Introducing Rishab Pillai: Snake’N my way to the Tropics

Vine snake

Masters of camouflage! A Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) blending into its habitat. I must say, I doubt I will ever get bored of this species.

You never know when and where inspiration strikes, and when it does, it takes your life in a different direction and adds meaning to it. Such was my case as I grew up in one of the most crowded cities in the world, Mumbai. Although, anthropogenic activities damage the planet, nature finds its way and continues to exist even if not in its full glory.

As a child such remnant patches of nature left me with the fondest memories and some much needed relief from the hustle and bustle of city life. As I grew older and begin to gravitate more towards nature and the life it supported, I can’t help but wonder why our kind continue to neglect our environment which we live in, but supports all life on this planet we call home.

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Here’s a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) who was a regular visitor at the remnant patch of vegetation mentioned.

This widespread callous attitude towards nature is what kick-started my journey to become a biologist and delve into the intricacies of our environment. As a child my father and grandfather often pointed out various avifauna and other beings extant in the remnant vegetation (which were once paddy fields) visible from the balcony of our family home in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. An instance that I vividly remember is when my father took me out to the balcony one summer afternoon to show me how a vine snake was defending itself against an Indian Myna (a bird of the starling family). The vine snake had a bright green and amazingly slender body, its appearance indeed lived up to its name. It was at this instance when my attention was drawn to these unique and interesting creatures, SNAKES.

Copper smith barbet

A Coppersmith Barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) having a peak out of its tree- hollow

The fact that some snakes are venomous in addition to the vast array of superstitions in India about the lesser known fauna, makes them underdogs or probably the most misunderstood and illogically feared creatures on the planet.

Over the years after the Vine snake and the myna incident, I kept witnessing snakes being killed on a frequent basis. I was around 13 years old, when I began to try and learn about these creatures that lived in the habitat around my family home. My grandparents were immensely kind and supportive of my endeavors and would extend their love and care to the various injured animals that I brought home to rehabilitate and release back into the wild. Little did I realize back then that soon by word of mouth I would be the go to person for people in the vicinity who needed help with displaced or injured animals. And all of a sudden I found myself in the midst of doing something that I loved most and have immense passion for: Working with animals of different kinds.

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A common species that found its way into human settlements, the Bengal Monitor Lizard Varanus bengalensis) and 15 year- old me.

My mother often told me that when we you want something with all your heart, the whole universe aligns to ensure you achieve what you are looking for. When I look back now I realize what she said was true indeed. One evening, I received a call from one of my tutors informing me about a snake in an apartment on the 4th floor. Within minutes, I was there with my makeshift snake bagger and snake hook to rescue the snake. Co-incidentally the founder of a wildlife rescue organisation was there as well, and witnessing my novice ways he proposed that I meet the members of SARRP (Spreading awareness on reptiles and rehabilitation programme) an NGO which works for reptiles, wild birds and other wildlife causes to hone my skills further. As a member of SARRP I had plenty of exciting and adventurous opportunities to work on my skills related to rescuing and rehabilitating animals. One thing lead to another and I also started assisting 2 veterinarians to try and learn more about saving vast array magnificent creatures, who have equal right over the planet just as we do. By now, as you may have figured, my life revolved around animals, and negligible amounts of studying.

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A Common Tree Frog (Polypedates maculatus) I encountered during fieldwork. This image was later published by Eco-echo.

As time passed, my questions about how certain aspects of nature function and the reason for the same kept building up. I also got a chance to start working with Eco-echo which was a not for profit research organisation as part of which, I undertook fieldwork and contributed to their research projects and publications. As I write this, I am simultaneously working on a paper with the team at Eco-echo which I will be sharing through my blog soon.

With all the components of my animal obsessed universe aligned, it was now time to think about a career and the million other things which went in hand with regards to committing to something I would be doing for the rest of life. Everyone including my family and friends, knew it would be animals, but I had to make an important decision as to what related to animals.

I earlier refer to snakes being the underdogs, but as I continued to rescue and research animals, my lists of underdogs kept growing. With amphibians and invertebrates added to this list, a lot of other issues which impacted our environment interested me. These included the impact of humans on the environment and also human-wildlife conflict. When I was 19 years old I wanted to pursue a career that may not even make the cut for being a *career* in a country of doctors and engineers, I was then accepted into Deakin University, Melbourne to pursue a Bachelors in Environment Science majoring in Wildlife and conservation biology. Although, nerve-racking this was the best thing to happen to me and I can’t imagine how life would have been had this option not clicked. Learning from some of the best researchers around, my focus and passion towards the environment just kept growing.

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When the main stream of a river is cut-off by a natural phenomenon, it creates a free-standing body of water called and oxbow lake. Here’s one such lake in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru.

Volunteering on numerous projects at a time and working on projects, in South America, India and with the local government in Australia during the span of my degree gave me the opportunity to apply what I learnt in real life scenarios.

When I graduated in Dec, 2015 I was sure I want to pursue a career carrying out research that focuses on the tropics and conservation issues that occur there. It is funny how when we study something we love it doesn’t seem like study and I soon applied to James Cook University to undertake a Master’s degree majoring in tropical biology and conservation. To my delight I got accepted straight up and since that day I have been waiting to make the big move to Townsville. And fair enough, here we are today.

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Hoatzin’s! (Opisthocomus hoazin) which inhabited the habitats around the lake. They represent the evolutionary link between birds and reptiles.

This is my story of life that lead me to be an international student at JCU. With a constant desire to be outdoors and also highlight conservation issues combined with a love for travel and food, I will be expressing what goes on in this head of mine here as I travel around the tropics and eat/drink the unique things around Queensland and Australia. Looking forward to being in the tropics soon! #wearethetropics

Instagram: @fishyrish

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