Kashmira Kakati is a wildlife biologist working in her native Assam, India. Recipient of a CEPF small grant, Kakati recently announced the discovery of seven species of wild cat in the little-known Jeypore-Dehing forests in Assam — the highest concentration of photo-documented wild cat species anywhere in the world. She used the CEPF funding to fuel her camera-trap survey of the forests, and her results have fueled new interest in the site and momentum toward possible protected status for it.
Julie Shaw spoke with Kakati about her work.
Q: First, could you give me a little background on yourself? Where are you originally from, how did you get into this field of study?
A: I am from Assam. I did my graduation in zoology here, and then earned my master’s degree at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun. I then went on to get a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, studying the impacts of forest fragmentation on hoolock gibbons in Assam.
After I completed my Ph.D. field work in 2002, I took time off to raise a family with my elephant-biologist husband Christy Williams. We have two boys. In 2007 I went back to the field on this carnivore project. I worked here in the Jeypore-Dehing forests during my gibbon study. The forests were not particularly known for their wildlife. The area had been logged pretty heavily in the last century. Plus, it is a lucrative crude oil catchment where production has been going on continuously for over a hundred years. There also used to be coal mines here until recently.
My gibbon survey revealed that despite the disturbance, Jeypore-Dehing is one of the last remaining strongholds of the hoolock gibbon, one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. When I was following gibbons here for my research, I used to see lots of signs of other animals, especially carnivores. Since most carnivores are nocturnal, I also never actually encountered any during the long days I spent in the forest. I wanted to go back and put out camera-traps to find out what was skulking out there. So that’s how the camera-trapping project came about. As the photos started coming in, though, even I was left completely astounded. I honestly didn’t expect to find so many mammal species still surviving — 45 at last count, 19 carnivores, seven cats. It was like a bonanza in a treasure hunt.
Q: Could you go over the parts of your work that CEPF has been associated with?
A: I took a very basic proposal — for two months of camera-trapping — to Ullas Karanth at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India. I was wary of committing more time because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage my young children and field work at the same time. But Dr. Karanth was very encouraging and he gave me a small grant to start the work. Out in the jungle, the carnivores were obliging at the few camera-traps I started with. It was all turning out good, so I decided to stay on for longer. The CEPF small grants for the Eastern Himalayas had just been announced, and I applied. I also got a matching grant from the Rufford Small Grant Foundation, U.K. around the same time. That helped me run the project for two whole years.
Q: Is there movement to get Jeypore-Dehing declared a protected area?
A: Part of this landscape was fortunately brought under India’s protected area network by the government as the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in 2004. I am hoping that one of the best parts of this landscape, about 84 square kilometers of the Jeypore Reserve Forest that has recovered beautifully after the logging ban, and the Dilli Reserve Forest south of it (as buffer), can also be upgraded to protected area.
In fact the idea originally came from ranger Pradipta Barua, and was supported by the Divisional Forest Officer Suman Mohapatra, and his senior — Conservator of Forest J.M. Kuli — when they saw photo after camera-trap photo of all the amazing animals in there. The present Divisional Forest Officer Anurag Singh is equally keen that Jeypore be protected and this area turned into an ecotourism destination. Hopefully, the government will secure this lovely wildlife area sooner rather than later.
Q: Why is this work important for India, and for the communities nearby?
A: Proven to be holding one of India’s richest carnivore communities, Jeypore-Dehing now takes its place among India’s top wildlife areas. The photos of the seven species of cats, in fact, place it top in the world in terms of felid diversity recorded in one forest. This is great for sound bytes, but in fact, highlighting the carnivores were only one way of getting attention to these forests. They are of a unique type called the Assam Valley wet evergreen forest, and this particular landscape is among the last stretches remaining.
The evergreen forest is very important both in terms of being a watershed as well as in holding back floods — a scourge that afflicts most of Assam for months during the rainy season. Most experts agree that floods have become an intractable problem because we have been steadily destroying our original hill and valley forests — nearly three-quarters of the Assam Valley forests have disappeared within the last several decades. Forests also act as local climate regulators, a key factor for the agriculture in this region — both of food crops and the world-famous Assam tea, which holds considerable acreage here and employs thousands.
So whether we pick the carnivores, or the gibbons, or maybe a particular orchid found only here, the argument would still be for the forest itself to be protected. The forest contains such amazing biodiversity in its green heart, that would be reason enough to protect it. But we have a more selfish reason to do so — our ecological security depends on it.
Q: And if they could get ecotourism going, that would provide livelihood opportunities for people?
A: Yes. People living next to the forest are poor, barely getting by on small land holdings where they grow paddy or are share-cropping. Employment is not easy to come by, and many go into the forest for firewood; to collect minor forest produce like bamboo, cane or resin; to poach animals for the pot or ready cash; or sometimes to fell large trees to sell illegally as timber. Some families make their livelihood by fishing illegally in the protected river courses. There are lots of tea estates as well whose workers or their unemployed dependents also use the adjacent forests for their supplementary needs, including poaching for wild meat, and in the process have a huge negative impact.
With well-regulated ecotourism would come many opportunities for employment of local communities. Plantation and forest restoration programs can also improve the livelihoods of the people, giving them a viable alternative to exploitation of the forest. The other positive outcome that I foresee is that if the forest is favored as an ecotourism destination and tourists start to come, public opinion will ensure that any move to open up more of the forest to extractive industries is met with the stiffest resistance.
Q: How would you describe CEPF’s role in your project?
A: First, the CEPF grant helped me do the ground work that I set out to do — to collect incontrovertible scientific data that would establish that this was an important area for wildlife. When I started, I didn’t even have a baseline to go on. CEPF’s subsequent interest in highlighting my project (a Web site story, and a press release on the cats that it coordinated and the worldwide coverage that it got) actually took that data and neatly put it forward before the world. It is a publicity coup for the Jeypore-Dehing landscape that I could hardly have hoped to achieve on my own.
I am positive the efforts will not go in vain. For the sake of those shy, beautiful animals that showed up to be counted, I have to believe that with all my heart.
VIDEO: Marbled cat in the forest