Women for Nature: Vena Kapoor Ep #22 Part II. Heart of Conservation Podcast

Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi! I am Lalitha Krishnan and I’m back with part 2 of episode #22 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. This is season 3. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. I’m speaking to Vena Kapoor one of the leading members of the Education and Public Engagement Programme at Nature Conservation Foundation. As an ecologist conservation researcher, she has had interesting experiences which include exploring spiders as a natural pest control agent in the rainforests of Valparai, to working in finance for NCF in Mysore. She is a recipient of the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS scholarship and holds an M.Phil in Conservation & Leadership from the University of Cambridge. She also writes conservation-related stories for children. You can read more about her on the NCF website ncf-india.org but for now, let’s hear it in her words. This interview was conducted over Skype.

Lalitha Krishnan: Vena, thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation and it really means a great deal to me.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for inviting me here, Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure! So at some point in your career you were studying spiders and snakes also I think and helping restore forests in the Western ghats and then apart from, you know, you write about urban wildlife on pavements and walls, etc…  So could you tell us about the transition from your earlier work to now?

Vena Kapoor: Sure Lalitha, I’m happy to do that. So just to set the context, I do not have a science degree I actually did my under graduation in B.Com and I think like a lot of people just went to a regular convent school which really had absolutely no kind of career guidance thing and I really didn’t have a family who, you know, where there was anybody who’s working in this, in the field that I was really interested in and my only exposure to conservation and wildlife as such were through, you know, the documentaries that they would show on Doordarshan once in a while and whatever books I could get hold of either in the school library or something that my grandfather would bring from his friends. They used to be the BBC wildlife books and things like that. So, I used to kind of pore over them and look at these pictures of exotic wildlife all over the world and really didn’t think that you know, a career in this line would be possible. Soon after my B.Com, I kind of spoke to one of my teachers who put me in touch with a couple who was running an organization in Chennai called Center for Indian Knowledge Systems. They were working on traditional agriculture and healthcare and they needed someone to help him do some research on the effects of pesticides, you know, on agricultural plants and I was very excited about kind of, you know, trying this out. And, it was quite amazing that they took on someone like me with zero work experience to kind of help them with this work. Over there, Dr Vijayalaxmi, who was one of the people who founded the organization, she for her PhD did work on spiders especially one species of spider which specializes in catching cockroaches and so the office was full of books and photographs of spiders and it just, it was completely by both accident as well as a little bit of encouragement from them that I started just looking at this group and it just got very very kind of excited about, you know, reading about the amazing diversity of spiders around us and, you know, and they were interested specifically on seeing if spiders can be used as natural pest control agents in agricultural fields, especially in paddy and so I started kind of looking into that and my first field kind of research work in fact was in the Guindy National Park in the heart of Chennai city and I started documenting the spiders there for the organization as well as for the Forest Department and that’s where my interest in spider started kind of growing and, you know, I started doing workshops and giving talks to people because I had this huge kind of collection of pictures with me and so when I finished my Masters, sorry after I worked in this organization in Chennai, I decided to kind of look at getting a degree in ecology and wildlife sciences but the only place that would accept me as a non science student was the Pondicherry University because all the other places which had a Masters programme, the requirement was that you had a kind of undergrad degree in science. So I was disappointed but, as I said Ok, you know, let me join the Pondicherry University programme and so I did my 2 years Masters there. As part of my Masters’ thesis I looked at particular species of spider-the Green Lynx spider had a relationship with a kind of plant–the jatropha plant–and the kind of foraging techniques that they were using with the plant… it seemed to have a mutualistic kind of relationship. So soon after that there was an offer up that I heard about that the Nature Conservation Foundation was looking for someone to help them with their rainforest restoration programme that they had just started a couple of years before. So in 2004, sorry in 2003 I went to Valparai, very excited because I had you know, experienced working and living in the forest just once before that for a few days and so the prospect of doing actual fieldwork and field research in a rainforest area thriving with wildlife and these really cool kind of wildlife biologist was very exciting and so… What was supposed to be a six-month stint turned out to be a 4 year kind of engagement with the work and the programme. And so, while I was in Valparai, I ended up doing a lot of things which really helped I think, me think about you know the kind of multi-disciplinarity that feel like conservation has potential for. And so in Valparai while we were doing the rainforest restoration kind of work with the tea and coffee estate companies over there, there were studies which were being done on birds in certain rain forest fragments, small mammals and fragments and but there was really a dearth of information about spider and insect life in a lot of these forest patches. So, you know, we started discussing whether I should look at documenting spiders in this particular landscape and see if the community composition, you know, changed between each of these forest fragments and what did this mean for rainforest restoration work that we were doing. Were certain groups of spiders or a certain species of spiders was it completely absent in a rain forest fragment for example that was extremely disturbed? Right? And so, there were studies to show that birds get affected by extreme fragmentation or a lot of disturbance. Some groups seem to thrive, some completely disappear, so was this the case for spiders as well? And so, I did this year-long kind of field research work in that landscape and that turned out to be not only just fun and interesting but it also became very useful to add to the documentation work that was going on in that landscape and, so you, know the species that we found were not only used to see certain, you know, some of these rainforests fragments that we were trying to restore were also bringing back the wildlife or not. It was also used a lot in public engagement programmes where specially in exhibition setups in places like that and also for writing a lot of articles and, you know, research papers and things like that. After four years in Valparai, I felt that I needed to take a break, you feel being in a kind of a place like Valparai can also kind of completely cut you off from quote-unquote normal the normal world. I felt like I was living in a bubble for too long.  So I decided to come back and I relocated to Mysore and over there I wanted to kind of assess what I wanted to do further, you know, moving forward and so I kind of went into a part-time position to start with helping the organization with a lot of the admin and accounts kind of work, hoping that that kind of work would give me the flexibility to dabble with other kinds of things that I wanted including writing and, you know, assessing whether I wanted to get into a research field or not. There was also this brief flirtation with doing, whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. or not, and then I quickly realized that a PhD wasn’t for me at that point in time at least and so while I was helping, the organization it was also going through an interesting transition at that point of time. We were having to raise funds for the institution but we were also growing slowly and so systems had to be put in place and so I headed the admin and accounts team for about 2 1/2 years and but at the same time I was also, you know, I co-wrote a book for children with Aparajita Datta on the rain forests of the North East and the animals and the plant life for the children in the schools over there. Yeah, so it’s called the Secrets of the Rainforest, again a book which is available for download for free, I can also send you a copy later on too.

But so again yeah so then after that is when I found out in 2010, early 2010, I found out that there was this kind of a new course being set up in the Cambridge University called the M.Phil in Conservation Leadership Programme and it was meant for people who had at least three to five years of experience in the conservation field and it was meant to be a programme to engage with conservation with a very multi-disciplinary kind of a lens and so, you know, there were different departments that were going to be involved – the Management Department at Cambridge, the Economics Department in Cambridge, the Geography Department in Cambridge and so it was very exciting to kind of look at, you know, the prospect of having to engage with conservation in a very disciplinary, interdisciplinary lens?

And also the kind of step back and allow me to get back in to touch with recent research which was going on. And so I was fortunate to get a scholarship from the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS fellowship programme that was again set up that year and so I got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge and it was a one year course and it was an excellent course in terms of also giving us the ability to critique conservation in the way it was being done. You know, it was also the first time I had to write essays, that was a bit challenging for me, you know, our education system is so different in terms of examination, you know, very unidirectional kind of teaching. This is the first time I was exposed to, you know, a space where we could question our teachers and have discussions and group discussions and critique and, you know, you had to do a lot of self-learning, there was library access with any book or journal that you wanted access to, so it was intense but it was extremely useful for me I think at that point in my career to get into that course.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds so interesting starting with your work. I had no idea spiders eat cockroaches but the only problem is, who if you ask somebody, which one would you prefer I’m not sure what they would say.

Vena Kapoor: Well the good thing about this particular species which loves to eat cockroaches is it’s nocturnal. You may have seen it, it comes quite often to bathroom spaces at night.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah we have large ones in our bathrooms always, they just live there so we just let them be, but we don’t have cockroaches, I don’t know what they are living on.

Lalitha Krishnan: On a more serious note, how do you persuade teachers to incorporate your nature learning curriculum and use your outreach material into their existing programme or plan?

Vena Kapoor: You know, it works sometimes, it also doesn’t work sometimes because we find that we have to keep going back to the teacher and reminding him or her that, you know, “Are you including the nature learning element in it? What do you think should be the nature learning element in it?”

Lalitha Krishnan: And not everybody is so receptive.

Vena Kapoor: At that point, they see the value in it but often because you are rushing to have to finish the portion and, you know, then you go back to your traditional kind of learning methods, right, because there’s comfort in that, there’s familiarity in that.

Lalitha Krishnan: So then do you want to talk about what resources you’ll are working on and what you’ll use?

Vena Kapoor: Sure, so we are actually now in that phase in our work where we are kind of designing our modules and our curriculum and thinking of all the different kinds of tools that we can use and one of our main goals is to make it age-appropriate and this is where we are engaging with a lot of kind of theory and practice around the education field. What other people in the education sector have been using, right?  So we kind of try and read research papers to see what kind of tools work for which age group, what are they more receptive to, right? And again, as the conservation community, we tend to rely heavily on things like posters and books, you know, and flashcards which are good but sometimes it may not be appropriate for a particular age group, so we’re also trying to bring in elements like storytelling, poems, theater, language. You know, it can just be stick doodles, you know, it could be building blocks. So those are the kind of tools that we are trying to see what might work with different age groups, also keeping in mind that again each school will have access to a certain amount of outdoor space, right. One of the Govt. schools that we work with has absolutely no outdoor space, right? So what can we do in a situation like that? How do we make use of the fact that they may have one Singapore cherry tree outside the campus school campus?

So Lalitha, the other thing we do is again as part of our engagement with the teachers, are we also try and take them for a short walk around their schools, you know, because we have also realized often teachers think nature is out there. It is far away, you have to take children to a park or the zoo, you know, so often teachers would tell us you know we need a day off or two days then will take the children to Cubbon Park or to Lal Bagh which is in Bangalore and you know then we can show them the trees and the shrubs and the creepers over there because they’re learning that in the textbook. And then we have to tell them, you know, come with us for a short walk, just a 10 minute walk around the school and we see all the examples that you want to show your children are all here actually. So you just have to kind of look around and explore your area a little bit and you will find all sorts of examples in nature that you can use. So we find that’s also sometimes very kind of powerful for a teacher to kind of come to that kind of understanding that, oh you know, “I really don’t need to take too much time off to get my children to experience nature outside the school or even within the school campus”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah exactly. I’m a big believer and, you know, just knowing your backyard and just discovering what’s there, so I think that’s great.

Vena Kapoor: Often they say, oh there is nothing, you know, what can we, how can we, what will we show children? Then we start taking them and pointing out its ‘X’, pointing out spiders, pointing out the birds and you can start seeing, you know, they really get excited about this. They say, “We have been here for 10 years in this school and we’ve never seen this”.

“Oh, I didn’t know that this was here”.

 “Oh, I didn’t realize”.

You know, that itself is again for us also it’s a form of trust-building and getting to know the teachers better. A lot of them also, you know, have become good friends of ours that also helps I think, a little bit when you have engagement with them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. You also partner with larger organizations like WIPRO so how does that work?

Vena Kapoor: Again WIPRO has a huge network of organizations and educators that they work with and support and so we try and work with some of them because they have access to schools in different parts of India and they are embedded within that school system.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of organizations are we talking about?

Vena Kapoor: So there’s this organization in Madhya Pradesh called Samavesh, they’ve been around for quite a while and they work with schools and teachers in and around Panna, the Panna Tiger Reserve. So we’ve been kind of working with them and training their trainers, so it’s like training the trainers’ programme, right? And then they take a lot of our ideas, and our kind of processes and some of the tools that we’ve designed to the teachers over there and then they end up training teachers over there based on, of course, on their local requirements. So we kind of encourage them to use their, you know, local natural history stories, you know, what is it that, what are the myths that some of the people in those areas have, right?  And so to kind of deconstruct that and to talk about that. Can that be included as part of the nature learning that they discussed with the teachers?  And then, in turn, translate to the children and to keep stressing it has to be localized, right, to their situation. So those are the kind of training programmes that we’ve also been doing and for the last one year because of COVID we’ve hardly had any, we have had almost no physical contact with the school kids, all the teachers that we work with and so most of it has gone online. So the training that we’ve been doing online, unfortunately, we have not had a chance to connect with any of the government schools that we were working with earlier because they don’t have access to the internet

Lalitha Krishnan: And they also shutting and opening so randomly one never knows there’s no stability at all right now.

Vena Kapoor: Exactly, exactly, so we are also trying to figure out, you know, how we have to approach and restructure some work. A lot of the training that we’ve been doing online has been received very well thankfully so far. People are now going back to their field areas, you know, having the discussions within their own teams as well and we’re hoping that maybe in about 5-6 months we also open this out to anybody who’s interested. So far we have been only working with groups of teachers or organizations that we, have either approached us or you know, we know and then we said OK we can offer this training to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of ….open to who? Give me an example?

Vena Kapoor: Open to any teacher educator who is interested in the space. It can be you also, we will be very happy for you to kind of participate in our workshops. And again all these workshops are open source, we are conducting them free of cost, you know, and we kind of showcase the kind of materials and the other approach that we take in the nature-learning work that we’re doing. So in a few months, we are hoping that we’d be able to conduct, you know, do workshops for anyone who’s interested in. It can be even parents who are kind of homeschooling their children, right, for example, because we think we have enough content, and also very specific examples people can use along with their school curriculum and textbooks that they use in the class.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about, you know, like village schools that don’t have Internet and very few resources and… would it be possible?

Vena Kapoor: Yes! So there again, extremely kind of cognizant of this and in fact, one of the schools, two of the schools, government schools that we worked with earlier, like I said, we didn’t have any access to them and many of them are also first-generation learners, right?  And many of them are also migrant workers’ children. So, for example in Bangalore the kids are familiar with Kannada, they can speak Kannada fluently but they still can’t read because they’ll come typically from, you know, Bihar, Rajasthan, UP, and other places. There is one Urdu medium school where Kannada again is understood and spoken but the medium of instruction for them is in Urdu, right? So they can’t read and many of them are first-generation learners, so what we did is we put together a few physical learning kits which had to be very, very kind, of which didn’t have too much text in it but relied on things like very simple poems, riddles, games put together some of these physical learning kits which we are calling. Some books from Pratham as well, storybooks from Pratham as well, and we kind of distributed them to their kits so that, with the hope that their learning is not just completely cut off or shut down. There it had some pages in which they could colour and engage and you know they had to narrate stories to us and they didn’t have to do it in Kannada, they could write it in any other language or they could record it on their phones and bring it back to us if they wanted. So we gave them that flexibility.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, nice!

Vena Kapoor: It really helped that, especially in one of the schools we are working with another partner organization in that space and so two of the teachers are in that particular village.  So they would also, you know, occasionally try and connect with the children at a social distance, asked if they had any problems with some of the work that was given, you know, so there’s also some kind of dialogue which is happening occasionally. What the 2nd wave means we don’t know as yet, we are all a little worried, lots of kids have gone back to their hometowns, so we don’t even know if we meet them again, when we meet them again, what this means for their learning. So yeah, it is very painful and heartbreaking in these spaces.

Lalitha Krishnan: True, these are trying times as it is but you seem to have challenging situations, to begin with, so how do you cope?

Vena Kapoor: So within the programme and across NCF also we’re trying to kind of collaborate much more and try and do joint training sessions, now that each of us has our own little experience in our own little silos, we are now starting to talk to each other to see how we can, you know, not work… I mean yes it’s important to work you know separately as well teams because we each have our own experiences and training and, you know, on-ground experiences that we have but can we think of a more holistic kind of training programme that we can do not something that we start talking to people.

I want to maybe add that you know a lot of the work that the nature classrooms project does, a lot of it is to do with the people who are part of it as well, right?  So I have two extremely motivated wonderful colleagues, you know, who are part of this work and each of them come in with their own kind of skill sets and experiences to this work and that’s really strengthened it. So for example, early on in the work when I was thinking of this project I wanted and a person with a background in education to join, right, because we are really, because the idea was to work with schools and teachers and I thought that’s a very important kind of skill set to have or a person to kind of, you know, head that part of the work. So Roshni came on board, she doesn’t have any kind of formal training in education but she has been a teacher for 6-7 years in a school set up and she comes with a psychology background as well and she has kind of really given shape to the work in terms of understanding what teachers would, you know, react to work. How teachers would respond to certain kinds of things. The empathy factor with the teacher is also there, right, because she was a teacher herself in the space and so that became very important. Last year I had my colleague Laboni joined the project where she comes in with some experience in education and teaching and outreach but she also comes to training in design and illustration, right? So that becomes very important for us for designing our material and tools because she thinks with that hat on and she comes with that skill set and so you know. What is the kind of material and what are the shape of the material and these tools need to take in order to get someone like a teacher excited about and a child excited about as well, right? And those could take very different forms and so and so really the strength of the work right now and the way moving forward will, is the fact that all three of us come with such different skill sets and experiences and yeah and it’s exciting to work with such a diverse set of people.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, could you share a word with us that’s significant for you …related to conservation.

Vena Kapoor: For me, I think it would be ‘Natural History’ and I think that’s really what’s missing in our very well-intentioned reason for, you know, making environmental sciences compulsory in schools, there seems to be this missing element of, you know, the fascinating aspects of nature, the inter-connectedness of nature, the ability to explore and discover and connect and sensorial experiences that you can get in nature. A lot of this is part of also learning about the Natural History of different organisms and there are so many fascinating stories waiting to be told to be shared with so many people and I think they’re really missing out on the crucial element. I mean, the little bit of Twitter engagement that I have and I would think that OK people should know this, but so many people in fact say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this, thank you for sharing”.  I keep thinking, you know,  we really need to push for more natural history stories and I think that’s what is a key to get people excited and interested in nature and without that excitement and love and a feeling of wonder and connection for nature as a starting point why would people want to protect it, right, later on in life?

So, you know, we kind of push people with the narrative of climate change, climate destruction, deforestation, yes it’s important to talk about these issues which are happening maybe to adults and maybe to slightly older children but to put that emotional burden on young children I think is extremely unfair and we really need to start with getting children specially excited with nature and to feel a sense of love for nature and then to start introducing them to, you know, the connections and the inter-connectedness and then issues which are going on, the problems which we need to kind of solve.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice, yeah, it’s the right way to think. Thank you so much.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share our story and journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode, stay tuned. I’m Lalitha Krishna and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthy Matters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation podcast is available on several platforms so do check it out. Until next time, stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Photos courtesy: Vena Kapoor. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

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