Archana Bali: conservation’s most winsome warrior

In 2004, Archana ‘Itti’ Bali joined the first ‘brood’ of the Masters programme in Wildlife Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. For her dissertation, Archana had decided to study mammals on coffee estates. But Archana was also determined to study policy – specifically, how various laws affected conservation on these estates. I remain unsure as to why I became her mentor in this endeavour, but then, no one could really say No to Archana. Not even her instructors, some of whom were somewhat skeptical of her foray into policy.

She was the very first student I had supervised for a Master’s dissertation. Little did I know then how special she would be. But I should have had an inkling.

When she visited me to discuss her project, I would often be distracted by my then two-year-old son, Vishak, who was competing with her for my attention. Archana found an ingenious solution. She would, without hesitation or awkwardness, narrate her ideas to him as a ‘coffee story’ as if no tale could be more exciting for a child. Almost like an Archana in Wonderland being chased by bully bureaucrats and finding shelter in shade-grown coffee.

As this part of her thesis was on policy and practice relating to conservation laws, Archana interviewed a range of actors from plantation owners to Forest officers to Coffee Board officials and others. She had a disarming nature, and engaged easily, even with those who would otherwise have been hard to extract information from. She coaxed all sorts of information out of estate managers, workers and owners on their hunting practices and shade management. The Grinch would have been putty in her hands.

Archana’s research uncovered that Karnataka’s Tree Preservation Act was unwittingly leading estate owners to plant more exotics, because the Act prevented them from cutting native trees. The exact opposite of the effect it was intended to have, a perverse consequence. She also got workers to talk about how they set traps and snares for small mammals, and the owners to describe their hunts for larger game. Though her dissertation was about the factors that promoted mammalian diversity in coffee plantations, Archana never passed judgement about the illegal hunting itself. Her goal was to understand its role in the communities she was studying.

This interest in human communities and wildlife led Archana to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, as the first George Schaller Fellow, for a PhD on human-caribou systems in the context of climate change. She worked with indigenous peoples from Alaska to Quebec, and her participatory videography project resulted in the award winning film Voices of the Caribou People. As passionate as Archana was about conservation (she staunchly defended her days in Greenpeace and would proudly show photos of her friends dangling from iconic buildings in London and elsewhere), she was equally adamant that consumptive use of wildlife was acceptable as long as it was sustainable. This may have been in stark contrast to many of her wildlife conservation friends and contemporaries, but Archana was as stubborn as she was endearing; she held firm to her position that consumptive use and conservation could coexist.

I visited her in Fairbanks in 2011 after a conference on the West coast of the U.S. We had still not written our paper together, and we joked that I had followed her as far as Alaska to get it done. We made a very memorable trip to Denali National Park with her friend, Eduardo Wilner, philosopher of science. Only to be expected, the three of us argued all the way there and back, on subjects ranging from science to astrology. Archana had become renowned among her Ph.D. cohort for her spirited and well-grounded academic discussions, whoever and however prestigious be the presenter of the information. We saw Denali, the highest mountain in North America in the distance, shrouded in dark clouds like something from Lord of the Rings. And of course, in keeping with her views on hunting, I was served moose, which had been shared with her after a hunt, as is the tradition there.

Tragically, Archana was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2013. After a long battle that she fought with courage, cheer, and very little complaint, she passed away in 2014. Even with her illness and intense schedule of chemotherapy, Archana found the strength and enthusiasm to work on her dissertation, and present her research at conferences as far afield as Canada and France. Her siblings, Anuja and Akhil, her mother, Raj, or ‘Maaji’ as she was known to all, and her fiancé, Martin Robards, remained by her side throughout. Her final dissertation was subsequently collated and submitted for her doctoral degree, which was received posthumously by her mother. Her passing robbed her family of a loving daughter and sister, a favourite aunt; and the community of a champion and friend. The world lost an individual representing some of the finest of what humanity has to offer.

Our work together, which was published last year in an edited volume on wildlife, law and people, is featured as part of a collection from the book in this issue of Current Conservation. It seems apt to reminisce about her as she was a pioneer in the field, one of the first to bring policy and practice together in conservation. The Masters programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) has, over the last decade, produced some of the best students of wildlife biology and conservation in the country. Archana represented what is best and brightest about them; as an environmental conservationist, she was devoted to her cause of ‘saving wildlife’ but not at the expense of people’s rights and livelihoods. She was committed to both rigorous science as well as conservation action. There can be no better role model for the upcoming generation of wildlife conservationists. Archana famously stated when she was young that she planned to be a star in the field of conservation. Her insightful research has been published in several international journals. She fought for the causes of conservation and community with equal vigour. But most importantly, she was a star in everyone’s life.

All those who knew ‘Itti’ will remember her as one of the most caring, irrepressibly cheerful, and irresistibly charming persons they will ever meet.

This article is from issue


2020 Mar