Priya Davidar grew up in picturesque Ooty, a town in southern India with the misty blue mountains of the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot, as its backdrop. In the 1950s, the family lived in an isolated hillside bungalow, and the babysitter told the children ghost stories; Davidar mistook the hyena’s mating call for a wandering ghoul’s laughter. Today, she regrets that the four-legged monster of her childhood can no longer be heard in her hometown. As in the rest of the world, much of the wildlife has been poisoned, and the woods have been cleared to let the town grow.
"In a competition for space, other species are rapidly losing out to humans," Davidar says. But she hasn’t been sitting around mourning the loss of flora and fauna in her backyard. For close to 3 decades, as an ecologist at Pondicherry University—not far from her hometown—she has been doing research that conservationists can use to combat the loss of biodiversity. It's an issue worldwide, but it is especially pressing in a populous, developing country such as India.
"When she chose to return to India, I knew she had a remarkable opportunity to play a pioneering role in ecology and biogeography, which she has achieved."—E. O. Wilson
Hungry tuskers & mistletoe pollinators
Davidar's conservation instincts may have come from her late father, E.R.C. Davidar, the big-game hunter turned wildlife photographer. In the 1960s he began acquiring tracts of jungle near Ooty to provide safe passage for elephants and tigers as they moved between protected forests. In his memoir, he wrote about camping on this property with his young family as their jungle home was built. His wife was a physician, so they could handle occasional snakebites and other medical emergencies. Some nights, they heard tigers calling and tuskers—elephants with tusks—breaking bamboo by the river with thunderous cracks. To keep the animals at bay, they left a fire burning all night outside the shed that housed them.
Given this upbringing, it is perhaps not surprising that Davidar chose to become a field biologist. She majored in botany and went to the University of Bombay—now the University of Mumbai—to earn her Ph.D. Her research guide was the renowned naturalist Salim Ali, the "bird man of India," who helped popularize bird watching in India. In the 1970s, few women did fieldwork in India, and there was a universal tendency to take a woman’s career aspirations lightly—but Davidar says her guide was gender blind and supportive of all his students. Her thesis was on nectar-feeding birds and their role in pollinating mistletoe. Soon she went abroad to train further in field ornithology.
Neotropics & Lyme disease
Davidar did postdoctoral stints in the United States at the Smithsonian Institution Tropical Research Institute, the University of Iowa, and the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC,* studying plant-pollinator interactions. Fieldwork took her to the neotropics of Central America. Scientists accustomed to laboratories often don't adjust well to fieldwork in remote areas, says Allison Snow of Ohio State University, who was a fellow postdoc in Panama in the early 1980s. But "Priya was … unfazed by all the practical difficulties," Snow says. Snow and Davidar continue to collaborate.
Despite her impressive field experience, Davidar remained unsure about the job prospects for an ecologist in India, so in 1984 she enrolled in a master's degree program at the Harvard School of Public Health. While she was a student there, she met E. O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist, who offered her a teaching fellowship for his undergraduate course on evolutionary biology. She continued teaching while doing a postdoc in public health, studying the immune responses of the deer tick—a vector for Lyme disease. At this lab, she was promoted to research associate, but she also came to recognize that she was not so interested in human health-related issues. Wilson believes that the decision to return to her disciplinary—and geographic—roots was a good one. "When she chose to return to India, I knew she had a remarkable opportunity to play a pioneering role in ecology and biogeography, which she has achieved," he says.
Taking inventory in vanishing forests
Davidar has held a post at Pondicherry University’s Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences since 1987. Large-scale surveys are her specialty: She has taken inventory of plants, butterflies, freshwater fish, sea turtles, migratory waterfowl, and mammals, in the Western Ghats and the archipelago of the Andaman. Her research offers insights into what drives biodiversity in these tropical areas.
Of late, there has been a shift in the focus of Davidar’s research. "I am beginning to work actively in conservation. Most of these projects now are carried out in partnership with my husband Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, a research scientist trained in remote sensing," she says. Together, they head Sigur Nature Trust, which E.R.C. Davidar established before his death in 2010 so that his private reserve could continue to serve as a wildlife corridor. Husband and wife publish jointly in academic journals.
In an influential paper, "Cryptic Destruction of India’s Native Forests," the scientist-couple established that the Indian Forest Service’s 2009 announcement of the 5% expansion in the nation’s green cover is misleading. Satellite imagery does not differentiate between plantations and native forests. "Because official statistics merge forests and plantations, we do not know the real extent of native forest cover. This is scary," Davidar says. "But the government has become more aware of this issue and hopefully it will lead to appropriate steps to measure the loss of native forests."
Quantifying the loss of native forest cover is important because, when it comes to conserving biodiversity, all trees are not equal. Exotic plantations cannot serve as habitats for indigenous birds and animals, and "monocultures have limited value in conserving endangered species," the authors point out in the paper.
Woman in the field
Davidar started doing fieldwork at a time when India had few other women field biologists. Her gender-blind guide notwithstanding, she faced hostility from male colleagues. "They suggested that I get married and stay in the kitchen," she recalls. "I used to take it quite personally and suffered a lot. Now, I realize this only creates needless stress for oneself," she says.
In her experience, caste too can be a barrier to career and progress. "My advice to researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds unwelcome in upper-caste networks is to find collaborators who are supportive to buffer the harshness," she says. "Being persistent and carrying on despite difficulties is important. What I found is, time is an important ally that leads to eventual success."
Davidar, who is now 61, says that today's challenges are the same for all ecologists in India, regardless of gender: where to go, how to get there, where to stay, finding a field assistant, finding funds, and so on. There are more women doing fieldwork. But she also mentions a disturbing trend: "large gangs of mostly young men from cities, prowling around in the jungles drinking and looking for trouble. Anonymity probably gives them cover for harassment of women." Her students report that the locals tend to be protective of female researchers.
Much more can be done for (and by) women to facilitate conservation, Davidar says. Her group’s research indicates women living near protected areas can be allies to conservationists. In her writing, she emphasizes making rural women part of the decision-making process, even when it is not standard cultural practice. To make this possible, she argues, developing countries need more female researchers in the field, since they communicate more effectively with local women about environmental issues.
As it happens, conservation is where the jobs are. Most of Davidar’s former students work in conservation, although some are academic biologists. Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who works to reduce human-leopard conflicts in places including her hometown, the megalopolis Mumbai, says her former guide—a mother of two—is one of those rare professors who continue to do fieldwork after attaining a tenured position.
Davidar doesn’t see this as a big deal. Students, especially those from urban areas, need training in forest skills and observation before they start data collection, says the professor, who accompanies her team whenever possible. "When surveying an animal like the Nilgiri Tahr [a mountain goat], it is very important to not make any sound, even a footfall, otherwise you won’t see anything," she says. "It takes practice." Davidar has been trekking in the jungle since childhood and doesn’t consider fieldwork hardship. "I love the wilderness and take every opportunity to be out there," she says.
Lessons from the Career of Priya Davidar
In choosing a career, consider your particular strengths. Davidar was quite comfortable in the field and had lifelong experience there—one of the keys to her success.
It's important to be practical. Davidar demonstrated this when she decided to earn a degree in public health. But sometimes you need to follow your heart. Davidar returned to ecology work, and thrived.
An open-minded mentor—like Salim Ali—can make a huge difference in science, especially for those (including women and minorities) who face special challenges.
Relationships are among the most important aspects of a career. Davidar's father and Salim Ali were important early influences. Her encounter with Jean-Philippe Puyravaud changed the course of her life—she married him—and her career.
Hostility from professional peers—gender- or caste-based—is perhaps best overcome by ignoring it and finding colleagues who offer support.
The ability to relate to and communicate with local people is an undervalued career skill.
* Originally we said that she had been at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History. This was incorrect.