For decades now, the University of Hyderabad (UoH) has been known to host a variety of flora and fauna, with some rare species of animals and birds making the campus their home.
Over the past few years, the numbers of these animals have dwindled, as poachers, coupled with deforestation, have threatened their habitat.
However, one group is determined to preserve the university's bio-diversity rich campus, and has been working towards it for the past four years.
'Wild Lens' was founded by Ravi Jillapalli, a Life Science scholar doing his PhD in the university. Speaking to TNM, the long time Hyderabad resident says that it all started with his interest in wildlife photography.
"It was around four years ago, and I was passionate about wildlife photography. So a couple of friends and I used to go around the forest area that is part of the campus, and take pictures of animals and birds," he says.
"Within a short period, we started noticing a drastic decrease in the population of animals like spotted deers, and wanted to know why it was happening," he adds.
Ravi and his group soon realised that poaching and deforestation were the main reasons.
"Initially, the group used to see these metal wires, and I never understood what they were for. Only later, we realised that these were actually traps that were set up by poachers," he says.
The group then decided that they had to protect the wildlife on campus.
For the next two years, the then unnamed group of around 10 active members would surround every trap they came across, armed with high-zoom cameras, to photograph and record the poachers in the act, as evidence, before submitting them to University authorities.
"After around two years, we realised that maybe we should name the group, as it would be easy to mobilise, but also mainly to reach out to the public and showcase the biodiversity on campus that they're missing out on," Ravi says.
Wild Lens soon started working out how the poachers were entering and what their modus operandi was.
Ravi still remembers his first confrontation with a poacher.
"It was a man called Ashok Jerripothula, who stayed in the Gowlidoddi area behind campus. The first time I caught him was two or three years ago. I was with my friend, and we spotted him roaming around with about seven stray dogs," says Ravi.
"I was scared as it was getting dark, but I still tried to approach him because he looked very suspicious. Immediately, the dogs began barking and not letting me get near him. That's when I realised that he had trained the dogs and they were responding to certain sounds that he would make," Ravi adds.
The confrontation went on for half an hour, until Ravi called up the University security, who managed to ward off the dogs and catch Ashok.
"We counselled him on campus itself, and left him with a stern warning. I thought he would change his ways, but he was back again in a few days," says Ravi.
Ravi adds that Ashok escaped the second time when he was spotted, but was caught red-handed the third time.
According to Ravi, Ashok trained the dogs to hunt and maim any animal he wanted, before capturing it and selling it in the market.
"From a distance, we saw him holding a Monitor lizard, which had been injured by his dogs. We pulled out our cameras, clicked pictures for evidence, and then one member of our team decided to approach him and ask if we was willing to sell the lizard. He quoted a figure of Rs 600," Ravi says.
"We immediately surrounded him and handed him over to the police. However, he was back in two hours, brazenly walking into the campus. I felt very insulted. However, the fourth time, we sent him to the forest department with the University's help, and sent the dogs to the GHMC," Ravi adds.
After that, Ravi says that Ashok continued his poaching activities, but stuck near the campus wall, so he could make a quick escape.
"In October 2015, he died at the Gandhi Hospital after he was attacked, presumably by a wild boar," Ravi adds.
Ravi claims that the group has caught close to 70 poachers and handed them over to the Forest Department over the past few years.
"Once we established contact with the Forest Department, things got easier, as they started coming to the University to help us," he says.
However, he feels that the same can't be said for the UoH administration and the police.
"The university failed in giving protection to its wildlife, and is not even interested in protective measures. Though we get the occasional support, there is no system in place," Ravi says.
"Sometimes, we send the poachers we catch to the Gachibowli police, under whose jurisdiction UoH comes, but they are also least bothered. They say that it’s not a big offence, and often let the people go after they pay a fine or are given a stern warning," he adds.
Ravi feels that taking the legal route is tough, as it is difficult to create awareness about issues pertaining to wildlife conservation.
"People have to be sensitive towards nature, and understand its beauty. Only then can we persuade them to be more environment friendly," he says.
Poachers were back at the University this week, and a spotted deer's body was found trapped in a metal trap on Sunday afternoon.
Ravi says that Ashok may have died, but the stray dogs he left behind have remained on campus, moving and hunting in packs.
The poachers also seem to continue their activities on campus.
"The University had provided me with two security guards last year to help me tackle the issues. However, two months ago, they withdrew the security due to some reasons. Now, they send them on the weekends if required," Ravi says.
Last year, when the deer population on campus saw a serious fall in numbers, the forest officials had made some suggestions to the University authorities.
Asking that the damaged portion of the campus wall be repaired so that dogs don’t enter the campus, they also suggested patrolling by security officials in the night on two wheelers or four wheelers.
"Put sign boards all over the campus saying that hunting and poaching of wild animals are punishable under Wildlife Protection Act 1972 with imprisonment up to three years and fine up to Rs 25000," another suggestion stated.
At present, Wild Lens has around 20 active members who do field work, while another 100 members relay crucial information.
The group has also branched out and hosts several other activities now.
"We conduct nature walks every semester to creating awareness about the rich biodiversity of campus," says Ravi.
The group has also made arrangements for water tubs to be placed in the forest, for the wildlife in summer.
"We have also set up something called 'Wild Lens' park for absolutely no cost. We were allotted some land behind the School of Life Sciences building, and we decided to improve the greenery there. The idea is simple. Plant a sapling if it’s your birthday," Ravi says.
"We supply the plants with the help of the Horticulture Department, and it started with just one student. Soon we started planting a sapling on the birthday of freedom fighters and other personalities. It has become a culture now. The place is also alternatively known as 'birthday park' now," Ravi adds.
Ravi says that the small initiative by the students, would be viewed for years and decades to come, as the saplings would all grow into strong trees.
When asked if the group would continue after he graduates, Ravi says, "I definitely hope so. We have some very good volunteers, and it is a very exciting field. You need to have dedication and guts. It’s not an easy job to go and catch poachers and get them into custody."
Ravi also hopes that the work that Wild Lens has done, spreads further.
"I hope that every University starts its own group like that. Just a few people, who have a common purpose can get together, and start working to preserve the environment. Universities are the main place where people will be sensitive to the importance of nature and wildlife and that's where movements like this can grow," he concludes.