As part of our special series on young conservationists and wildlife biologists, we meet Tiasa Adhya, who is working on the under-appreciated 'Fishing Cat'...She tells us how her work involves providing scientific input to strengthen the case when it comes to fighting for the Fishing Cat, as well as India's wetlands; and leaves us with a dire warning of what's likely to happen if we ignore the bigger picture.
You can read more of our Eco-warrior series here
Excerpts from our interview:
1) What can you tell us about the projects you're working on at the moment
Am working to prioritize the only wetland specialist cat in India - Fishing Cat (which we unfortunately neglect). Prioritizing it in research and conservation paradigms...To push it into the society's main course.
One of the first research on Fishing Cat in India was done by the only small cat specialist in the country - Dr Shomita Mukherjee. I am working under her guidance to study the species like where does the cat live and what it eats. Our study showed that Fishing Cat are significantly related to wetlands . That marshy grass like vegetation located in wetland areas gives home to the cat.
Marshlands however are being treated like 'paper wetlands'. Because of contradictions between wetland policies (that is further proposed to be diluted (!)) and land use policies. Now we all know who devours wetlands - land sharks, private companies. These same people manipulate laws in many ways, tilting the balance against the Fishing Cat. My colleague Meghna Banerjee, an activist-lawyer, battles them in the courtroom. I provide the scientific inputs to strengthen the case.
We have also collaborated with policy makers - with the three-tier panchayat structure in a district in West Bengal to influence decisions in favour of the cat. For example, they officially declared their intent to form Fishing Cat Protection Commiittees in Howrah.
The Endangered Fishing Cat is a specialist species. Its primary threat is habitat loss. Its habitat is directly linked to our lives. Marshy vegetation absorbs heavy toxic metals from water and are carbon sinks. They are indicators of wetland health. If they are not there, there is something wrong happening with your water management.
This brings me to my third project - engage with media and public to create awareness. One of the awareness material is a docu-feature film our team is creating with crowd funding.
The Fishing Cat happens to be the State Animal of West Bengal. But it is often killed out of neglect and ill-awareness. We are trying to create a cultural value of the cat by working with the community locally.with the hope that negative interactions would reduce. We are part of Fishing Cat Working Group and are being funded by Small Cat Conservation Alliance, Wild Cat Network, Fishing Cat Working Group, Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Wild Oasis.
The international Fishing Cat Working Group aims to provide guidelines for understanding ecological and conservation issues of Fishing Cat globally. Members work in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to implement the guidelines. We consider scientists, activists, lawyers, artists, enthusiasts, media and policy makers as collaborators.
2) What led you to this field?
My coach - Partha Dey. He led me to the idea. But much before that it was the sister-brother accomplice with which we parented our rooster (Nontu) and his wives, then 43 pigeons, rabbits, fish, Laddoo – our dog and finally Hanchukova and her kittens at present. I loved to watch them and interact at length after school. I though all animals have the same eyes and this helps me relate to wild animals too. I love all creatures and the intricate relationship that makes life possible. Because I am a part of that.
Also read: Don’t run, just stop. Get one with nature says Manisha Gutman of eCoexist
But much before that it was the sister-brother accomplice with which we parented our rooster (Nontu) and his wives, then 43 pigeons, rabbits, fish, Laddoo – our dog and finally Hanchukova and her kittens at present.
I did not do well within curricular routines but liked reading about various things – cultures, literature, ancient civilisations etc. Inside I knew that wildlife conservation was where I wanted to be and managed to pass school and bachelor’s with that hope. My mother was a pillar of support and I could not have done anything if not for her.
The second thing happened in Sundarbans during the tiger census, when I could not see the Fishing Cat but saw its pugmarks.
The third opportunity was provided by blessings - when a page welcoming proposals for WWF's small grant project opened while browsing. My family pushed me forward. Then love happened. Shomita held my hand and introduced me to the world of cat ecology. I happened to meet small cat expert Jim Sanderson through her. He has left a lasting impression on me for how much he values small cats like the Fishing Cat. And I met an old-young man Dr Ajith Kumar in my interviews twice and then interacted with him for two years at the MSc Program, WCS-India, TIFR. And his favourite question was “But why?”.
3) What are you most passionate about?
Learning, reading, writing, watching movies, listening to songs, loving, working and some more things I cant mention ;-)
4) What are some of the things (top 3?) you wish Indians knew about wildlife / wildlife conservation?
a) Indians know how to co-occur by default. I learnt this from Dr. Vidya Athreya. So we should start finding the way ahead.
b) Following policies dictated by the west does not do good to us in the long run because we are different and we cannot help it. The richer sections have to move from a consumptive way of life to an ecological way of life. We don't have to strive very hard for that because we do not have to conserve wildlife. Its really all about inter-connections and so you are doing yourself a favour for thinking hard.
c) Wildlife conservation in India should not be guided by “wise use”, “ecosystem services” etc. It's stupidly arrogant to think that the wild gives us services. We better start leaving these introduced notions. India is a populous country. We can't survive if we blindly follow what the West has done. If our per capita consumption should equal America’s we would be needing 5 Earths to sustain us! We need an ecological understanding of life. Most of the general (public), common people will die horrible deaths if they refuse to see the bigger picture. Photographers and nature hobbyists should start looking at things this way.