Saving Wild India

Kumily, Kerala

Deep in the jungles of Kerala, a concrete building houses a group of 15 students, hand-selected to become the next generation of  wildlife conservationists. Every two years the Indian government, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society: India and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, offers the opportunity for passionate young conservationists to earn their master’s degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. Their classroom: the famed Periyar Tiger Preserve in the jungles of Kerala.


To an outsider, the jungle is in a word: intimidating. Vast, dense, and purely wild, this place is a sensory overload on many levels. Rainstorms visit once a day in the afternoons, and the forest seems to refuse to let any of the moisture escape. It is hot and humid, and even in broad daylight, appears dark due to the dense overgrowth.

As you stand there, peering between the leaves before you enter, you know what lives inside. You know that once you set foot inside, anything is possible. The jungle holds great beauty, but it also contains untold dangers. Tigers, leopards, elephants, poisonous snakes, and many other creatures call this place home. But for these scientists, these kids, heading into the unknown is just another day at the office.


The students come from a variety of backgrounds, many of them having left successful careers in medicine, computer science, and engineering to pursue their passion for conservation.


“India has the second largest human population and India has the largest elephant and tiger populations in the world, so there is a major conflict between people on one side and conservation on the other,” says Dr. Ajith Kumar, an instructor in the program.


Field research is an essential part of the education process. Students learn a variety of subjects including entomology, ichthyology, mammalogy, and herpetology from some of the most renowned biologists and conservationists in India. Students spend weeks in harsh conditions catching frogs, netting fish, and attracting moths with floodlights, among other things.


They are meticulous, disciplined deciples of the craft. Each of them chose to be here, and were chosen to participate. There is very little goofing around. When they are in the field, it's all business. And even though they are still learning, you get the sense that what they are working towards has significant purpose behind it.


But in the jungle, learning comes with a set of prerequisite hardships. Leeches are at the top of the list. They're tiny, inch worm-looking creatures that cling to every bit of vegetation, and find ways of getting into just about any location. Each day begins the same: Pants, socks, gaiters, shoes, salt. The salt reacts adversely to the leeches' mucus and it kills them instantly. As such, students rub salt and even tobacco snuff into their socks, pants, and shirt cuffs to keep them at bay.


Once they are in the jungle, the students must stay alert. Even a simple task like searching for frogs under a log, or netting fish in a stream can have dire consequences. At one point during a fishing expedition, a student reached for a vine to assist in crossing a stream and quickly lunged backward. Dangling from the vine was a Pit Viper, one of the many venomous snakes that call Kerala home. 


Despite these, at times, difficut working conditions, morale is always high. The students greet each day with bright eyes and are eager to see what new discoveries will come from their lessons in the wild. 


Graduates of the conservation program are among the top in the world. Following the first year of the program, 13 of the 15 students had their dissertations published—a feat that had been unprecedented anywhere else in the world.

Wildlife Conservation Society logo and website link

All Images ©Adam P. Herrera

Dr. Ajith Kumar unlocks the gates to Periyar Tiger Reserve, the student's education sanctuary for the next several weeks.

Students learn about a few of the native species of frogs and toads they may encounter, however new species are discovered in the jungle all of the time.

The students gather for group discussion in the main hall of the dormitory.

The jungle presents many challenges. Here, a student rubs salt into his socks to prevent tiny leeches from getting to his skin.

Despite precautionary measures, there is almost no escaping the leeches that thrive in the humid climate.

Other hazards include poisonous snakes like this Pit Viper, which was dangling from a branch directly over the walking path.

Even on the clearest days, the jungle floor appears dark and unforgiving due to its immensely thick canopy.

Students plot out an area of study as they set out in search of amphibians.

Rajat R. Nayak (right) measures an area of study. From a statistical standpoint, it is important to keep sample sizes consistent. That way populations can be more accurately assessed.

Shivani Jadeja (center) examines the first find of the afternoon, a tiny frog.

An afternoon of successful amphibian hunting located several species of frogs, toads, and salamanders.

A small frog is examined, photographed, and documented. Everything from its appearance to it's location is catalogued.

Nishanth Srinivasaiah collects his camera trap from its overnight excursion in the jungle.

Nishant's camera trap yielded a rare image of an Indian Leopard stalking the jungle darkness less than a mile from the camp.

Mayuresh Satish Gangal (left) investigates winged creatures who are attracted by flood lamps during an ichthyology lesson.

Students record data on dozens of species of moths who sought out the light projected onto the dormitory.

Two gigantic Atlas Moths join the party. These are the largest moths in the world. Their wings contain patterns of translucent membranes that allow light to pass straight through their wings onto the sheet. These incredible insects hatch, fly, breed, and die in only two short weeks.

At the age of 26, Dr. Meghna Krishnadas took a break from her profession as a practicing medical doctor to become a conservationist. Here she treats a young boy who is suffering from a skin disease. The boy's father brought him to the reserve when he heard a doctor was in the area. Medical help can be hard to come by in rural areas of India.

The Wildlife Conservancy: India master's of science class, 2008.