- Vanjulavalli Sridhar, an officer in the Indian Forest Service (IFS), believes that IFS officers can bring about big changes for conservation through small actions.
- Sridhar said her science-backed training in conservation helped her identify gaps and challenges while her IFS training aided her to transform the knowledge into action during her stints in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and in Puducherry.
- Sridhar is known for her staunch position against forest diversion in the Andamans archipelago, intervening in deer poaching on the islands, and handling sensitive issues of tribal communities in Puducherry who have not completely weaned off hunting.
- Sridhar has held her ground through her nine years with the Indian Forest Service, many times in the face of gender-based discrimination.
With busy doctors as parents, annual visits to wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the Western Ghats punctuated Vanjulavalli Sridhar’s childhood, sparking and nurturing her love for forests and wildlife. From scrubbing elephants with the fruit of the monkey bread tree in Mudumalai forests in Tamil Nadu to using her parents’ hospital’s ambulance for wildlife rescue in her native Salem, Sridhar was clear early on that she wanted to study forests and wildlife conservation.
Now, nine years into her stint with the Indian Forest Service (IFS)’s AGMUT (Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories) cadre, the 31-year-old Sridhar is applying her knowledge on the ground. Sridhar has often ruffled feathers with authorities for her actions against violations of forests and wildlife laws. As a mother to two boys, she has learnt to identify and stand her ground against gender-based discrimination, especially towards working mothers.
Sridhar is known for her staunch position against forest diversion in the Andamans archipelago, intervening in deer poaching on the islands, and handling sensitive issues of tribal communities in Puducherry who have not completely weaned off hunting.
Currently the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Puducherry, Sridhar asserts: “Solutions are simple, rules exist, it’s people who complicate things.”
She debunks the notion that “you can’t do much if you are honest and straightforward” in administrative posts. “There is so much you can do,” says Sridhar, with an inspiring determination. Sridhar followed up her B.Sc. in Forestry from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) with a Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. She subsequently gravitated towards the civil services.
“We were introduced to the best experts in the field at NCBS but I realised that while they had the knowledge, you need to have the power to make a change. One little change can make a huge difference,” said Sridhar, who has often found herself to be the only woman office-bearer in her stints through Andaman and Puducherry.
A trained Bharatnatyam dancer who never misses an opportunity to perform, Sridhar also loves taking her Avenger cruiser motorcycle around for a spin, whether she is in the remote rainforests and mangroves of the Andamans archipelago or in urban Puducherry.
Upholding forest laws
The Union Territory of Puducherry, a former French colony on India’s southeast coast, does not boast of abundant forest resources — a far cry from the Andamans that Sridhar confesses she misses. The total recorded forest area in Puducherry is 13 sq km as per India State of Forest Report, 2019. But reports of illegal hunting of protected wildlife species and their trade are quite common.
Sridhar and her team have courted retaliation during their raids on a section of Narikurava settlements in the UT. The Narikuravars are a nomadic tribal hunting community found throughout Tamil Nadu and in Puducherry. According to a 2015 TRAFFIC report, during surveys of nearly 900 Narikuravar in 100 settlements in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, in 2014, it was found that most of the mammals and birds hunted were protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India, 1972. The trapping or hunting was largely for food and money. As recent as December 2020, as per media reports, a person was arrested by the police in Puducherry under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, for poisoning palm squirrels, the state animal, for domestic consumption.
“Puducherry is a famous tourist spot and people are after wild meat but don’t know what they are buying. Most of the wild meat is sourced through poisoning. Consumption of such poisoned meat leads to several health complications. The biggest challenge is changing the mindset of the communities. They think they don’t have a choice but to hunt, but in truth, they do; still, they choose to hunt consciously because hunting and selling wild meat is added income for them,” added Sridhar.
In her earlier stint in the Andamans, where deer poaching thrives to satiate the urban demand for wild meat, Sridhar had cracked a poaching case in two days in 2016 as the Divisional Forest Officer in Mayabunder, right before her maternity leave when she was pregnant with her first child.
“People were hunting deer in Mayabunder, and we found that the crew members were selling the meat in Kolkata. The passenger ship used to come once in 45 days and it was stocked with deer meat for it to be sold in Kolkata. We booked the crew and didn’t allow the ship to sail as the crew involved were caught red-handed and arrested,” she said.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) is a group of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal. More than 80 percent of its total geographical area of 8,249 sq km is recorded as forest land. These forests, which include nine national parks, 96 wildlife sanctuaries and one biosphere reserve, are rich in biodiversity. ANI is in close proximity to southeast Asian (SEA) countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. This proximity also attracts poachers from SEA countries for harvesting living marine resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of ANI, posing significant threat to marine biodiversity and coastal security.
Sridhar arrived in Mayabunder, 12 hours from ANI’s capital city Port Blair, as a trainee in 2014 and assumed the charge of DFO in April 2015 and remained there till December 2016. Mayabunder was her maiden stint as an IFS officer. Towards the end of it, cyclone Vardah hit the islands and Sridhar was involved in mobilising resources and coordinating disaster relief efforts on the field.
Later on, as the DFO in Baratang from 2017 to 2019, she used her expertise in wildlife research to assess the carrying capacity of the island’s limestone caves, which led to a lot of agitation amongst the tour operators who exploited them for money.
In Baratang, she also stood her ground against violations to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980 in an infrastructure project (a bridge from Baratang Island to Middle Andamans), despite repeated agitations of politicians and tour operators and internal pressure from the department.
“Approvals had been received for the use of the site to construct the bridge but they were using land and cutting trees over and above what was given to them. I verified with maps and found out that they were using more areas than what was approved in the clearances, so I raised a finger against the FCA violations and immediately stopped the work,” said Sridhar.
Fielding threats, Sridhar instead focused on the corrective measures. “You don’t have to escalate the problem; after expert inspections, the contractors and National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation accepted it in writing that violations had happened. We took an undertaking that they would plant trees to compensate for the tree cutting,” she said.
Standing strong in the face of gender-based discrimination
It was only in the year 1980 the first women got into the IFS, which has roots in the 19th century Imperial Forest Service under colonial rule.
Sridhar said she took on gender discrimination head-on as she experienced the stigma associated with working married and pregnant women: they are made to feel less competent, their dedication is questioned and they are given less challenging roles, she noted.
“I didn’t realise at the time that it was gender discrimination,” she reminisced, referring to postings offered to her that were perceived to be less challenging and therefore, fit for a single mother with two young children. However, she denied all of the ‘soft’ postings and was happier working in the field.
Sridhar intends to pursue her doctoral studies in the future and plough through gender-based discrimination by being steadfast in her discharge of duties in the conservation management sector. In Puducherry, she says, people have got a taste of women in leadership positions: Kiran Bedi, a retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, is the incumbent Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry. Sridhar points out that she is the first woman forest officer to have been posted in both Karaikal and Puducherry.
To young mothers who are returning to work, Sridhar advised that “The thing that eats at you is the guilt: whether I am sacrificing their childhood for my career. But if you have decided to work, just do it. Your kids will eventually understand, and they need to understand that working hard is important, and no better way to teach that than to do it ourselves,” she affirms.
Banner image: IFS Vanjulavalli Sridhar has often ruffled feathers with authorities for her actions against violations of forests and wildlife laws.