers in the monsoons.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: So this is the problem. We have a regulatory regime but we are not able to regulate. So we swing from over exploitation to bans. And that is not the way to handle things.
Lalitha Krishnan: For sure. Like we were discussing in our country, we live in close proximity to wildlife and we read about human-wildlife conflicts all the time. What are we doing to mitigate or intervene or even empower communities that live on the edge?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: This is again a very big challenge that we are going to have to resolve if we want conservation to have a future in India. We live in a crowded country which is both crowded with people and with wildlife. And if you were to ask me one positive thing, I said so many negative things, what amazes me and especially amazed me when I came back from Southeast Asia to India is that we have so much wildlife in our country.
Lalitha Krishnan: That is so true.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: In South East Asia it’s the typical empty forest syndrome. They have amazing forests, beautiful rainforest. Birdlife is pretty good, in some places but you don’t see mammals. You don’t see large mammals. You come to India and you see just about everything. I know my friends from Southeast Asia die to come to India. This friend of mine worked for years on elephants in Thailand and she saw maybe one herd.
Lalitha Krishnan: One wild herd.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I have colleagues who have been working on tigers in Thailand for 15 years and have never seen a wild tiger except on camera (traps).
Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: So given all that, we are blessed. In many ways, we are blessed and there are many reasons for this. One of the many reasons for this is the famous tolerance of Indians that people talk about which we absolutely should not take for granted.
Lalitha Krishnan: Even animal tolerance no? They also are being tolerant.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. People rubbish the word coexistence but I can tell you that even in this little forest of Jaberkhet, that we’ve got next door-it’s right in the middle of Mussoorie; there are all kinds of things going on there. There is a clear co-existence that you see. Because we know that there are large animals there who are watching us or behaving in a way or altering their behavior in a way that doesn’t come into conflict. So I think there is a lot to be said for tolerance, coexistence but as I said we can’t take it for granted. But there is a whole generation of Indians who are growing up with a disconnect. Even now, I have heard older generations of villagers – they have seen elephants rampaging through their fields, they see a leopard taking their life stock livestock and they will still be quite philosophical about it. They will say, “Well, it happens. We’ve lived through this”.
Lalitha Krishnan: Animals too, need to eat. That’s usually the response.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s a kind of risk you take and manage in those kinds of areas. But the younger generation doesn’t want to. The want that leopard shot, they want that tiger killed, they wanted it captured. That’s going to increase and that’s how it is in most countries in the world. Where you’re not going to tolerate dangerous animals. When it comes to a choice between humans and animals it’s always going to be humans. So, we are reaching that stage. Unless we find smart, effective, efficient, rapid ways of dealing with conflict, this is something that is going to come back and bite us. Because people were just one those animals eliminated. We may save the species, maybe but individual animals will definitely suffer as a result of it.
So we’re working a lot on the conflict at multiple levels. Conflict needs to be addressed at three levels: one is immediate and short-term. People need to see an immediate response to conflict. Very often we do that through giving immediate relief or giving a small amount of compensation – immediately after the conflict or having a rapid response force that makes people feel the lives are valued, the crops are valued, their resources are valued. That’s the short-term response
But we need a median-term response as well which starts looking at: What are the physical barriers? What can we do in terms of cropping patterns? Can we grow alternative crops? Can we have you know, the right kind of barriers in the right kinds of places to actually _____create physical distance between humans and wildlife?
The long-term solution or long-term solution issue really is space. It’s all about space.
Lalitha Krishnan: Which is almost impossible, isn’t it?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Which is impossible but not quite. One of the things we have been fighting a lot for is corridors, right? So you leave those corridors, you leave that space. Even agricultural fields, for example, are forming a buffer for a lot of wildlife. So, we need to understand the role that land use mosaics play in mitigating conflict and not have these hard barriers. We need softer measures to deal with how animals disperse. We need a better understanding of how they disperse and when animals and people come into conflict.
One of the things I hear a lot from a number of people is that numbers are increasing. There’s more conflict because there are more leopards. There is more conflict because there are more tigers. There is more conflict because there are more elephants. In pockets, there have been increases but part of the reason there are conflicts are that we are encroaching into their space. We are blocking corridors. We are blocking passages. So, we are coming much more in proximity to those animals. It is not necessarily that the animals that are coming and deliberately attacking us but we are increasingly in their space and there are behavioural issues. You know, another interesting factor we are seeing is leopard attacks. Villagers in Uttarakhand have lived with leopards all their lives. They know what to do and what not to do. They know that you don’t go walking out in the dark in the nallas with the dog. They know there are certain behaviours that you avoid. But with so many settlers coming in, labourers coming in, people coming in from the outside, who have absolutely no clue how to live with wildlife, they are doing things you would not normally do if you lived with wildlife. And a lot of the conflict is happening to these people. So, there’s a huge amount of education and awareness to be done as well because it’s like having a highway next to your house.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: You had a two-lane road and that road has become a highway. You tell your children how to behave when there is a highway next to your house. Similarly, you also need to know how to behave when there I wildlife living next to you.
Lalitha Krishnan: True.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Dangerous things are all around us. It’s not just wildlife, that is dangerous. Cars are dangerous. So, I think we got to put it in context and not overreact sometimes.
Also, the media plays a role in this, I am sorry to say. Sometimes the way these stories are portrayed. It’s always, “Killer on the lose”, or, “rampaging tiger”, or “marauding elephant”. So, it’s also how this is portrayed. There are so many things we can do.
Lalitha Krishnan: You’re right. We don’t know how to behave when we see wildlife. There were two leopard spottings in this area. One was right near the school gate.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I heard that.
Lalitha Krishnan: There was this driver coming up and there was a leopard sitting on the edge. He has taken this video and his passengers are shouting and this tolerant leopard just sat there for 15 minutes and then turned around and walked away. So, we don’t even know what to do. It’s horrible.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: What I think is amazing is that how little conflict there is. Because, if you think about it, these leopards around Mussoorie are living with us all the time. They are all around us whether you like it or not.
Lalitha Krishnan: They’re seeing us even if we don’t see them.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. So, the thing is if they were as blood-thirsty as they are portrayed to be, we would be having problems every day.
Lalitha Krishnan: Sure.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: The fact is they are avoiding us and we are only coming into conflict when it’s unavoidable. To me, the story is not about conflict, to me, the story is really about coexistence. That..look it’s amazing. That actually we are living with these wild animals with so little conflict.
Lalitha Krishnan: True. Closer home, all of us in Mussoorie feel so proud and privileged to live close to Jaberkhet Nature Reserve. Could you briefly tell us the before and after story…because I think everybody should know this. It’s been such a success and a wonderful thing.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I don’t know if there’s a real before and after but I think I’ve told this story in different ways at different times. I’ll try and encapsulate it. We grew up in Mussoorie. We’ve been coming here since 1962 or 63. My sister was in Woodstock. As you probably know, Flag hill, as it was known…
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes
Dr. Sejal Wohra: …was a regular haunt of Woodstock students for hiking, picnics…
Lalitha Krishnan: Still is.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Along with her, my sister, we used to go to Flag hill and hike and camp and really loved the place. But when you’re a child it’s a different context. And we always thought that this was the most amazing place on the planet. Then, of course, I grew up, I went away…I told you my history. Then, I came back to Mussoorie after 15 years or so and went back to Flag hill. It was like a, you know, a Flag Hill revisiting. I was actually quite shocked. Because it looks very different when you are an adult. Also, because by that time I was in conservation, an ecologist…so I was looking at it from the eyes of an ecologist. And I thought, “My God, this place is in a mess”. Not just because of the trash and physical manifestation but it was heavily degraded; it was badly overused. Also, at that time, I realized, the whole of Mussoorie had changed. And there was so much development as I told you. Every hillside was being eyed by developers for building, constructions, resorts etc.
I just thought, you know, “Here I am, I have spent the last twenty years of my life telling the rest of the world how to do conservation and I come back home and I see this situation.” You can’t just sit back, you can’t keep quiet.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, you can’t.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: You can’t turn a blind eye to it and say “I’ll tell everybody else how to do things and I won’t try and sort out my own mess”. So then, I thought we must do something in Mussoorie or Mussoorie was just going to be another sad case of bad development. So, Flag hill or Jaberkhet as the area is known as, was something that I really felt strongly – that we could turn it around. We had no idea how to do it. I didn’t even know who owned it. I didn’t even know it was a private forest actually, at that time. I just thought, here’s a place. It’s one of those things you don’t question, right? You don’t ask those questions…in those days.
My sister then had a Woodstock reunion and I think it was the class of 72 or some such thing. Anyway, she went for this reunion. I think Steve was in that reunion. This guy called Vipul Jain turns up at that reunion and he’s a businessman from Bombay. My sister gets chatting with him and then he says, “I own Flag hill”. Then she says, “Oh my God, we’ve been looking for you for 30 years. Please talk to my sister”.
Lalitha Krishnan: What a breakthrough.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I think my life has been a series of chance things. Nothing has been planned. Anyway, Vipul and I got talking, and he narrated to me, how his father had tried, in many ways to, do things in Jaberkhet. They tried to have an orchard, they had tried flower fields, and they tried growing vegetables but nothing had succeded. He had also planted trees. At that time, the forest was also being worked. They were actually cutting the trees and selling them as well. Earlier on, this entire forest was used for making charcoal for the brewery in Mussoorie. It’s not like the forest had not been used for a long time. Now they were just open access. They were not just being used but they were being misused. Anyway, he and I started talking and I kind of said, “Since you got this land and you are not using it, why don’t we do something we can actually leave for future generations? Something that you can be proud of… your father’s memory and I can use the skills that I’ve learned all these years and do something for Mussoorie. Credit to him, he agreed and put it in my hands. He said, “Ok fine”. In a way, “Show me what you can do”. And so we started the journey.
It was me, and Rajender. Rajender is the guy who brings milk from a village that is 10 k away. He walks 20 k every day. He and I started this little project to figure out what we could do.
Lalitha Krishnan: A two-person team?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: A two-person team…a lot of villagers against us. A lot of people basically not understanding what we were trying to do-thinking we were privatizing the place…and we were just going to make a lot of money out of it. So we had lots of meetings, lots of discussions with villagers. People would come and break my walls, they would break my fences…
Lalitha Krishnan: Really?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, they would write nasty things about me… a whole history of…
Lalitha Krishnan: I didn’t know that part.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: The toughest part for me was managing the use by the people from Jaberkhet and Bhatta Ghat…mostly the cows being grazed.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s hard.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: You know, it was a free for all forest. You could come and cut trees. You could come and do whatever you wanted. And suddenly here’s somebody saying, “Well, you can’t do that anymore as you want it. Now there are going to be certain rules.” I kept trying to explain to them, that, “This was going to good for you in the long run. That people will come. They will appreciate the place. Jobs will be created. There will be mann (status) for you. People will talk about this place. Right now you’re not on the map. It was a long journey.
For three years we struggled away, did the restoration, cleaned it up, somehow managed the cows, somehow managed to get the community on our side, creating jobs, employed the local people…did this, that and the other.
We then trained the local boys to become nature guides and that was quite a turning point for me.
Lalitha Krishnan: And for them, I think. Don’t you think so?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Well, the funny thing was we had this training and I got 12 local boys from surrounding villages to come. We did this three-day training for them to say here’s an alternative career option rather than becoming a taxi driver or working in a restaurant or going off to Dubai which is what these kids aspire to do. This is a job that will give you name and fame and be satisfying. When I asked, “Who is going to come work for me?” No, none of them were interested. They all wanted to go work in hotels and stuff. Out of the 12, no one was interested except for this one young kid who was actually the quietest of the lot in the class. And, the one who t I thought had the least promise. He walked up to me and said, “I am willing to do the job.” And I turned around and said, “Nah, not really.”
I am so glad I took him on. Because I had no choice. He was the only one I had. Virender, is, of course, the find of the century. He has turned into this amazing naturalist and bird watcher. He has won a national award. He is like the star. Everybody who writes comments on Jaberkhet writes about Virender. The great thing is that he’s become like a rock star in town. Everybody wants to be him. So now all the young boys are coming to me. Their mothers are coming to me. Women, who are dead against me are now saying, “Can you give my son a job?” Now I have four of these young boys working for me.
Lalitha Krishnan: I was thinking, it must look to them like when you started off in conservation by saying, “What am I going to get out of this?” Now they see the difference and see that there’s a future here.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yes, Some of the boys here, like Vipul, he used to work in a restaurant here in Bhatta Ghat. He’s left that and become a nature guide. According to him, this is a much more satisfying job than slaving behind and making bun omelettes and Maggie noodles for tourists.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I would think.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: If you ask me what’s been one of the most satisfying things, Jaberkhet, of course, has been a great story. We are now on the map. People come all the way from Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai…forget about Delhi and Mussoorie…people are coming from far away just to see the place and learn about the story.
The other nice thing and what I really wanted it to be is a model. And that’s starting to happen because people are coming to me from Hyderabad, from Sikkim…
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so good.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: …saying, “I have a patch of forest. Can I do this with my forest? I say, “Yeah, please do it.” So people are seeing it as a model.
The third thing that I’m really keen on is, you know, Uttarakhand has a whole bunch of van panchayats which are community owned forests which are scattered all over the state. These forests are under great threat. Because, there are roads being built through them, they’re being cut down, they’re being decimated. And these van panchayats have a huge potential to become a network of nature reserves. Increasingly the van panchayat leaders are coming. Recently, we had 20 of these van panchayat leaders come to Jaberkhet to say, “How can we actually set up something like this in our villages?” So I think if this little experiment that we have set up in Mussoorie can become a model for the whole state, then I start seeing some hope for Uttarakhand.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing that they even know about it.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: There is hope for these small patches of forests. The other thing I would like to say about Jaberkhet is that— and I’m now speaking again as an ecologist, rather than anything else—initially I thought, “What’s a hundred acres?” Jaberkhet is a 100 acres but it’s surrounded by much more. It’s got Woodstock forests on one side, it’s got cantonment, it’s got the reserve forest, and other private forests…so it’s quite a large area. The vision and the hope that I have is that one fine day we will be able to connect all of these into one large defacto protected area.
Lalitha Krishnan: We’ll all cross our fingers for you.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let’s hope that happens. But even a small patch can make a difference. The story of Jaberkhet is the story of two or three things. One is that individuals can make a difference. You don’t need the state…you won’t need large amounts of money. I’ve invested some money but it’s not an unimaginable sum of money. It’s something I could afford and wanted to do so it’s not a lot. Success breeds success. And the other is that other private forest owners who are much more commercial-minded have been watching very carefully. And I am exaggerating the success a little bit…
Lalitha Krishnan: No you’re not. It’s such a healthy…
Dr. Sejal Wohra: For them, it’s not the health of the forest. It’s about how much money you are making.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: They’re interested to know if it is a viable business model. The minute it becomes a viable business model conservation will start becoming something that they will do. Otherwise, they just see the forest as a liability. My fervent hope is that we start actually doing well as a business not because we want to make money that because I hope that it will encourage other forest private forest owners to say, “Hey, it’s a moneymaking model… It’s not just one crazy woman doing her hobby”.
Lalitha Krishnan: I see what you mean. But we are also proud of you and so privileged to have Jabberkhet next to us.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Such a fantastic story and it’s been the support of everybody around. I should say that the initial hostility that I had has completely turned around. And we have so much support from everybody right from put stuff to people living around in the community to the taxi drivers, to the restaurant owners… everybody sees this, you know, just as we had hoped. That it would be something to be proud of rather than to be something to sneer at or say that this is a crazy idea. Yeah, let’s hope it goes from strength to strength. My dream is that it becomes sustainable and the locals can manage it themselves and I can step back and leave it to them.
Lalitha Krishnan: Really? Wow. That’s really ambitious but I’m sure it will happen.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let’s hope so.
Lalitha Krishnan: You must have so many stories Dr. Wohra. Do you think you will ever write a book?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Oh gosh, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while…
Lalitha Krishnan: Really?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: First of all, you need time to write a book. I need to stop this frantic pace of things that I am doing and the travel, and the work, and pause and take a deep breath. I shouldn’t say this but I’ve been kind of looking around and saying everybody is writing a book. So, why the hell am I not writing a book? I think people with less interesting lives with me are writing a book. Certainly, I can write a book.
Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, please do write a book.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: But it requires a certain temperament and at some point — I have never made notes–I have never actually kept notes of the journey or incidents or stuff like that.
Lalitha Krishnan: You’re a strange conservationist. I thought they always made notes.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I have all those books but there are all technical. So they all notes about meetings and field visits and this and that but I haven’t captured the anecdotes. The stuff that makes a book interesting is the anecdotes.
Lalitha Krishnan: I guess with time you will remember.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: They’re all there in my head. Sooner or later I should put it down. My hope is that I will retire soon and maybe that’s a good project to take up.
Lalitha Krishnan: I look forward to that.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: If not a book at least something.
Lalitha Krishnan: Jottings… memories
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Good point. I should. Thanks for that idea.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. I request all my guests to share a scientific term or word that they like or think is significant. What’s yours?
Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s not necessarily a scientific term but I think the term of great importance in the conservational and environmental movement, which is ‘consumption’. To me, the future of this planet lies in us individually and collectively as human beings, to really question whether we need so much. I am as guilty as anybody else on that.
Lalitha Krishnan: We all are.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: When I look around and see just stuff— I think do we really need all this? If all of us humans lived with what we need this would be a very different planet. Unfortunately, the model of development that we have today is geared entirely towards consumption. It’s about getting people to consume more.
Lalitha Krishnan: True.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Economies and countries thrive and build their economies on consumption rather than on sustainability. My dream is that we actually start questioning the whole concept of: “ Do we need to consume so much?” And we’ll have a different planet.
I’m going to make a plug here for some friends of mine who have started a very interesting venture. It’s called, ‘We share’. And the idea is to not buy stuff but to share stuff. They are going to set up a web platform where it will be a platform for sharing. So, it’s things that you buy but you only going to use once. Or you might just need now and then. And you can share it with others. So everybody starts buying less stuff and start sharing more stuff.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great but I guess it would work in a city rather than a place where you have to walk two miles just to meet your neighbour.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, and that’s where the consumption happens.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK
Dr. Sejal Wohra: So even if people start thinking along the lines of, “I’ve bought this but I’m not going to use it for another year…
Lalitha Krishnan: Or it is lying in my cupboard for the past six months even.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. We’ve started a little thing like that in our office as well Where we have a corner in the office where people leave stuff that they either don’t want or are willing to share. And people just keep exchanging things and this can be done by anybody… any community can do this.
Lalitha Krishnan: I know people do that with books but it’s the hardest to give away.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: I feel we should do this with everything. So, I think the more we change our mindset about things and stuff. I need this, I need this. We have to get away from that…the more we’ll change society.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a wonderful word – a wonderful concept. Thank you so much Dr. Wohra. I really enjoyed speaking to you. I think we have lots more to talk about. Hope you’ll join us again someday on another episode.
Dr. Sejal Wohra: Thanks. It was a pleasure. It’s always fun to talk to somebody who understands what you’re talking about so thanks for being a good listener.
Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you.
Lalitha Krishnan:. I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Stay tuned for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation.
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Birdsong by hillside residents
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