The Sanctuary Wildlife Awards honour our nation’s true heroes, who lives are dedicated to the protection of the biosphere. The Sanctuary Nature Foundation selected 12 exemplars from among hundreds of potential awardees, from varying geographies and backgrounds. These women and men whose journeys you read about on these pages live to protect our wilds. Nation builders fuelled by hope, they provide India with a chance to escape the dark ecological future their elders seem unable to visualise.
Missed the event? You can watch it here.
Legendary scientist, ethologist, conservationist and Messenger of Peace
Photo courtesy: The Jane Goodall Institute/Bill Wallauer
Jane began her life’s work of studying chimpanzee behaviour in July 1960, when she was in her early 20s. Following a childhood dream to watch wild animals in their habitat and learn about them through close and careful observation, she went to Gombe in western Tanzania to study chimpanzee behaviour under the guidance of world-renowned anthropologist and paleontologist, Louis Leakey.
In the forests of Gombe, Jane encountered many hardships and challenges, but eventually, as the chimpanzees got used to her presence, she was able to observe some of their most fascinating behaviours never known before. Among the many things she discovered was the fact that they made tools for extracting termites from their mounds.
One of very few people to be admitted into a Ph.D. programme at Cambridge University without a university degree, Jane received her doctorate in ethology in 1965. Her next goal was to defend a then-unpopular idea: that chimpanzees have emotions, minds and personalities of their own. That same year, National Geographic funded the Gombe Stream Research Centre.
In her decades-long career, Jane has written several books based on her research, been part of television documentaries and spoken to thousands of people around the world. In 1991, Jane and 16 Tanzanian students founded Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots, a global environmental and humanitarian education programme for young people.
In 2002, Jane was appointed to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace. She was also made a Dame of the British Empire in 2004. In 2006, Dr. Goodall received the French Legion of Honor as well as the UNESCO Gold Medal Award. Her mission to take stories about the fascinating lives of chimpanzees to the public has taken her around the world, changing the way we look at wild animals.
Compassionate, courageous and undeterred, Jane Goodall is a living legend whose life story and legacy has become synonymous with hope.
Retired civil servant, wildlife researcher and protector, artist, and author
Photo courtesy: Anwaruddin Choudhury
Born in Shillong, Meghalaya in 1959, Anwaruddin Choudhury has spent close to four decades documenting and protecting Northeast India’s Eastern Himalaya and other tracts. An ornithologist, mammologist, artist, civil servant, photographer and author, he graduated with honours in Geography in 1978 and then got an M.A., Ph.D. and D.Sc. He joined the Assam Civil Service in June 1983 and was inducted into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) with effect from January 1999.
Over the years, he has held several government positions that were key to protection and conservation of vital habitats in the biodiverse Northeast. At least 13 wildlife sanctuaries and two elephant reserves exist today because of his tireless protective efforts. He worked on upgrading Dibru-Saikhowa in Assam into a national park, and helped declare the White-winged Wood Duck as the state bird of Assam. He was also key in rediscovering the Manipur Bush Quail in the state. Beyond birding, his four-decade study of mammals in the Northeast led to the discovery of three new species of flying squirrels, a new primate species Macaca munzala (described by others), and a subspecies of the hoolock gibbon Hoolock hoolock mishmiensis. His expertise has given him a well-deserved spot as a member of as many as nine IUCN/SSC/BLI Specialist Groups and IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s South Asian Network.
His experiences have been documented in the 28 books he has penned, including some of the region’s earliest birding books, many embellished by his art and illustrations. He has also published more than 900 articles and scientific papers in journals, magazines, and newspapers across the world.
A never-say-die multi-tasker, he is an inspiration to young naturalists and conservationists and a quiet hero our youth should seek to emulate.
A joint wildlife award goes out to the former, a veterinary officer and the latter, a wildlife biologist at the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra
Photo courtesy: Dr. Ravikant Khobragade and Prajakta Hushangabadkar
Dr. Ravikant and Prajakta’s quiet and dedicated work with the wildlife of tigerland is little known, but truly inspirational.
Dr. Ravikant Khobragade exemplifies the very best in veterinary medicine, showcasing not just technical skills but also compassion and dedication. From bringing rescues home in his childhood, to risking his life to protect the lives of both wild animals and people, he is imbued with a deep desire to reduce friction and prevent traumatic human-animal interactions. In the process, he has often placed himself at personal risk by attempting to tranquilise animals in an effort to save both animal and human lives. Within the last year, for instance, he managed to subdue a department elephant after it caused the tragic death of a local. On another occasion, he was in the process of tranquilising an injured and sick tiger, which charged and managed to grab his foot in its jaws. Fortunately, his colleagues forced the tiger to loosen its grip allowing Ravikant to be pulled to safety. Injured, even before a full recovery, plaster cast in place, he was back at work for the forest he has sworn to protect.
Prajakta is a stellar biologist and her work with the Forest Department, involving wildlife surveys and supporting communities is making a real difference to India’s wilds. Having worked with credible conservation organisations and universities on research projects, she has been published in journals of national and international repute. In her decade-long career, she has studied tigers, otters, vultures and wild dogs. This year, she will lead her 3rd All India wildlife estimation exercise at the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. For Prajakta, community outreach, conflict management and improved communications with village communities through consultations on their terms has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her work. With head and heart in sync, she describes her work as both challenging and fulfilling. Her knowledge of hardcore conservation issues, a result of years of study and close observation of animals in the wild, have enabled her to bring rational science and social realities to the notice of policy makers and communities. She says she lives to save our last remaining wildernesses. For their silent, vital service to the wildlife of Maharashtra, we honour them both.
Forest guardians, community conservationists, and team players
Photo courtesy: Fakim team
Sometimes, to be able to give, you need to know what it feels like to have taken…
The Fakim Anti-Poaching Squad (APS) comprises bravehearts. Former hunters-turned-forest-protectors, they began their fight to protect their precious home in 2018, in the Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary, Kiphire district, Nagaland. Close to the Indo-Myanmar border, their objective was to protect the fragile ecosystem along the declared eco-sensitive area, contiguous to the Community Conserved Areas so rich in biodiversity. The squad comprising Alemba Yimchunger, Lathrong Yimchunger, Shuven Yimchunger, Yansemong Yimchunger, Phukumew Yimchunger, and Tutsumew Yimchunger, are led by Alemba, who helped transform local attitudes towards forest conservation and convinced his people to transition from traditional hunting to protection.
This involved mass awareness through village meetings and rallies. The squad serves as a shining example of how people can change, and how local communities could become the best protectors if they are able to understand that their heritage is threatened and their children’s lives would be the poorer if the forests and the species that defined their cultures were destroyed. The Fakim Squad also helps conduct wildlife surveys in the company of field conservation researchers, who say that individuals from among them promise to become fine natural history communicators. Squad members belong to the three villages outside the Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary: Fakim, Thanamir and Vongtsuvong. Their patrols help with information gathering on the status of flora and fauna documentation and to curb illegal activities. They are proving to be a solid help to the staff of the Kiphire Wildlife Division. Their dedication is clear from the fact that apart from the team leader, none of the other members are permanent department staff.
Guided by Suman W.M. Sivachar, IFS, the then Wildlife Warden of the Kiphire Wildlife Division, the Fakim APS has had very positive results. The team is dedicated and determined. Their transformation has begun to motivate and inspire others. From wildlife rescue-and-release to the removals of snares, they have been able to actively prevent and deter hunting and poaching in the landscape and often apprehend people they may even know.
Journalist, nature lover and conservationist
Photo courtesy: Arun Singh
A fearless environmental reporter, Arun Singh persistently highlights conservation issues in his home state of Madhya Pradesh. He has an abundance of stories to share about the beautiful Panna forests that are home to him and are the protective mantle of the lifegiving Ken river that flows through its green gables. He is much read and trusted and he is expanding the reach of conservation education to the proud people of this Central Indian state.
Undaunted by threats and pressures, he exposes illegal mining and poaching and carefully explores and exposes the fatal flows of the proposed Ken-Betwa River Linking Project, that has little hope of either meeting its stated objectives, or bringing anything but economic losses and even more severe climate impacts to our beleaguered nation. A champion of the most marginalised sections of society, he brings to life stories of peoples’ sufferings, triggered by avoidable resource depredation, malnutrition and potential tragedy of the impending internal migration of climate refugees. A journalist, he writes in Hindi, the language of his people, and is fast-becoming one of the most credible voices speaking for this emerald-forest belt.
For a quarter century, he has consistently exposed hidden realities and questioned lobbies that work to profit from India’s survival assets by masking, or twisting ecological truths. He has reported on the exploitation of the poverty-stricken workers in diamond, stone and sand mines, and also the illegal felling of teak trees in the forest catchments of the impossibly exquisite and pure Ken river. His persistent truth-telling on the ecological mayhem and the financial disaster that will follow on the tail of the Proposed Ken-Betwa River Linking Project has earned him more friends than enemies, but he does live under threat even today. Equally, he has lauded the government on its successful repopulation of tigers in Panna, after every last tiger had been slaughtered by the dangerous poaching trade, in league with some locals. Hundreds of bylines later, he continues to plug on. His work is routinely translated into several other regional languages, including English. He is among those who have exposed the hollowness of empty claims that river linking is some kind of elixir for all the dismal land management inflicted on Central India over the past few decades.
Singh’s is a relentless battle. He refuses to allow the edge of his words to be blunted. He will not be silenced. He writes for the voiceless and oppressed, human and non-human. His ink is far from dry.
A dream, a voice, and a people’s movement
Photo courtesy: Chevon Rodrigues
Shortly after the world went into lockdown on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, the citizens of Goa were dismayed to learn of hasty virtual clearances accorded to three linear infrastructure projects – a railway line, a transmission line and a highway – all cutting through the forests of Mollem.
The Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary form Goa’s largest protected forest area and are a part of the Western Ghats. They are the lifeline of the state and are key to the water security and cultural origins of the life-loving people of Goa.
Out of concern for their forests and anger at the thought of their natural heritage being irreversibly destroyed, ordinary citizens got together to resist the destruction. Students, doctors, veterinarians, artists, lawyers, fisherfolks, architects, hoteliers, small business owners, teachers, farmers, scientists, from across Goa, joined in. Soon they won support from the rest of India and the world, all acutely aware of the connection between ecosystem damage, pandemics and climate change. Petitions and online educational talks highlighting the value of Mollem were organised. Young Goa has risen as one to attend public hearings, rallies and flash mobs and the media covered their transparent purpose admirably. The most moving aspect of the campaign is the outpouring of creative solidarity that emerged from strangers. Films, songs, stories and art amplify the movement, including times when on-ground meetings were impossible.
Popular support for Amche Mollem keeps growing. Diverse, yet united voices continue to speak up for Mollem and the Supreme Court appointed Centrally Empowered Committee ordered a re-examination of all three projects, suggesting revoking one and modifying two.
Tragically one of the Mollem campaign’s stalwarts, Julio Cedric Aguiar, Vice Chairperson of Goencho Ekvott passed away during the peak of the second COVID-19 wave, when resistance had to continue.
With his “Anything for Goa”, his life has been a lesson in courage and resilience and serves to strengthen the resolve of thousands of young Goans whose very future is at stake. The Amche Mollem campaign is an example of the power of the collective that requires continued support. It teaches all those that make the protection of Earth’s biosphere a purpose of life that the best environmental defense strategies are home-brewed and imbued with joy, love and dogged resilience.
Naturalist, researcher and conservationist
Photo courtesy: Usha Lachungpa
Usha Lachungpa’s life is a testament to the wondrous ways in which the Himalaya can move human hearts, if they beat in synchronicity with those that have lived with the mountains for eons.
Starting out with the Bombay Natural History Society as a student member, she was groomed as a field biologist by the likes of Sálim Ali, J.C. Daniel and Asad Rahmani. In 1989-90, she topped the post graduate diploma course in Advanced Wildlife Management and Research with the Wildlife Institute of India, winning a gold and two silver medals in the process. She thus blazed a trail for others by being the first woman and first non-forester to complete the rigorous course. She has since had her research findings published in scientific journals, and social and electronic media including radio. She has helped BNHS and local NGOs organise bird and butterfly camps in Sikkim, and participated in biodiversity conservation seminars within India and overseas. A resident of the ecologically fragile, strategically-located, Sikkim Himalaya, she has explored her home turf across Sikkim on foot, yak, pony and motorised transport. Few conservationists have a more intimate knowledge of the most remote corners of Sikkim, especially the cold deserts, wetlands and bogs of the trans-Himalaya that touch international borders.
A naturalist in every sense of the word, she spent the last three decades working with and for the Sikkim Forest, Environment and Wildlife Management Department. Her wildlife field research has helped add more species to those included in Sálim Ali’s iconic book, Birds of Sikkim. In 2017, she retired as Principal Chief Research Officer (WL) and Additional Director, Sikkim Biodiversity Board, but her life’s passion continues. She is currently a State Coordinator for the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) the co-author of the Important Bird Areas of Sikkim and a founder-member of two NGOs, Green Circle, Sikkim, and the Sikkim Ornithological Society.
Over the last four decades, through her rich years of service to the cause of conservation, she has woven strong and lasting links between the state government and NGO networks to the advantage of biodiversity protection of the Sikkim Himalaya.
Researcher, community conservationist, and student
Photo courtesy: Ayushi Jain
Miles away from her home state of Uttar Pradesh, Ayushi Jain is weaving science, conservation and good old-fashioned community outreach to protect a rare and endangered species of turtle, the Cantor’s giant softshell Pelochelys cantorii. Last spotted in 2010 by a fisherman in Kerala, the species was seen again in May 2019 in a deep, isolated pool of a river in Kasaragod district. Ayushi rushed to the location to add fresh information to her research. Because she worked so closely with the local community, she was able to locate as many as 40 key individuals who collectively served as an “alert network” in her study area. She was supported in her efforts by ZSL EDGE of Existence, National Geographic PhotoArk and MBZ Species Conservation Fund.
Over the last 18 months, 14 direct and indirect sightings of the elusive species were received. The network also reported the first-ever nest of this species in India. The eggs were carefully incubated in an artificially created environment to protect them from flooding, and natural predation. Community members and their children from the village pitched in to keep an eye on them. After 90 days of arduous documentation, six hatchlings were released at the same place where the nest was found.
Ayushi Jain’s perseverance and compassion has inspired the local community. She has been able to build a strong and informed collective of fisherfolk, women and children living around the Payaswini and Chandragiri rivers in Kerala. They are now a vital source of protection, not only for the Cantor's giant softshell turtle, but also the reptiles’ habitat. In fact, a local community member (who was initially looking to hunt the turtle for monetary benefits) turned into a major protector and joined her project as a key informant. The Forest Department was equally quick to support her initiatives and she continues to conduct multiple training and awareness workshops focused on the training, identification and rescue of the turtles from by-catches.
A promising young biologist, Ayushi Jain embodies the true spirit of conservation.
Researcher, anthropologist, and conservationist
Photo courtesy: Ramya Nair
At 24, Ramya Nair is challenging exclusionary conservation and has become an integral member of the community of Thanamir Village, Nagaland. Since 2019, under a project managed by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and guided by Dr. Sahil Nijhawan (University College London, Zoological Society of London and Nature Conservation Foundation), Ramya works with the Yimkhiung Naga community to document the biodiversity of their ancestral forests. She chose to identify and immerse herself in local life, participating in their daily chores. She also set up a small library for children. Additionally, her team conducts extensive surveys and interviews, hikes through steep forest slopes in sub zero temperatures to deploy over 90 camera traps, with the aim to liaise with the village council and co-develop sensitive, rights-based conservation strategies. The camera-trapping exercise eventually led to the documentation of over 23 mammals including, high-altitude clouded leopards, Asiatic golden cats, marbled cat, leopard cats, Indian muntjac deer, red serow, spotted linsang, and more. The team has thus far documented over 220 bird species, including populations of Nagaland’s state bird - the Blyth’s Tragopan, and the count is expected to rise.
Navigating the vagaries of a new and unpredictable borderland is a challenge, but Ramya’s grace, humour and humility have won her the respect and acceptance of her hosts. In a relatively short while, she is learning three local languages and dialects - Chirr-Yimkhiung, Langa-Yimkhiung and Nagamese - a skill that has helped establish trust and reciprocity. Her work has now laid the foundation for equitable, ethical and locally-relevant conservation solutions.
Prior to her work in Thanamir, Ramya led a research project affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India), under the guidance of Dr. Vidya Athreya, to explore human-big cat relations among the Indigenous Warli community in Maharashtra. Her team documented 150 Waghoba shrines, a big cat deity worshipped by the Warli, and explored how traditional institutions aid shared spaces with big cats. Ramya wove these experiences together into a delightful children's book, How the leopard became Waghoba.
Currently, even as she engages with the Thanamir student union and village council on collaborative research and conservation in the region, two neighbouring villages have approached her team to expand such work into their ancestral forests - a testament to the goodwill she has generated.
Ramya Nair is a promising young conservation leader, deeply-rooted in the ethics of balancing wildlife, communities and ecosystems.
Wildlife conservationist, animal rescuer and photographer
Photo courtesy: Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi
A child of desert sands and the scrublands of Jaisalmer, Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi began rescuing injured animals as a boy. Frustrated by how few of them he could save, he ventured out of the village to Jodhpur city and apprenticed as a veterinarian assistant. At the Jodhpur Rescue Centre, he encountered all manner of conservationists. From their conversations he came to recognise the critical status of the Great Indian Bustard, known locally as Godawan. He quickly understood that to save this endangered bird, its habitat had to be protected.
He returned to Pokhran to patrol bustard habitats, creating a protective network of local youth under the guidance of Wildlife Biologist Dr. Sumit Dookia and the local organisation Ecology, Rural Development and Sustainability (ERDS) Foundation. He regularly visits rail routes, roads and areas lined with high tension electric wires, collisions with which are a leading cause of GIB mortality. Additionally, he rescues injured animals, including chinkaras, nilgai and birds including Tawny Eagles, Himalayan Griffons and Cinereous Vultures. His dedication and care for the wild has earned him the respect of his Bishnoi community, famed for their traditional and religious reverence for all wildlife. Local villagers routinely report wildlife-related mishaps to Radheshyam, who then informs the Rajasthan Forest Department, with whom he works closely.
As resilient and adaptable as the desert landscape he seeks to conserve, Radheshyam perseveres against all threats to the Thar ecosystem and wildlife - feral dogs, poorly sited solar infrastructure, poaching, and encroachments. He has consistently documented the local biodiversity and the myriad threats wild species face. His photographs of feral dogs hunting wildlife were compiled into a report and submitted to the Director General of Forests and to the Special Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. His recent documentation of the alarming prevalence of sarcoptic mange in desert foxes also alerted a grateful Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Van Bhawan, Jaipur.
Radheshyam is a remarkable young conservation leader, and his determination seeds hope for the region’s wildlife resurgence.
Writer, naturalist, educator and activist
Photo courtesy: Yuvan Aves
A good teacher is also always a good student, and Yuvan is a testament to this adage.
At 16, he left home and took charge of his own education, instinctively blurring the boundaries between “learning, doing, teaching and living”. Within the 100 wild acres of Krishnamurti Foundation’s Pathashaala (school), on the outskirts of Chengalpet town, his innate curiosity for things natural bloomed. He walked along lakes, paddy fields, grasslands, the Paalar river basin, watching and documenting birds, snakes, trees, and insects and conversing with villagers, teachers, guests and farmers.
Soon after graduating, Yuvan published his first collection of essays, A Naturalist’s Journal. He then went on to co-ordinate the ‘Farm, Environment and Society’ Programme at Abacus Montessori School in Chennai. And since, his expertise in creating Earth-centric and Child-centric curricula is sought after by alternative educational institutions across India.
He practices what he preaches with fervour continues to coordinate environmental campaigns including Save Vedanthangal, Pulicat, Adyar Estuary among others. He is also deeply involved in the critique of the draft Environment Impact Analysis (EIA) Notification put out by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, 2020. He documents and shares small urban wilderness wonders, from the delightful intricacies of birdsong to common roadside plants and the unique inter species-relationships they host. His writings have appeared in several publications and his social media pages are a treasure trove of his magical natural history observations. He has also written a second book, Saahi’s Quest, which follows the life of a young dragonfly.
Currently traveling the Tamil Nadu coast, Yuvan is documenting local knowledge, biodiversity, and threats to coastal habitats including the little-known oyster reefs, which are dense clusters of oysters that operate as communities. A born teacher, he leads the Urban Wilderness Walks internship – conducted by venerable Madras Naturalists’ Society, around which a city-wide network of young facilitators/anchors are forming to conduct conservation activities and nature walks around urban spaces.
All his remarkable skills aside, those who know him recognise him best for his authenticity, warmth and childlike wonder for all things wild, which he so effortlessly evokes in those around him.
Perhaps Sanctuary’s youngest Green Teacher Award recipient yet, Yuvan is one of the finest, most charismatic nature educationists.