Meet Indian Forest Service Officer Neha Verma

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 6, June 2015

As an IFS officer serving in Uttarakhand, Neha Verma is a committed wildlifer who has taken on the challenges of conservation and management of wildlife and forests. With her atypical engineering background (BTech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Kanpur and corporate experience in software development) she is a rarity in the field of wildlife conservation. Trained in the use of RS-GIS technology and its application as well as wildlife population estimation tools, she combines technical, organisational and management skills with her passion for wildlife. Lakshmy Raman speaks with her about her career, motivation to make a difference from within the system and the role women can and do play in wildlife conservation.

What triggered your love for wildlife?

Since childhood I have been keenly interested in trekking and other outdoor activities. But it was my long stay at the Corbett Tiger Reserve during my college days that spurred my love for wildlife. Its where I was formally introduced to birding and wildlife and issues related to its conservation by Amit Verma, who is now my husband.

Software development to wildlife conservation? Why this turnaround?

After graduating from IITs, Amit and I took up software jobs. Subsequently, a passion for wildlife and a penchant for the outdoor life and adventures led us to explore the natural world extensively. The consequent exposure to issues and challenges made us restless in our mundane, cubicle jobs and propelled us to find a way to contribute actively and significantly, rather than being mute spectators to the constant loss of wildlife and forests. After much deliberation and discussion, some with friends in the service and wildlife sectors, we finally decided to be part of the system. The kind of impact one can make from the inside cant be matched by just financial contributions or through non-governmental work. We quit our software jobs in 2003 and returned to India, appeared for the Indian Forest Service exams and made the plunge together.

Did you face any hurdles?

The rigid, hierarchical bureaucratic set up of a government job was in huge contrast with the open corporate culture we were used to. It took a while for it to sink in. And there were, and are, hurdles while working in the system in a non-conformist way.

What was your experience as the Deputy Director of the Uttarakhand Forestry Training Academy (UFTA)?

I was in-charge of training the frontline staff of the Forest Department to ensure that they are ready to face the numerous challenges of protection in the field. The trainees undergo a mix of classroom sessions, field activities and exposure visits to hone their skills. Along with traditional forestry practices, they are also exposed to use of technology like GPS, RS-GIS and camera traps. A lot of stress is laid on their physical fitness through daily exercise routines, trekking, sports and swimming. Since these forest guards, foresters and rangers are the ones who work at the grassroot level, UFTA plays a very significant role in strengthening the foundation of forestry in India.

You are currently involved in the Working Plan of the Terai Forest Division…

The Terai East Forest Division is a part of the vast Terai Arc Landscape and comprises an area of 800 sq. km. of terai and bhabar tracts between the Gola and Sharada rivers. This division has some very good forest areas including large patches of sal, sheesham and mixed species. It also connects the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary with the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve through the Kilpura-Khatima-Surai corridor. The area is home to elephants, leopards, tigers, bears, hyenas and crocodiles. High human population density and dependency on forests, large-scale encroachment, hunting pressure, large scale diversion of land for development are some of the major challenges in this area.

A talented artist, in her free time Neha renders stunning charcoal portraits of large mammals or watercolour paintings of birds.

A talented artist, in her free time Neha renders stunning charcoal portraits of large mammals or watercolour paintings of birds. Photo: Neha Verma.

You are playing a key role in the protection of the Lansdowne Forest Division as a buffer to Corbett and Rajaji.

The Lansdowne Forest Division, covering an area of 433.27 sq. km., occupies a very significant position in the Terai Arc Landscape. It is sandwiched between the Rajaji Tiger Reserve (RTR) on the west and the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) on the east and provides crucial connectivity between these two major tiger habitats. This Rajaji-Corbett corridor is essential for maintaining the viability of the tiger population across the landscape as has been proven by recovery of tigers in RTR due to dispersal of individuals from CTR facilitated by this corridor after the relocation of Gujjars from RTR. It is also vital for genetic exchange in mega fauna across the landscape and thus the maintenance of genetically diverse and healthy populations. In addition, this division supports a very significant source population of tigers. It is a recognised elephant corridor and is part of the Shiwalik Elephant Reserve with one of the highest densities of elephants in the entire state. Leopards, Himalayan black bears, sloth bears, otters, hyenas, honey badgers, martens, leopard cats, pangolins and porcupines are among other noted species found here. This area is also extremely rich in avifauna and has high diversity and abundance of fish.

I had been working to obtain Buffer Tiger Reserve status for this forest. The honourable Chief Minister of Uttarakhand has already made a declaration to the effect though it has not yet received an official approval.

You have worked on several projects on human-animal conflict from leopards, elephants and bears to wild ungulates in Uttarakhand. Are we doing enough to mitigate conflict across the country?

Human-animal conflict is very severe in Uttarakhand and is one of the greatest hurdles to wildlife conservation. Be it human injury, death or cattle lifting due to leopards, mauling cases by bears, crop raids by macaques, wild pigs and ungulates or severe crop depredation, loss of property and life by elephants, this conflict has turned ugly. One case of human death or injury washes out all the efforts of conservation in the area. We cant talk about saving wildlife to people whose lives or livelihoods are destroyed by the same wildlife.

I must admit that we have not been able to make a significant dent on it despite efforts by the department in this direction. The task that is being undertaken with highest priority is the distribution of compensation for loss of life or property due to conflict. Timely compensation helps to alleviate anger and frustration but what we are doing is adapting to conflict, rather than mitigating it.

To address this issue, we need to go to the root of the problem. We have to identify the exact driving factors of conflict and address those with utmost urgency. And each problem-causing species has to be dealt with individually. It is time to start working seriously on site specific and animal specific solutions if we wish to take care of this problem. And for this we need to have much stronger connect between research inputs and management implementations.

Your work on the Uttarakhand macaque has been outstanding. Tell us more.

It was in 2006 while undergoing IFS training at Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Dehradun, that Amit and I got a chance to explore and photograph an apparently unreported species of macaque noticed earlier by the Chief Wildlife Warden. The job at hand was exactly what we loved to do and we set out to locate the macaque in the remote areas of Gori valley in Pithoragarh district, in order to observe their behaviour, photograph them and talk to locals to gather more information.

We made several visits to this area and spent countless hours studying the macaques and prepared detailed notes on their morphology, behaviour and habitat. Since they are hill macaques and are found on the cliffs, it was indeed challenging to locate and then follow them. We also collected faecal and blood samples for their genetic study to establish their taxonomic position.

To tell you in brief about the results, morphologically these macaques closely resemble the pelops sub-species of the Assamese macaque Macaca assamensis pelop. Genetic studies have until now classified them as an ‘Ecologically Significant Unit.

Do you see yourself as part of the battle to protect India's wildlife?

Protection of wildlife is not a one-time job. It is a continuous and long-drawn effort. And it is like wading against the tide where all odds are against you. I often quote Bittu's statement, “All our victories are ephemeral and defeats eternal". This is because there is a strong pro-development bent of the political class, bureaucracy and people in general. Wildlife and forests are suffering most due to this short sightedness. Sustainability is always overlooked in important decision-making. Also, wildlife and forest conservation is not a task which can be accomplished by a handful of like-minded people. Until we have a mass movement, a strong wave sweeping across the society to save our natural resources and natural heritage for our own better future, we will always be fighting a losing battle. The sensitivity needs to be cultivated in all sections of the society - a task easier said than done. Nevertheless, it is important to play ones part selflessly and hope for the best.

Neha, along with husband Amit, spent months studying the Uttarakhand macaque, which was till then an unreported species. Photo: Amit Verma.

Given the current state of education in our country, do you think young women will be motivated to choose a career in forest and wildlife conservation?

Definitely! I now see many universities offering B.Sc. degrees in Forestry or Wildlife Sciences. And more and more women are now joining our Forest Departments at different levels. There is 30 per cent reservation for women in the Uttarakhand Forest Department, right from forest guards onwards. Also, there are lots of young girls taking up wildlife research as a career and quite a few of them are working in the field doing camera trapping, sampling for wildlife, social surveys and more.

We were seven lady IFS officers in the batch of 30. Just as a greater percentage of women are joining the IFS, we see a greater induction of women at the level of frontline staff as well. Not only this, a visit to WII and other research institutes will definitely corroborate the fact that more women are now taking up wildlife research.

What do you think are the greatest challenges for women in the forest Department?

This job is demanding owing to the remoteness of areas and the very nature of the job, but it is still quite a smooth sail for women IFS officers as compared to women frontline staff. I would admit that working conditions are definitely tougher for women frontline staff, not because they are not tough enough to handle them, but because the Forest Department is not yet prepared to embrace their issues.

The greatest challenge I believe is to open the limited mindset of people to provide us the opportunities to fully explore our potential. Also, since territorial jobs are very demanding with 24x7 responsibility of protection of forest and wildlife, balancing work with personal life becomes a challenge.

Tell us about your family. Your husband, Amit, is also a keen wildlifer…

Amit is an avid birder and excellent bird photographer. He is also a PADI certified scuba diver. He is savvy and deeply interested in remote-controlled flying. These days he is experimenting with applications of drones in wildlife solutions.

Amit and I embarked on our journey from the IT industry in the U.S. to wildlife conservation in India together. We were fortunate enough to get selected for the IFS in the same batch. Since then he has made some outstanding contributions to the field of conservation while serving the Haldwani Forest Division and Kalagarh Tiger Reserve and has played a pivotal role in the declaration of the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Our six-year-old daughter Tisha is also keenly picking up birdwatching and loves going to the forests. Recently there has been a new addition in our family with the arrival of our son, Tanish.

You are also a certified scuba diver.

I learnt scuba diving in Florida. For me, there is no activity more fascinating, exciting and enthralling than scuba diving. The underwater world is far more diverse and beautiful than the world above. Unfortunately, I couldnt continue diving after my return from the U.S. as I am located in Uttarakhand.

What do you do in your free time?

I love painting wildlife. I mostly paint birds in watercolours and large mammals in charcoals.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I have realised that though ground work is important for wildlife conservation, it is the right decision-making at the top levels which is crucial for the success of any conservation effort and can have far-reaching consequences. So I guess, given favourable circumstances, 10 years from now, I see myself contributing significantly towards formulation of policies for wildlife and forest conservation.

What would your message be to young women interested in wildlife conservation careers?

If love for nature and wildlife is what drives you in life, let it take charge! Wildlife conservation needs a huge brigade of keen workers. And there are various career paths one can choose from government jobs in the IFS/PFS/frontline staff to research, NGOs, journalism, legal activism, awareness generation, education and even commercial ventures like sensitive eco-tourism.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 6, June 2015.

join the conversation