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Children of the Chinar: Special series on young women achievers from Kashmir, Aaliya Mir

In the third interview of our series on young, exciting women achievers from Kashmir, Global Order's Akasha Usmani spoke to Aaliya Mir, one of the most exciting wildlife conservationists in Kashmir.

Akasha Usmani: Before we start, do I have your permission to record the interview?

Aaliya Mir: Yes, yes.

AU: Can you start by telling us your journey? What motivated you to get into this field?

AM: Yes, basically I feel like there are few people who are responsible and who motivated me to join wildlife, first as a volunteer and then as a full time. Firstly, my husband who is a veterinarian and who has worked a lot in this field both for stray animals and for wildlife in India and throughout the world, he has worked in Egypt, he has worked in many other countries and for all kinds of animals like stray animals, the equines and wildlife, so basically is he who introduced me to this beautiful world of animals and then through him I got to, you know I got very much fortunate to meet few other people like the CEO of my organisation whom I belong to - Wildlife SOS - Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan, who are very wonderful people of her great stature but still they are working in the field at the ground level for these animals and you know their selfless service towards these beautiful creations of Almighty, I think you know, that thing motivated me join Wildlife SOS as volunteer when I was in Delhi, back in 2002 so I worked in fact I volunteered for 2-3 years and that was really beginning of my journey towards the conservation field and I feel those years have given me a breakthrough in this world and you can say, a confidence that yes, I can do this and this is the thing I really want to do so you know there are few people - there are two kinds of people in fact, the first kind who you know from the very beginning they know what they have to do and they work towards their goal but then there are second category of people who just click at some point of their life and I think I was the fortunate one to have this opportunity in my life and I clicked that very much at the right point of time in my life and I am very fortunate enough and I am very thankful to Almighty that he has chosen me to work towards these beautiful voiceless beings.

AU: Were there some sort of challenges you faced especially being a woman?

AM: Yes, at some point of time I do felt a little bit of criticism but from the people who were not knowing that you know this lady can do this so but once they got to know me through my work so I had more praise from those people only who used to criticise me, now I feel like those are the people who really appreciate me, you know I feel really lucky enough to change their perception towards women working in this field of men, we actually call this field of men and I really feel that you know there is no barrier of any caste, creed or sex or anything. You can very well join any field which ever you feel like you are capable of you know giving a 100 per cent and I think that nowadays lot of women are working in this field not only in India throughout the world and I have met many women who work as rangers, who work as animal caretakers, who work in field, who are veterinarian so a lot of women have joined wildlife as their career opportunities but yes back, we go 10-20 years back, I have started my journey 15 years back by the way, so back then not many women used to feel like that they can make their career, they can contribute in the wildlife but now I think perception has changed, time has changed, things have changed and many women are joining in this field. In Kashmir also I was the only one in the wildlife, only women in the wildlife but nowadays many young girls are joining wildlife and there are taking it as their careers, they are doing PhD and having other degrees in this field so I think yes, maybe I have been lucky enough and fortunate enough to encourage few people, few women in fact to join this wildlife as their career opportunities so yeah but in my initial years I used to get criticism but I didn’t like you know, it didn’t stop me anywhere, I let everything happened and I didn’t hamper my work here, I tried to do my level bests that I could change the perception of the people that women can’t be good wildlife conservationist so I think I have been able to change that scenario now and yes challenges are there in every field and I don’t deny that there have been many challenges in working in the field of men like I feel women are, as you said that they are soft hearted but I think that is the plus point to work in this field because women are the beings who can feel or compassionate towards these animals and they can give much care to these animals, that’s the plus point, we should use that thing for working with animals.

AU: Yes, you’re absolutely right about this. There is some sort of connection that you have with these animals.

AM: Absolutely.

AU: Were there any tough situations while you were out there in the wild and what sort of precautions and safety measures are taken before a rescue mission?

AM: See when I started my journey I never knew that I will be going so long and I will be doing rescues and nothing was planned at all, we initiated to make the situation better because lots of conflicts were going then in Kashmir - human wildlife conflict, that numbers were increasing day by day and human wildlife conflict was on increasing trend so we thought to intervene so that we can try to mitigate human wildlife conflict through our efforts like when we started we first surveyed the whole area, all divisions. Kashmir is divided into divisions - south, north, central and now there are two more divisions, so we surveyed all the divisions and we found that there is lack of awareness that is triggering or which is responsible for more conflicts so we started with educational awareness programs and simultaneously we found that the staff, the wildlife staff they were not much skilled to handle the rescue operations, they were not trained enough to tranquilise the animals to handle the situation in a better way so simultaneously we did the capacity building with the wildlife staff we were having here and third step we worked on was the rescue and rehabilitation of the animal, we rescued more than 15 bears in the first year itself and the cubs were rescued, they were abundant because their mother was killed in the conflict so we built the rescue and rehabilitation centre and we rehabilitated all those bears and cubs and other animals - birds, reptiles, so we did education awareness, capacity building and rescue and rehabilitation, it all happened with time, it was not planned that we will do this this this - but it happened with time and I really remember that the first rescue which we did was of the bear cubs whose mother got killed during one of the conflicts in Srinagar and we tried to rehabilitate the bears at our rescue centre, at our rehabilitation centre and I really remember those two cubs was just a weeks old and we called our staff with much trained in rearing these small cubs and we, myself got trained through them so that we could train these bear cubs in a proper manner, this was the initial years but then we picked up and started doing more rescues. Initially it was only bears and leopards but then with time we had to do few other rescues of birds, reptiles and snakes as well, so you know it was not planned but with time it happened.

AU: Speaking about the human-wildlife conflict in Kashmir, what are your views on it and do you think that there is any way for their peaceful co-existence?

AM: See we have to tackle this problem, we have to address this issue with two goals, either modifying the human behavior or modifying the animal behavior. Although modifying the animal behavior is I feel like it's not that difficult but modifying the human behavior it is time consuming and it may take many years because it's not an easy task to modify the behavior of the human beings because I think those are the beings who are adamant with their myths with their false beliefs and it's really hard to, I mean it's not impossible but yes its time seeking procedure to change the attitude of the people, to change the behavior of the people towards wildlife because we have to increase their tolerance towards wildlife who caused damaged to their property, who caused damaged to their food crops and who also caused human loss.

I feel like this human wildlife conflict it is adversely affect the human beings, but we are the only one responsible to create such situations and since we are the learned ones, the homo sapiens are the learned ones, we only have to get the way out, we only have to look for solutions and the only solution that lies is in changing the attitude of humans towards wildlife. I think that’s the only possible solution that can help to mitigate this human wildlife conflict because this planet it doesn’t only belong to human beings we have to accept the fact that this belong to these animals as well and we have to learn to live with these animals so it's better to accept this reality and we should respect their lives and we should let them live their life and we have to learn to share this planet with them.

AU: Do you think that the conflict has in some way impacted the wildlife in Kashmir?

AM: Yes, conflict has indeed impacted the wildlife in Kashmir as people are getting intolerant towards wildlife and are turned to be more hostile towards the wild animals. Since nowadays it is a directly linked to the existence of habitants of a particular place, therefore those people think that they have more rights to that particular place as compared to the wildlife which has been there before those people came there and got settled and made their houses.

AU: What are your thoughts about the recent revival of African cheetahs in India?

AM: I think it's the best step, it's a good step that has been taken by the prime minister of India, I think more such steps should be taken towards the conservation of wildlife and I feel like that much has to be done mitigating human-wildlife conflict because it is not only in Kashmir, its everywhere and I think our prime minister, he should intervene through his Mann ki Baat and other mediums, he should address the people so that we should be better citizens and we should be responsible towards environment, I think our environment needs more importance and our environment needs more attention. So, I think yes, this is one of the good steps and we should work more towards conservation of environment and nature as a whole.

AU: According to you, what measures should be taken to protect the other wildlife species that are on the verge of being endangered?

AM: If talking about Kashmir, again I will say nothing better than educated people. If people are aware, if people are educated about wildlife wealth they have, I think nothing better than that, this is the only medium or this is the only way towards the conservation of wildlife, it is we who has to change the perception, the attitude, the beliefs and its we who have to make the change, we should understand that we are invading their territories, we are creating problems because wherever we see the conservation at threat, the wildlife at threat, we should survey the issues, we should look into the issues, we should look into the solutions and we will always reach to one conclusion that it is the anthropogenic pressure that is creating the problems and I’m not saying that we should not do the developments, we should not work towards the development but yes there is no development at the stake of wildlife. So, I think environment and nature comes first because this earth doesn’t belong to us, it also belongs to future generation as well, what are we going to pass on to our children, we have lost our air, we have lost our water resources, we have lost our wildlife wealth so what are we working for, that’s a thing we have to understand.

AU: How do you think we can spread awareness among people to be kind and protect wildlife?

AM: More community interactions with target-oriented programming and audience which focuses on changing the attitude of the people and making them more tolerant towards wildlife.

AU: Do you have any special memory, like a very special rescue operation?

AM: Yes! There are, in fact, all rescue operations have been very special for me because at the end of the day I feel like very special in giving a life or saving a life that way it's very contended. I really feel lucky to save any life of any creature, no matter how small, you know a bird or a reptile or any being. But yes, few rescues are very special like recently we got to rescue one snake - black headed royal snake - it was badly stuck in the van that ferries passenger from one place to another and that van it had come from Jammu to Srinagar and that snake was badly stuck in a hole near the steering and his half body was from the engine side and another front side was from the steering side, so we had to cut through that steering portion and it was quite difficult to cut the iron part of the vehicle and we had to be very careful so that we could not injure the reptile so it took me 2-3 hours to rescue that snake and I was really so worried for that snake, I was about to cry because I was feeling so helpless to take it out from that van but yeah thanks to Almighty with efforts of my team and the people there especially the mechanic who just cut the front part of the vehicle so yeah we were able to get that snake out from that and it was safely rehabilitated back in the wild.

There was another rescue of a bear with two cubs, one of the village in Badgaon side and that mother bear had taken shelter in an abandoned house which was quite wrecked off and she gave birth to two cubs in that house only and somehow people got to know about that there is bear in a nearby house and they immediately contacted us, we rushed to that place, we had to sedate the mother but unfortunately she ran away but we got the cubs safely rescued from that place, we waited for their mother till evening and in the evening she turned up, she came for her cubs, they all three were reunited and they were safely rehabilitated in the wild so that was another special rescue which I really, a memory that I relish.

AU: I'm just curious, is there any trust factor, when you approach a dog or a cat, they are usually scared of you, so how is the situation like, the mother ran away but then she came back for her children. Also, what was the children’s reaction like?

AM: The cubs were very small, just four months old and we did not tranquilize them because they were small cubs so we just picked them up and kept them in one of the cages and we always know that mother bear she can’t let her children go like this and we knew that she was going to come again for her cubs so we kept the children there and we waited in the nearby house, just keeping watch on the cage and yes the mother turned up in the evening and all three of them were reunited. And those moments we never feel like these bears are going to harm us, that time you only have one intention and that is to save these animals and rescue these animals. Although we take precautions because that is the mantra for the success of the recuse, we can’t risk our life but yeah risk is always there, but we still have to take all the precautions so that no injury neither to human nor to the animal happens, but yes that time it's always in our mind that we have to do this. It's like ‘sab mein hota hai ye karna hai”, (Everyone has this thing that we have to do this!), I think that thought takes over all the fear.

AU: Do you have any message for the people who will be reading the article?

AM: I’d like to give two messages in fact, first - be a responsible citizen and try to be a good human being, try to be more responsible towards animals because every religion teach that we should conserve our nature whether it is water resources, whether that is wildlife resources, whether that is anything, whether that is our food so be good human beings and try to be responsible towards nature. That is the first message that I want to give to my fellow citizens and second, I would love to have more women in this field of conservation because this is a wonderful world and this is the world where you can feel the experience of being special because here you will be more connected to the nature, you will be more connected to the universe, I think this is the best field that women should come in and should contribute towards conservation of wildlife.

AU: Thank you so much for taking your time out and to have a chat with us. Thank you, it was lovely talking to you.

AM: Same here. Thank you and all the best.

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