Kishor Shamrao Shirkande Interview

My very first Conservation Conversation blog post, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak to Kishor Shamrao Shirkande, a twenty-two year old conservationist and zoologist from Maharashtra, India.

Kishor started working with wildlife when he was just eleven years old as a wildlife rescuer. He began by rescuing snakes from local communities which would have otherwise been killed, and this is how he became known as a Sarpmitra (meaning snake friend). He would also go out and rescue injured birds, and after a while his work expanded to also include rescuing mammals. As he spent more and more time out in the field rescuing animals, he then began to understand the importance of conservation.

With time, Kishor began to realise that blind faiths and misbeliefs about wild animals had its roots deeply embedded into his society, and he realised that if anything was going to be done to change this, then a greater amount of awareness was required. And this is what I find so inspiring about Kishor. Instead of just sitting back and doing nothing with his realisation, Kishor decided to make active efforts to change the way society viewed wildlife.

He started to run awareness camps and programs in schools, colleges and every place where he would get a distress animal call from. His goal was to educate them about the importance of conservation to us and swiftly change their minds about wild animals. He realised that saving only the animals wouldn’t do the job, but that he also had to make people aware of their importance in our lives, nature's food cycle, and the effects of wildlife degradation and depletion.

Kishor tells me that, being from a middleclass family in India, his family were very worried about the obvious dangers of him catching venomous snakes. However, his determination and drive eventually won them over, and they are now very supportive and extremely proud of all he has achieved. As well as awareness-raising, Kishor is also currently working in research at Pune University, where he studies local populations of snake species.

So without further ado, let’s get into the questions:

Was there a defining moment in your life where you knew you wanted to pursue a career in conservation?

I cannot recall a defining moment, but ever since I started working with animals with love and compassion, I came to realize that conservation is much needed to save the lives of these animals. Whenever I attended rescue calls or when I was reading something or talking with people who do not belong to our field, one thing I noticed was that people are killing animals because of fear and blind faith only. Once they know the importance they tend to help us in conservation. And passive participation can take conservation to a whole new level.

In your opinion, why is conservation so important?

The term conservation revolves around several aspects of nature; food chains, natural cycles, growth of plants, availability of water and many more. Everything is related to one another. Earth is nature's master plan and we currently are ruining it. We are supposed to be keeping the pace maintained but we are actually breaking the plan. If we do not strive for conservation now, global warming seems a very small issue to me, as we might have to face an even worse climatic condition.

The importance of conservation can be summed up with the simple line "if they die, we die". Timely steps will help us to heal, but we must remember that nature is practical. It will either eradicate us or it will take us to the bottom so we learn that what we was doing was wrong, by which point it will already be too late.

Tell me about your efforts to educate your local community. How did you get your message across?

Death is a beautiful yet terrifying truth. Tell people that you will die if you do this or if you don't do this and they behave like a good, smart kid. I follow this same rule to help me educate people about the importance of their help in conservation. My team and I run an awareness program where we use PowerPoint presentations to tell people how and why they should be helping local wildlife. We also ask our friends to contact their Head Of Department for similar programs, which generally take two hours to teach.

In the last six years we have given more than 200 programs in schools, colleges, societies, various celebrations celebrated in India and every possible place we can go. Furthermore, we only charge our travelling expenses and no extra money for this. Our experiences have by far been very good and it seems that people have really begun to take part in conservation by at least calling us to the rescue.

What does the typical day look like for you?

A typical day largely consists of responding to rescue calls I get, most of which are for snakes. Frightened people call us to catch snakes from their homes. Basically, my day goes like this: Eat, Sleep, Rescue, Study, and Repeat! Rescue calls vary depending on the season. As well as this, we carry out other tasks in hand such as counting road kills, herping in the jungle, trekking and sometimes just good family time!

What are some of the best parts of your job, the things that make it all worthwhile?

The best part for me in this job is the smile I get upon my face when any animal is in my hand, or when I am watching a rare animal or one that I have just seen for the first time in my life. My sister always tells me that she adores the smile on my face whenever I am releasing an animal into the wild, or when an injured animal or bird shows its recovery.

Another amazing part is when people tell my parents about how I rescued an animal, and how I saved the lives of people and that creature. That is a proud moment for me. People rarely know us by name and often call us things like ‘snake guy’ or ‘cobra man’ as well as many more. The small things matter a lot to me and my wish is that my smile will always stay glued to my face.

And are there any drawbacks?

There are drawbacks to any job, and we are not the exception. Our lives are at constant threat - getting bitten by a venomous snake remains a constant nightmare of mine, my family and friends’. One mistake can cost life or limb. After all these years, my parents are still terrified whenever I am on a rescue call or if I am in the jungle. There are no insurance policies available to people who work in this field.

Another drawback is that you don’t get much time for yourself. When I get a call, I have to get to the location as quickly as I can, or they will often assume I’m not coming and will kill the animal. Or, if I’m busy, I will have to arrange for someone to get there. Sometimes everyone is busy, so you have to leave the barbers with half trimmed hair and everyone laughing at you! Many times, you can't even afford to stop when nature calls! There are also lots of things I have to remember, including; keeping the phone fully charged, carrying equipment everywhere I go, and the answers to countless questions. With all this said, it can be a lot of fun too!

What would be your ultimate dream research project?

A dream project of mine would be something where my team and I find an answer for the interdisciplinary, and we would be able to achieve zero wildlife-human conflict.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to face?

The biggest obstacle I faced was society telling my parents to prevent me doing all this. I was also called a snake charmer back in the early days. It’s like you finally get your parents in the comfort zone, and then people will find a way to ruin it again. This happened to me for at least four years, until our news was published in newspapers. Things changed with time and now everything is going fine. But financial contribution is a big issue. There are very few jobs for zoologist, and they often have a very low salary which makes survival difficult. Even for research projects, finding funding is really hard.

Which species do you find the most fascinating?

Among all the species, I find humans very fascinating. They can be two-faced, racist, self-centred, and often greedy and cruel. The most interesting part is how people keep killing each other for any given reason. This just solidifies my love of animals every time I see one. They are always pure at heart, innocent and obey nature's rules. World peace is a dream, but it can never be achieved because of us humans.

Is there any advice you could give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I can't exactly say these are my footsteps because there are many great conservationists out there striving very hard for zero wildlife-animal conflict. But if you want to join the conservation sector, be sure you can handle smelling sweaty on call, getting teased for what you do, and much more. But the satisfaction of saving a life everyday will be with you forever. No matter what happens, true happiness can be achieved when you release an injured bird and it takes off into the sky. Even though I have done it many times, I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it. You will be able to sleep with satisfaction in your mind every night. And just remember, we need you in conservation!

So, what’s next for you?

I wish that someday no one will have to attend a rescue call because people are living peacefully with animals and they know their importance. Until then, Kishor will be running to the rescue!

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me Kishor, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?

I would just like to tell people who are unaware of the need of conservation, to just look at any animal and you will melt of its innocence. We need to change our views before we all go blind.

If you would like to hear more from Kishor and keep up to date with his story, then be sure to follow him on Instagram: @SerpentCatcher_jr

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