She pioneered the Nest Adoption programme, under which an urban citizen adopts a hornbill nest and a local villager looks after it.
For 17 years now, wildlife biologist and grassroots conservation worker Aparajita Datta has been exploring the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, trekking mountains and hills, camping in deep jungles, and adapting to tribal ways.
When Datta was named this year as one of the eight winners of the prestigious Whitley Award, also known as the Green Oscar, it was timely recognition of the 43-year-old’s efforts to conserve the rare and beautiful hornbill.
Datta, a Senior Scientist with the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation, had been conducting wildlife surveys in Arunachal Pradesh for many years when, “in 2003, I felt the need to ‘do something’ to address some of the conservation problems, such as hunting, that I saw in the state,” she says.
She initiated a community-based programme in and around the Namdapha and Pakke Tiger Reserves that worked on the participation of the tribal communities in the monitoring and conserving of the hornbill. Datta partnered with the Nyishi and Lisu communities and the state Forest Department to script a remarkable turnaround in the bird’s life story, with a decline in its hunting, protection of nests in the area, and significant improvement in overall habitat.
Datta pioneered the unique Nest Adoption programme, under which financial support comes from urban citizens faraway who act as foster parents by adopting hornbill nests, while local people look after the nests to ensure they are not disturbed or cut down.
A Kolkata girl, Datta went to Modern High School and graduated from Presidency College. With a Masters from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, she recalls her first field study researching the Indian giant squirrel in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. Before the hornbill, Datta was tracking wolves in Gujarat. In 1999, she went to Thailand where she radio-tagged and tracked rainforest hornbills and learnt canopy-climbing.
Datta has been part of expeditions that found evidence of two mammals for the first time in India, the leaf deer and a species of barking deer, as well as a new primate, the Arunachal Macaque. In 2010, she was awarded Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society. At home in the wildest jungles, Datta says, “I think the unpleasant situations have really been with being harassed by men in the cities.”