mid-day's 39th anniversary: Big dreams of the big cat

By Ranjeet Jadhav | Mumbai

A young biologist who quit the possibility of big money as a veterinarian to turn wildlife researcher is part of the first experiment to radio collar Sanjay Gandhi National Park's leopards

Nikit Surve decided against a lucrative career as a veterinarian in favour of wildlife conversation. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Nikit Surve, 26
Wildlife researcher and biologist

At an age when most young men are laying the foundation of a stable job or dreaming about their first car, Nikit Surve heads out of his home each day to track leopards.

A graduate of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the premier institute that has mentored the country’s topmost wildlife biologists, Surve, is currently busy studying the coexistence of leopards and humans at Borivli’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SNGP). The park enjoys the honour of housing the largest density of leopards anywhere in the world.

Surve remembers veering towards nature when he was all but two. Unlike other kids who would be handed a pile of toys when they bawled, Surve’s mother Utkarsha would seat him in the box grille of their Dahisar home to watch the birds and trees outside. "My parents say I would spend hours watching the crows, and stray dogs and cats that roamed the compound. I would cry when they disappeared from sight."

The annual vacation to his ancestral village of Rungaon in Ratnagiri district cemented his relationship with the wild. One summer, Surve and his father, Sanjay, were walking through a forest trail to get to the village located in the lap of a mountain, when he came across a large scat of some animal. "We were curious and brought it home on a huge leaf. We crushed the dried poop and found claws, a tail and the bones of an animal. That’s when we realised that it belonged to a large cat. I then began binge watching programmes on Animal Planet and National Geographic," he recalls.

With no one in his family to guide him, after clearing his Std XII exams, Surve thought veterinary science was a good choice. "I was watching the Marathi movie, Tingya, where there is a scene in which the farmer is forced to sell an ill bullock because he can’t afford to treat it. I was touched and decided that I would take up veterinary science and help poor farmers treat their animals." But, a meeting with his uncle, Sachin Chavan, in Thane, made him change tracks. The career counsellor suggested Surve take up wildlife research and conservation.

Surve was convinced he had made the right choice when he volunteered for the camera trapping study on leopards at SGNP under the guidance of biologist Dr Vidya Athreya and Chief Conservator of Forest Sunil Limaye. "I remember my first day as volunteer. While returning after installing a camera trap, I spotted a leopard. It was the start of a beautiful journey that I continue to make."

Surve is now part of the radio collaring project along with Athreya, whom he considers his mentor and godmother. "This is the first time in history that SGNP leopards will be collared. This initiative, we hope, will help scientific management of the park, which is important for Mumbai."

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