The Sanctuary Wildlife Awards were instituted two decades ago to celebrate individuals who have dedicated their lives to the protection of the biosphere and its inhabitants. As always, this year’s winners have worked in diverse ways on varied issues – yet the common thread is their commitment to nature and wildlife conservation. Nominated by veterans in the field, superiors and colleagues, the 13 finalists share true grit, a knack for innovation and a passion to build a better future for the planet’s wild and human denizens.
Missed the event? You can watch it here.
Conservation writer, historian, naturalist and veteran activist
Photo courtesy: Theodore Baskaran
S. Theodore Baskaran was born in 1940 to parents who were school teachers. He joined the Indian Postal Service in 1964, later retiring as the Chief Postmaster General of Tamil Nadu. His childhood in Dharapuram village and his time at the Madras Christian College sparked his love for nature, particularly birdwatching. Mentored by Dr. Gift Siromoney, head of the college’s Statistics Department, he went on to nurse a passion for nature. He and his wife trained in a wildlife educator’s course held at Mudumalai by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Together, they began hosting nature camps for children. This led to a long-term association with WWF-India, where he later served two terms as a trustee.
In 1969, Baskaran began to write on nature for The Hindu, going on to pen evocative articles for several publications. He also authored five books in English, including The Dance of the Sarus: Essays of a Wandering Naturalist (1999); The Book of Indian Dogs (2017) and more recently, in 2020, A Day with the Shama: Essays on Nature. Baskaran was one of the inspirations behind the founding of the Madras Naturalists’ Society in 1978, one of Chennai’s oldest community conservation and activism groups. He also edited Sprint of the Blackbuck, a compilation of the Society’s periodical, during its 25th anniversary.
In 1980, he was motivated to work on Tamil language writings on conservation, including eight books. He believes that for conservation to be a people’s movement, the discourse has to be in Tamil (the local language). He had a regular column in the Tamil magazine Uyirmmai and a fortnightly column on wildlife in The Hindu Tamil. His latest Tamil book The Residual Earth, has been well received. He is fascinated by how indigenous communities record their knowledge of nature around them in their mother-tongues and through folklore. For his Tamil writings, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Toronto-based Canada Literary Garden in 2014 at Toronto.
He has served as the South Indian Representative for the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), and also served as Honorary Wildlife Warden in the 90s while he lived in Chennai. Now residing in Bengaluru, Baskaran continues to provide commentary on India’s environmental movement. He nurtures myriad interests, such as Art History and Film Studies and has a keen affection for Indian breeds of dogs.
Multi-lingual nature educator, co-founder of NaturalisT Foundation and peer mentor
Photo courtesy: Anurag Karekar
At 23, Anurag Karekar has already achieved what most fail to do so in a lifetime. As a teenager, Anurag witnessed the glaring disconnect between the citizens of Mumbai and nature. When he began his Bachelor’s degree in Zoology at Bhavan’s College, he also found a lack of support groups that could help students launch a rewarding career in life sciences. After graduation, Anurag decided to address the two issues he faced as a student and citizen, by becoming one of the founders of the then newly-formed NaturalisT Foundation in 2015.
Through this Mumbai-based not-for-profit, Anurag and his colleagues have led hundreds of workshops and nature trails over the past five years. They have introduced thousands of citizens, young and old, to the largely ignored, charismatic species that quietly inhabit pockets of wild habitats in Mumbai. Every trail seeks to ignite interest in conserving local habitats, and ends with a talk from the team, addressing a relevant environmental issue that often inspires participants into conservation action.
Their Project Nature4All takes environmental education to BMC school children; Project Propolis advocates low-impact living in residential complexes and housing societies; and Green City Trails allows citizens to explore the wilderness within! Anurag has also worked with Sanctuary Green Teacher Awardee 2018, Nikita Pimple, to create a marine conservation curriculum for the students of Rishi Valmiki Eco School. A self-taught sustainable living expert, he believes that every citizen must do what they can to lighten their personal footprint on the planet. He has led workshops for adults on vermicomposting and waste management projects in residential complexes across the city.
When the pandemic put a stop to in-person interactions, Anurag launched the conservation science podcast ‘Voice of the Wild’ in English, and also in Hindi (Jungle ki aawaz), Marathi (Vanarai chi vani) and Gujarati (Aaranya), embracing non-English speaking audiences. Each podcast tackles a different issue, and are not direct translations. They have rallied support on critical campaigns such as the one to encourage the withdrawal of the Environmental Impact Assessment draft 2020.
Anurag’s knowledge, persistence and organisational skills set him apart and make him a force to reckon with.
Climate change activist, public speaker, and conservation communicator
Photo courtesy: Ridhima Pandey
Born in Haridwar to wildlife conservationists, Ridhima grew up with the dialogue of activism, evolving into a passionate, knowledgeable communicator for the planet herself. She has witnessed the devastation caused by misled development projects and climate change, and noted the horrific pollution of the Ganges river.
In 2017, when she was just nine years old, Pandey filed a petition against the Indian government at the National Green Tribunal for lack of climate action. Though the petition was ultimately dismissed, it brought the spotlight back onto the enormity of the climate crisis. In 2019, Ridhima became one of 16 children activists petitioning the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold five of the world’s leading economic powers accountable for their inaction on the climate crisis! Troubled by the enormous problem of air pollution that plague countless cities across the country, she wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2020, requesting that the government take immediate action.
A role model for children everywhere, Ridhima, now 13, is frequently invited as a speaker for youth at various events. She was invited as youth ambassador at the Global Sustainability Film Awards held by Difficult Dialogues, an international forum that discusses pressing world issues. She was a youth representative and a speaker at Global Pneumonia Forum. She has also been part of Earth Day Network’s global initiative, My Future My Voice, which compiles messaging from 50 inspiring youth activists from 17 countries. She is currently a member of the Civil Society and Youth Advisory Council for COP 26.
She has called for a complete ban on plastics, and minces no words when holding higher authorities accountable. Ridhima is a well-received, popular TEDx speaker, and has also spoken at international conferences like the Notre Affaire à Tous in Paris and Xynteo Exchange in Norway. Listed as one of BBC’s top 100 most influential women in the world for the year 2020, she relentlessly communicates the rationale for science-led, heartfelt nature conservation to massive audiences.
Amateur naturalist, taxonomist, photographer and repository of natural history knowledge
Photo courtesy: Suhaib Firdous Yatoo.
Suhaib possesses an unending curiosity for the scientific workings of the natural world. The 23-year-old’s earnest desire to understand the vagaries of the wild, coupled with his perpetual enthusiasm for documenting its delights through photography make him an indispensable resource to the Centre for Biological Diversity at Wildlife Conservation Fund in Vihi District, Pampore Landscape, Jammu and Kashmir. He was director at the organisation until 2019, and was promoted to Director of Research last year. He avidly documents the natural world that fascinates him, from endemic flora to fungi and microorganisms. He also scrutinises insects, recording behaviours with endless patience. He nurses a particular interest in Diptera, an order of two-winged flies, and myxomycete (slime molds).
He has reviewed a manuscript for the Journal of Threatened Taxa and has consulted as a ‘Fungi Expert’ with one of the largest open access online databases that focus on biodiversity, Eflora of India. He has contributed natural history information to several other online databases, including SpeciesFile.org, ASCOFrance (one of the largest databases for Ascomycetes) and Mushroom Observer. He is a contributing administrator to various Facebook pages and groups on natural history, including Slime Mold Identification and Appreciation, Fungi India, Fungus Identification.
His endeavours in documenting the wildlife world around him prompted him to pick up a pencil and brush. He has won many district and state level awards for his art. He loves wildlife painting, inspired by the works of Peter Scott and David Shepherd, and also does pencil and watercolour illustrations for children. He also enjoys teaching children, introducing them to the basic concepts of identification, microscopy and conservation.
Suhaib’s zeal for learning through observation, and willingness to fill the gaps in knowledge on a vast array of species undeniably make him an asset to the conservation community.
Long-time educator, inspiring youth leader and driven environmentalist
Photo courtesy: P.U.Antony
For nearly 32 years since 1988, Dr. P.U. Antony has served as an educator at CHRIST Deemed to be University, and in 2020, was recognised as a distinguished professor emeritus of Zoology. Beginning his career as a teacher in schools, Antony never failed to promote the pressing need for protecting our natural environment among students, a practice he later adopted at CHRIST. He has always focussed on holistic learning by encouraging his students to spend time outdoors and indulge in hands-on fieldwork. He has been part of wildlife surveys that assessed habitats across the country, and regularly contributes scientific articles to various national dailies such as Deccan Herald. He has joined as a panellist on discussions on television regarding environmental issues. Known for his cutting edge research in biodiversity, he has been awarded research projects from agencies like Quality Council of India, Japan Bank of International Cooperation and the National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning in India.
In 2001, he founded Green Army, a student environmental group to conduct treks and field studies in and around Bengaluru. The group was quick to get involved in local activism and efforts to raise awareness. Over the years, Green Army has built a solid reputation for itself, and has been associated with the Pollution Control Board, Karnataka State Biodiversity Board, the Forest Department and other government departments. Dr. Antony’s students appreciate, observe and document wildlife around them, and have contributed to three books -- Guhanagari, Birds of Christ University Campus and Butterflies of Christ University Campus, and have been involved in citizen science projects, conducting the annual Global Backyard Bird Count in the campus and National Moth Week. In 2016, Green Army began efforts to restore Byrasandra lake. The Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority appointed him to oversee management of the lake. In 2019, he launched the non-profit Forest Watch, which focusses on on-ground conservation and education in Wayanad, Kerala, where he was born and raised. Much of the team that makes up the organisation are his former students.
This stalwart environmentalist is truly an inspiring leader who is moulding India’s future.
Passionate wildlifer, versatile conservation biologist and inspiring mentor
Photo courtesy: Sanjay Molur
Like the little-known species he works to protect, Dr. Sanjay Molur is a discreet trailblazer in conservation science. Specialising in risk assessment and conservation planning of wild species, he has assisted in the assessment of more than 10,000 taxa within India, South Asia, and around the world -- from medicinal plants, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, mangroves, selected groups of invertebrates, to freshwater fish, odonates, mollusks, aquatic plants, and more. His extensive assessments have led to the discovery of several new species of amphibians and spiders, and revision of existing species.
So versatile is his expertise that in his 28 years in the field, he continues to work in a vast range of capacities -- he is the Executive Director and President of Zoo Outreach Organisation; is founder and secretary of the Wildlife Information Liaison Development (WILD) Society; is co-chair of three species specialist groups in South Asia; runs networks for reptile and small mammal researchers in South Asia; was part of the international panel that refined the IUCN Red Listing process; is Founder and Chief Editor of the Journal of Threatened Taxa since 1999 -- India’s only platinum open access, monthly, international, peer-reviewed journal, a treasure trove for scientists and researchers; and the Editor of Zoo’s Print, a monthly magazine that communicates science for conservation. He also spearheaded several citizen initiatives such as the freshwater biodiversity conservation initiative LivelyWaters!, and Pterocount, which received data records from four countries and proved crucial in the inclusion of two endemic bat species -- Latidens salimalii and Otomops wroughtoni -- under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.
For his years of dedicated research, and in recognition of his endeavours, two species have been named after him -- a thomisid spider Strigoplus moluri, restricted to the southern Western Ghats, in 2003, and a species of freshwater fish Pethia sanjaymoluri from the northern Western Ghats in 2016. “Sanjay has the unique ability to focus at a microscopic level and at a broader multi-species conservation level with equal expertise as and when required. His work in conservation, research, evidence building, and combining science with the broader stakeholder perspective for planning, implementation and policy is astounding,” says Dr. Mewa Singh, the renowned conservation biologist and professor of ecology and animal behaviour at the University of Mysore.
Sanjay’s persevering efforts have pushed India’s taxonomy and research to greater heights in the field of lesser-known taxa. He has developed and conducted numerous hands-on training workshops for amateurs and young biologists, inspiring and equipping the next generation of researchers. Sanjay continues his works on policy, research, education, and conservation action around zero extinction, community participation, ecosystem restoration, and the climate crisis.
Wildlife filmmaker, conservationist, youth icon and mentor
Photo courtesy: Rita Banerji.
Loved and admired across the board, tousle-haired, straight talking Rita Banerji is a conservation filmmaker par excellence. Starting out as an apprentice under the legendary filmmaker Mike Pandey, with whom she worked for a decade, Banerji struck out on her own to found Dusty Foot Productions. Over the past two decades, her portfolio includes several path-breaking projects in the capacity of director, producer, editor and cameraperson, most times wearing more than one cap. She has spent days out on the field documenting communities and wildlife across India’s vast geography -- she has walked with the honey-hunting Kurumbas in the Nilgiris; gone to sea with the transient traditional fisherfolk of Jambudwip; documented the realities of turtle conservation and traditional fisheries in Orissa; lived with the women's seaweed collectors of Gulf of Mannar; filmed ‘A shawl to die for’ about the ‘Save the Chiru’ campaign and alternative livelihood options for the shahtoosh shawl weaver community in the high Himalaya, and more.
The results of these, often month-long endeavours, went on to create large-scale impact. ‘The Last Migration – Wild Elephant Capture in Sarguja’ (1994) (second-unit cameraperson, Editor) on the capture of a herd of wild elephants in eastern India was the first film from Asia to win the prestigious Panda Award at Wildscreen, U.K., also known as the Green Oscar. ‘Shores of Silence – Whale Sharks in India’ (2000) (Assistant Director, Camera person and Editor), a documentary on whale shark slaughter on the west coast of India, led to the ban on their capture. ‘The Wild Meat Trail’ (2010) (Director-Producer, Camera person), documented the realities of hunting and sale of wild meat in Northeast India. The latter two also won Panda Awards, amongst other awards.
‘The Wild Meat Trail’ set the foundation for Banerji’s next journey, a long-term association with conservation in Northeast India. She established Under the Canopy, an environment education initiative developed by Payal Molur for rural children in the Northeast. In 2014, Banerji and Dusty Foot collaborated with the North East Network to set up Green Hub, a fellowship for youth from the northeastern states, which aims to empower them in conservation education, action, climate sustainability and social change through the visual medium; and create a digital resource bank for wildlife, environment and indigenous knowledge. Thus far, close to 100 young people have been trained at Green Hub, and the majority of them work with tribal communities on conservation issues.
A passionate filmmaker and conservationist, a fun-loving and inspiring mentor, and an impactful agent of change, Rita Banerji sets the gold standard for wildlife filmmakers in India.
Gurugram’s green defenders and rewilders of the Aravali Biodiversity Park
What was once a stone quarry and malba dumping site in Gurugram is today a thriving wilderness thanks to the iamgurgaon (IAG) team and the citizens’ movement that they sparked. Their colossal rewilding effort that included forging collaborations with municipal authorities, corporates and private citizens, led to the birth of the 380 acre Aravali Biodiversity Park.
A part of the Aravali mountain range in the Nathupur Village of Gurugram, the land where the park now stands was extensively mined for over four decades, which along with the illegal felling of trees, cattle grazing and waste dumping led to severe degradation of the land. In 2009, iamgurgaon, a citizen’s initiative co-founded by Latika Thukral and Swanzal Kak Kapoor, stepped in. They proposed the idea of rewilding the land into a biodiversity park and approached the then Municipal Corporation of Gurugram Commissioner, Rajesh Khuller, who agreed. What followed was a year of planning with architect Atal Kapoor and other stakeholders, which led to the opening of the park in June 2010. Shortly after, IAG got Vijay Dhasmana, an ecological practitioner, on board to draw the rewilding vision for the park. They set out by creating a nursery of native plants, extensive research and surveys to bring back the forest habitat of the Aravali Range -- forests of salai Boswellia serrata, dhau Anogeissus pendula, kaim Mitragyna parvifolia and dhak Butea monosperma.
After eight years of persistent efforts, massive plantation drives and careful nurturing, the park now hosts a mosaic of micro habitats, and boasts over 300 species of native plants, from trees and shrubs to herbs, climbers and grasses. The vegetation in turn attracts varied wild fauna! Several seasonal waterbodies once lying dry surrounded by infestations of invasive species Prosopis juliflora, have been restored.
Iamgurgaon (IAG) sets an example for city residents across the world. From navigating red tape to organising seed collection drives, they have harnessed the power of human collaboration to create an oasis in between two thirsty cities – Delhi and Gurugram. Though the battle to protect this rewilded patch of the northern Aravallis is far from over, it is worth stopping a moment to appreciate what this collective of citizens has accomplished against all odds.
Lawyer-herpetologist duo, fearless activists and wildlife-community conservationists
Photo courtesy: Meghna and Suvrajyoti
Co-founders of Human and Environment Alliance League (HEAL), Meghna and Suvrajyoti have single-handedly changed the face of conservation activism in Bengal, inspiring hundreds in the process. They have meticulously undertaken photo and video documentation of the barbaric ritualistic hunting of hundreds of wild animals since 2016. This culminated in two public interest litigations before the Calcutta High Court. They triggered a court directive to ensure that the state government, railways and Forest Department tackle the issue, apprised authorities of the hunters’ modus operandi and worked to ensure implementation of the court’s orders. Despite facing dangerous and adverse situations on the field, they persevered and helped achieve a significant reduction in ritualistic hunting by almost 90 per cent! The duo went on to activate the Zero Hunting Alliance, a participatory conservation initiative with volunteers across seven districts of Bengal.
HEAL is working across the state on various conservation issues including prevention of hunting by enforcing laws, awareness generation, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, human-wildlife conflict mitigation and habitat protection. Between Meghna’s stellar legal and organisational skills and Suvrajyoti’s herpetological and field expertise, they devise holistic approaches to overcome conservation hurdles. The documentation of human-elephant conflict by them and their team in South Bengal was used in a court case, leading to a ban on throwing fire torches at elephants. Following this, they established a small team in the region to deter elephants from crop fields using bright lights and loud sounds. In the Sundarbans, where certain fishing practices can be dangerous to humans, wildlife and the mangrove ecosystem, they helped raise funds for freshwater fish seedlings to promote farmed fish as an alternative income source. Their documentation of abuse of snakes by snake charmers followed by complaints and follow ups with various state authorities put an end to the 400-year old snake festival Jhapan at Bishnupur in West Bengal, where snakes were abused in blatant violation of wildlife laws. The duo also tracks poachers -- be it bird trappers or dolphin oil traders -- and works with the Forest Department to plan raids and conduct arrests.
Meghna has helped litigate numerous cases for wild habitat protection, including the preservation of wetland habitats and legalisation of elephant corridors along with prevention of elephant deaths due to causes such as electrocution. A significant part of the data collection and field work for these court cases are done by Suvrajyoti, who also conducts training workshops for the Forest Department on rescue and rehabilitation of reptiles. He also trains community health workers on snakebite prevention and care. He and his team from HEAL undertake wildlife rescue and rehabilitation in and around Kolkata and in districts of southwestern Bengal. During cyclone Amphan, they rescued over 150 birds, and conducted massive relief efforts for affected families across six villages in the Sundarbans.
Together, this courageous duo is safeguarding the rich biodiversity of West Bengal, and supporting the communities that live in their midst. They hope to inspire a movement to make conservation mainstream.
Self-taught naturalist and birder, avid wildlifer and Dudhwa connoisseur
Photo courtesy: Brijlal
Brijlal was born into an agricultural family in the Gram Terwa Post, Pahada Lakhimpur Kheri District, Uttar Pradesh. He learned to drive trucks and jeeps from an early age. After completing his schooling, he registered for a government job with the District Service Planning Office in Lakhimpur. As serendipity would have it, the post of a driver was vacant at the Dudhwa National Park. And his life took a complete turn.
Brijlal was inducted as a truck driver in Dudhwa in 2003. He observed birds and trees, fascinated by the changing seasons of flowering and fruiting cycles. Driving around scientists as they went about their work, he asked to know more about the species they studied, fervently taking notes in his diary. He even walked and drove in these forests with the late legend Billy Arjan Singh, sharing deep conversations about nature and the wild ways of life. Brijlal calls him his inspiration.
Over the years, he learned to enjoy the company of the park’s nature guides. Observing and learning from them, he began to nurture an avid interest in birds and learnt their names, calls and migration patterns. In 2006, while attending a workshop on birds in the Dudhwa Tourism Complex, Brijlal chanced upon a copy of the Birds of Northern India. From it, he learnt to identify 450 species. Another book resulted in a new interest. A copy of Isaac Kehimkar’s Field Guide to Butterflies became worn thin as he taught himself to identify 136 species of butterflies in the park. A meticulous checklist of these species has been submitted by him to the park administration. While attending a workshop on the Bengal Florican by the BNHS in Dudhwa, Brijlal received a guidebook on snakes, which he accepted as both a gift and a challenge. His interest in the flora and fauna of Dudhwa pushes him to explore the unexplored. He can identify 50 tree species, 18 shrubs, six climbers, 20 grass species, six species of turtles and frogs and 20 species of snakes. He says his favourite plant is the sal tree, tall and regal, and he has a soft spot for the Bengal Florican and tiger.
Brijlal lives with his wife, Munni Devi, and three children. Every day, he awakens at 5:00 a.m., and peruses a book or two about wildlife over a cup of tea. He then cleans his vehicle and sets off for a day of patrolling the Terai landscapes of Dudhwa with the Sub Divisional Officer. His passion has won him the respect and attention of park administrators and peers alike.
His enormous thirst for knowledge and interest in wildlife have made him a custodian of Dudhwa’s biodiversity. Currently 53, he wishes to work as a nature guide in Dudhwa after retirement.
Brijlal, the unexpected naturalist, continues to document and share his love for the wild world.