Photograph courtesy T.N.C. Vidya
Photograph courtesy T.N.C. Vidya
Birthplace: Madras, India
Current City: Bangalore, Karnataka, India
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to work on birds or mammals ever since I can remember, although I wasn't sure what exactly I would do, and hadn't heard about research at the time. It just seemed an excellent proposition to roam the land and watch wildlife, especially since I didn't find humans very interesting. As I went through middle and high school and college, whenever I had doubts about getting jobs that would allow me to study wildlife, I thought about being a taxidermist, a vet, an English lecturer, a journalist, a children's book illustrator, or a forester, at various points in time, as alternatives.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I did an undergraduate course in botany, zoology, and chemistry, and joined the integrated Ph.D. program at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. My first, small project, on spatial use of nests in a primitively eusocial wasp, in Professor Gadagkar's lab, was greatly enjoyable and taught me how to approach a scientific problem. But since I preferred being outdoors and doing fieldwork, I joined Professor Sukumar's lab group and began studying elephants. Although I had wanted to work on elephant behavior during my Ph.D. and did some behavioral observations, this was not formally possible, and I worked on the phylogeography of elephants instead, thanks to a wonderful collaboration with Dr. Pruthu Fernando and Professor Don Melnick at Columbia University, New York. Later, I carried out postdoctoral work in the animal behavior group of Professor Mike Cherry at Stellenbosch University, before returning to India and starting work on elephant behavior a few years ago.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to elephants?
This is rather strongly worded—I don't think of myself as having dedicated my life to my subject, although I really enjoy the work I do. It is always exciting to understand something new, and this usually comes from analyzing data that one has tediously collected over long periods of time. While the data collection itself is often mundane in many fields of science, when one works with animals, there is often the added bonus of the data collection itself being enjoyable. Every day in the forest is a day filled with possibilities of seeing something new and exciting, and elephants, as with many other social animals, are fascinating to watch.
What's a normal day like for you?
The "normal day" has been changing over the last few years. It initially involved being in the field a lot, setting up a field station and doing fieldwork, which largely consisted then of photographing and sketching individual elephants and creating identification datasheets, by candlelight, late into the night. Now, the field station is better equipped, students work in the field year-round, and my fieldwork is restricted to less than half a semester, during January to June. A normal day in the field now consists of identifying elephants, recording associations and specific behaviors, and collecting dung samples for genetic analysis. Back at the field station, there are chores to be performed and the day's data to be entered.
I teach from August to December, and a normal day then begins and ends much later than while in the field. It involves teaching or dealing with paperwork in the morning, reading, analyzing data, and preparing for class in the afternoon/night, and an invariably long, greatly enjoyable tea break with my departmental colleagues in the evening.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
I don't have a single hero. Apart from a few schoolteachers, I greatly admired Gerald Durrell and Salim Ali when I was in school, and Jane Goodall later when I read her work. I also deeply respect Sir David Attenborough for spreading awareness about the treasures of the Earth.
In terms of sacrifices, all kinds of support, and everything they have done for me, my parents and my sister and brother are true heroes.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
There have been many greatly enjoyable experiences in the field, which consisted of tracking elephants fairly close on foot and watching them from atop a rock or tree. I was able to do this because of a very talented Kuruba tracker, Mr. Krishna (from Mudumalai), with whom I was very fortunate to be able to work.
The most challenging experience was a one-month field trip to northeastern India (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya) in 2002, on a shoestring budget, that I had to embark on alone, without even a familiar field assistant and no prior working knowledge of the place. This was a time when we didn't have cell phones and it was very expensive to make even landline calls within India. Although it was somewhat dangerous/stupid in hindsight, I undertook the trip since I was desperate enough to want to sample the elephants there to complete my Ph.D. Thanks to my father, I was able to stay a few days in the homes of some very hospitable friends after the 3,000-kilometer train journey to Guwahati. But everything had to be worked out, from getting forest department permits, to traveling to at least six different forest divisions, over hundreds of kilometers, by local buses and jeeps crammed with people, goats, chicken, and farm produce, and arranging where I would stay each day and where I would look for elephants. The forest departments of the different states were very helpful and provided permits, accommodation sometimes, and field trackers, but it was unnerving nevertheless to travel alone between insurgency hit areas, stay in bamboo huts without windows, in an office space with an unlockable door, and, when we (the trackers and I) were not walking 20 kilometers to the sampling areas, hitching rides atop gravel trucks or in a jeep with a gigantic, half-sedated pig that would emit blood-curdling squeals at every turn on the mountain road. I had to literally live from day to day at the time.
What are your other passions?
I am interested in painting, birdwatching, playing basketball, reading books (though I end up reading nowhere near the amount I would like to), and listening to music.
Latest Explorer News
- Along Bhutan’s River Valleys to Find Black-Necked Cranes
- Big Cat Week Google+ Hangout: A Life Among Lions
- Rock Art Helps Reveal Elk May Have Roamed Los Angeles
- A Talk Over Tea: Preserving India’s Indigenous Languages
- It’s Time for a Sea Party!
- November 16, 2014: Speed Climb 3,000 Foot Walls, Meet the Darwin of NYC’s Rodent World and More
- Hmong Use Tech to Keep Old Traditions Alive
- TODAY: Chat With National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala
- Queen of Bhutan Celebrates National Geographic’s Anniversary Coverage
- Conversation with Bhutan’s Young “Dragon King”
In Their Words
Every day in the forest is a day filled with possibilities of seeing something new and exciting, and elephants, as with many other social animals, are fascinating to watch.
Meet Our Biologists
Datta explores the conservation challenges facing one of India's last vast tracts of wilderness.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.