Please tell us when you first started working for Snow Leopard Trust and what inspired you to join the team.
I joined the Snow Leopard Trust in 2007 after finishing my Ph.D. from the Mumbai University while working with the Bombay Natural History Society. I was captivated by the unique challenge snow leopards present to research and the opportunity and potential that technology and mathematics hold in overcoming these challenges.
What excites you about working for Snow Leopard Trust?
The opportunity and privilege of getting to work with some of the most outstanding people, be it from the remote communities sharing their space with snow leopards or the conservationists and researchers braving all extremities and challenges to understand the snow leopard and conserve it in partnership with the local communities. The expressions on people’s faces when I talk about the snow leopard and the admiration that this majestic species evokes remain a permanent reminder of how poor we will be without them. I am on a permanent high in my enthusiasm for having the opportunity to work with one of the most respected and loved conservation organizations in the world.
What were your previous roles at SLT?
I started as a Regional Field Biologist/Regional Ecologist in October 2007. I then moved to Bishkek as International Coordinator of the secretariat of the newly formed intergovernmental alliance called Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program in 2014. Then I was promoted to Assistant Director of Conservation Policy and Partnerships in January 2021.
What do you most look forward to about your new role?
Working closely with our country programs and the GSLEP team (out there), and the Operations team (out from there), whose commitment to snow leopard conservation is unmatched. Conservation is a team effort, and I am thrilled to be a part of such a dedicated and passionate group of individuals working tirelessly to protect this incredible species.
Can you tell us about the first time you saw a snow leopard in the wild?
One of my most memorable encounters with a snow leopard was in South Gobi, Mongolia. We had spotted a fresh kill of an ibex in an area with shallow canyons, short hills, and escarpments and crevices. There were seven of us standing on an escarpment. I watched my colleague Örjan carefully walk up to the ibex kill from the far end to collect some standard data. Suddenly, I heard a whiff of air and saw the big scarred face of a big snow leopard appear before me from virtually nowhere.
Apparently, sitting less than one meter below where I was standing, the snow leopard had decided to walk away from Örjan (who didn’t even know it was sitting there) and quietly climbed the ledge only to find me standing right in front. It had big round eyes, almost as if expressing its surprise about being so close to a human. It looked at me for a couple of seconds before turning around and flaring away as a ribbon, giving a full view to Stephen, Nadia and the three students resting a little further up on the same ridgeline. Those few seconds of a face-off and a graphic memory of each scar this big male sported have remained my first and most favourite encounter with the snow leopard.
It’s no secret that people all over the world struggle to coexist with wildlife. What gives you hope that local and indigenous communities can peacefully coexist with snow leopards?
Wherever large predators, livestock and humans interface, there is bound to be an interaction between them, which can sometimes be negative. How well local and indigenous communities deal with these interactions depends on various factors, including, but not limited to, their well-being, which reflects on their attitudes and tolerance towards wildlife.
At the Snow Leopard Trust, we strive to build partnerships based on mutual respect, trust, and empathy. We recognize that conservation is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that strategies must be tailored to specific cultural, economic, and ecological contexts. We also understand that threats to biodiversity can be dynamic and unpredictable, and therefore we must remain flexible and adaptive in our approach. By working collaboratively with local communities, researchers, and policymakers, we can help ensure a more sustainable future for snow leopards and the people who share their habitat.
What do you wish more people knew about our conservation initiatives?
What I wish more people knew about conservation initiatives is that not a single penny of the money meant for snow leopard conservation goes into the pocket of the snow leopards. It is always invested in support of people, whether it is the local or indigenous communities running conservation programs, the frontline rangers patrolling and monitoring wildlife, or the conservation teams working under expedition conditions .
Snow Leopard Trust is dedicated to conserving the snow leopard and its habitat, but our initiatives are about much more than just protecting a single species. We work closely with local and indigenous communities to create sustainable livelihoods that benefit both people and wildlife. When we invest in conservation, we’re investing in people.
Some people may remember you from the Microsoft AI commercial a few years ago. Can you tell us how Artificial Intelligence, or technology in general, can contribute to snow leopard conservation?
I see AI as the assistant we never had that can do things we would otherwise spend hours or even days on, allowing us to delegate easily. We were fortunate to have made this partnership with Microsoft, where their engineers developed algorithms to scan through hundreds of thousands of camera trap photos and detect the ones with snow leopards in them. Imagine a camera trap can get triggered by even a grass blade if it’s swaying with a sun-baked rock in the backdrop (these cameras have a combination of heat and motion sensors but can get confused at times). Just looking through the images to find the ones with snow leopards can then take hours, if not days. The AI-based tool solved this problem – now, the snow leopard images are identified in a matter of minutes. We are now working with other AI programmers to develop tools that can help identify individual snow leopards from their patterns.
You’re an avid photographer, aren’t you? Can you tell us a bit about your photography?
My father was a visual artist. My mother is a poet and author and also paints in her free time. With parents with such strong artistic traits, I think it natural that I am drawn to different forms of visual art in amateur photography. I enjoy photographing colors, intriguing moments, and, more recently, the deep sky. I am far from being anywhere close to a photographer of any professional caliber, but with the right technology and equipment, one can do wonders, even as an amateur. I love that part about technology. I find incredible the variation in skill, speed and equipment required to photograph different subjects. Some moments pass in a split second, while others require hours of patience to collect a single presentable shot.
What’s your vision for the future of snow leopard conservation?
I envision a world where conservation is not seen as a luxury or contrary to human well-being and development but, instead, prioritized as an essential component of well-being and societal responsibility. That will be the point when we might start restoring the damage we have done to our fragile planet. This may, however, require communities taking ownership of biodiversity conservation, governments basing their decision-making on science and knowledge, and our future generations learning about biodiversity conservation as an essential life skill.
What’s one thing you thought you knew but later discovered you were wrong about?
I used to believe that I made good presentations! Only when I attended a special workshop about 10 years ago did I realize how sloppy I was at making presentations. I have been working ever since to improve my skills at storytelling and making engaging presentations for a diverse range of audiences, from young 5-year-olds to government officials, conservationists and retirees.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Every individual has the power to contribute towards snow leopard conservation, regardless of their profession or occupation. There are many ways to get involved, including spreading awareness about snow leopards, encouraging friends and family to make eco-friendly choices, providing financial assistance, volunteering time and skills to conservation organizations, and more. The possibilities for how one can help are endless, and it is important to recognize the crucial role that each person can play in preserving this magnificent species.