Dr Kuruvilla Thomas is the former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, (Research & Training), UP, Kanpur …
Q: How would you define the role of research in environment and wildlife protection?
Research plays a crucial role in understanding the complexities of the environment and wildlife, and identifying ways to mitigate the negative impacts of human activities. Research contributes to conservation efforts by understanding ecological systems i.e., understand the relationships between different species, their habitats, and the factors that affect their survival. Research knowledge is essential for developing effective conservation strategies to protect endangered species and their habitats, habitat restoration, identifying and development of protected areas and wildlife corridors, and other measures to reduce human impact. Through scientific research we can identify the specific threats facing different species and ecosystems because of factors like climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and other human activities on different species and their habitats. Research helps in improving the tree quality by tree improvement programs. High quality planting material helps in increasing the productivity of forests and better yield from Trees outside forests thereby decreasing the pressure and habitat. High productive tree species developed through research result in increased carbon sequestration thereby mitigating climate change impacts. Research helps in developing nursery techniques for endangered species like Indopetidinia oudhensis (Hathi Paula).
Q: You have served in some most difficult areas as conservator. Can you elaborate on a couple of them-the difficulties and challenges?
Working as a forest officer is challenging and demanding. I have worked in very difficult divisions like Ramanagar Forest Division and Pilibhit Forest Division. I had to work with limited resources, including personnel, equipment, and funding. This made it difficult to manage large areas of forest and wildlife effectively. Public land availability with Gram Sabhas, Revenue Department, and other departments is shrinking. Everybody’s eyes are on the invaluable forest lands. We need to protect these lands from encroachments. These forests have a high value. Timber species like Teak, Sal, Shisam and many endangered animals like tiger, leopard, various deer species, etc. We need to take effective steps to prevent illicit felling, poaching, and illegal wildlife trafficking. For this, we have to walk long distances through remote rugged terrain in extreme weather conditions. Maoist movement in Nepal was at its peak during my posting in Pilibhit division in the early 2000s. Maoists were encroaching the Indian Territory forests, cutting down trees, burning the land and distributing land among them for occupation and cultivation. There was no support from Nepal Army or from the district administration to stop this. The Forest department, by putting its full might, had to protect our forests against all odds. I escaped narrowly thrice from the attack of Maoists during forest encroachment eviction drives. Our work involves a great level of risks and hazards such as falling trees and branches, venomous snakes, and wild animals, vehicle accidents while travelling through treacherous narrow roads through the forests etc. I escaped from a lone tusker at Lagga Bagga in January 2003 while on patrol on foot. Have met with several vehicle accidents including overturning of Jeep while patrolling the forests
Q: Real Forests are shrinking and plantations outside forests cannot support wildlife. In such a scenario how should we protect and manage existing wildlife and birds?
The shrinking of natural forests and degradation of habitat pose a serious threat to wildlife and bird populations. Protecting and managing existing wildlife and birds requires a multi-faceted approach that involves the conservation of existing natural habitats, the creation of new habitats, and the implementation of effective management strategies. It is essential to protect and conserve the remaining natural forests and their ecosystems. Natural forests provide a diverse range of habitats that support a variety of wildlife and bird species. Protected areas such as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and nature reserves play a crucial role in conserving natural habitats and preserving biodiversity. Creating new habitats is also important for supporting wildlife and bird populations. Habitat restoration programmes such as establishing community reserves, wetland development etc. can be an effective way to create new habitats. Large scale reforestation efforts can help to restore natural habitats and increase the availability of food and shelter for wildlife and birds. Effective management strategies, community-based conservation programs by education and awareness creation can play a significant role in protecting and managing wildlife and bird populations. Ecotourism can provide local communities with a source of income while also promoting conservation efforts.
Q: Do you think zoological parks must take on a broader meaning with enclosures giving way to open spaces for the inmates? If so, what would be the benefits and pitfalls?
Guidelines for the establishment of Zoological parks have evolved significantly over the years. While the traditional approach to building zoos involved enclosing animals in cages and small enclosures, modern zoos have adopted a more humane approach by creating open spaces that resemble natural habitats for their inhabitants. The Central Government has through amendment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and notification of Recognition of Zoo Rules prescribed minimum standards and norms for housing, upkeep and healthcare of animals housed in the zoos and set up a Central Zoo Authority to oversee the operation of the zoos. Sufficient open spaces and enrichment of the enclosures are done to promote the physical and mental wellbeing of the animals. By providing them with larger habitats that resemble their natural environments, the animals are able to move around freely, engage in natural behaviour, and interact with others of their own species. This not only improves their physical health but also helps to reduce stress and promote mental wellbeing. Presently zoos are maintained for the purpose of ex-situ conservation, research and education, not for entertainment as was done earlier. Physical and mental wellbeing of the animals are given the topmost priority. Potential pitfalls associated with open spaces in zoological parks are risk of animal escapes or attacks. With strict safety protocols and barriers to prevent these incidents, the risk can be reduced to a very large extend.
Q: Let us know why you decided to become an IFS? Were you drawn to nature from childhood?
I am from a Village in Kottayam district of Kerala. My parents are agriculturists. I am passionate about agriculture. We have an estate in hill district of Idukki, where species like pepper and cardamom are grown. This estate is almost covered with tall trees. Our estate in Idukki is 100kms away from Kottayam and stretch of the road passed through thick vegetation. From my childhood I was fascinated by the hills, greenery, streams, trees and wildlife. Growing up with access to natural environments such as forests, mountains, or rivers fostered a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world and desire to join the Indian Forest Service. The Indian Forest Service is a prestigious civil service in India that is responsible for managing the country's forests and wildlife. Fortunately, by God’s grace, I cleared IFS exam in the first attempt and joined service straight from engineering college.
Q: What is your advice to our readers on their part in environment/nature conservation.
All of us are aware of the impacts and threats due to climate change to environment and economy. Rise is peak temperature with heat waves, untimely heavy rains with flash floods, reduction in number of rainy days; all resulting in soil erosion, crop loss and habitat degradation. Habitat degradation is resulting in heavy biodiversity loss affecting the ecosystem services provided by the nature. Climate change is largely caused by human activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We can reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our consumption needs using public transportation or walking/biking instead of driving, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, and reducing meat consumption etc. Water is a precious resource that is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world. We can conserve water by taking shorter showers, fixing leaks, and using water-efficient appliances and fixtures, recycling the water etc. Waste is a major problem that contributes to pollution and harms wildlife. We can reduce waste by recycling, composting, and reducing the consumption and avoiding the single use plastics. Spending time in nature can be a powerful way to develop a deeper appreciation for the environment and the need to protect it. Shinrin- Yoku, Firluftsliv and Earthing are world recognized therapies for better life. Increase the quality of life by taking a hike, visiting a park, or simply spending time in your own backyard, connecting with nature. We can support the efforts of environmental groups working to protect environment and wildlife by donating money, volunteering our time, or raising awareness about their work. Together we can create a more sustainable and healthy planet for all of us and for coming generations.