How a 22-year-old marketer became a wildlife ecologist and travelled the world's jungles
It was the “seven sisters" that first got me hooked. These were the groups of birds whose calls I would hear everyday outside my hostel room in the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, Rajasthan. One day it occurred to me that while I was studying diodes and transistors, I had no clue as to what the exact name of these ubiquitous pesky birds was. I had to find out—and what better source to turn to than Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds?
After discovering that the “seven sisters" were actually called babblers (given the racket they made, I found their common name both fitting and amusing), I was stunned to find that there were not only multiple species of babblers, but also that India had over 1,000 species of birds.
I had only seen five birds in my life—mynahs, eagles, sparrows, crows and the “seven sisters". Was Salim Ali telling the truth? I decided to find out for myself—and that decision changed my life.
Asian elephants in a playful mood
I saw bulbuls (white-cheeked and red-whiskered), wagtails (yellow, pied and white-browed), barbets, mynahs, drongos, shrikes, kingfishers, hornbills, ravens, woodpeckers, vultures, hawks, egrets, and more. I found out that there were four different types of mynahs in Pilani. I noticed that the white-cheeked bulbul had a yellow bum (vent). I once saw a White-breasted Kingfisher successfully fishing in a pond on campus. I spotted my first grey hornbill at 6am after a night of revelry (I finally found one credible upside to partying all night). I spent hours searching for and gawking at Crimson-breasted Barbets (Coppersmiths). I saw my first ladder of insects made by a shrike (I still call shrikes “Batman birds").
I was hooked on to India’s birds. More importantly, I had found a new passion. But at that time, however, nothing suggested that my growing love for nature would be anything other than a hobby or a weekend pastime.
After I graduated in 1989, I started working as a marketing executive with HCL Technologies in Mumbai. In that urban jungle, alas, bird pickings were few. I had to settle for the odd Coppersmith Barbet in the mango and jamun (Indian blackberry or Java plum) trees around town. But Mumbai brought me close to an institution associated with the man whose writings had initiated me into the world of birds—Salim Ali. I joined the Bombay Natural History Society and attended their weekly screenings of wildlife movies. On one such visit, I noticed an ad on their bulletin board that stated “Naturalist needed for our Ranthambore wildlife resort".
I had no idea what and where Ranthambore was (this was during the pre-Internet era), but I decided I had nothing to lose and called the number on the ad. During my interview I was asked by what other name the blue-bull antelope was called, and sheepishly admitted that I had no clue (now, of course, I know that it is nilgai). I answered most of the rest of the questions, yet I didn’t hold out too much hope. Why would a wildlife resort hire a marketing executive with an engineering degree as a naturalist?
Much to my surprise, though, I was offered the job. The offer included free board and food, and the opportunity to sit in a Jeep every day and drive into a tiger-filled wildlife sanctuary. Although the job paid half of what I was earning in Mumbai as a marketing executive, I was a bored-out-of-his-wits 22-year-old, and I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I did not want to regret later on in life.
Two weeks later, in September 1991, I arrived in Ranthambore. It was everything I’d dreamed of, and more. I encountered tigers 52 times in eight months while I spent my days wandering through forests gaping at wildlife. In my free time I was avidly reading up on the new animal and plant species that I encountered every day.
Twenty-two years later, here I am, a wildlife scientist, reminiscing about how it all began. It’s been a long journey from there to here. I moved from Ranthambore to a wildlife research project in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, then to a training programme at the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, and then to a rubber estate in Kerala. During these nature-related stints, I became determined to make a career in wildlife, and decided to formally study ecology. I took the GRE—something that at the end of my engineering degree I thought I would never do—secured a scholarship, and arrived in the US in 1995 to do an MS in ecology.
Even after an MS in ecology, it was not easy to establish myself in a wildlife career. Until I embarked on my PhD, I had to make ends meet by doing other jobs. I worked as a programmer in a financial firm in New York, taught high school mathematics to inner city African-Americans, and worked as an IT consultant for the United Nations. During these stints, my weekend jaunts to nearby wildlife refuges in New Jersey and upstate New York kept my passion for wildlife alive.
My patience finally paid off when I succeeded in securing a scholarship from the Dutch government to do my PhD beginning in 2005. I chose to study the ecology of large herbivores in India, which included species like the gaur (the world’s largest bovid species and commonly called the Indian Bison), Asian elephant, and deers—chital (spotted) and sambar. I studied the nutritional, foraging and population ecology of these animals, and drivers of their diversity across India. The two years of my PhD fieldwork in Bandipur (Karnataka) and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) were some of the best years of my life, and resulted in six research publications.
A panoramic view of Greenland
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have seen around 800 species of birds in various countries (I can’t wait to see the remaining 9,200 species). I have been chased by elephants in south India, I’ve swum with whale sharks in Mexico and spent a night on a beach with dozens of green turtles laying eggs. I have tracked rhinos in South Africa, encountered musk ox in Greenland, rafted down a river in Honduras with toucans and spider monkeys for company, and I have dived among corals in Malaysia and the Caribbean.
I couldn’t have planned any of this when I first started watching the “seven sisters" outside my room’s window. Often it feels like the dreams of a 22-year-old have come true.
Farshid S. Ahrestani is an ecologist and wildlife conservationist working as a research scholar in the department of biology, Pennsylvania State University, US.