The mentor who did not become a tormentor
The Master's course in Wildlife Biology and Conservation is an unusual place. In a literal squeeze of blood, sweat, and tears, students undertake a large part of their learning while scrambling over hill tops, slashing through scrub forests, wading through streams, and walking many sweaty miles looking for animals and plants. Leading from the front, or sometimes whipping tired rears into action, is Ajith Kumar, the director of this wildlife course offered by National Centre for Biological Sciences and Wildlife Conservation Society-India Programme. For over 25 years, Ajith has been mentoring students in the field of wildlife biology and conservation. Ajith is unlike your usual teacher. No false pretences of superiority, no airs of seniority. His humility and simplicity stand him apart.
Being in the forest with Ajith is truly a visceral experience. With him, you learn only if you see, touch, smell, hear and taste. And that also leaves us students with stories to tell. Many a time we've ended up distastefully spitting out bits of Strychnos nuxvomica, a plant used as an anti-malarial drug, but better remembered for its bitter taste, or smelling the disgusting fetid order of a mysterious crushed leaf. All this while Ajith rolled with uncontrollable mirth at our squinched faces. We have since learned to beware of the twinkle in his eye!
Born in a small village in Kerala, he completed his Master's in Zoology in 1974, from the University of Kerala in Trivandrum. Then, in the early 1980's, he pursued his doctoral studies in the then newly emerging field of wildlife biology from Cambridge University. Ajith joined the field when few in India even knew of it. His work on the ecology and population dynamics of the Lion-tailed macaques in the Western Ghats made him a pioneer in using rigorous science to inform the conservation of an endangered species.His doctoral thesis on the Lion-tailed macaques remains the most extensive work on the species to this day. Although Ajith's main research interests involve primates and rainforests, he is an incredible repository of natural history and biological knowledge. From frogs to fishes, civets to rodents, monkeys to hornbills, wildcats to wild fruits, Ajith will tell you something about everything that is found in the forests. He is, self-confessedly, not so keen on birds though. Over the years, Ajith has designed and implemented a wide range of field research projects that have been well received internationally in peer-reviewed publications. En route, he has mentored many students in the nascent field of wildlife biology in India - making scientists out of amateur nature-lovers. From monkeys, tropical forest ecology, effects of human disturbances such as habitat loss and fragmentation, his work spans varied disciplines and generations of students.
As the director of the Master's course in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, he coordinates most of the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into running one of India's most successful academic programs, a daunting task indeed. In the nascent stages of the Master's course he was one of the main architects who designed and implemented the Programme in partnership with four other institutions. His job involves curriculum design, teaching, co-ordination of guest faculty, fund raising, student mentoring and office administration. As a result, students from the Master's course are exposed to world class faculty, are ensured full monetary support for their tuition, dissertations and have a comfortable stipend to boot. Many of his peers admit that without Ajith, the program just wouldn't be the same.
Ajith's management of the Master's course is but a small part of his vibrant and multi-hued personality. An engaging raconteur, his stories have regaled us on many an evening. His youthful exuberance and never-say-die attitude are a constant reminder that age is but a state of mind. From philosophical titbits to risqué jokes, he does it all. Whether wringing a paper out of us, or enjoying a cold beer, Ajith lives his life to the hilt. Epitomizing the proverbial friend, philosopher, and guide, his effortless mentorship goes beyond the call of his professional duties. To this date, the growing Master's course has 45 alumni that have branched out pursuing innovative careers, but continue to fall back on Ajith for words of wisdom on a weary day. Many of his older students have made their own mark in the field of ecology and conservation. They span an impressive range of diversity in this field- from conservation education, to heading re-knowned non-governmental organisations, to undertaking cutting-edge research in wildlife science. The quality of his mentoring is reflected in the fact that 25% of internationally published scientific papers on Indian wildlife biology, come from the stable of this single Master's program. Ajith's vision and perseverance are making Indian wildlife biologists competitive on the world-stage.
India has always had a great tradition of honouring their educators. On his 60th birthday, we too would like to thank Ajith for all his guidance and help, and express our gratitude for the patient mentor he is, for allowing us the space to discover ourselves, and for his stellar career as an educator. Ajith has been one of the pioneering scientists who has built up the science of wildlife and conservation in India. Without Ajith, the field of wildlife biology would have been a much poorer place. Without Ajith, we might have made the journey, but it certainly would not have been the same. Ajith legacy will endure in the many coming generations of wildlife biologists..
Nandini Velho and Meghna Krishnadas are alumni of the Master's Program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, and wish Ajith on his 60th birthday.