Rauf Ali occupied a unique place in the world of conservation and ecological sciences in India.
One of the first Indians to complete a PhD in wildlife biology in India, Rauf donned many hats – a mentor and teacher who helped set up India’s first Masters Program in Ecology; an institution builder who set up pioneering institutions like the Development Alternatives (DA) center in the Palani hills and the Foundation for Ecological Research and Learning (FERAL) in Pondicherry; a sounding board for many professionals, and a warm and affectionate friend to those he interacted with throughout his colourful life.
Rauf is fondly remembered as an outstanding teacher and mentor. From him, one learned never to take conservation issues at face value, rather to critically analyze and even qualify: without this, neither academia nor policy-makers will take you seriously, he said. He treated everyone as equals: students, staff, local communities or forest officials, and this endeared him to people. At a time when the field was dominated by men, his encouragement and respect for women helped many a tentative field ecologist to follow her true passion.
Rauf was among the first truly quantitative ecologists in India, with the ability to communicate deep insights from the simplest stem-and-leaf diagram or box-and-whiskers plot to all his students alike. His inquisitive mind and love for solving problems led him to dabble in every branch of ecology – community ecology, population ecology and animal behaviour – and his sharp intellect made all this possible.
Rauf was equally at home working with managers, forest officials and local communities implementing projects. His work with monitoring and evaluation, sustainable livelihoods and restoration in the Palani hills, the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve and in the Shenkotta Gap are all testament to visionary approach of evidence-based conservation that was almost absent at that time.
Rauf’s affection for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was only exceeded by his contribution to building a vision for the region. The first and only State of the Environment Report for the Andaman Islands was done by the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) with Rauf’s involvement in 1999. He worked extensively with invasive species, spotted deer and feral elephants that were alien to the Andaman Islands and impacted the island ecology. He was also influential in trying to promote science-based habitat and managerial practices with the forest department in the Islands, where he had several supporters. In one of his last projects in the Islands, he helped devise and improvise on a hydraulic hand press working with women self-help groups in Car Nicobar, adding value to their coconut-based products and securing livelihoods. He was a finalist at the St Andrew’s Prize for the Environment in 2011 for this innovative work.
Rauf’s legacy: a circle of ecologists who critique, question, analyze and quantify, and explore new frontiers, will live on.
Edited and adapted from the Introduction to Running Away from Elephants written by Ghazala Shahabuddin, Jayashree Ratnam, Neelu Sharma, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Anindya ‘Rana’ Sinha, Manish Chandi, Promode Kant and Ravi S. Bhalla