Pratyush Mohapatra is a Zoology lecturer at Government Science College in Ganjam’s Chhatrapur town, but he doesn’t just teach about mammals, reptiles and centipedes. Once the final bell tolls in the college, he turns into a passionate wildlife conservationist. Over the past years, the 36-year-old has been surveying the dense, hilly terrains of the Eastern Ghats in search of species unknown to us, species that are considered lost and those that spring a surprise re-appearance.
Mohapatra and a team of wildlife biologists and conservationists recently documented the Small-clawed Otter, which was earlier reported only from the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats in Southeast Asia. They also recorded the Stripe-necked mongoose—considered endemic to the Western Ghats—from Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha.
The team has recorded a Bar-necked Keelback from Kendrapara, Mock Viper from Northern Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh, a damselfly species called Lesser Blue Wing in Kotagarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Kandhamal and Lesser False Vampire bat from Sundargarh, while surveying the sacred groves of the tribals. It has also recorded the East-Indian Limbless Skink from several localities of Odisha and in 2013, a new species of Caecilians (small snakes) was discovered from the Eastern Ghats.
The biologist developed an affinity for lesser known facts of the animal kingdom from a tender age. In his hometown Kamakhya Nagar in Dhenkanal district, Mohapatra was introduced to animals at his uncle’s home, which had several rabbits, mongoose and peacocks. He would trek the nearby hillocks during his school holidays to look for birds and animals.
The area where Mohapatra lived had a colony of scorpions. “When I was a child, a betel shop owner told me that scorpions evolve from crabs. I picked up a few scorpions and reared them for weeks only to find out that they give birth to babies and are not evolved from crabs,” he says.
Mohapatra majored in Zoology from College of Basic Science and Humanities. Then he was introduced to herpetologist Prof S K Dutta at Utkal University. “He is my guru. It is because of him that my passion became my profession as he encouraged me to take up herpetology,” says Mohapatra.
After completing his Masters, Mohapatra worked on the assessment of Herpetofaunal Diversity of Eastern Ghats Ranges of Odisha, a project funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “Eastern Ghats Ranges are extremely bio-diversity rich but poorly known outside for lack of documentation. If a baseline survey is conducted on model species, conservation programmes can be devised,” he says.
After his doctorate in Systematics and Biogeography of Snakes of Eastern Ghat Ranges of Odisha, Mohapatra worked on several projects on the conservation of sloth bears, elephants and fresh water turtles. He also worked undercover in some operations and helped police and the Odisha Wildlife Wing nab criminals and poachers.
He and his team have been working on biodiversity inventories for the last 10 years, and each survey has thrown up interesting findings. “Since all of us work, we plan the field works during holidays and weekends. My wife Cuckoo is a herpetologist and she understands my passion and days away from home,” says Mohapatra.
Author of eight books on butterflies, herpetofauna and biodiversity areas of the state, Mohapatra and his team are working on snake species, which were historically documented by the British in Odisha, but are believed to have been vanished. “We have rediscovered Coral Snakes in Ganjam and are working to find the Sand Snake and Scarce Bridal Snake species,” he says.