He got lucky. He ‘failed’ (if you actually believe in that word, and after Class 12 found he had “nothing to do.” So, Deepak Apte covered 2000 miles on a bicycle and collected all the information he could about shells.
Today, the assistant director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), looks back at that period as a favourable phase in which he got time to introspect and finally took up a career he is now absolutely “ready to die for.” And yes, the work on shells resulted in a book later on.
What matters in wildlife conservation is field study. One cannot be a great academician unless one goes out in the field and thoroughly understands the dynamics of nature – at the grassroots level. “I interacted closely with nature while growing up in a village 100 km from Pune and my mother’s love for nature ensured I would be tied to nature too,” says Apte, a nationally recognised taxonomist in mollusca.
Confident after his cycling trip, Apte managed to complete his graduation in zoology (because it came closest to what he wanted to do). Postgraduation in marine biology followed before he joined BNHS, the largest and oldest NGO in the Indian sub-continent.
He learned the art of advocacy, garnered more knowledge of marine life and endangered species, developed the ability to convince people about the threats to the environment and was fired up by the zeal to do something about it.
“This is the place where I can pursue my passion. I spent the first 10 years in BNHS as education officer and had to do capacity-building by teaching children and also used this opportunity to counsel them on dealing with so-called ‘failures’.” It also helped build his communication skills as he was required to communicate with his students, corporates, and the media. After promotion to conservation officer, he was required to network with people and NGOs working on conservation and doing environmental impact assessments. “I learned advocacy skills through this role, and all of the knowledge came from what I learned through being in a system and getting a salary for it.”
As assistant director, Apte is the principal investigator of five major BNHS projects, which include giant clam conservation in Lakshadweep. It has been on his recommendation that the ministry of environment and forests has included all the species of giant clams in the Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
“They are amazing animals,” says this PADI-certified diver. “Do you know that giant clams have a life span of 150 years? The longest this species can survive is 300 years, and its size can go up to one metre! For food it cultivates a one-cell plant inside itself, which strangely gets its nutrients from its host – the clam.”
For Apte, the tragedy is that there are beautiful and fragile marine species which face huge threats from global warming and pollution, “but since the world is not aware of many of these, most have died or are disappearing.”
Apte can take heart from what ReefWatch Marine Conservation has been doing. An NGO engaged in research projects and awareness initiatives for the conservation of marine ecosystems, ReefWatch reaches out to various Mumbai schools.
According to Mitali Kakar of ReefWatch, “We have been doing education programmes since 14 years but have recently targeted the new International Baccalaureate schools as they have marine ecosystems as a small part of their curriculum and we aim to make this come alive for them in the field with a very hands-on approach. The ECO Search programme gives children first-hand experience of snorkelling in coral reefs and mangrove areas, diving, interacting with marine biologists and living in a tropical rainforest for a week! It is adventure, fun and involves a huge amount of learning in the field. I would like this to form a mandatory part of all school curriculum.”
What's it about?
Marine conservation ensures the protection and survival of marine life and ecosystems in the oceans and seas. Marine conservationists have to have knowlege of marine sciences and also factor in the needs and preferences of stakeholders whose survival depends on the seas and oceans. Awarness of economics, marine laws and policies helps conservationists work out ways in which they can protect and conserve marine species and ecosystems
6am: Wake up
8pm: Reach office, check out reports from team at dive site. Check data and work on research report
2pm: Break for lunch
3pm: Resume work, ask assistant to book tickets for Port Blair, call up dive team to inform them about arrival. Collect material and other equipment required for
8pm: Leave for home
If you are working for an NGO, you can start earning from Rs10,000 onwards a month, depending on who you work for. Salaries vary depending on the organisation and your work. People at the top levels can earn Rs1 lakh a month or more
. Sound knowledge of marine science
. Excellent research skills, ability to analyse data
. Should know diving to observe species
. Crusader’s zeal to work for protection of vulnerable species
How do i get there?
Take up botany, zoology and chemistry at the school level. Graduate and postgraduate courses in marine biology/ecology are recommended for higher studies. Knowledge of environmental and marine laws, economics and policies help conservationists influence governments to bring in changes to ensure the survival of marine life and secure the interests of the stakeholders
Institutes & urls
. Department of marine science, Goa University
. Department of marine science, University of Calcutta
. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Pros & Cons
You are working for a great cause and are led by your heart and not head, so work gives you a high
You work in beautiful surroundings
Witnessing destruction of marine life can be distressing
What sort of life do you want to lead?
Decide which area of conservation you fit in, advises research scholar Manish Chandi
What led you to this profession?
I am not a marine conservationist by training, though I work in an area very closely related to the marine region. Though a graduate and postgraduate in economics, I decided to follow my heart and hone my skills in a career that both fascinated and satisfied me. In 1995, I began working in the Andaman Islands as a volunteer on the Conservation Corps Programme with the WWF-India and ANET (Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team). Having lived in a rural area and having had prior experience with the intricacies of rural life, I was able to harness my interest in natural history and wildlife, and combine it with my knowledge of economics and development to support the cause of nature conservation. Over the years, life in ‘the field’, has taken me closer to nature and has provided me with the opportunity to live alongside human communities of the islands, apart from the prospects of participating in wildlife survey teams and pursuing my passion for photography.
From the year 2000, I began to focus specifically on human communities and problems in conserving natural resources. Then I started working with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). During this phase, I got acquainted with the doctoral programme at NCF, where I’ve found the opportunity to develop my skills, and to improve my ideas on future work and research in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
What are the projects you are involved with at the NCF?
I am involved in a project called Socio-economic and Reef Monitoring (SocMon), a global initiative constituted under the GCRMN (Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network) to assist coral reef management. SocMon is being conducted by ANET, for which I coordinate the project. I also facilitate sea turtle research. The work is being carried out collaboratively by ANET and Dr Kartik Shanker from the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute for Science in Bangalore. I am also working towards my PhD with NCF – it is on understanding resource management and sharing mechanisms by traditional communities in the Nicobar Islands. Coral reef managers are responsible for sustainable use and reef conservation. Relations between human behaviour and the ecology of reef ecosystems thus becomecritical aspects in coral reef management. It is essential therefore to assess and predict needs for managing the reef ecosystem and an economy dependent on its health. Where sea turtle research is concerned, four species of marine turtles use beaches in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago to nest, as well as feed. Beach development and fishing are a threat to these turtles. ANET has been involved in monitoring key nesting beaches as well as surveying various localities within the island group.
What are the challenges one faces in this profession?
The primary challenge is yourself, and what sort of life you want to lead. It’s a choice one has to make and decide in which area of conservation one fits in. There are many more challenges, but these are dependent on the person one is, the people one interacts with, and logistical problems. Another challenge is in educating oneself on marine or resource conservation that’s relevant to India and at par with what the rest of the world is doing.
Is there need for more marine conservationists?
Why not? Fish stocks are declining worldwide, sea turtles face innumerable problems for long term survival, etc. The oceans are one of the least explored realms on our planet and most people are clueless of its contribution to life and its beauty.
What’s the kind of training required?
For a marine scientist, a course in marine biology/ecology is a prerequisite. For a marine conservationist, the heart and head, and willpower are the qualifications.
Manish Chandi, research scholar, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee