Meet Deepak Apte - Marine Ecologist, Educationist And Conservationist

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 9, September 2016

A straight-talker, this marine biologist had a very unusual entry into the world of natural history, academia and nature conservation. Today, he heads one of the world's most respected scientific and conservation institutions, the Bombay Natural History Society, or BNHS, as it has come to be best known. Carrying and protecting the mantle of such greats as Dr. Sálim Ali, Humayun Abdulali, J.C. Daniel and scores of others who laid the foundation of Indias conservation movement, he has known Bittu Sahgal for decades and opens up here about some of the lesser-known aspects of his journey that has seen him take charge of one of Indias most critical wildlife conservation responsibilities.

Tell us about your childhood.

As a child, I had little interest in formal education. I was born in a small village, Sakharwadi in Satara district, and did my schooling both in Baroda and the village. I moved to Pune to join college, but my dismal performance in the 12th Board exams forced my parents to shift me back to Sakharwadi. I found real purpose in failure. I realised that formal education would take me nowhere. Failing in the 12th was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life!

That's unusual! Do explain?

Well, I found myself dealing with a two-year gap, with time on my hands and no one to tell me what to do every minute of the day. This was the trigger that reconnected me to wild nature. I soon discovered that our backyard was a treasure trove of wildlife. Wolves, jackals, snakes, and birds of all descriptions were my neighbours and I found myself embracing nature the way any good student would a teacher. By now my parents realised that I was happy and that was enough for them not to force me in directions that were not mine.

You ditched academics?

Not really. I just took time off to think my life out. I eventually did complete my graduation, from Mudhoji College in Phaltan (a town with a history of independent thinking, and freedom fighters who refused ever to acknowledge the authority of British rule). Here I met two teachers, A.R. Gaikwad and S.S. Gaikwad (popularly known as AR and SS), who became my mentors. This was a turning point in my life. They taught me systematic documentation of natural history and allowed me to accompany them on their many expeditions. Thereafter I never looked back.

Deepak Apte scuba diving in Kavaratti, Lakshadweep. A marine biologist, his fascination for the deep is likely to be a huge asset for the BNHS, one of Indias finest research organisations, but not one whose forte has been real-time marine biology.
Photo: Avani Patel.

Ah! So the black sheep returned to academics?

Absolutely. I obtained a post-graduate degree in Zoology from Ruia College in Mumbai, then a second degree in Integrated Coastal Zone Management from Bangkok's Asian Institute of Technology and a third from Duke University, USA, in coastal and marine biodiversity. Academics took over my life and I went on to get a doctorate from Gogate Joglekar College in Ratnagiri, a coastal town that saw me fall in love with the sea.

What a story, Deepak! Enough to give succour to scores of lost young kids.

Its true. If I could do this, anyone can. I failed my board exams twice, but overcame the trauma of societal judgement because I knew who I was. I believed in myself. That is why I try to counsel academically-underperforming students not to let depression get the better of them. My own story helps scores of young students understand that following your own heart is the surest way to success, which is not something that society can define for you.

And look at you now… a PhD. guide yourself! Your parents must be proud.

They are and I am. And I inevitably encourage my students to engage with and take on the real world with all its challenges head on.

Were your parents supportive of your quest for nature?

Yes. That is my greatest blessing. It was my mother really who was my inspiration. She loved nature and was an artist. She taught me to identify the birds that visited our home. During my early school days, I began landscape painting and it was she who taught me the use of colours. She would gently explain to my father that my love and passion for nature had to be nurtured and encouraged and that the life towards which I was headed was far superior to the one towards which hordes of young boys and girls are pushed, which often tragically leads to frustration and possibly even drugs and alcohol.

Lucky! Your father acquiesced?

Eventually. After some initial disapproval, my father became a silent supporter throughout my career. Even today, he stands by me and is a pillar of support. Honesty, modest living and devotion to work are qualities that I have inherited from him.

He even embraced your love of animals?

Bittu, our house was a mini rescue centre. During hailstorms, injured birds would find a refuge in our home. I was called in to rescue snakes almost every week.

How did the sea take you over?

Our family home in Sasvane in Alibag was my true connect with marine life. To the day I die, memories of our simple one-acre, beach-front home, will remain etched in my mind and heart as my life's anchor. This was my living laboratory. Here, with Shyam, an Alsatian dog that was part of my life, I found myself lost for hours, exploring the margins of land and sea. This is where my fascination for marine creatures was born. I still have those old collections with me. They are part of my life and I continue to learn from them.

A beautiful feather star, or sea lily Cenometra bella, in Lakshadweeps azure waters. The species uses its extremities to filter food particles that fall like manna from heaven for all manner of marine creatures.
Photo: Deepak Apte.

And then came the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)?

That was purely accidental. Dr. Shashi Menon, who taught at Ruia College, once casually suggested: “If you like nature so much, why don't you join the BNHS?" The post of Education Officer was vacant. I applied, and was rejected. But during the interview, J.C. Daniel, doyen of the BNHS, took a look at the first draft of my Book of Indian Shells. “I cannot guarantee you a job but the BNHS would like to publish your book," he said. And my life changed. The selected candidate, fortunately for me, chose not to join and I received a call asking if I was still interested. I will never forget the date… January 17, 1994. JC remained my mentor till his last days. As you know Bittu, I have had several ups and downs in the BNHS, but JC always stood by me. The values he imparted remain the bedrock of my life - honesty, integrity, loyalty, compassion and complete fidelity to the commitment to defend wild nature.

Tell us about today? How come a ‘bird conservation institution honed in on an oceans man to lead it?

While birds may well have dominated the Society in recent years, the fact is that since its birth the BNHS has inevitably embraced all elements of nature. The former director, Dr. Asad Rahmani fully supported my focus and passion for marine life. While he and I had differences of opinion on several matters, never once did he resist my directing the Society towards a greater involvement in marine biology. Today the BNHS marine programme is one of the most extensive in India with as many as five field-stations and over 20 scientists fully devoted to the research and conservation of India's marine and coastal biodiversity.

Makes perfect sense in an era of climate change…

It does. Giant clams are bio-indicators of the health of the ocean. They grow to over a metre and may live for 60 to 200 years. Because they are slow breeders and stay fixed to one substrate (place) lifelong, studying them reveals a treasure of information on the ecological changes wrought upon their environment by us. Their symbiotic association with zooxanthellae (photosynthetic algae found in the tissue of coral organisms), in particular, enables us to study closely the impact of rising ocean temperatures on coral bleaching, ecosystem shifts and the impact of climate change on reef-building in the decades to come.

Had the BNHS been more proactive in countering India's exploding shark fin trade in the 1990s, would sharks be better off in Indian waters today?

I guess so. Though implementation of a ban would always pose a challenge on account of weak off-shore enforcement. But we should at the very least have worked harder to control targeted shark fishery. The story of sharks worldwide, and particularly so in India, reveals a sorry state of affairs. Some pelagic shark species are doing so badly in Indian waters that it is probably too late to hope for their recovery. But for other species the tide can still be turned.

Remember decades ago when you and I used to quarrel with the Society to explain that without scuba diving, the study of modern marine biology would be handicapped?

Yes, I do. Fortunately, all that has changed and I have been diving in waters around the world for the past two decades. I have seen places where some oceans have virtually been emptied of large pelagic sharks. Sadly, India might soon join that league.

How does the BNHS plan to protect the invaluable collections that help link the biological past, present and future of the Indian subcontinent?

These collections are a treasure trove. Securing and maintaining them is our first challenge, our top priority. Fortunately, we now have a state-of-the-art, fire-proof section for wet (alcohol preserved) collections. We are replacing old cabins with new fire-proof ones into which the rarest of our specimens have been transferred. It's an on-going process. Given the pace at which extant species are disappearing, our well-maintained collections are destined to be one of the world's most priceless repositories for scientific research. We are exploring collaborative research programmes with natural history museums worldwide.

The BNHS was instrumental in stopping the export of egret feathers and frog legs. How do you propose using science for conservation?

The BNHS conservation mission is, and will remain, strongly science-based. Our work on vultures, Great Indian Bustards, Bengal Floricans, Lesser Floricans, giant clams (Tridacna), has all been strongly conservation biology-based. Admittedly, a diversity of conservation strategies will be needed to meet the range of threats, but this will be our strategy and focus and I am sure it will greatly sharpen India's rational conservation edge.

But the Society has been a late-starter on the climate change research front.

Be that as it may, the BNHS has recently launched an ambitious and crucial Climate Change, Himalaya and Threatened Species programme, where we hope to collaborate with and apply the best of science available to monitor the status and device strategies to conserve species threatened by climate impacts. Our most recent MoU with the Kansas University is a case-in-point. More academic collaborations and conservation-advocacy, based on sound science, are on the anvil.

Rising ocean temperatures and pollution threaten the survival of our marine biodiversity such as this small sea slug Sakuraeolis gujaratica, endemic to the Gulf of Kutchh, Gujarat.

Photo: Deepak Apte.

You earlier spoke of art. As a scientist, what role does art play in your life?

A very important one. I believe art is an effective way to present complex conservation messages in a simple and effective form. The most recent issue of Hornbill highlights precisely this vital conservation facet. For me personally, when stressed, nature art offers both peace of mind and mission-focus.

Paint us your projected picture of Indian wildlife a decade from now?

For certain species the picture is grim. The Great Indian Bustard faces imminent extinction in the not-too-distant future, unless the nation wakes up and stands by this bird and its grassland habitat so vital to our own survival. This will, of course, require urgent political, administrative and scientific motivation and impetus. The species is already in an extinction vortex and it would be a national shame if we allow this to happen. The MoEFCC offered funding under CAMPA, hopefully state governments will respond and the joint efforts of organisations including the Wildlife Institute of India will aid a species recovery.

The same goes for the Bengal Florican, Lesser Florican, Finns Weaver and many more species. All need focused recovery programmes or their fate is sealed. The problem is our lack of focus on keeping their habitat in good health. We need an integrated approach that also takes into account the reality of the global illegal wildlife trade. India has enough capable, dedicated officials, scientists, conservationists and local communities. Their hands need strengthening as a part and parcel of national development.

Which brings us to that flashpoint - human-animal conflict.

It's real and getting worse. With shrinking habitats and more encroachment on natural ecosystems, it's only a matter of time before the problem reaches epic proportions. Decision-makers must be made to see that protecting ecosystems is vital to human development and that iconic species are a way of focusing conservation on diverse ecosystems.

Can the crossroad between government, corporates, peoples organisations and conservation NGOs be bridged?

It can. But it will require extraordinary vision, effort and resources. If these are not brought to the table, our conservation challenges will overwhelm not only wild species and habitats, but all humans on the Indian subcontinent whose lives are dependent on the health of our water, soil and air. As I said, we need an integrated approach. I believe citizen science will have a great role to play. The BNHS intends to play a more vibrant, leadership role in shaping India's conservation agenda at all national, regional and international fora.

Dendrodoris fumata is found on muddy reefs and exhibits two colour forms - brown-grey and orange.

Photo: Deepak Apte.

(First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 10, October 2016.)

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