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“I believe indigenous people have the best knowledge for nurturing biodiversity… They have mastered coexistence with nature. Be it agricultural practices, use of natural resources, or dealing with human-wildlife interactions”…

Sep 18, 2022
Mehreen Khaleel, loves to travel and explore natural spaces. She has traveled extensively in the woods of Kashmir valley in search of Himalayan gray langur and meeting local and tribal people. “I love gathering experiences from tribal populations of Kashmir and have gathered insights on what it truly means to co-exist with the wildlife. When not collecting data on wildlife and people’s perspective towards wildlife, you will find me sitting somewhere quietly, observing and thinking about the wonders of nature, and sometimes trying to capture those moments in my camera”. 

Praveen Gupta: What drew you towards nature and conservation?

Mehreen KhaleelI have always found solace in nature. I believe it were my parents who were more inclined towards nature and that’s why i find my peace in it. I remember the excitement on my mother’s face whenever she would see a new bird. That was something I missed the most while pursuing my higher studies. But very fortunately, I have had mentors who would encourage to spend some time watching birds on campus. It not only kept me occupied but helped me develop interest in nature and conservation. Very luckily, I could pursue my interests and now I am trying to sow the same seed of conservation in many young minds. The passion which many of our students show is infectious, and I think that keeps me going. 

PG: What did you have in mind when you created the Wildlife Research and Conservation Foundation (WRCF)?

MK: During my PhD research, I realised Kashmir’s wild flora and fauna is less studied. General awareness about wildlife in Kashmir was lagging among the younger generation. Unfortunately the traditional environmental knowledge wasn’t given much importance and maybe that was the reason behind this lag. When we started WRCF, we wanted to start a conversation about wildlife of Kashmir, and bring in ideas from the locals. We are a team of dedicated researchers who use scientific knowledge to explore, understand and tackle various issues related to wildlife conservation. 

When we started WRCF, we wanted to start a conversation about wildlife of Kashmir, and bring in ideas from the locals. We are a team of dedicated researchers who use scientific knowledge to explore, understand and tackle various issues related to wildlife conservation. 

PG: Which animals are most affected by the Human Wildlife Conflict? Is any of it the focus area for WRCF?

MK: In Kashmir it’s the Asiatic Black Bear which has been affected by the Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC). There could be many reasons to it, be it the shift in agricultural practices to cash crops, unregulated garbage management in fringe zones, seemingly increase in the number of bear population etc. WRCF has been trying to understand the dynamics of this conflict scientifically. We have been focusing on mitigating HWC with the appropriate use of technology. We have been in constant consultation with the local stakeholders as we address this issue.

PG: What is the impact of Climate Change in the Himalayan region – visible & invisible?

MK: I remember seeing snow clad Mahadev peak in Srinagar hold its snow till the next winter, which nowadays looks naked as July sets in. It’s disheartening to find such abrupt changes in just very short span of time. Reports of new tropical species of birds and insects is a hint to the wise that “Not all is well in the Himalaya”. Many of us would not be bothered by Climate Change but for an ecologically sensitive place like Kashmir these things matter a lot.

There are too many things which at the inception can be attributed to the Climate Crisis and need immediate ponder. Every year during summers, more than a dozen places witness flash floods, erratic rains. The four seasons (Spring, summer, autumn and winter) which Kashmir was known for, have no longer a clear demarcation. We have seen winters getting warmer with none or very less snow. There is a substantial shift in the phenology of native flowering species in response to climate change. 

The four seasons (Spring, summer, autumn and winter) which Kashmir was known for, have no longer a clear demarcation. We have seen winters getting warmer with none or very less snow. There is a substantial shift in the phenology of native flowering species in response to climate change. 

PG: Any specific learning from your work: ‘Distribution & feeding ecology of Himalayan gray langur’?

MK: Himalayan gray langur is the least studied high-altitude primate. Not much was known about its ecology and distribution from Kashmir. Previously it was known to occur in Dachigam National Park, but my work establishes its presence in a wider range. They were found in the mountainous protected areas of Kashmir (Kazinag NP, Wangath-Naranag CR, Tral-Shikargah CR, Rajparian WLS, Overa WLS) preferring an elevation range of 1600-3000m. This work served as baseline for various scientific studies and management policies towards the conservation of this high-altitude primate. I also tried to understand the feeding ecology of these primates in seasonal habitats of Kashmir Himalaya. They mostly depend on tree bark, seeds of native tree species found in Kashmir forests.

PG: Do smaller animals, birds, insects and the flora also get your attention?

MK: Yes of course. WRCF has started research projects pertaining to smaller animals, such as Kashmir Flying Squirrel, monitoring local and migratory bird populations. We have already worked on the floral diversity in one of the protected areas of Kashmir, and are expecting a publication on it sometime soon. Last year, in collaboration with WWF-India, we conducted a Wetland monitoring of Odonate survey. We are the first organisation from Kashmir which started the moth week and butterfly month citizen science surveys in partnership with National Moth week and Big Butterfly Month initiatives respectively. 

I definitely believe that women should play a much bigger role in environmental matters. The likes of COP27 should recognise and encourage such women leaders who would be a source of inspiration for many. 

PG: Any thoughts on how to popularise nature conservation and biodiversity protection with the masses?

MK: We have been trying to work out some very conventional models such as use of audio-visual in conducting lecture workshops, nature camps. Mass awareness on social media engages more people at the same time and has turned out to be more effective as well. Since our focus is on the people living in the fringe zones, we have conducted these programs in local languages. Benefits of using local language is that people can easily relate and they can come up with better ways and suggestions about biodiversity protection.     

PG: Don’t you think women from Global South should play a much bigger role in environmental matters in the likes of COP27?

MK: I definitely believe that women should play a much bigger role in environmental matters. The likes of COP27 should recognise and encourage such women leaders who would be a source of inspiration for many. 

PG: Your thoughts on the role of indigenous people as stewards of nature?

MK: I believe indigenous people have the best knowledge for nurturing biodiversity. They have been the stewards of nature but we have failed to acknowledge their efforts. They have mastered coexistence with nature. Be it agricultural practices, use of natural resources, or dealing with human-wildlife interactions, indigenous people have had the best of practices. This knowledge should be transferred to their younger generations. But somehow this flow has been hampered due to modernisation. 

PG: Many thanks for these wonderful insights, Mehreen! My best wishes to you and the team.

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