For world nature conservation day, on 28th July, MTTN spoke with emergency medicine physician Dr. Freston Marc Sirur, who heads the center for wilderness medicine here in Manipal, and is an avid environmental and animal conservationist.
In keeping with the theme, the interview was conducted outdoors. And we were fortunate enough to have encountered a handful of native animal species when it drew close. We also saw firsthand some of the environmental threats taking place in Manipal.
We started our conversation en route to the paddy fields in Saralebettu, passing by an empty cage meant for a leopard and her cub spotted the previous week.
MTTN: When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?
Dr. Freston Sirur: I’ve always been interested in nature since childhood. My parents and grandparents played a part in that. I was lucky to have grown up in Goa when there was still a lot of greenery. I would spend all my time outside playing and exploring, never afraid of any animals I came across.
One exciting moment I experienced happened when my grandmother visited my great-grandmother’s home in a village near the Calungutre stretch in Village called Nagoa. Because no one lived in our old Goan house, many animals would take refuge there. When she went there, she found baby squirrels in the washbasin. She didn’t know what to do with them, so she brought them to where we were living at the time in Panjim. We named them Chip and Dale, and I had two baby squirrels as pets for some time.
When they grew up, they could go in and out of the house through the kitchen window whenever they wanted, eventually venturing much beyond our home and into the trees nearby.
Another pleasant memory I can recall is during the onset of the monsoons in the paddy fields. The bullfrogs start to mate, and many hibernating animals, like catfish, would come out. These were sustainable villages that enjoyed the benefits of the local resources, of which one good food source was the catfish and bullfrogs. Now, there’s a ban on eating bullfrogs because it has become famous as a delicacy for tourists, sold as ‘jumping chicken.’ But I did get to have that experience of working in the fields, catching frogs and fish as a 4-year-old. I would say those were my early beginnings.
A striking flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills was soaring overhead, distinctive in their black and white coloring and long large curved beaks. They are one of nine species found in India, 4 of which are found in the western ghats.
Hornbills are omnivorous, though mainly sustained on figs and other fruit. In this way, they aid in the seed dispersal of trees, dubbing them the ‘farmers of the forest. Hornbills are also known for their unique nesting style, which has given rise to various local folklore.
Their conservation status is near threatened, with numbers quickly declining due to poaching and habitat loss.
MTTN: How long have you lived in, or around, Manipal?
Dr. F.S: I came to Manipal in 2018. Before that, I was in Goa, and before that, Mumbai. I’ve been up and down the coast since childhood.
I did my 11th and 12th in St. Aloysius [Mangalore]. It was on a hill with lots of wildlife. I did some animal rescue and went on many trips to Kudremukh and nearby areas. I also studied in Mangalore for my MBBS.
MTTN: What has fascinated you most about the Manipal region?
Dr. F.S: Mainly its biodiversity, both plant and animal. It’s simply amazing. You have the forest, the fields, the coast, and so forth. And it’s all right here, and you don’t have to go far. Its location is unique, giving rise to such differing habitats. For example, Agumbe has some of the world’s rarest animals, like the Lion-tailed macaque and King cobra. There’s a crazy amount of flora and fauna found here.
Manipal is not like a metropolitan city. It is developing fast, but preserving some of the original environment is still possible. We have the ‘Birders Handbook to Manipal’ created by a former MIT student who still does conservation work. We have birders going out every Sunday and other activities you can do here to recognize, document, and share the beauty of this place.
It would be great to get more people on board and have this progress through generations.
You can have a very interested group, but if the next generation doesn’t know what to do or how to do it carefully, that whole fire dies out. That passing of knowledge does happen to an extent, but it varies in quality depending on who guides it and how passionate they are.
On the road ahead was a sprightly Indian Grey Mongoose, quickly scuttering across to the shrubbery of the other side.
India has six mongoose species, each having different, exciting behaviors and characteristics. They are primarily solitary animals and have adapted well to human settlements.
Mongoose is most famous for its snake combat, which evolved specialized acetylcholine receptors that render them resistant to venom.
Though they are still hunted for their fur, they are a protected species and are listed as the least concern on the IUCN red list.
MTTN: What changes have you witnessed in the environment and biodiversity here?
Dr. F.S: Manipal used to have large forest thickets on its slopes b, but now a large amount of the land has been felled. And another part of its habitat, the laterite plateaus have also reduced significantly. If you look at old pictures, many legacy trees have since been cut down. Manipal is growing, putting pressure on the land and demand for construction. Protecting the unique habitats while still giving space for humans to live is an important shift in land utilization practice in areas undergoing urbanization.
If you look at the larger Udupi area, there is a fair amount of greenery left. But Manipal has its unique habitats. Look at Manchi, it’s a stony plateau that may seem empty, yet it has its plants and animals in that specific ecosystem.
As a hobby, I also dive, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen the immense biodiversity that used to be here. There are significantly fewer fish and almost no corals. It’s an overall degraded terrain now. Its due to the significant impact and scale of fishing and trolling over the last few decades.
Another issue in the water bodies is the invasive species that were introduced long ago. The African catfish and Tilapia are the most common, voracious eaters and harm the native species. Change is inevitable but how that change happens is in our hands. As we progress, there need to be protected areas in urban spaces that can be safe spaces for the wildlife that has always existed here for our well-being also.
Just after a bend, we came upon a singular Blue Peacock perched on a granite fence post, its elegance in juxtaposition with the freshly cleared and dug-up land before it. The space used to be an acacia grove. We saw many deforested plots along the way, most of which had occurred within the past few months.
MTTN: Can you share more about your work and experiences with conservation?
Dr. F S: Because I’ve been into wildlife, I’ve also been into rescue. On a more regular basis, I do snake rescues. As an E.M. physician, I treat many snake bite cases. Many of these arise due to conflict situations where a snake is in someone’s home. 2 days ago, I got called in for a cobra at a nearby Village, and we were able to get the cobra out and relocate it safely. The good thing about that is they did not harm or threaten it, so there weren’t any bites. Being a part of wildlife rescue means respecting the animal for its place in the ecology. When people see a snake, they kill it without thinking of its role in the ecosystem. Snakes are vital in the population control of rats. As we know, rats spread diseases. Conflict occurs when there’s a lot of garbage in the city that attracts rats, and behind them come the snakes. Now, you have snakes in urban areas biting people. This is why it is vital to have natural places where wildlife can live and not be forced to migrate or adapt to human settlements.
I’ve also had to rescue an Olive ridley recently, a protected marine species. These turtles often nest along our coast, and many are injured due to fishing practices and ghost nets. Pond turtles wake up during the monsoon after hibernating in the soil around wetlands; often, there’s suddenly a road across the wetlands between the coast and the ghats. It cuts off the habitats preventing water circulation and viability of the habitat while also seeing another roadkill. Whenever I encounter such a stranded turtle, I stop to relocate it to a safer place nearby.
This is the spot where we released a White-cheeked barbet recently. It was rescued at MIT as a chick, and we took care of it for two months, then brought it here and released it. We are passionate people that may not have enough knowledge to do this. We’ve had some success stories and a lot of failures with our rescues. But it is necessary to keep trying and learning.
By now, we had crossed a dirt road and reached a stream near a little areca nut tree plantation. Towering mature native trees, festooned with vines, surrounded us. The dense foliage filtered out both sunlight and a drizzle. The short bridge was covered in large seeds, some already sprouted. Sounds of trickling water, buzzing insects, and birdcalls invaded our ears. Hidden within the myriad of greens were scattered houses, with adjacent paddy fields lined in palm trees. This majestic and alluring place is where we parked.
MTTN: How can students of Manipal help, even from within the campus?
Dr. F.S: I get numerous calls from students about sick and injured dogs. When it comes to rescuing dogs, there are several issues. Beyond spending some money, I may need to transport it in my vehicle. But if the dog has rabies or another disease, I’d expose my pets and myself to it. I can’t do that as a doctor. I respond and treat on-site whenever I can, but my primary responsibility is to my patients. Often students are upset when I don’t help. Yet my first few questions seal the deal. If they are ready to put in the time to foster or help provide for the veterinary care, then I can meet them halfway, and we can work to make it happen.
As an E.M. doctor, I see a lot of dog bites, and I’d like not to see that. Keeping numbers down is a fundamental aspect of taking care of stray dogs. Students can help by driving a sterilization program, crowdfunding it, and volunteering in fostering or adoption. A community dog should be cared for by the community, including through the more difficult times. Besides sterilization, there also needs to be a push for vaccinating the dogs. Perhaps a dedicated centre for Manipal would be a solution for both preventive public health measures for treating and caring for injured wildlife.
MTTN: VSO hosts weekly beach cleanups. Similarly, what other projects can be done to aid conservation?
Dr. F.S: One is to spearhead identifying and protecting biodiversity hotspots in Manipal. To document the native flora specifically, which supports the whole ecosystem. Especially the heritage trees. These are elderly trees that have great value and are irreplaceable to the ecosystem.
Another critical project is to advocate for plastic pollution control everywhere, not just at the beach.
Interested students can also create a network of rescuers. There could be training programs where people learn to relieve conflict without actual contact with the animal, even how to deal with injured wildlife, or give primary veterinary care. A workshop like this would be empowering to students and highly beneficial.
Chirps and fluttering in the trees revealed two Stork-billed Kingfishers. They flew back and forth, from branches on one side to a bush on the other stream bank, for the rest of the interview.
They have blue wings and tails, an orange-yellow neck and breast, and a brown head with a black-tipped red beak. Though small, they are very territorial and will even chase eagles away. Nests are dug in riverbanks, decaying trees, or termite hills.
Eleven other kingfisher species are found in the Indian subcontinent, with beautiful plumage ranging from checkered black-and-white to purples and pinks. The Stork-billed is listed as the least concern, while other species are endangered.
MTTN: How do you balance conservation work and a profession in emergency medicine? Is there ever any overlap between the two?
Dr. F.S: There is an overlap as an E.M. physician. I run the center for wilderness medicine, and one of the options under that is conservation medicine. It works in many ways and leads to a subject called One Health. It’s the concept of looking at the Health of the entire environment around a problem to provide better help to the individual and the surrounding ecology. The idea is that the Health of the environment around you equates to your good Health.
A practical example of conservation medicine will be if a farmer in a national park is at risk of losing his cattle to carnivores and wants to kill the tiger. You would go there as a doctor, part of a conservation research team. You would treat the farmer, maybe treat his sick cattle, and protect the team there to protect the wildlife. That’s a small part of it, and I am beginning to understand more.
It is challenging to balance everything. Fortunately, I have colleagues and people who step up and provide me with the time and space to do this work. Like the cobra two days ago: I was called by someone who works in my department and who lives close to that area. We’ve been able to develop that teamwork.
I’ve had situations where a snake bite patient arrives, and they haven’t done the wrong thing of harming the snake yet. So after I finish treating my patients, I go to their house and rescue the snake. Right there is my medical profession and conservation work coming together, and that’s very satisfying.
MTTN: What has been your experience working with government branches such as the forestry department?
Dr. F.S: The forestry department is an organization with much potential. Good people are working there, but there’s not enough rescuing or fostering done by them themselves. When we do rescues, the next step is fostering an injured animal back to Health. This can be problematic because, by law, you’re not allowed to capture or detain any wildlife. At the same time, there’s a law that says you need to do your best within your powers to protect wildlife. Since there’s an overlap here, you don’t always know which part of the law you fall under.
The Karnataka department has done a lot of work in many areas, like the Bannerghatta rescue center. However, smaller localities like Manipal and Udupi don’t have any specific organization under the department to deal with problems in situ. And these are the areas that have so much wildlife and biodiversity. Ideally, each district should have a forestry department to mitigate wildlife-related trouble. Last year in Mangalore, 3 Indian wild Gaurs ran into the city. They were tranquilized and ended up dying. It’s regrettable. They’re a flagship species, and we didn’t know how to deal with them. The forestry department can collaborate with establishments/universities like ours to look for solutions and provide resources, technology, skills, and research to better aid our shared goals.
MTTN: What are some barriers and misconceptions about conservation and wildlife rescue?
Dr. F.S: Laws are one significant roadblock. There is rampant trafficking of both exotic and native species. The forestry department has to be strict because a lot of our wildlife has been and continues to be poached. They need to be sure of who they’re working with since rescue centers could be a platform for wildlife trade. That’s why such projects must go through establishments like ours that are well controlled and in touch with the government. Wildlife rescue should never be for the purpose of showmanship. Awareness can take place in a safe way for both the people and animals being discussed. It would be of great help if the forest department recognized rescuers and conservationists or such organizations officially in all areas where urbanization is taking place to help mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
There’s also the minor issue of photographers and such going into wild spaces, and in the process, they might disturb the habitat and interfere with feeding, breeding, etc. They don’t go in with that intention, but that drive makes them forget to respect the environment they enter.
Those are a few challenges that I know of.
Regarding misconceptions, my area of interest is snakes, and many myths are associated with snakes and bites. Better education is needed in this regard. The same applies to other wildlife. Recently, I saw a video of a striped hyena beaten to death in northern Karnataka. It was unfortunate because seeing a striped hyena is rare, and they don’t harm or attack people. The villagers assumed it was dangerous and killed it.
As I said earlier, good things are being taught from generation to generation. However, bad things get passed down too, which should be updated with a more modern understanding.
Sudden movement and commotion to the side captured our attention. An Indian Rat Snake is attempting to swallow a female Indian Bullfrog. In defense, the frog had puffed itself up and covered its eyes with its forelimbs while croaking in distress and trying to jump away. In the end, our proximity scared the snake away, saving the bullfrog but depriving the rat snake of a good meal.
Rat snakes are non-venomous and grow to be 1.5 -2 meters in length. They can be grey, brown, or pale yellow and look similar to cobras. Rat snakes are often found near urban areas with large rodent populations.
The bullfrog is India’s largest frog species. The tadpoles are incredibly effective in controlling mosquito populations and cannibalistic. Adults are also predatory, eating anything that will fit their mouths, including small birds, mammals, reptiles, and other frogs.
(Both species are classified as least concern.)
MTTN: Finally, how should the future of conservation in Manipal look?
Dr. F.S: The best way to handle the increased population pressure in Manipal is through more sustainable building. One way this can be done is by leaving space on that plot for native species to continue thriving.
I also hope more students become involved in conservation, learn to appreciate nature, and share their passion with others.
Lastly, I look forward to Manipal collaborating with the forestry department to have its rescue and soft release center, where people can learn about conservation, fostering, disease surveillance, etc. It would also serve as a platform for extended medical sciences projects for medicine and non-medicine students. It’s something we’re trying assiduously to happen.
Interviewed by: Sai Sriya Yadavalli for MTTN
Written by: Namitha Muktineni for MTTN
Edited by: Aarthika Srinivasan for MTTN
Featured Image by: Aromal Sunil for MTTN