Nik Sekhran

From Kodai Local to Global Sustainable Goals: Interview with WWF CCO Nik Sekhran

Kodaikanal was once home to a world-renowned conservationist: Nik Sekhran is Chief Conservation Officer at WWF USA. Now working in Washington DC, Nik attended Kodaikanal International School in the 1980s and still has a family home in Prakasapuram, with other homes in Betty’s Bay, South Africa and Potomac, USA. Sekhran, who says he has been shaped in many ways by his Kodai experience, has worked in over 50 countries, and lived in Britain, Papua New Guinea, Belgium, South Africa and the United States.

He worked for many years for the United Nations Development Programme, where amongst several jobs he headed the UN’s largest biodiversity programme. He was UNDP’s Chief of Sustainable Development when the Sustainable Development Goals were launched.

This summer, he spent some time speaking with Jacob Cherian, Editor of the Environment & Wildlife section at The Kodai Chronicle, about conservation, wildlife, Kodai, and some of the most urgent matters of our time. Read about his time as a boy growing up in Kodaikanal, all the way up to his work on conservation today.

Edited excerpts (of the first part of a lengthy interview) are given below.

A view of Adukkam Valley near Nik Sekhran’s family home

Jacob: You grew up in Kodaikanal, and studied at the Kodaikanal International School. In Prakasapuram, we are technically neighbours with our homes less than a kilometre apart. Can you point at specific memories in the wild around Kodaikanal that played a part in shaping you and the work that you do? 

Nik: My first memories of Kodaikanal date from 1973 when I was 4. We used to rent a home in the Roseneath compound: a beautiful old property which sadly is no more. I was shaped immensely by Kodai. I maintained a link to the town even after leaving school because my parents retired there and lived there until they died. The community in Kodai, while it has changed over the years, has always been very interesting and eclectic. Pat Roberts, a retired Australian missionary who was almost like a grandmother to me, and my mother, played key roles maintaining the KMU library. Every Wednesday and Saturday we used to camp at the library and sit around talking to people and reading books. 

“The community in Kodai, while it has changed over the years, has always been very interesting and eclectic.”

The library had, at the time, a great number of natural history books on the Palani hills, which I delighted in reading. Some of these books were in bad shape, suffering the ravages of time. My mother rescued and restored them. 

Roseneath was situated next to a shola (indigenous montane forest), and I was fortunate to be exposed to incredible bird life from a young age. I got my first pair of binoculars when I was 5 or 6. I became a member of the Bombay Natural History Society soon after. I pointed out to Salim Ali around that time that his Book of Indian Birds was inaccurate, because it suggested that Common Hoopoes didn’t nest above 5000 ft and we had a pair nesting in our garden at around 7300 ft odd. I had the temerity to approach him and tell him so at Bombay Airport. (laughs) What a great man he was!

“I pointed out to Salim Ali around that time that his Book of Indian Birds was inaccurate, because it suggested that Common Hoopoes didn’t nest above 5000 ft and we had a pair nesting in our garden at around 7300 ft odd.”

When I think about specific memories, I remember first and foremost the sounds: whether it be in the cicadas in the sholas or the ubiquitous call of endemic white-cheeked barbets.  When I return to Kodai and hear those sounds, I feel enormous comfort. It’s primordial. In my love for nature, I think there is a certain degree of something inherited, something I already had– all my family loves animals– and something nurtured. Had I not lived in Kodai and I had been brought up somewhere entirely different, I wonder if I would have pursued this career. 

You wouldn’t even dream about bumping into a gaur in the township in the 1970s and 80’s, something quite commonplace now. it was true that we were concerned about leopards taking the dogs and Pat lost several of her dogs this way. But they were never seen. Indeed, wildlife was hard to spot. That has changed. In Prakashapuram today gaur march past the gate of our home every day at 5pm, like clockwork. There are plenty of wild boar. We sometimes wake up in the night serenaded by the calls of Sambhar. We know then that a predator is stalking the forests. We often find leopard scat in the nearby hills.  In the shola patches, I have seen something quite rare- the Nilgiri marten.

The late Margaret Sekhran, Nik’s mother at family home in Prakashapuram

Jacob: You’ve come back to Kodaikanal at multiple points in your career and every time you’re probably looking at Kodaikanal through a new lens. What are your observations of Kodaikanal at this point in your career? What areas of conservation do you think Kodaikanal should focus on at this point?

Nik: Development has been chaotic to put it mildly. The township has grown in leaps and bounds and development has been and remains poorly planned. The carrying capacity of the township is not being considered or factored into the calculus for development. This has stretched waste management capacities, and the township often faces water shortages because of inadequate water storage infrastructure. This is amazing when you think about it considering that Kodai receives some 65 inches of rain a year.

When I was a young boy, you could go up to Berijam, and look out at the lake before you started on the winding road down to it. All you could see were native grasslands, shola and potato farms. People forget that. Now look at it- all those grasslands are virtually gone, planted with exotic wattle, eucalyptus and pine.  Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar worked tirelessly to restore the natural grasslands of the upper Palani hills.  But success has proven elusive, at least at large scale.

There’s been a complete change in the ecology of the upper Palani hills. The plantations altered the micro-climate. The understory became much more humid. You see leeches now in places where you would never see them. You would never see leeches in Neptune Pools for instance. But if you visited them now you’re almost guaranteed to see them. Leeches need humid conditions to survive.

It’s been interesting to see these changes and witness them in my own lifetime as the changes have happened comparatively quickly.  I have seen changes elsewhere in the world – many of them calamitous for nature. When I first visited Sumatra in Indonesia, half of the island was cloaked in primary rainforest. Now it has lost a good part of that forest estate– habitat for orangutans and tigers. A lot of that forest has been converted to oil palm, and wildlife in those areas has gone for good. It’s the same in many other places. 

Young Nik Sekhran was an avid photographer and birder

In Kodai, it has been a different kind of change. Some bad, some good. You see a change in the ecosystem: the natural grasslands are all gone in the upper Palani hills but the sholas have been protected. Zai Whitaker has pointed out that had wattles not been planted, the sholas would have likely been cut for firewood. There was simply no other fuel source. I think that is interesting. And now you are seeing in areas that were once shola, in areas close to shola, with the right conditions, they are recovering and apparently expanding their range. They are out-competing the exotic trees, particularly the wattle. You can see that happening in multiple places and I would say that 200 years from now, it is going to be a completely different system. 

With regards to the gaur population, we often forget that there was a huge outbreak of rinderpest in cattle in the late 1960s / early 1970s in parts of the Western Ghats. This all but wiped-out wild gaur populations in these places, including in Kodaikanal. I think a combination of inoculation of domestic cattle against bovine diseases and sound wildlife protection have changed the equation. Certain Kodai residents used to hunt, illegally, into the 1980s. That has been curbed. With conservation, we have witnessed the return of wildlife. It’s not just the gaur, though these are the wild animals you see most commonly apart from bonnet macaques. But sambar, barking deer, elephants and dhole are also found. It was unheard of to see elephants in Berijam when I was a boy. Not anymore, as bull elephants now regularly visit the area. I saw a tiger pugmarkin a gaur pat near Berijam lake a few years ago. It was a remarkable sighting and an amazing thing if you think about it– the return of the tiger to the landscape. I would never have dreamed this possible growing up in Kodai.  So there has been a return of wildlife to the range. If you go back and look at the history of Kodai, there was always wildlife here until it was shot out.  There’s a famous – possibly apocryphal- story of a tiger outside the KMU. An elderly Englishman happened to be walking by and doffed his hat at it (laughs). I think it was at the turn of the last century. India then reportedly harboured a population of 40,000 tigers.

The gaur that passes the Sekhran home almost daily, shot by Nik Sekhran

Jacob: In the coming 10 years, what areas of conservation do you believe will gain primary importance and require urgent attention? Why?

Nik: The world is changing. It is well documented scientifically that we are living beyond planetary boundaries– the environmental conditions upon which our lives depend. In the coming decade, the big issues will remain climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to decarbonise our energy and transport systems, decouple economic growth from the destruction of nature and build the foundations of a green economy. A new industrial revolution is needed.  We need new technologies, we need quick technology absorption and we need to adapt our consumption and production patterns. 

Climate change is going to have calamitous impacts on people, and on nature as well. But nature is being lost independent of climate change. One of my fears is as we preoccupy ourselves with climate change, as important and critical an issue as it is, we will lose biodiversity unless we also take care of nature. We are seeing huge declines in populations of fauna across different taxonomic groups across the world. We have been documenting this at WWF. But we are also losing the critical environmental services that nature provides to people: water provisioning, nutrient cycling, pollination, and pest regulation amongst others. We have got to address this. We all need to play our part if we are to succeed.

Jacob: Can you bring it down to primary areas that local governments and state governments can look at?

Nik: At a local level, one of the biggest issues in Kodai is the dangerous use of pesticides and herbicides. When I first lived in Kodai, there was very little pesticide-use. That has changed and there has been an attendant environmental cost. I suspect that many if not most people in Kodai drink contaminated water or eat food laced with pesticides and herbicides.  But let’s face it, Kodai has become much wealthier, the farmers have become richer in places like Poombarai and Prakasapuram and there is visibly less poverty. The Green Revolution has allowed India to feed itself and it has allowed many rural communities to become more prosperous but also has had environmental and human health consequences.

“I suspect that many if not most people in Kodai drink contaminated water or eat food laced with pesticides and herbicides… The Green Revolution has allowed India to feed itself and it has allowed many rural communities to become more prosperous but also has had environmental and human health consequences.”

We need to secure nature- we need to ensure that nature and biodiversity and nature’s services to people are available to future generations. You saw what happened in Madras a few years ago– when the city flooded. Large swathes of south Madras sit on flood plains that have all been built over without a care for the consequences. Then, after a period of particularly intense rainfall, the city flooded. What a shock that was! And that’s what I mean by nature’s services. Whether it is flood protection or it is landslide management or it is waste management or air purification, and so on, we need nature. We take these services for granted, but I am sure you agree we do so at our peril. That is something that is intrinsically local because nature exists in “place”. We need state and local governments to play their role in regulating development—helping to balance economic, social and environmental needs.

Nik Sekhran, the Chief Conservation Officer at WWF USA, 2021 (Source)

Jacob: How do you engage with people and organisations who have deep vested interests that are fundamentally against the work that we have chosen to do?

Nik: That is a very important point. Let me refer to the SDGs, launched while I was at the UN. I played a role helping countries to plan for implementation — basically to solve a set of simultaneous equations. How do we ensure a prosperous economy and jobs for the future? How do we ensure that the world has more equity, socially, between different groups? And how do we decouple economic development and the quest for social equality from environmental destruction?  There are lots of trade-offs between these aims at all levels. This manifests itself in a country like India with its big burgeoning population and the need for development and so on. How do you manage all of this?

It is certainly true that vested interests impede the quest for sustainable development. Navigating these is certainly not easy. What are the ingredients of success?

You need a concerned citizenry and an active civil society, ready to speak up and to take action. In Kodai we are fortunate to have people like Minoo Avari who write about the problems and speak up to elicit action, as do you and many others in the community. You need a functioning judiciary. In India, the Supreme Court has played a key role in upholding environmental laws. You need to have companies committed to ensuring that their business practices are sustainable. There are companies who have done so in India, but I think many Indian companies have a long way to go in this regard. We need to take climate change and nature destruction out of their supply chains.  Then you need government and strong governance systems. Notwithstanding all the issues in India, somehow it works, because you actually do have a cadre of really good public servants trying to make things happen.

You have to look beyond the chaos and the day-to-day ups and downs to see why things work and why they don’t. I see those fundamentals and the interplay between them, as what makes or breaks our ability to solve these really challenging problems.

Part II of The Kodai Chronicle‘s conversation with Nik Sekhran will be published shortly.

Jacob Cherian

Jacob Cherian, Editor of the Environment & Wildlife section also runs, a content and events company committed to positive environmental impact. He lives between Bengaluru and Prakasapuram.

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