Anuja Mital writes: A year ago, on this day, a young 23-year-old wildlife researcher and my classmate, Prashanth Ettaboina, passed away. Ever the optimist, and crazy about tigers like no one else, the news of his suicide shocked us all –although till date there has been no satisfying inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Anuja Mital, Ecologise.in
A year ago, on this day, a young 23 year old wildlife researcher, Prashanth Ettaboina, passed away. For someone who embodied the zest of life, his untimely death was a reminder of how life can throw up unpleasant surprises. I vividly remember my first memories of Prashanth from three years ago, as I had the good fortune of being his classmate when I decided to join AVC College in Tamil Nadu.
AVC College offers a full-time masters course in wildlife biology, and over the years has produced quite a few notable alumni, like Dr Ravi Chellam – Director of Greenpeace India, Dr K. Sankar – now Director at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) and Dr K Ramesh – senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), to name a few. I was the last to join the course out of all my classmates, and I struggled to adjust to the rural setting and the scorching heat in Mannampandal, a village 7 km away from the town Mayiladuthurai.
In the initial days when I was getting to know my classmates, I noticed that every morning, Prashanth would give everyone the widest, brightest smile while no one else bothered. My roommate and I often discussed that he had a very charming smile. The likes of which we had not even encountered in our time together at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He was a true optimist in every sense of the word and soon enough, all of us in class had become his ‘macchas’.
In the first semester, whenever one thought of Prashanth, one immediately associated him with the chant, “The power of Telangana!” He was deeply passionate and patriotic about the newly carved state and his hometown, a village in Kamareddy, about two hours away from Hyderabad. He took pride in admitting to me that he was a first generation English speaker and the first in his family to be a graduate entering a postgraduate course. All of this, despite having studied in an anganwadi school.
I found it commendable that after a BSc. in Forestry, he had chosen an off-beat course like wildlife biology and was following his passion despite his modest background, knowing that this field often has its limitations in terms of job security and finances. Most of us in this field often take for granted our privileged upbringing or familial support, but Prashanth had persevered and was raring to go.
A rising tiger biologist
If you had spent just five minutes with Prashanth, you’d have known just how crazy he was about tigers. I often felt his love for them and his enthusiasm for field work surpassed all of ours and might even have exceeded some of the eminent tiger biologists working today.
Through our Masters programme, we often assisted local forest departments of the Annamalai Tiger Reserve and the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, for their annual census activities and visited Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves in Tamil Nadu as part of our field visits. In the course of this, Prashanth learnt the skills of camera trapping, estimating prey densities and conducting transect surveys.
Whenever we came across a possible tiger pugmark, it was always amusing to watch him jump around enthusiastically. He would enjoy spending time in the forests and never get tired of even vegetation sampling, something most wildlife biologists are often weary of.
When the time came to decide topics for our dissertations, while most of us were faced with uncertainty regarding which species to study and our areas of research, Prashanth had already made up his mind that he would work on tigers in Telangana and nothing else. He was determined to document the presence of tigers in the new Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana and his focused pursuit of his interests led him to work with HyTiCoS (Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society) under the guidance of Imran Siddique, the man behind Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary’s status of a tiger reserve.
Working in Kawal, monitoring prey abundance meant walking 10-12 kilometres a day in the scorching sun. Prashanth was someone who would happily do this every day for the rest of his life, with the broadest smile if it translated into the conservation of wildlife, especially tigers.
His master’s thesis on “Assessing the Status of Habitat, Prey-Predator and Connectivity of Kawal-Tadoba Tiger Corridor in the Deccan Plateau of Southern India” is a testament to the months of hard work he dedicated to research. The study identified and mapped two low-cost paths -Tadoba to Asifabad range and Tadoba to Bejjur range of Kawal Tiger Reserve, within the corridor landscape, as the likely routes for tigers to move from Tadoba to Kawal.
The end of a bright beginning
After graduating he proudly told all of his classmates that he was probably the first wildlife biology postgraduate from the new state of Telangana. He had clear intentions of completing a PhD before thinking of settling down. He was all set on the path of continuing his research work – monitoring wildlife habitats in Kawal – when fate took its own course.
Thus, the news of his suicide shocked us all, not only as this was the last thing we expected from a pleasant person like Prashanth, but because he was confident of achieving his decisive goals for his future. It took all of us weeks to actually process and believe the news, even as everything was taken care of swiftly. As his closest friends and classmates struggled to find reasons and details, in a blurry few months, our coping mechanisms swept his demise under the rug.
The justice system till date has failed to corroborate the mysterious circumstances of his death, with barely any inquiries being conducted into understanding any possible motives from his family and friends. This has resulted in a supposedly ‘open and shut case’, with his death ruled as a straightforward case of suicide.
But, even as his loss has been difficult to comprehend for us all, including his family, it is an occasion to remember that survival is a gift and a secret of nature. Something we overlook when we study the very animals we are trying to save, as we get lost in tinkering with our equipment and data.
Given his level of commitment and dedication to research, I can without a doubt state that Prashanth would have easily established himself as an authority on tigers in Telangana within a few years. It is indeed woeful that the conservation and research community in India has lost this budding wildlife biologist and passionate advocate for tiger conservation.
I hope that this short note might serve as a tiny blip of a reminder of Prashanth’s life. He was a bright researcher and I had the privilege of being his friend and classmate. He could have become a crusading protector of tigers in India.