A way from the beach parties of Goa, the systematic destruction of its pristine forests has stirred a young man to create awareness about the Western Ghats and conserve them in the state. The Western Ghats, running along the south-western edge of the Indian peninsula, are among the world’s top 10 biodiversity hot spots. They are home to one of the most significant repositories of species found only in this country—popularly referred to as endemism.
Nirmal Ulhas Kulkarni, 34, was felicitated this year with the prestigious Karmaveer Puraskaar for his role in conserving the northern Western Ghats (which led to the creation of the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary) and the proposal to upgrade the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary to a tiger reserve. “Recognition like this helps strengthen the resolve of the person and the team, as field-based research is a tiring process," Kulkarni says. “More than preserving wildlife, it draws attention of the masses towards vital issues that are at times forgotten during the pace of daily life. It reminds everyone that people working in forests around the state need support and motivation and everyone can do their bit to conserve nature in their own backyard."
In the last decade, around 50 new amphibian species have been discovered in the Western Ghats. Three of these—Goan caecilian (Gegeneophis goaensis), Mahdei caecilian (Gegeneophis mhadeiensis), and the Chorla Giant striped Ichthyophis (Ichthyophis davidi)—were discovered by Kulkarni. “My core contribution to Goa’s environment movement would be my training and capacity building of young nature lovers into committed wildlife activists and researchers for over a decade," he says. “The simple approach of collecting scientific data and providing support at the grass-root level has helped to create foot soldiers for Goa’s conservation movement," he says.
At the age of 18, Kulkarni became Goa’s youngest Honorary Wildlife Warden as well as a member of the State Wildlife Advisory Board, where he continues to serve. Kulkarni’s publication, The Goan Jungle Book, has helped create interest about the state’s lesser known wildlife. “Consistently training field staffs of the forest department, documenting human-wildlife relationships, sacred groves, the presence of large cats in Goa and the plight of bullfrogs have helped make a big difference over the years," he says.
However, the threat of mining still looms large in Goa’s Western Ghats. The series of large dam projects that have been planned in Karnataka and Maharashtra will destroy large tracts of pristine forests. According to Kulkarni, people are aware of the threats to the region, in part due to media coverage, but they haven’t been able to relate these threats to their daily lives. “In 2013, we will try to help every lay person understand the direct link between forests, water and their daily lives, whether in a city or a village," Kulkarni says.