Meet Mayank Vikas: graduate student – Master of Science, Class of 2016
Fields of study: Conservation Ecology, Environmental Policy & Planning
Hometown: Ranchi, in Jharkhand, India
What inspired you to pursue a degree in the environment?
I was born and brought up in Ranchi, capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand. True to its name that means “forested land,” Jharkhand has rich biodiversity. We would go to forests for picnics very often, especially by river banks or near waterfalls. Both my parents have PhDs in botany, so with all the plant talk, I had flowers and trees sprouting out of my ears by the time I was 10! Although my research interests focus on fauna conservation, flora is my first love. And we spent every summer vacation at my grandparents place in Jamshedpur, which was right next to a forested area.
As a millennial, I thankfully saw pre-liberalization India too, which was a gadget-less time and fun meant climbing mango trees, jumping into heaps of hay, and reading about wildlife in Reader's Digest. Ranchi was a small town; it didn't even have traffic signals and people managed just fine! However, painting only a rosy idyllic picture would be inaccurate. Jharkhand holds more than 40 percent of all the minerals of India and, over the years, I saw mines devour entire forests and trees disappear. Driving back from Jamshedpur to Ranchi (which is at a higher elevation of about 650 meters above sea level), my mother used to remember a time when one knew Ranchi was close because the wind became cooler. Tea was cultivated until the 1970s. All these features have either gone or are fast disappearing. I think it's these experiences that fostered a sense of conservation in me.
Tell us about your legal background.
I completed my undergraduate degree in history and legal studies at University of Delhi. I earned an LLB, the Indian equivalent of a juris doctorate. After graduation, I worked with corporate law firms for more than four years on mergers and acquisitions, financing and private equity. It was a learning experience and I gained many valuable skills that will hold me in good stead. I later worked with a small not-for-profit organization in Delhi that focused on raptor conservation, where I not only managed legal issues but also learned to handle eagles, foster owls, and hand-raise orphaned ibis chicks. I remember a particularly testing experience when I had to foster Alexandrine parakeet chicks that had been rescued from poachers. Along with a glorious elderly lady named Hiramani, I raised 25 chicks until they could be released into the wild.
Why did you choose to come to SEAS in particular?
As a lawyer with both corporate and not-for-profit work experience, I wanted to study at a place that would allow me to get a diverse academic experience that is not boxed into rigid categories. SEAS gave me that opportunity to explore my interests across disciplines, including ecology. SEAS helped me gain knowledge of wildlife conservation balanced with human rights and equipped me with quantitative tools, methods of empirical analysis, and an understanding of economic factors that influence policy. In the last two years, I have taken amazing classes with faculty members like Sheila Schueller and Rebecca Hardin. They are gems that make SEAS such an awesome place. And the school's commitment to research and funding opportunities has been a major factor. Last summer, I was awarded grants to work on my thesis in India and Kenya, where I am researching urban protected areas, specifically land use change and its impact on wildlife.
Tell us about your participation in COP21 in Paris.
I traveled to Paris as part of the U-M delegation to the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), a meeting of the countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The countries worked diligently to reach agreement on a comprehensive, global plan to respond to climate change. However, environmentalists are split on the verdict. While some have welcomed the momentum toward a green economy, others have said the deal offers “too little, too late.” In my opinion, the best outcome of COP21 is a signal that the transition of the fossil fuel based economy to renewables is inevitable. But a lot remains to be done before we can open the champagne bottle.
What’s next after SEAS?
After graduation, I aspire to work with an organization that combines environmental, developmental, and wildlife management projects that also strengthen local communities and integrate them as vital stakeholders in the protection of wilderness. I firmly believe that greater public participation in policymaking is critical for the long term survival of wildlife. After all, tigers, leopards, lions, and elephants would not have been cohabiting with 1.2 billion people in India if people didn't have tolerance for wildlife! I want to be part of the process of formulating balanced environmental policies oriented toward long-term growth models for developing countries, rather than those aimed at short-term gains that may have disastrous consequences in the future.