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A Study in Green

American Fulbright scholar Farshid S. Ahrestani talks about his ongoing efforts to preserve India’s wildlife and their habitats. 

Farshid S. Ahrestani is a wildlife ecologist, who studies distribution and dynamics of terrestrial animals. He also studies how species and ecosystems respond to environmental change. Ahrestani is currently a Fulbright scholar working on research projects related to large herbivore conservation in India at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)-India, Bengaluru.

Excerpts from an interview.

How did you get interested in the field of wildlife conservation?

I first got interested in studying birds while studying for my engineering degree. By the time I completed a year working as a naturalist at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve—my first wildlife-related job after graduating—I had decided I wanted a career in wildlife ecology and conservation. I enjoyed working outdoors in nature rather than in human-dominated landscapes.


How did you become involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India? What part of their mission is most inspiring to you?

I first worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1997 when I collected data for my master’s thesis from the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary [in Karnataka]. Reading books written by WCS field biologists, such as George Schaller, inspired me to become a wildlife ecologist. The WCS-India program has been at the forefront of wildlife research and conservation in India for nearly three decades, which continues to inspire me.


What are some of the challenges you face in the field of biodiversity conservation? What is key for preserving biodiversity in a region?

Biodiversity conservation means conserving a diverse array of life forms or biological species. It is one of man’s greatest challenges for the 21st century. As recent trends suggest, it is likely this century will witness mass extinction of species. Most large-bodied animals across the Earth have shrunk by 80 to 90 percent in the last 50 to 60 years, including all the big cats—tiger, lion, cheetah, etc.—and large herbivores—elephant, deer, antelope, etc.

As conservation often directly conflicts with economic development needs, it requires multiple interventions, including changes to public policy and policing, and increasing local support and research. Winning support for conservation by lobbying with policymakers and working with people living around protected areas to reduce their dependency on the resources they share with wildlife are examples of interventions people can get involved with.


What unique challenges does India face in relation to biodiversity?

India is the last stronghold for many iconic wildlife species that inhabit southern Asia, including tigers, elephants and rhinos. Preservation of these species requires sustained political will that favors conservation, more focus by the government and nongovernmental organizations, and increased vigilance in areas where species are vulnerable to poaching. The government and the people of India need to recognize it is still possible to protect additional land besides the five to six percent of India’s landmass currently set aside for wildlife.


What outcomes do you hope to reach in India through your Fulbright scholarship work?

I hope my Fulbright-supported research helps managers and conservationists understand the potential, risks and pitfalls associated with using different methods to estimate species populations, and helps us understand the extent to which different threats affect how and when large herbivore species occupy different habitats.


Do you have any advice for those who want to get involved in ecology and wildlife conservation?

There is an acute need for many more people to get involved in wildlife conservation at various levels—policy, working with local people, policing, research, etc. Acquiring funding to do necessary and meaningful wildlife-related work can be difficult and, therefore, to succeed in building a career in wildlife conservation, you need to be patient, persistent, eternally optimistic and blaze your path boldly without looking back or having any self-doubt.


Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.