Mitigating the Urban Human-bee Conflict: Rajani Mani.

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Season 4. Ep# 25 Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi there, thanks for listening in to Season 4 episode 25 of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan, bringing you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. You can read the show notes for this podcast episode right here on my blog Earthy Matters. Today I’m talking to Rajani Mani, a documentary filmmaker with Elephant Corridor Films, a Bengaluru based creative agency. Currently, she is working on “Colonies in Conflict” a film that examines the state of wild bees in a fast-developing Indian landscape. Rajini, thank you so much for joining me on Heart of Conservation.

Rajani Mani: Thank you so much for inviting me. I am happy to have this conversation with you since you were quite interested in my work when we chatted. So, I’m quite excited to speak with you as well.

0:56

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks. Of all the creatures and critters in the world what got you interested in bees?

Rajani Mani: It’s not like I’m an insect lover from my childhood or anything like that. What got me interested was something that was recurrent which I was observing around me and which was bothering me. Essentially it was these big bee hives that you see in the cities and in Bangalore, we have plenty of those on balconies. The management is called for removing these honey bee hives and the way it was being done bothered me. You know, by spraying pesticides and there are so many beehives in these high-rise apartments that I was observing all the time. That disturbed me a lot and I was trying out ways to protect it and I got interested in the story…in the bees. And I started researching them and that’s how I got interested. I love bees, I love insects. But I was like everybody else you know. If you think of insects, we humans are generally not very fond of insects. I was one of those.

Lalitha Krishnan: So not only did you get over the fear you started loving them.

Rajani Mani: There was no fear per se but there was some disgust to be very honest. Insects…for me it would be cockroaches. We are generally disgusted by cockroaches. We try to get rid of them. Bees are there. We understand pollination we studied it in school but come to think of it after all the research I’ve done—we’ve not even touched the tip of the iceberg in schools and colleges when we are taught about pollination. There’s a lot that an average person does not understand. I was one among those. I am actually thrilled to see my own transformation after the process of filming started.

3:25

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. So how many species of bees do you find in India? And, apart from the obvious hives, where else do they reside? On the ground, I’ve read. I was surprised.

Rajani Mani: There are over 700 species of bees in India. Here I have to make a distinction between solitary bees and social bees. The bee that we generally see in advertisements or on cute emojis or cartoons is the honey bee. And of the honey bee itself, we have five different kinds in India. The rest of it is all solitary bees. Solitary bees nest in a variety of places. It could be old deadwood, it could be soil, it could be any of the wild spaces you know? You name it, some of them construct little nests with leaves and twigs and things like that. Some of them burrow in deadwood and make little nooks for themselves. The social bees nest in beehives which is what we are familiar with. We see these beehives on balconies, on water tanks, on trees. So, these are social bees and they nest in large numbers. There are tens of thousands of them in one hive. So, this is the first distinction which is that one set is social bees and the other set are solitary bees that nest in a variety of spaces but basically, they all live alone. Social bees live in societies just like us.

As I was saying five kinds of honey bees live in India. We have the apis which is the honey bee. You have the apis dorsata which is the rock bee that most people in the cities are familiar with; they are quite frightened of them because they are quite temperamental. You see these gigantic, two feet by three feet hives. Then you have the apis laboriosa which is found in the Himalayan region and that is kind of a cousin of dorsata. Then you have apis andreniformis in the North East area. Then apis florea which you can find in Bangalore and all cities. Most people don’t notice them that much because they hide in bushes, in trees. They have more round and smaller hives. Then there is the Apis cerana. Apis cerana is in India, traditionally kept for beekeeping. They are the only cavity-nesting bees found in India.

In 1983, apis mellifera which is a European honey bee was introduced by the (Indian) government to promote honey bee farming. So, these are the varieties that are generally found here. The distinction between hive ??? nesting and cavity-nesting is that cavity-nesting can also be used for beekeeping.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so interesting. You know we hear of animal corridors and migratory flight paths for birds and more commonly for the monarch butterflies. What about bees? Where do they come from and where do they go from here?

Rajani Mani: Again, if you’re a ground-nesting or a tree cavity, tree hollow cavity-nesting solitary bee species then you don’t really go anywhere. You just stay in that little area and you survive there. They’re not migratory, not as far as I know. Whereas in the case of other honey bees like the apis florea there is no migratory behaviour as such. Cerana is a cavity-nesting bee. I have not heard of them migrating. The only migratory honey bee in this lot is the apis dorsata. Also, the study of bees is at very early stages right now. We haven’t found out how far they migrate, where they go. These are also a): slightly difficult considering the size of these insects. But there is one study if you look online. A scientist in Sri Lanka says that these bees can travel up to 200 km. So, no concrete evidence has happened but there is an understanding that there are two kinds of migrations that the dorsata do. One is short term migrations which are in search of forage. Eucalyptus trees or other flowering trees are in plenty in one season. Once the forage of that season is over, then the bees would migrate to a shorter distance to find more food for their huge colonies. Because there are tens of thousands of them in one colony. They need a lot of food to take care of their progeny and you know, their whole hive. So, they need to constantly find good food sources as well as good water sources. So, they keep moving. They do a long-range migration which is generally just before the onset of the monsoons. And anecdotally, I can tell you that, because there are no research papers on it—there is some work in progress—so anecdotally speaking, we do know that the honey bee colonies in the city…they disappeared just before the monsoon and returned in October. So, from October to about March-end, you would see bee colonies in Bangalore. I talk about Bangalore because it is my city. I understand what’s happening here and I’m sure similar patterns perhaps may be observed in, let’s say, Gurgaon or Bombay or wherever. People from all of these cities do reach out to me and say, “What should we do?” we do know that dorsata colonies are there in urban centres all over India.

You talked about a corridor. So, there is a nectar corridor which—since I’m not a scientist, I cannot speak about in a very informative way—but from my understanding, there is a corridor which is between October to March in Bangalore in the western ghats when all the endemic trees are blooming. There’s a rich source of food available to these bees then. That’s also when they do the colony multiplication and so forth. 

11:36

Lalitha Krishnan: It will be interesting to have an ‘ebee’ just like we have ebird.

Rajani Mani: There is some talk about that somewhat and it has been developed as well but not so extensively and it has not been launched as yet by the NCBS but we are planning to do it. There is some delay on their part. I don’t know if it’s really an ebee thing because, you know, scientists find it difficult to track colonies, to actually monitor and spot the beehive,—when they leave, when they come back—this data would be very important and helpful to the scientist. Some people do put up bee sightings on the India Biodiversity Portal. What kind of bee they have spotted, where they have spotted.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s the place to go then.

Rajani Mani: Yes, but it’s not as widespread. You are right. I was telling my friend as well. We go bird watching. If we go bee watching, I’m sure we’ll spot so many different kinds of bees and then read up about them. It will be interesting for us as well, you know?

12:52

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, the thing is it’s about 12 degrees over here, it’s really cold and I’m still seeing bees. Sometimes they’re just trapped in the house. Interestingly, you spoke about them being around from October so I was thinking they’re here in such a cold environment but I guess they’re Himalayan bees.

Rajani Mani: Where are you right now?

Lalitha Krishnan: Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.

Rajani Mani: You must be seeing the local bees of that place whichever they are.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

13:21

Lalitha Krishnan: So, even elephants are wary of beehive activity. In Africa, they actually use bee pheromones to drive away elephants? Tell us why ordinary humans shouldn’t be afraid of bees? 

Rajani Mani: I get asked this question because people think I am out to tell people not to be or be scared of bees that’s your choice. But I just want people to understand and respect them. Because, they are also at heart, wild creatures.

The only way to avoid fear is to try and understand where they are coming from. What is their nature like? What is their inherent behaviour? Right? Once we understand their behaviour and pattern and what they are all about, then we wouldn’t feel this sense of fear like…even a tiger in the jungle. We are fearful but we are also respectful. So, these insects also deserve that degree of reverence is what I feel.

-Rajani Mani

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Rajani Mani: They do a lot and just by saying,” Oh I’m scared of bees and they’re going to sting…” Yes. Even a dog will sting if you trouble it right? Every creature which is wild at heart is going to come from a place where it has an inherent response to distress. And bees, are no different in that sense.

Lalitha Krishnan: So ‘respect’ is the word.

Rajani Mani: Yes. Exactly.

15:05

Lalitha Krishnan: Rajani, could you briefly tell us about life in a beehive? I mean, we have all read about it you know? The queen, drones, worker bees which are all female by the way—why am I not surprised? —and their roles, seasonality etc.

Rajani Mani: Yes, it’s a female-centric matriarchal system followed in a beehive. You have the queen bee who is the whole heart and soul of the hive. And everything—all the bees and all the activities taking place in the beehive is taking into consideration her protection. And, her conservation. So, she’s at the very heart. And then you have the worker bees who in their lifetime play a variety of roles. They have roles like nurse bees or roles like guard bees and they have foragers who go out and forage for food and water. Then you have the drones whose only job is to mate with the queen when she is ready for mating. Their life cycle is also very interesting because the queen lives for 3-4 years and the worker bees live for several months, maybe 3-4 months not more. And, the drone dies, the moment mating happens. So, as I said, the queen is at the heart of the whole colony. And that’s why it’s also important that when you have a beehive on your balcony, or on a tree or you are scared—irrationally scared—you have to use methods where the queen bee isn’t affected and she survives. Because if she survives, she can move on and make another hive in a very short time.

17:30

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Rajani Mani: If the queen dies it’s the end of that entire colony as it stands.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. You know according to the WWF website, about 90% of all wildlife plants and 75% of all leading global crops depend on animal pollinators. One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on pollinators. I don’t know the latest figures but in Bangalore itself, I know several beehives are removed every day. That’s just one city. It makes you wonder how endangered bees are in India. Whether they are listed by the IUCN? Also, what happens if all the bees were to disappear one day. Is there a cascading effect like how wolves save/change rivers?

Rajani Mani: (Talking about urban beehives). At one time you will have at least 10 hives. One of the things about dorsata bees which are in the wild also together, they build nest aggregates. You won’t see just one beehive on a tree. You’ll see several.

So, in some sense, in the cities, when the dorsata bees make their nests, the city apartments are like nest aggregates for them. It’s like a large tree on which all these cousins are building their nests. So, the one time a bee-hive remover is called, he would maximize his time you know? He would at one stretch remove six of them. So, let’s say there are 20,000 high rise apartments in Bangalore. And, there are 6-8 beehives in the given season. You can just guess how many beehives are being removed during this period. It’s a scary shocking number in any case…the number of beehives that are removed routinely.

19:25:

That’s one part of it. Is it listed in the IUCN?  No. It is not listed in the IUCN. There is no data that says that these bees are under threat. In India, in fact, there is no data at all. There is no data about the number of bees we have. Like, the kinds of bees, the species that we have….it’s incomplete data. Whatever we have, is old, British times data. Now, there are some amazing people like Dr Belavadi –he’s a taxonomist—who are generating data and are collecting all the records. There is a lot of bee species yet waiting to be discovered. I can tell you that from 2015-2021, every year, the number of beehives, I am getting in my society have reduced. I was filming in Coorg and the farmers tell at one time, around February, after Shivratri, the bees start coming. All the forests are blooming at that time. And, at one time you have literally 100s of dorsata bees on a single tree. That’s how they are. They always come back to the same location, year after year after year. Because they have something that’s called site fidelity. That’s the unique thing about dorsata bees.

21:08

And if this farmer says 30 years ago we had 100 hives now we barely see 30 or some years the bees skip altogether like 2020, when I went there, they had skipped altogether. There is anecdotal data that perhaps there is a decline but I cannot say that there is a decline. I don’t think that while the forest and crops are all dependent on various kinds of animal pollination including our bee pollination, how would it have a cascading effect? It would have a cascading effect. In fact, there are a couple of things that are interconnected in this.

Bees are a keystone species. The minute I say they are a keystone species and if I remove-and you would know that if you remove a keystone species and there is a disturbance in the species, the whole arc will fall. This is the same case with bees. Not only honey bees-it’s not only dorsata I am partial to, it’s all kinds of bees.

22:25

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. What do you hope to achieve with your documentary, ‘Colonies in Conflict’?

Rajani Mani: I think, I want people to see bees in a way they haven’t seen bees before. I want them to really notice them. Because people understand what honey is, they consume honey, they consume food, that’s why they survive. All of that is a result of pollination. All kinds of specialist bees pollinate special crops that we are used to eating now. But we don’t understand the input or the value of bee pollination whether it’s our food or our forests. So, I hope that for a moment that this film will make you stop, think, pause and just observe the beauty of the bees and what they do as in what we do to them.

23:20

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Rajani Mani: You know there are a lot of films that are made from the human angle of how dangerous it is to hunt for honey. Honey hunters who climb on all kinds of cliffs to harvest honey…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’ve seen those.

Rajani Mani: But this (film) is still is not about honey, it’s about the bees and it’s about the very precious service that the bees give and provide to us.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent. And you’ve been filming for quite a few years, right?

Rajani Mani: I’ve been filming since Oct. 2019 but we had a brief pause because of the pandemic and also the shoot is seasonal. I can only film when the bees are around. Like I said, the flow is October to March or April is the period that I can film. During the monsoon, you don’t see bees. There’s nothing I can film at that time.

24:20

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. So could you share a conservation-related word that’s significant to you? It could be bee-related or not be?

Rajani Mani: At the moment, it would be ‘pollination’, you know? Because, I think pollination of our wild spaces, our forests are dependent on insects like bees, whether they are social bees or solitary bees. And, we need to recognise that we have to continue to have forests space, have safe spaces for our animals, for our biodiversity as such. So ‘pollination’ it is.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was hoping it would be. We keep hearing of putting out sugar water for bees in summer. I don’t know if this is a weird question but how can we not kill with kindness? Could you share some guidelines on what not to do?

Rajani Mani: You don’t really need to put out sugar water but what you can do… They will figure it out. The bees are there because they have found food sources close by. If there is no food source, they will not be bees there. So don’t worry about their food source or their forage and feed them sugar water and all that but they do need water. Especially social bees because they build these large hives and they have such a huge population and it gets hot in the summers. They need a lot of water to keep cooling off. So, what you can do is have a shallow bowl and fill it with pebbles and a little water and keep it just like you do for birds, you know, you place it for the bees.

The bees are in your balcony they are there for a very short time; three months, not more than that. So, try and not to use that balcony especially if they are dorsata bees. They are the only ones that build hives on balconies. And, close your window meshes and close your curtains by 4:30 pm because these bees are phototactic. They get attracted to light and they come inside the home. Actually, the ones that come inside the home are foragers.  They are out foraging. That’s when they get attracted by the light and they come inside, and then can’t break away. They won’t sting you. They are you know, in distress themselves. There’s a lot about these dorsata bees which is interesting and crazy…I don’t know if you have the time for all that.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, especially in urban spaces it’s good to know what you should do and what you shouldn’t do.

Rajani Mani: So, let’s say, when the bees want to build a hive, a bunch of them will come earlier and they do a recce and they will see if your balcony or your space is suitable for them. And at that space you see let’s say, 50 or 100 bees hanging or festooning on your balcony, you can light a herbal agarbatti and the smoke will distress them and they will think that this is an unsuitable place and they will leave by themselves.

27:50

The other thing you can do is…let’s say you were out on a holiday, you came back and you find this hive and one of you is allergic and you can’t afford to have this thing…what you can do is again light a herbal agarbatti –not a doop—below the hive for a couple of days, like 2-3 days. So, what happens is when the smoke comes it disturbs the bees. So, they decide this is no longer a viable place. And the queen will stop laying eggs. But they will not fly away immediately. They will take about 15 days which is the period they need for all the food and the resources –the entire brood to emerge. Once the entire brood emerges, then the bees fly away to another place. But the queen will stop laying lays once the hive decides this place is no longer viable. Then, it’s a two-week waiting period. Then they leave. So, you can try these things you know? The more conservative ways rather than pest management spraying or taking matters into your own hands because that’s quite cruel.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s fantastic. Thanks for enlightening us about the bees. It’s been really nice talking to you Rajani.

Rajani Mani: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed listening to Rajani Mani and all about bees as much as I have. Do check out some links about her work and the whole transcript for the show on my blog Earthy Matters. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on many platforms. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com I’m Lalitha Krishnan signing off. Till next time stay safe, be kind to bees and do subscribe for more episodes.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy of Rajani Mani. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

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.

Useful Links: https://www.elephantcorridorfilms.com/

https://indiabiodiversity.org/

“Barrenness is Always a State of Mind, Never a State of Land”-Yuvan Aves

Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep# 24 Show Notes (Edited)

O:06

Introduction: Hi there, Thanks for listening in to season three, episode #24 of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan bringing you more stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world.  You can read the show notes of this episode right here and check out the extra links provided by my guest below.  I am speaking to Yuvan, a naturalist, educator, activist, musician and author. One of India’s young influencers Yuvan is currently documenting coastal stories, helping create tree laws, saving the biodiversity of sand dunes and water bodies apart from a host of other ecologically relevant issues. 

0:46

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you Yuvan for joining me and my listeners on Heart of Conservation. I’m truly excited to be speaking to you. There are so many things we can talk about but I’d like to start with something more recent if you don’t mind. In collaboration with the Madras Naturalist’s Society, you recently launched the Urban Wilderness Walk Internship which in your words is a dream come true as a naturalist and educator.  Tell us the why, what and how did you realize this dream?

1:20

Yuvan Aves: Yes, sure. Firstly, I am very, very delighted to be on your podcast. A lot of people you have spoken with, some of the questions you have asked, their work, their voice, their writing has been very formative for me and so I’m very happy to be here in conversation with you.

So, see, Urban Wilderness Walks emerged from this idea and thinking about what creates cultures. And is it possible to have a city-wide culture which is eco-centric where people are excited about, are knowledgeable about, are engaging with the biodiversity found around them in an urban space…that’s the challenge…and active about environmental issues, and exercising agency. And not slinking away into life which urban spaces often presses on us. Of being passive, of going to work, coming back, you know, sleeping and eating and all the rest of it. so, the dream of the Urban Wilderness Walks Internship is to try to create a city-wide network of young naturalists, resource people who can facilitate activities around ecology, nature, environment. That they then periodically take people on walks and kind of evoke urban spaces in an entirely different light. That was the dream and it kind of grew slowly. First, it was a few friends…I did it in my apartment…I do it once every few months. Then I asked some friends, who are also naturalists to do it at theirs but that wasn’t kind of meeting what I was visioning in my head. Then, through Madras Naturalists Society, we actually offered it as an internship for colleges. For life science students. One of the things about Chennai is that it does not have an ecology course…Chennai or its outskirts. In fact, there are only one of two places that offer young people a course in ecology or conservation biology or environmental sciences. People often diffuse away to Bangalore, to Dehradun and other places. You know, the aspiring naturalists who want to pursue a career here.

So, the idea was to train young people with the experience, the knowledge, the skills the tools, to be fantastic facilitators…you know, who get people excited about living things and nature in urban spaces.

-Yuvan Aves

4:15

Lalitha Krishnan: Interesting that a state like Tamil Nadu doesn’t offer ecology courses or enough of it as you say. You encouraged some of your students to draft this petition to push for a law for Urban trees and they succeeded. In fact, you shared an (Instagram) story where I think they’ve convinced 600 schools and colleges. That’s amazing. That must have felt very empowering (for them). Could you briefly tell us about this?

4:48

Yuvan Aves: That campaign is part of a Nature Education cum Citizenship Programme I conduct for a school where I’m working for the past three years called Abacus Montessori School. Very fortunately, it’s grounded in the Montessori philosophy. And Montessori is one of those educational philosophers who went through the worst of human history. You know, the world wars and said, “Oh, we need to reimagine education. Children need to be able to think for themselves. They need a variety of experiences. Their experience of learning needs to be uncoupled from the larger market forces.” And these were questions she pondered upon deeply and wrote about them. So, in our school we have this programme for Nature Education right from Primary, you know, the little toddlers to up to Class 12. So, when we come to Class 10, 11 and 12, it’s about citizenship. Citizenship in the way we’ve crafted it for our school means a few things. One is, that children’s learning is in direct participation in matters of society, environment and politics, and governance. In direct engagement with the real world. Not just intellectually or not just in kind of insulated silos. It also means being active and practising action as a grounding and philosophy. Which means a whole range of things you know. Children decide, OK, this is my question, this is my concern, I am going to pursue it. Agency coming from within rather than coming from instruction outside. This is kind of what the Citizen Science Programme holds for children.

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright.

6:47

Yuvan Aves: So, Class 10 children learn RTI (Right To Information). You know, how to file RTIs for the State, for the Centre. And there’s also a reflection into what ‘Freedom of expression’ means. What ‘Active citizenship’ means. What are the different things they want to pursue based on their life experiences and backgrounds? And they use RTI as a medium to explore this whole thing and different modules like that. So, in Class 11, we have something called A Class Campaign. So, children come up with a cause that is local, which pertains to Chennai or Tamil Nadu, and find ways of amplifying it or giving voice to it. Engaging with it in real-time. So, last year, the Class 11 children took up the Save Pullicat campaign. You know, right now, a beautiful lagoon is under grave threat because of a port proposed by the Adani Group. So last year they took that up and they made some beautiful art and they also ran a petition. They had other ways of spreading the message. And, they conducted a press conference in Chennai. And through that, what happened is the message reached a whole lot of people and a public hearing was decided for the port. We know public hearings are shams you know, often in the process of  clearing of wild spaces. They were able to stop that. Because the media took it up…

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice.

8:25

Yuvan Aves: …and the District Collector said something like, “Let’s scrap the public hearing, looks like a whole lot of people are going to turn up; we have Covid issues…” and you know, all that stuff.  And they stopped that and that was such an important thing in the campaign because very shortly later, a few months later, the new government came and they kind of rode on this. 

You vote for us and we will scrap the Adani port. 

It was a win in that sense, you know, a little spanner in the works. 

So, this year what the children took up was… you know, these children have been part of creating a forest in an arboretum in our farm school which we have in Vellaputhur. And they have been to different landscapes around Chennai and India, understanding wild places. And so, one of the things they easily took up was a Law for Urban trees. A little background to that is a lot of states in India have a law for urban trees which means there are trees -very old ones- important for the cities’ health, for people’s health which have a specific law protecting them. You take, for instance, Maharashtra. It has a beautiful law, its implementation is up for question, but there’s a Tree Authority made of people and govt. officials who look at how to create awareness. Who scrutinise projects which want to fell a few thousand trees and so on? There is a Tree Helpline. There is a clause that says if trees are more than 50 years old, they get a label called ‘Heritage trees”. That gives them extra protection.  But in Tamil Nadu, there is no such law. Similarly, West Bengal has, Kerala has, Assam has, Karnataka has.

 In Tamil Nadu, any tree falling outside a protected area has virtually no protection. Virtually no personhood. 

10:25

You know, through my activism work and looking at other movements in this state, if there is a tree law, it protects people and places. For instance, Pulicat. If there was a Tree law to protect the mangroves to protect the kinds of vegetation there-which is very old- it would be an added layer of security for the fisherfolk there.  North Chennai is a watery landscape and artisan fishers are 1000s in numbers who have been living here for centuries. 

Similarly, for instance, if you take the Salem highway recently, which has been scraped in some sense by the new government; but if there was protection for trees…lakhs of mango trees were going to be cut. But if they had protection, far more livelihoods are saved.

If you take the common urban landscape, trees support, protect people. They have a social life in urban society. The iron-walla, the tailor, the cobbler, the auto stand…everything is under trees…the provision shop. So, the children took this up and they wrote a letter and they got endorsements from students from about 100 different colleges and schools in Tamil Nadu. 600 endorsements from 100 different institutions. They’ve written to the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, the Principal Secretary of Environment. The media was interested. They spoke to the media and it’s kind of an ongoing process. I’m happy that it’s also kind of triggering conversations in other groups for instance who have been fighting for a cause like this. It’s a kind of coming together and one hope that this will result in a law.

12:27

Lalitha Krishnan: Definitely. That’s great. This coming together is itself a big force if it happens…the voices of many. Moving on, in an article you wrote about coastal sand dunes you said, “Sand is slow water, a patient fluid, which is moved, shaped, folded by wind, waves, and vegetation. It flows over the years and with the seasons, like a current in deep time”.  

I loved that imagery but more importantly, what I didn’t know is the whole significance of sand dunes. That it can create freshwater for one or that sand dunes are even more effective than mangroves and casuarina plantations in terms of protecting coastal communities during a tsunami or storm. How so?

13:22

Yuvan Aves:  Yes, there are studies by Care earth and Feral India which has brought out this truth, you know. Sand dunes are seen often as landscapes that don’t have life. If one were to go with an informed eye one sees so much. I was in a village called Poigainallur in Nagapattinam, a few months ago…in search of sand dunes in fact. Poigai is an interesting word. Poigai means freshwater pond in Tamil; a word which is not often in use nowadays but poigai also signifies an aesthetic water body. Something which kind of has a beautiful backdrop perhaps has lilies and lotuses. It’s called Poigainallur but it’s bang next to the sea. So, one thing that the village is known for and also a cluster of other villages around it is that there are massive sand dunes there. You know 40 feet. You have to climb them like little hills and go around them and navigate the landscape. And the people here have this interesting practice of protecting the sand dunes and letting them revive. If you went and spoke to them, they will say that as long as they can remember, they keep these palm fronds in the direction of the wind and stop the wind. So, sand kind of gathers there and they take palm seeds and put them behind and so they sprout and they grow sand dunes. After storms, after strong weather events, the sand dunes take a beating. They again use this practice to help them recover fast. And the whole aliveness of a coastal dune landscape I was able to see through those people’s eyes. You know, the fisherfolk of that place. And, it’s miraculous, 30 feet from the tide line they have water pumps –from which I have tasted the water—it gives clean water. And perhaps just 200 ft just behind the sand dunes there’s agriculture happening. So, these sand dunes—these are called secondary or tertiary sand dunes– they are massive. Right behind them, there is a forest because the sand has it from sheltered salt-layered winds and it creates a perennial pool. When you walk in such a landscape, the brain is confused because on one side there are waves crashing and on the other side there’s a frog scape. Frogs are calling hardcore freshwater species.

But the deeper hydrological importance of sand dunes or any coastal cities is that sand on the edge of a place actually creates this bio shield from seawater ingressing, you know. Still, water can travel underground into freshwater aquifers and contaminate them and they become unusable. If you look for instance, in North Chennai, where all the large coastal infrastructure has come up because the people here are largely from fisher communities, there is no beach.  If you take archival pictures from British India of North Chennai, you will find there was a very large beach there. There is no beach right now. Interestingly, in 2019, a study by Anna University found that in the whole of India, maximum sea ingress is in North Chennai in places like Ennore and nearby. Sea in some places had come in, crept inside, underground up to 18 km and contaminated water. So, people have had to move from here, build desalinisation plants and so on.

The hope is to evoke the magic of sand dunes. ‘Sand’, the way we use that word is without life but not so. They actually ensure life happens by just being on the coast.

17:46

Lalitha Krishnan: That is so amazing. I really feel like and going and seeing them (sand dunes) now. Tell us about your travels down the Indian coast. Did you do that for two years? I am not sure if I got that right. So, what were you thinking when you began this venture and what did you return with?

18:04

Yuvan Aves: Yeah, so hopefully, I will be able to kind of begin again. On the 20th I am going on a long tour of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu where some very special coastal ecologies exist. And pre-Covid, also I was going to different places on the Indian coast and understanding the places a bit and the people who live there. The idea, the interest in coasts started with our campaign for Pulicat and the hope and the action to save it. One of the things we found was that while campaigning for this place, we did not have enough stories. We did not have in fact, in some places, scientific data and other kinds of things that would evoke this kind of place as beautiful, as magical, as worth saving. So, we had to do that on the go, on the run.

Coastal landscapes exist on a cusp. You know, with changing climate, with seas becoming more unpredictable, more intense, they are the most vulnerable. Coasts and coastal communities. But they are also our first line of defence from climate-change driven consequences and impacts raging in from the sea. 

So, they exist on that cusp on that very difficult cusp. They are on the margins and also coastal communities are marginalised in that sense – in a political sense. That feeling… that intersection of realities during campaigning for Pulicat kind of drove this whole idea. So, what we’re doing is…one is a large project all across the Tamil Nadu coast, again, through Madra Naturalist Society. I work with a team of friends. I should mention their names; we’ve all been equally part of that. Vikas, Ashwathy, Anuja, Nandita and Rohit and myself.  So, people call us the Ocean’s Six and all that. So, whatever time we have, we are on the beach. We are with fisher people; we are at estuaries and creeks and so on. We have finished 1/4th of the Tamil Nadu coast and we are looking at, as comprehensively possible, documenting the ecology and the life there. You know the deep inimitable knowledge of artisanal fisherfolk.

If you come to this part of Tamil Nadu, the north, not the entire Tamil Nadu, there are nine words for winds. Wind speech is so vivid that if you walk with a fisherman elder…you know of my greatest teacher has been Pallayam from Urapukkam village near Adyar estuary.  He can stand there and he is so intensely perceiving the wind. And he can tell you if it’s (the catch) going be mackerel. Is it going to be no catch, is it going to be anchovies or is it good for crabs? (All) by reading the wind.

-Yuvan Aves

That, I have been understanding a little bit but for them, it’s an embodied knowledge. It’s knowledge in their blood. So, local knowledge and threats to this landscape. This is something we hope to do for the entire coast of Tamil Nadu.

As a personal thing, I want to travel to different places in India and collect these stories. I was in Goa recently speaking to fisherfolk in a village called Nauxim. Interestingly, the fluctuation between spring tide and mead tide is called sudthi-budthi. I just hope I am pronouncing it correctly in Konkani. Interestingly, sudthi-budthi is also a reference to our variation in emotion and mood. So, in their speech, the coming in and going out of the tides—the lunar fluctuations—is likened to the emotionality of the sea. And therefore, the sea is alive in that sense.

22:41

Lalitha Krishnan: Beautiful. So, do you think all of your travels, the research and conversations you’re having will one day become a book? Do you see a book emerging from it?

Yuvan Aves: Yes, that is a dream, stories from all around the Indian coast. Of biodiversity, of local knowledge of different threads of a coastal landscape being magical places. Perhaps a collection of essays or perhaps a different form. Of course, there are other people who are doing fantastic work. For instance, Marine Life of Mumbai. Work like those groups… different parts of India. Yes, I do hope it becomes a book in a few years.

23:31

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope so too. I would love to read that one. Yuvan, again, talking about music. You have so many talents.  In 2019, you held a musical concert for conservation where you also performed.  Tell us about your musical interest and the specific cause that you held this concert for?

23:52

Yuvan Aves: I’m a recorder player. The recorder is not a recording device. It’s a musical instrument from Europe. It’s a woodwind instrument seemingly simple to play at the beginning but it gets a lot harder when you progress with it. I started learning the recorder when I was three and a half when my mom joined me for classes. Interestingly, just a note about my teacher who is no more but then I owe a whole lot to him. S Balakrishnan. He was also a famous Malayalam music director. I wanted to pursue this instrument purely because of his own kindness. I was initially learning the piano from him. But he did not know it too much so he said, “See, this is all I know with respect to the piano. I can refer to other good teachers but if you want to learn from me, I know this bunch of (instruments). I know the flute, the recorder,” and so on. So, I happened to tell my mom, “See I don’t care what I learn, I want to learn from that teacher”. And, he was very kind and helped me love music. I have not pursued the piano. I have not pursued other kinds of things I had started learning deep back in childhood. But this, I have been able to pursue till date and I am a music teacher also and that is, of course, thanks to my teacher. So, coming back to your question about the concert of 2019, one of the things I hope to continually explore –of course, Covid got in the way—is to merge music with my work in activism. One opportunity which came by was the move of the Chennai metro to hack down Panagal park. That’s an old park with some very, very old trees—a few 100 of them—for a metro station. A metro station is a railway station that the cream of the cream of society uses. There’s MRTS, there’s Southern Railways, there are four kinds of local railways.  Of course, it’s public transport and I have nothing against that but their siting was in parks. They’ve already kind of flattened two very old parks: Nageshwara park and part of Thiruvika park they have taken over and constructed and those parks have gone. And so, they wanted to take over Panagal park as well.

Panagal park is there as a green lung space, an oasis you can walk into in the most haphazard hectic park of Chennai. Around it is large cloth shops, Saravana stores, Nalli and so on where in fact, the employees during their break, come in here to destress. That’s something you see. It’s an important landmark of Chennai. So, they wanted to hack that down; we were putting together ways in which to stop that. Initially, we took Rober Macfarlane’s Heartwood poem. That’s the poem he wrote for the people of Shielfield who were protesting against the cutting of trees in their streets.

“Would you hew me to the heartwood cutter?

Would you leave me open-hearted?” As if the tree was speaking to the woodcutter who has come to it with an axe. I adapted that poem for Tamil and we made a little animation of it as a way of gathering solidarity with people. And, after that, if you look at music, music comes from the belly of trees. If you look at, for instance, the veena, or the kanjira, if you made it out of the heartwood of any other tree other than the jackfruit tree, it wouldn’t sound the same. It wouldn’t be the veena…its characteristic timbre and tone. If you made the violin from anything else other than spruce or maple or a few other related trees it wouldn’t sound like a violin. Similarly, with all the instruments you hear in an orchestra, the cello, the viola, the bamboo flute… So, music is really as we have known it for all these centuries, is the belly, the hearts of trees singing. So, that was the theme of our concert. ‘Music comes from the heart of trees, let’s save them’. And, there were professional musicians, there were children, there were readings of poetry around trees and it did make an impact along with the other kinds of campaigning work we did. And, right now the plan to hack down Panagal park is stalled. Not shelved but then Chennai Metro has gone silent about it and we are keeping the pressure on so yes.

28:55

Lalitha Krishnan:  Another beautiful effort. Also, I would never have thought of musical instruments like that though we do know they’re made of wood. That’s really amazing. So, you do want to harness the powers of music and use it to propel your activism more in the future.  

Yuvan Aves: We planned in fact, a concert around wetlands in 2020. But that did not come to fruition because of Covid. But hopefully, when things ease up, even more, we’ll be able to do that.

29:27

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re self-educated; you authored two books already, and you’re at the forefront of relevant conservation efforts in terms of educating and engaging. Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your life? I’m sure there are many.

Yuvan Aves: About the self-education journey itself, I am firstly very, very grateful to my mother whose life has not been very easy but one thing which has been her priority and continues to be is my growth and well-being. And despite all the hardships she faced, she gave me a beautiful childhood in the sense that parenting often becomes about projecting one’s own identity and needs and what one wants to draw from society onto the child. My mother’s philosophy of parenting shifted that and I am very grateful for that. And that’s something I’ve learned from and practised in my work as an educator. She observed me-the child-breathlessly. She would observe with care and curiosity – “What is the energy of this child? What draws him?” And then, she would feed into that. She would go read up, she would go research and she would buy things, create the experiences and that played a very big role for me to grow as a naturalist and in different fields which are not very popular or not too many people are in. Of course, increasingly they are but not as much perhaps.

So, it started like that and I was also fortunate to go into a Krishnamurthy School. First, I was at The School, in Chennai on a very beautiful campus.

And Krishnamurthy’s philosophy was you know, no group or person or leader or spiritual organisation can lead you to the truth. You have to be a light onto yourself. He said, “truth is a pathless land”.

He spoke about the energy to find that which is true or eternal is deeply unique or driven from within each individual, irreplaceably so.

31:51

So, the school’s philosophy was—and I met some amazing people there—who were interested in wilderness and nature who came to teach there. So that was important nourishing soil. After class 10, studying there-because of different circumstances, I did not want to pursue schooling in the conventional sense. One midnight, I went to the Director of my school. I said, “See, at this point in time, I can’t be at home. I don’t think I can pursue school the way I’ve done so far. You know, I have different ideas in mind but I just wanted to reach out to you.” His name is G Gautama and he has been an inspiration throughout. Both his philosophy and his toughness and his different threads of reimagining what education should mean… He would often come and say, “See, I don’t care what I’ve taught you,” -to parents, you know-, “If these three things, children feel good about, my work as an educator is complete. One, they should not contemplate self-harm or suicide. Two is they should be able to walk on fresh paths. They should feel empowered enough to try something entirely new”. And, he had a few principles like that which I am not recalling at the moment. So that fed in a lot into my own strength and my own practices as an educator. So, I went to him just when he has started a new school near a place called Vallipuram, a 100-acre campus in the fields and farmer landscape of Chengalpet.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is it called?

33:35

Yuvan Aves: Pathashalla. And he said, “You come over here, you pursue your education by yourself and we’ll see what we can do”. We’ll see how else you can be involved. I went there for my A levels, you know, the 11th and 12th, the Cambridge syllabus…I did it all myself. So, I would read the books, add questions, call up different people I knew… perhaps teachers in the school or other people who might be able to help me. I’d say, “Hey, I want to clarify these doubts, would you have half an hour in the evening?”

 And then, I registered in a different school, Headstart Learning Centre outside Chennai. So, I would go there to write my exam and go back. The academic part of my education was very, very small. While I was there, I walked dozens of lakes. I have had so many conversations with colleagues, teachers, children, farmers, the Irula community, other kinds of people from the village

I also started doing what they call, ‘subject enrichment workshops’ for govt. schools around Pathshalla which are in a rural landscape and which don’t have much funds. So, our intention was to connect the content they are learning through the state syllabus to their immediate landscape, the biodiversity they see around them. The tools they use, the lives they live. Their landscape. That also went very, very well. I started reading and writing with far more fervour during that time.

So those are some of the people, there are a lot more. For instance, if I look at my activism work, I am deeply grateful to Nityanand Jayaraman, who I consider as my mentor. Right now, he is writing for Kodaikanal and for what Unilever had done there by dumping mercury and so on. That’s shortly how I came away from the conventional path of education and found other things and other people.

35:40

Lalitha Krishnan: You know, I feel you have achieved a great deal in a very short while usually young people don’t usually get asked this but if you had to turn back the clock, would you have done anything differently? Do you have any regrets?

35:54

Yuvan Aves: The thing with regret is that you know, one goes through suffering in life. One goes through difficult times. And a lot of important learning and a lot of growing comes from that. Sometimes when you think behind superficially you want to not have that difficult period, that painful experience. I’ve had, for instance, a very physically abusive father and a stepfather. And, let’s say sometimes when I look back, I want to undo that. But a lot of the commitment, the energy to work with children and to completely rethink education and parenting and just the community children are coming from that difficult experience.

Lalitha Krishnan: All the wrongs… are you sort of putting it right?

Yuvan Aves: Wrong and right is a polar way of thinking about it but sometimes what we hold as regrets were actually triggers for growth and wisdom, and one learns that on the way. I’m glad I don’t have the opportunity to go back and do anything although one wants to. Because those are times that shifted you, which moved you inside.

37:31

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright, thank you for sharing that. Is there’s anything else you’d like to talk about or share (about your work)?

Yuvan Aves: I want to talk about something that will be out soon. It’s something our coastal team is doing for Place-based Education.  You know, if you’re living in Chennai, everything you do from your daily life to your practicalities to your weather, to your occupation is affected by the fact that you are living next to the ocean. And one of the things about a centralised syllabus is that you learn a great deal about the Ganges and the Yamuna, you know? Important parts of India but then you go and ask an average citizen in Chennai or the public, “What are the three most important rivers through Chennai?” You know, cities grow around rivers always from deep back in civilization till now. That’s something we forget. Nobody can name three big rivers. Adyar, Kosathalaiyar, Cooum. It’s not in people’s imagination. Similarly, the different coastal habitats, the winds, the currents…although they kind of affect our daily life, and knowing about it would be important, not just the place but for our own connection with it, and living our lives in touch with these aspects…it’s not there in what children learn in schools.

One thing we’ve done and I want to share the material with you as well, is a set of posters specific to the coast. What lives there. And a little field guide which people can open. Go out there on any Chennai beach, find 100 different things right from gastropods to bivalves, to crab to reptiles, and so on. When you know the names, when you know what to look for, the place comes alive. 

This is something I like to say in different places as well where I speak. Barrenness is always a state of mind never a state of the land. What is barren is our eyes and our imagination. But when these aspects, something like this come into our lives, places can turn magical. 

So, a little field guide for the Chennai coast. By the end of this month, we would have distributed to a100 schools in Chennai. And the hope is to kind of shift the way children experience these places. One of the things I have found as a teacher is …you know, we had the Vedanthangal (Bird Sanctuary) Campaign. That campaign was mostly a success. I’m saying mostly because it has not been cancelled completely you know? The plan is to de-notify the sanctuary for commercial interests to allow big pharma companies to expand. 

I was happy that I had taken many, many batches of children to that place because when that place was in threat, we went into Covid. Schools wouldn’t function. The first module we did was Vedanthangal. And, children sparked up to it like fire. And it was perhaps the largest, most copious art campaign which has been done in Tamil Nadu. Right from 3-year-olds, 4-year-old children you know… Vedanthangal is not just nursery ground for birds, lakhs of birds but also children.

So, taking children to a place and creating connecting experiences is one of the best ways to protect that place for long term conservation because that place begins to speak to them. It becomes part of their lives; it becomes a source of emotional connection. 

-Yuvan Aves

So, this emotional connection we are creating for the Chennai coast would be available for and distributed all across Chennai and people and public and so on. The hope is to evoke these places as beautiful and magical in people’s imagination.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great so how do you do this. Do you have sponsors who help you make this happen?

Yuvan Aves: Yes, we’ve been sponsored by the Biodiversity Collaborative to make this material, print them and distribute them. 

41:47

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. I usually ask my guests to share a word or concept that’s related to conservation and holds some significance to them. Somewhere I read you’ve discovered 140 words in Tamil that are related to the landscape and are lost in translation or not translatable at all.  I’d like you to share a few of these lost words if you don’t mind. I can add all 140 on my blog, Earthy Matters if you give it to me for those interested.

Yuvan Aves:

One of my other big dreams hopefully is to create an ecological dictionary-not comprehensive in any sense, but then to evoke the deep reciprocity between language and landscape especially in India.  

-Yuvan Aves

There is a beautiful article that was published by the Pioneers where linguistic diversity- if you look at the world- and biodiversity overlap.

The biodiversity hotspots are also the most linguistically and culturally diverse. I wrote an essay about this with specific reference to India and some of the work I have been trying to do; collecting from different parts, different states. It’s called ‘Speaking Rivers, Speaking Rain’. It was shared widely at the time it was written. 

43:20

If you look at, for instance, one very fascinating example in Tamil Nadu, it’s the word, ‘purumboke’. It’s a word that refers to landscapes which are used commonly. Wetlands. Grasslands. Scrublands. These are places which nobody owns but everybody needs. And, they have very important ecological functions. They’re not allowed to be economised directly or they cannot be. You cannot go to a salt marsh and grow paddy. A salt marsh buffers the ocean’s rage. It protects your hydrology; it is a breeding ground for scrimp and fish and crabs. So, you know, sometimes in the minds of local people ‘commons’ also means a cross-species commons. ‘purumboke’ has the potential of embodying that philosophy. But during the colonial times, that word was shifted into meaning ‘wasteland’ because you could not go and grow things there. You could not have your plantations there. You cannot go and grow casuarina in the middle of the lake for instance. So, this (word) was twisted into meaning land which had no use. So now, it’s a bad word… you know, as a vulgar word you call somebody who is of no use as it were. So, one of the things we are trying to do in Tamil Nadu is shifting the word ‘purumboke’ back into meaning something beautiful. That’s an important story with respect to land words. 

You look at water bodies; the number of words for water bodies. For instance, the word ‘eri’ means a specific waterbody that is sheltered on three sides and is a catchment area on the fourth side which is either facing another larger waterbody or is facing a river basin. Eri also means there is a system of flow and overflow of these eris; because if you look at Kanchipuram. After all the real estate, after all the building over wetlands, there still exists 2000 eris today. You look at the hydrological map in the National Wetland Action Plan of Kanchipuram and Chengalpet, you know, two coastal districts in Tamil Nadu, it’s blue. It’s a watery landscape and people understood that the only way to live here was to leave space for water to flow and create space for it to be and recharge. So, the word ‘eri’; I can’t translate it. I call it a lake but I can’t speak of it in English.

46:01

Similarly, ‘poigai’.  You know, we spoke about poigai nallur. Similarly, ‘kundu’, “kundam…  There is another word called ‘Aazhikkinaru’ which are special sites next to the coasts, very near the sea which for some reason give fresh water. Perhaps, they occur in other states too and these are some I visited. If you go to, for instance, Thiruchendur, a coastal temple, there is an aazhikkinaru there, where there’s an aquifer in the ground, right next to the sea which is giving pure freshwater.

And the beauty of these words is that they evoke land through poetry, through ecological function, through the mystery of each landscape

-Yuvan Aves

…and I have been able to collect this from different states as well.  

46:51

For instance, you go to Dibang valley. They have words called ‘Khinu’.  Khinu means spirit. There isGolo’, there is ‘Khe-pa’ there are different kinds of spirits of the forest. Spirit of the large tree, spirit of the hills, spirt of the landslide, of the house fire… 

In the Mishmi perception of the world, everything is alive. Everything is embodied with spirit and agency, and voice. You go to Sikkim, all the words they have…you know, ‘Lepcha’. It started with my interaction with Mayalmit Lepcha who is protesting against the Testa dam. Teesta for them is an important river because their genesis story starts in the Teesta. The first man and woman were created by ‘The Great Mother, ‘Itbumu’ on the Khangchendzonga. When people die, they believe that their spirit travels along the Teesta and reaches Khangchendzonga again. Their sacrality, their spirituality is geographical you know? That’s the beautify of it.  All their words—perhaps, I can share that essay with you is river-rhyme. T

“To be curved like a river”

“To be turbulent like a river” which refers to your mood and so on.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so beautiful…so lovely. Thank you so much.

Yuvan Aves: Thank you Lalitha

48:26

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed listening to Yvan Aves thought as much as I did. Do check out some links (below) on this blog, Earthy Matters. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on many platforms. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com  I’m Lalitha Krishnan signing off, till next time stay safe. Do subscribe for more episodes.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy Yuvan Aves. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

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.

Links to Yuvan’s writings and educational material etc.

Language and Landscape – Speaking River, Speaking Rain – Vikalp Sangam
Journey in Self education and my educational philosophy – The Field of Learning (sanctuarynaturefoundation.org)The Ecosystem of Learning – Vikalp Sangam

Our Educational Material for the Chennai coast – https://1drv.ms/u/s!AnNoDXP8OkoAtFSdiZAgpc7wp_up?e=07RoY4
On Sand dunes – https://www.currentconservation.org/in-search-of-coastal-sand-dunes/
On Pulicat and Vedanthangal – https://www.sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/a-pulicat-story%3A-the-lagoon-that-protects-a-cityhttps://vikalpsangam.org/article/vedanthangal-art-to-save/

When was the last time you visited a zoo? It’s time to rethink zoos.

A conversation with the Assistant Curator of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT)

Heart of Conservation podcast Ep#23 Show Notes (Edited)

Scroll for show notes. Cover photo courtesy @zoologistambika All photos courtesy: Ambika Yelahanka


I am speaking to Ambika Yelahanka whose has a very enviable job involving lots of animals. Ambika’s has a Masters in Zoo Conservation and a specialization in feline behaviour and reptilian husbandry. She’s the Assistant curator at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai. Find out what a day at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust as Assistant Curator looks like. Ambika explains why enrichment is as important for reptiles as it is for carnivores and other animals. She also tells us why zoos play an important role in conservations and explains in detail about captive breeding. She also regales us with her experiences in the game parks of Africa and has interesting info about volunteering at the MCBT (Chennai) and sound advice for future zoologists.

Some useful link – MCBT website – https://madrascrocodilebank.org/

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

Adoption of animals – https://madrascrocodilebank.org/web/adopt_a_reptile

Photo courtesy Ambika Yelanhanka at MCBT https://earthymatters.blog/

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi there, Thanks for listening in to ep #23 of Heart of Conservation. This is season three and I’m Lalitha Krishnan bringing you more stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world.  I am speaking to Ambika Yelahanka whose has a very enviable job involving lots of animals.  Ambika has a Masters in Zoo Conservation and  specialization in feline behaviour and reptilian husbandry. She the Assistant curator at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai. Without wasting more time let’s listen to her amazing story.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ambika, thank you so much for joining me on Heart of Conservation. It’s really nice of you.

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, Ambika tell us why zoo conservation? What inspired you?

Ambika Yelankha: Basically, my inspiration came from my family. My family is not directly involved with conservation but I haven’t ever been alone in the house in a way because my mom and dad have rescued over 200 cats and about  100 dogs. So, from the time I can remember, there have been at least about10 animals in the house along with the humans. So when I selected zoology it was not a big shock to my parents because they knew it was going to be something similar to what I’ve grown up around. That’s why I got into zoo conservation as well. I did do internships in field research and captivity and I fell in love with doing captive work.  Field research is great but I didn’t think that was for me so I did my Masters in Zoo Conservation got into zoos and working here.

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is a typical day at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust [MCBT] look like as the assistant curator?

Ambika Yelankha: As the Assistant Curator, my day usually starts off with a general check-up round so I go around and take a look at all the animals with the help of keepers. So, keepers will report to me or the curator depending on if there is anything to report or if everything is normal. Since these animals are nocturnal- most of the reptiles that we have here are nocturnal- there is a lot of activity at the night and we tend to miss out on most of it because we are not active at night. So, we do a general check-up in the morning to see if everybody is okay. If there’s any leftover food, any faeces that need to be removed from enclosures… Kind of decide what enclosures need to be cleaned for that day. That’s basically my morning. It takes about an hour to go around and check up on all the animals especially the babies to see they’re okay. After that, we tend to get into food preparation. So, with the help of keepers, we will prepare food for the herbivores that we have. For carnivores it’s pretty much basic food…so the meat comes frozen. All we have to do is thaw it and serve the food. Whereas for the herbivores it needs a little bit of preparation, a little bit of chopping for appropriately sized animals. After the food has been distributed, I do have some paperwork so I get some two hours of paperwork done. Then, if any medical treatments are required, I also assist the veterinarian with any medicals treatments that are required to be done that day. So currently we have an animal recovering from surgery so we have him on an alert watch so we check up on him every hour. If we have any special needs animals as such that will take up part of the day as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: So, you have a full day really. There’s a saying (actually a quote) that if you pet a dog, you have a full-time job or something like that but you have a zoo full of animals and keepers. When you speak of keepers and their wards, how many are you talking about?

Ambika Yelankha: We have about 50 people working as a team here. And all of them are separated into different designations. We have the Curatorial team, the Education team, the Veterinarian team and then Management. Our combined total is 50 but people are divided into four sections mostly.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. I saw a post where you were proving engaging activity for a reptile. It almost looked like play but of course, it was sort of an enrichment activity. How important is this for captive animals?

Ambika Yelankha: As many people know and it’s one of the reasons why zoos get a lot of negative comments is because you tend to have wild animals that tend to have usually a lot of mental stimulation as well as physical stimulation in the wild. And, when you house them in smaller enclosures -especially in zoos- you need to sort of providing that sort of mental stimulation especially. Otherwise, like all humans, if you’re not active then you tend to deteriorate in your mental health. So that is something that is not been studied a lot in reptiles but is very common for mammals. Zoos actually provide enrichment ideas, especially for cats. You have your ‘carcass feeding’ or a big ball to play with… There’s a lot of enrichment for mammals but people tend to usually ignore reptiles when it comes to this because they are generally seen as lazy but they seem lazy because they need to conserve their energy. They don’t have that much energy as mammals do expend. That does not mean that they do not require mental stimulation and physical stimulation, especially in captivity. So a saltwater crocodiles that can swim from one continent to another continent needs exercise especially when it’s in captivity. Otherwise weight gain becomes a problem. To stop animals from displaying stereotypical behaviour, to stop the decline in mental health, enrichment is provided.

I am now training with an alligator, ‘Ally’. She is the only alligator bred in India, in captivity. So, I do enrichment activities with her and some of our juvenile gharials and also with our commodore dragons. So, depending on the species, the enrichment activities will change. Most of them will include a positive reinforcing stimulus such as food. So, any behaviour I want them to display will be rewarded with food. But if they display negative behaviour there will not be a punishment as such. She is open to display any sort of behaviour she wants but if she wants food, she will kind of do what I ask her to do.

When I’m talking about enrichment in captivity, especially in zoos, the enrichment is trying to get them to how they would naturally. So that is what separates this from circuses because a circus will make them do human-like tricks, jumping through the hoops and things like that. That is not what we are aiming to do. We just want her to swim really fast. Or jump up to get her food which are things that these animals do in the wild. And we just want her to display those same wild behaviour just in captivity. So there is not unnatural behaviour that will be encouraged.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I like the way you differentiated what they do in a circus. You know it is exactly this photograph you had put up on Instagram that made your work so interesting to me. I’m so glad (I saw it). You’ve explained enrichment in much detail. So, one of the most important questions for you and for people who have negative views about zoos, is why are places like the MCBT and zoos important for conservation?

Ambika Yelankha: As manypeople already know MCBT as such has contributed to reptile conservation the most in India. Rom and Zia Whitaker started this facility because the crocodilian population especially the marsh crocodile and the gharial had declined so much, they were about to be critically endangered. Therefore, they started this breeding facility where most of the mugger crocodiles that were bred here were reintroduced in the wild. And that is how we still have a large population of mugger crocodiles in India right now. So, zoos as such, especially those focused on conservation breeding-especially for critically endangered animals- is very essential because one of the most popular stories are currently with critically endangered species is with the right rhino. Where the only last male passed away and the species has been declared functionally extinct. But there are two females in captivity which people are hoping to breed and bring back the species. So, for animals that have been hunted to that extent, bringing them back would only be from a captive place as such. So, zoos play a very important role in conservation breeding. Apart from that, zoos play a very important role in conservation education. I think, pretty much everybody saw wild animals for the first time in a zoo. As a kid, the parents would have taken them to a zoo and that’s where they see a wild animal and you get to learn about an animal that you didn’t even think existed in this world. I think it sort of builds a sort of curiosity.

We have a great education programme at MCBT as well as explaining why reptiles are important. Why you shouldn’t have an irrational fear of them.  Irrational fear of snakes is generational. It’s passed on by grandparents, parents and things like that.  So, if they visit the zoo and we help kind of eradicate that fear, maybe that person will not kill a snake if it enters his house next time. So, we’re hoping that education plays a big role in kind of eliminating fears especially of reptiles and kind of builds that curiosity…okay, maybe they want to join conservation. Because more people in conservation, the better.

Lalitha Krishnan: I think education and awareness makes a big difference. Tell me if I’m wrong but is it more likely that a younger child or a younger person is more likely to be influenced by you than say, an adult who has lived his life in fear?

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

Lalitha Krishnan: The last I visited a zoo was in Nanital aeons ago and to tell you the truth I had never seen healthier animals in any other zoo. They also had the opportunity for the public to sponsor animals which was pretty unique back in the day. I believe the MCBT also does that.  But are people as receptive to sponsoring reptiles?

Ambika Yelankha: I think, with MCBT especially there are a lot of sponsors and a lot of people adopting the animals. Because the curiosity for snakes and crocodiles has exponentially grown over the years. And the outreach programmes done by MCBT has really made a big impact. My coworkers travel around the country and visit schools and hospitals to try to bring these species to light. And, they talk about why conserving them and why respecting their boundaries is also very important. So, I think these outreach programmes have played a very big role as well as social media. We have a big following on social media and a big following for our founders as well since they have done great conservation work for the country. They have a, I would say a fan following, very loyal people. So, the adoption scheme is going quite good especially the sponsorships. There are a lot of people who want to adopt crocodiles.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, are these people from India or abroad mostly?

Ambika Yelankha: Most of our adopters are Indian. We do have a couple of people from abroad. We have a lot of parents adopting for their children’s birthdays. Birthday gifts…

Lalitha Krishnan:  How nice. Very cool. They’re changing the whole mindset.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, when you’re speaking of outreach and schools, what kind of schools do you go to? Are they private or govt? Or do you cover the whole spectrum?

Ambika Yelankha: I think the entire spectrum is covered. We started with govt. schools especially around Chennai because we are situated in Chennai. It was first initiated in all the govt. schools in and around Chennai and the radius slowly expanded from there. Now we have sister organisations that have taken up/are doing it in different states as well. So we have a bunch of organisations that collaborate with us and do it in the state that they’re present in as in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It started with govt. schools but we started advertising it more on our social media and that got the attention of public schools and private schools as well. We’re now in collaboration with companies that will sponsor our travels and things like that and are going to schools all around the country right now, including the North East especially. Now we’re concentrating on schools and hospitals in the northeast and are hoping that it’ll be fruitful.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So, if some school were to approach you directly you would make a presentation to them too?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, definitely. Before the pandemic, we used to go to the schools. Any school that calls us, we will happily go and give them a presentation. So for multiple classes, I think my colleagues went every day for two weeks to give talks in multiple classrooms. Snakes, especially are a big fascination. King Cobra always brings out a lot of screams from the children.

Lalitha Krishnan:  But, I bet it’s better than sitting behind a desk and looking at a textbook. That’s cool. So many renowned animal centres around the world like MCBT have breeding programmes that are bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction like the Arabian Oryx, the California condor or the Amur Leopard. I know MCBT also has great success when it comes to captive breeding. Could you elaborate on that?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, MCBT started with the goal of captive breeding and reintroduction. That was the main reason why the entire park was built in the first place. The first main species that was concentrated on was the Indian population of crocodiles. India has three species of crocodiles which is the marsh crocodile, the gharial and the saltwater crocodile. So, the main aim was to bring all three back to sustainable population because the Wild Life Act was published, crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction for their meat and their hide. So, after the Wild Life Act was published, hunting them was banned. It was still a big struggle because the population was so fragmented that without the captive breeding programme it would very difficult to bring them back to a sustainable population. Rom and Zai Whitaker started this park where animals and eggs that were collected in the wild- to ensure a 100% hatch rate- collected eggs from the wild and also a couple of animals from the wild. All this with permission from the forest dept., with permission from the state govt. and the central govt. and they were bred here, especially the marsh crocodiles. Once they reached a size and an age where the crocodiles could fend for themselves, they were reintroduced into pre-selected sights. So researchers from MCBT went to these wild sites and you know, did the research and saw what would be the best sites for reintroduction throughout India. These particular sites were selected and marsh crocodiles were transported from here to those sites and reintroduced. Now we have a thriving population of marsh crocodiles in India.

Lalitha Krishnan:  It’s a huge project. Getting so many permissions to start with and to ensure that these marsh crocodiles adapt and survive in so many different parts of India is quite amazing.

Ambika Yelankha: Because the work doesn’t stop after you reintroduce the animals. You have to constantly monitor the reintroduced animals to see how they are doing. Because once you have reintroduced them and they are not doing great and reducing again then your site was not great then you have to change sites again. It’s a lot of work that continues after your animals have left the facility as well.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Right. So, you’re still looking after them for a long time. Being a zoologist can have its perks apart from the obvious one of working with animals. You seem to have travelled/worked in many countries. Tell us about your experiences. I‘m sure the young people who are listening and want to be zoologists will be even more inspired.

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, I ‘ve had the privilege of working in a couple of places around the world. That was mostly during my Master’s degree. During my Bachelor’s degree, most of my internships and volunteering were within India. I did my Master in Zoo Conservation from Manchester Metropolitan University. Through the university…they provided a lot of opportunities, especially since I was doing Zoo Conservation… they had a collaboration with Chester Zoo which is in the UK. I got to do a six-month internship with Chester zoo. So, basically, while most college students go to their classrooms, my classroom was the zoo. So for six months, I had to take my class in the zoo. I had a lot of hands on experience. I got to do my Masters thesis as well at the zoo with some incredible researchers, incredible scientists. People who have been involved with zoos for over 40 years. I got to learn a lot of things.

Along with that, we did have the opportunity to go do a field project as well for which we were taken to Tanzania in Africa. We went to over eight national parks kind of doing research projects.  I selected the grassland density of butterflies. I got to walk around the savannah with armed guards because hyenas were lurking right behind the bushes where I had to collect data. It was an experience that I shall never forget.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can imagine. I’m sure you have some particularly memorable moments which are part of these experiences at the zoo and the savannah.

Ambika Yelankha: When we were in Tanzania we were camping…so, the campgrounds are in the middle of the savannah. So, basically, you’re living inside the protected area. They warn you saying, the animals have become quite comfortable with visitors and do not shy away from entering campsites even if there are people there. So we were always told to be on the lookout. When we were in the Serengeti and we were camping out in the night, a bunch of us girls went to use the washroom and we opened the door and there were three hyenas right inside the washroom. We screamed and the hyenas kind of -I don’t know what the sound was-but I would say, they sort of screamed. They ran in one direction and we ran in another direction. It was almost comical.

Lalitha Krishnan: But scary at the same time. For both animals and humans. Lovely. So, you know, do you take volunteers and what sort of work can someone who wants to volunteer expect to do?

Ambika Yelankha: MCBT has a great volunteering programme as well as internship programmes.  Currently, due to the pandemic, we are not taking any volunteers at moment but we will soon be opening programmes for people. And, anybody from any background can apply for this. It doesn’t have to necessarily have to be a zoology background. You can be from any background if you want to come and work with animals just for a week. That’s also OK. You get to be part of all of our four sections other than the management section. If you’re interested in the curatorial aspect you get to follow our keepers around, kind of observe what they do. And they’ll teach you the ropes of taking care of the animals. If you are more of a people person, then you can always tail our education officers who’ll teach you how zoo education works. How it is talking about animals. There are a lot of myths and false beliefs about animals and how you need to tackle those things. So you can do that. We also have some veterinary students that want to come and volunteer. They get to work with our doctor here and learn how reptile medication works.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. You said you can be from any background. What about an age limit? Do you have an age limit?

Ambika Yelankha: As long as you’re 18 and above, there’s no upper limit for the age.

Lalitha Krishnan: You might just find me at your doorstep one of these days. So, I usually ask my guests to share a word or a term or concept something significant for them. Would you like to share something?

Ambika Yelankha: I may have just about have a few words (of advice) for people who want to get into conservation and study wildlife. I would say if you have the opportunity and you have the financial aid, please go ahead and spend that to further your education. Otherwise please look into getting internships and volunteering programmes rather than taking out loans. Don’t get into debt to try and get into this field. Because this field will not help you pay your debt back.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s if you study abroad right? Can’t you study here in India?

Ambika Yelankha: Yes, you can study it here. It’s quite cheap as well. There’s the Wildlife Institute of India, there’s NCBS and ….. There’s ATREE and a lot of other institutions that offer you programmes to further your education while they get you internships and volunteering opportunities. If that is the case, yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good advice. Thank you so much.  OK Bye.

Check out the useful links provided above by Ambika Yelanka. I hope you enjoyed Episode 23, stay tuned. I’m Lalitha Krishna and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read all show notes right here on my blog Earthy Matters. If you know someone whose story should be shared do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation podcast is available on several platforms so do check it out. Till then 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

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.

Women for Nature: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia.

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Ep #22 Part I Show Notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi! I am Lalitha Krishnan and I am back after a very long time. You are listening to part one of episode #22 of Heart of Conservation podcast. This is season three. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected to our natural world. This episode focuses on bird life. I am speaking to three amazing women who are working for Nature Conservation Foundation, they manage and coordinate three programmes, Bird Count India, Early Bird and Nature Classrooms. Let’s find out what they’re all about.

A little warning. These interviews were conducted over Skype separately and they are not all of a consistent quality.

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Lalitha Krishnan: First, I am talking to Mittal Gala. She took the plunge into wildlife after several years of working a corporate job. She has worked at Agumbe, one of the wettest places in India, at a reptile zoo in Chennai and as the chief naturalist at an eagle lodge near Ranthambore National Park.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for speaking to me on Heart of Conservation podcast Mittal.

Mittal Gala: Thank you, Lalitha

Lalitha Krishnan: So, you are a naturalist who runs Bird Count India at NCF, so can you explain what bird count is and your role?

Mittal Gala: Yes, so Bird Count India is an informal partnership of organizations and groups and then this includes government, non-government organizations, groups on Facebook, birding groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and naturalist birding communities, so with all of them we work together to increase their knowledge of bird distributions and the populations and Bird Count India aims to promote bird watching and bird monitoring with a view to generating knowledge and we do this through eBird. It’s a very useful tool to monitor birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, so Mittal how did you start working for NCF?

Mittal Gala: So, for the last many years I have been birding but it was it was not until 2013 when I actually started looking at citizen science projects in India. I was introduced to this Citizen Science Sparrow where we conducted interviews with various public visiting the park that I was working and we were collecting information on sparrows because at that time it was believed that the sparrows are declining and we wanted to find out reasons and I was told that with this kind of documentation, scientists will be able to find out what is happening to sparrows, so that fascinated me a lot and then I started exploring other programmes in India that involve citizen science and I came across eBird and I think I’ve been using eBird for almost, since 2014 or so and then when there was an opportunity in Bird Count India to work with birds and promoting citizen science, I went for it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Great! Do you want to briefly tell us about eBird?

Mittal Gala: So eBird is one of the largest citizen science projects in the world that involves gathering information in the form of checklists, bird lists uploaded by birdwatchers. So many bird watchers like to keep a diary of the birds that they saw, where they saw it and how many they saw. So, all these lists were just gathering dust in their diaries, there were not being used for anything and when eBird became popular in India and the idea of having all this information put on a common platform and people started seeing this, it was a game-changer and a lot of birders got highly excited about it. A lot of old birders also went back to their diaries and then uploaded all their information on eBird. Like a digital diary that not only helps a birdwatcher to keep a record of his or her sightings but also helps the scientific community because all the information is gathered at one place for them to analyze and look at.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, I think that’ll be useful for people who still haven’t used eBird.

Since the pandemic, a lot of people are just birding from their garden. They have got hooked to eBird on their phone so it’s very easy.

Lalitha Krishnan: Bird Count like you explained is pro citizen science right, so then give us a little detail about the projects that you all are working on.

Mittal Gala: A few years back if someone would have asked what is the most common bird in India there would not be a single answer to it. Everybody in different parts of the country will have different answers but now we have data to say that common mynah is the most common species in most parts of the country. This data is based on the list that gets uploaded during the great backyard bird count. It’s just based on this four-day data we were able to analyze to see what are the most common species, the most reported species in India across different regions, North, West, East, South and we found out that in most regions common mynah makes the top first species and this great backyard bird count happens every year in February with bird watchers across the world engaging in watching listening and listing birds through eBird and since this event is carried out around the same time of the year in February, it helps to create an annual real-time snapshot of bird distributions. This is a global event and it’s celebrated widely across the world but we also have national events and regional events following the same concept and yeah and a lot of interesting things come out when people participate in this event.

Lalitha Krishnan: So that’s interesting and so your regional and other events they would be spread out through the year, is it or is it around the same time?

Mittal Gala: No, most of the time it is, so for example, most of the time it is the harvest, some regions like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, they have it during the harvest festival, Pongal, Onam and Bihu bird count in Assam and then we have the national…BNHS has its Salim Ali Bird Count in October, yeah, during Salim Ali’s birthday, so yeah, it is you can say they are spread out but most of the events happen between October to March, I would say.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, great! The monthly birding challenges also you have apart from all this. How well is that received?

Mittal Gala: The monthly challenges were designed to supplement the annual bird events and they were designed in a way that birdwatchers can keep a track of the birds they see on a regular basis, maybe on a daily basis. So for example in the winter months when we have a winter month that is December, January, our challenges are focused on the winter migrants that arrived in India from various parts of the globe and then again when it is too hot we have challenges where people can just be at one place, which is called stationary birding and they can make lists standing from one place from the garden or from the balcony and things like that. So, these monthly challenges also contribute towards our understanding of the distribution and abundance of birds. It also serves as a kind of motivation for many birdwatchers to go and observe birds regularly.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, and specially I think now they must enjoy the number of birders must have increased, I am sure.

Mittal Gala: Yes, yes!

Lalitha Krishnan: So, what kind of groups or organisations of people approach you for help, you know, in studying birds of their locality?

Mittal Gala: So, we are approached by birding groups, mostly nonscientific organizations that are interested in training workshops on bird documentation and monitoring. We also support regional events as I talked about Pongal Bird Count in Tamil Nadu, Onam Bird Count in Kerala. So, initially, we used to help give support to these events but now over the years these events are doing so great they don’t need any help from us and we just help them to advertise that events on our platform, on our website but otherwise they are just doing well on their own and then many cities are interested in creating bird atlases.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of Bird Atlas of India. OK, so a bird atlas is a, is again a citizen science project intended to map the distribution and abundance of a region’s birds. So, in an active project, the region of interest is typically divided into cells that are often subdivided into smaller cells and then a design is created so that volunteer birdwatchers can go and do uniform sampling. So, Mysore city finished its two-year bird atlas and Kerala state had an amazing five-year bird atlas that just got finished, I think, maybe January this year or something and they are now working on the analysis. And Pune and Coimbatore just started their atlas, but with the pandemic, things are going a bit slow.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah sure yeah! Wow!

Mittal Gala: It is amazing to know that birders are interested to know what birds are migratory or what is the status in the city, they want to know each and every part of the city, they want to know what’s happening to their birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s fascinating I myself amhearing my friends who are not, who probably don’t look at the birds, suddenly wondering what is this bird? Can you tell me what this is? You know and it’s so nice to hear that, not that
I’m an expert but I do have books.

Mittal Gala: That’s really heartening to know because they started paying attention to these things which have always been around but ignored but now it’s nice to know that people are noticing it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, right! Do you also train birding guides?

Mittal Gala: Whenever possible. So, this is how it works, as I said people approach us to conduct workshops in their areas for the birding community and if when we are conducting such workshops we make sure that not only the bird watchers over there but if there are nature guides around they are also invited for those workshops and sometimes we also get approached by Forest Department. So, a few years ago we did a workshop for the guides from the Kanha Tiger Reserve and then recently we did workshops in East Sikkim where there were a lot of freelance birding guides who had attended this workshop and then in Rajasthan we did for the nature guide for the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the guides for the Forest Department in Jaipur. So yes, we do train bird guides.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is so exciting for you also to travel to all these exotic places. Nice! Do you have any memorable moments you’d like to share with
us?

Mittal Gala: Quite a few actually, so I would just share maybe a couple here. So at this place where I was working as a naturalist, this was in Ranthambore, so my lodge was quiet…it was outside the National Park but quite close, so we used to have wild animals walking in all the time. And I had been observing a pair of kingfishers that were nesting-this is in our lodge campus-and so I used to wake up early morning with my breakfast, go there and just wait to see with the first light what would the kingfishers do today? And at one point while I was watching them, at the corner of my eye I felt something is walking around and then I took my binoculars and I see that it is a small cat but it had spots on it and it happened to be a leopard cub.

Lalitha Krishnan: You are kidding me, Wow!

Mittal Gala: Well maybe the adult was around, maybe would have gone ahead or must be hiding somewhere but I saw the leopard cub, one single cub trotting along with this fallow land. So again, while birding I have passed a tiger, in a sitting… hiding behind grass, I had no idea and I had been just looking through my binoculars and I didn’t notice the tiger tracks on the path that I was walking and it was only when I turned around I saw my, the staff of the hotel telling me to come back because of the tiger in the grass.

Lalitha Krishnan: So birding has a lot of benefits, other benefits.

Mittal Gala: So yeah, you have to concentrate on the calls also, you have to make sure that you don’t miss any movement in the trees or around you, could be a bird so that makes you very, I mean, you are, your senses are active all the time and that’s when you see all the other things.

Lalitha Krishnan: Hmm! That’s really lovely actually, you’re so right, you stay still and you observe. Could you finally share word that’ll add to our birding vocabulary please?

Mittal Gala: Yeah, so one word which I learnt, a couple of years back, an interesting thing called ‘twitcher’. Twitcher is an obsessive list keeping birder who pursues rare birds discovered by others and sometimes these twitchers can go to great lengths to see that bird. They might just fly from one state to the other in few hours just to see that bird.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really!!

Mittal Gala: They are crazy birders.

Lalitha Krishnan: So that’s really a new word for me. So tell me people who lookat still looking for the Himalayan quail are they twitchers or are they optimistic?

Mittal Gala: If the bird is seen, for example, just a few months back there was a Red-breasted goose seen in Gujarat. Because of the pandemic lot of people in the rest of India couldn’t, but if there was no pandemic then people from Jammu or people from other states of North or sometimes Northeast would have taken a flight and gone to see it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! I can imagine but I think at least they’re looking in our country, I feel we have so much diversity and you know when people go across continents to go to some National Park, you know, I keep saying hey there’s so
much here come back, you know.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! I can imagine but I think at least they’re looking in our country, I feel we have so much diversity and you know when people go across continents to go to some National Park, you know, I keep saying hey there’s so much here come back, you know.

Mittal Gala: Yeah, that’s true.

Lalitha Krishnan: Anyway, this has been so great. Thank you so much!

Mittal Gala: Thank you Lalitha, I enjoyed it a lot.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m now speaking with Garima Bhatia, she calls herself a chemical engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. She followed her love for birds and joined the NCF and is now the project manager, education and public engagement, Early Bird programme. Garima, welcome to heart of conservation and thank you so much for being a guest on this show.


Garima Bhatia: Thank you so much Lalitha, it’s a pleasure to be here.


Lalitha Krishnan: Garima, let’s start with how you switched professions from
engineering to more nature based ones.

Garima Bhatia: Sure Lalitha. So, I, as I, as you rightly mentioned I’m a chemical engineer by training and along the way, I got interested in bird watching as a hobby. And yes there were some seeds of it in early childhood because my father used to point out birds from our balcony, so while I was in an engineering job I got fascinated by birds and that’s mostly due to where I live in Bangalore. There was this huge abandoned lot where I would observe a number of colourful birds every morning and that got me interested again, and over time it just grew into an obsession really. So every holiday, every weekend whenever I had free time I would be out birding. So by the time, you know, it so happened that the company I was working for decided to close down its Bangalore operations and we were given three months of advance notice and to look for other jobs but then I decided that instead of looking for another engineering job I would try and do something related to my passion which was bird watching and travelling and I was also passionate about passing this on to the next generation. So one thing led to another and I joined NCS to start off this project called Early Bird which was six years ago.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is lovely Garima, you sort of opened the door for yourself and not many people are able to do that and to be able to work with nature is really nice. So are you the brain behind Early Bird? Tell me something about that.

Garima Bhatia: Yes. So I joined at the time, I was hired by Suhail who heads our programme in NCF, it’s called Education and Public engagement and this was a new project that he wanted to start off. And so I won’t say that I am alone, you know, solely the brain behind Early Bird, it’s a collaborative effort with Suhail and with lots of other people who helped along the way, joined the project and also a lot of partners on the ground. Because, we have always been a very small team, so we have a great network of well-wishers and supporters who give us feedback, who try out what we have developed and, you know, help us distributed it. So, it’s really been a collaborative effort in many ways.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK and could you tell me something more about Early Bird? What is the goal of this programme?

Garima Bhatia: So, when we started, this was six and a half years ago, we realized that bird watching is growing very fast as a hobby in India and we could see it in, you know, the number of people who were interested in birds, who were travelling to watch birds, the number of books that were coming out but we realized that there isn’t too much material for children. How do we pass on this wonderful hobby to children and get them excited? So, that was the motivation, you know, to try and get children excited about birds and the first step in doing so was to produce material that’s attractive, that’s very produced, that really get children hooked onto birds. So that was the start.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a great start. I also read something you have called the birding buddies and training the trainers, so would you like to tell us something about that?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, so eventually we realized that you know, as a small team we don’t have that much reach, we really can’t do too many engagements directly with children but what we can do to amplify our impact is to train the teachers and the educators who really work with children on the ground. So we started this series of workshops called ‘how to be a birding buddy’ and these were meant actually not just for teachers but for any amateur birdwatcher because, you know, as birdwatchers we often get requests from our friends and family, you know, people we know in our neighbourhood to take children on a bird walk or children and adults or to come and give a talk about birds and, you know, what is it that one can really do to pass this on to children. So we designed a workshop where we take the participant through, you know, different techniques tips and tricks that they can use to get children excited about birds and it’s a lot more than just knowing how to identify birds, there are various different techniques to use, there is art, there is poetry, change and you know all kinds of creative techniques to use. So, we designed this workshop a few years back and we recently had an online version of this workshop because in the past year we haven’t been able to conduct any one on one sessions really, so a couple of weeks back was our first online birding buddy workshop and we hope to offer more of these going forward.

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright! That must have been quite a change, so how was it received?

Garima Bhatia: So, it was received quite well we had a lot of interest and the advantage of an online workshop is that you know, anyone can join from anywhere. So, we had a large number of applicants but we had to select a smaller group because, you know, while online we can host a much bigger group but our workshops are usually interactive and we like people to really talk to each other and share their experiences. So, we selected a small group of 30 educators, so most of them were actually teachers at different schools and many of them were people who are involved in nature education either in a voluntary capacity or through some organization that conducts awareness and outreach.

Lalitha Krishnan: With the pandemic I’m sure all your workshops must have come to a complete halt. So then what do you all guys do?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, so with the pandemic, you know, we were really constrained in terms of not being able to conduct any events and also our partners who work with children were not able to conduct events, schools were closed and nobody was conducting bird walks. So we decided to do a series of online sessions about birds and we realized that there was a lot of interest in birds because people were homebound and suddenly started observing nature around them. So, there was a lot of interest in watching birds and nature, so we started a series of webinars and we’ve conducted 33 sessions in the last year in five different languages. And they start from a very introductory kind of level where you introduce two birds and the sounds around you, to sessions by scientists who speak about their work in very simple terms that even a child c could understand. So, we did a series of these webinars which are all available on our YouTube channel.

Lalitha Krishnan: For those of you who are listening, do check it out and I’d love to join a future webinar so yeah do let me know.

Garima Bhatia: So actually there’s been a lot of, there have been a lot of requests to us to restart the webinars, so initially, in the initial few months of the pandemic we did a lot of sessions but after a while, you know, every organization was conducting webinars and there was what seemed like an overload of online sessions, so we decided to give a break and take a step back but we may do, you know, maybe once in two months going forward, a session from a scientist talking about something interesting.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s fascinating and interesting Garima, I wish you luck. I also wanted to ask you where can I find, you know, other resources?

Garima Bhatia: So, we have a website where we have a number of resources that are available for free download. And there are games that children can play, individual games as well as group games that a teacher can use in the classroom. There are interactive posters on birds of different habitats where you can really learn about their calls and these are available in nine different languages. We have print materials also that can be purchased, but our website is www.early-bird.in and that’s where you can find all of these. We are also very active on social media so you can look this up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and of course our YouTube channel.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks for that Garima. I also wanted to ask you do you have any advice for birders, you know, most of us are still in our balconies not venturing too far and the seasons are changing, the birds are nesting, so do you
have any advice for birders especially those with cameras and who might have something interesting going on just outside the window?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, well my advice would be to start noticing, you know, even common birds that are around us because often now photographers are always searching for that new species that they haven’t seen before or some, you know, exotic bird but there’s a lot of beauty right around us and, you know, wildlife exists around us. So, to become a little more aware of that. And as we get into the summer and the monsoon so a lot of resident birds start nesting, so that can be fascinating to watch if you’re lucky enough to have a nest of a sunbird, a tailorbird in your neighbourhood but the advice would be to keep a distance and, you know, the welfare of the bird should always come first and that’s the cardinal rule of birding.

Lalitha Krishnan: Garima I just heard a bird behind you agreeing wholeheartedly. So Garima I have one last question, could you share a word related to birding, if possible, that would help us increase our vocabulary.

Garima Bhatia: Yes, I have one, it’s not one word, it’s two words. It’s a brood parasite. So a brood parasite is a species that relies upon another species to bring up its young and in the world of birds we have a lot of brood parasites around us and they are the cuckoo family and the most common one is the Asian koel which is spread across India and what’s fascinating about it is that it lays its eggs in the nest of another bird usually a crow’s nest. And the crow or the other target species brings up the chicks not knowing that, you know, it’s some somebody else’s egg that they are helping to incubate and hatch and bring up the babies. So that’s my word for the day.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks Garima! I have also seen pictures of, you know, these cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of really small birds and it’s fascinating and how these little birds are feeding these chicks that are really double their size
sometimes.

Garima Bhatia: So yeah, absolutely, and actually it’s really fascinating because the reason for that is that the cuckoo tries to match the colour of its eggs to the colour of the host species’ eggs, so that, you know, they won’t find out that there’s an extra egg because they all look the same. So, it turns out that, you know, sometimes those host species are much smaller birds, you know, I think the evolutionarly, they are evolved to, you know, to ignore any visual differences and maybe they just think of they have a really special offspring that looks different from all other offsprings.

Lalitha Krishnan: They won’t be the first species to want super kids, right! Anyway, thank you so much Garima it’s been so interesting talking to you.

Garima Bhatia: Thank you Lalitha, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode, stayed tuned for Part 2. I am Lalitha Krishnan and you are listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthymatters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation is available on several platforms, so do check it out and till 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: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

Saving Thano Forest from an Airport Expansion Proposal

Great Slaty woodpecker pic by Sanjay Sondhi

Ep#21 Read the Show notes or Listen now.

Woodpecker photo:Sanjay Sondhi

Download a Preliminary Checklist of birds of Thano here created by Titli Trust and Cedar.

Thano forest overview photo courtesy Mr Lokesh Ohri

Let’s Talk about Thano. Ep 21 Lokesh Ohri. Abhijay Negi. Sanjay Sondhi. Show notes (edited).

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season three, Episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. This episode is about the Thano forest in the Doon valley (Uttarakhand- the state where I live.) This forest in Dehradun has been in the news lately because the Uttarakhand government has sought the National Wildlife Board’s approval to transfer 243 acres of forest land to the Airports Authority of India. The what, where and why are questions everyone wants answered. You can hear the facts from three prominent Doon citizens who are my guests on this episode. Lokesh Ohri is an anthropologist, historian, writer, and a cultural activist & also the founder of BTDT which is the ‘Been There Doon That’ group. Abhijay Negi is a young activist-lawyer, also the founder of MAD which stands for Making a Difference. Both are active drivers of the #savethano movement. I am also speaking with Sanjay Sondhi, who is a well-known naturalist, founder of the Titli Trust, and community development and livelihood expert.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lokesh Ohri, Thank you for speaking with me. With reference to your article in the (Daily) Pioneer, you heard about these plans way back in 2003. This expansion will flatten a large chunk of the Thano forest. Could you start by telling us what transpired in that conversation? I think it’s important to know the history.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, so it was a meeting for tourism stakeholders which was happening in the Tourism Dept. and because I do several projects with the Tourism Dept. I was part of that meeting. The chief minister was also part of that meeting. He was addressing all of us. At that point in time, the Union civil aviation minister walked in. It was unscheduled. He was probably visiting Dehradun and he decided to call on the chief minister right there at that meeting. And, that’s where I first heard about this plan of expanding the airport and having the night landing facilities, because until now, Dehradun airport does not have night landing facilities.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s right.

Lokesh Ohri:  We don’t have a lit-up runaway, we only have flights in the day time. So that was the time when the state’s civil aviation secretary first introduced this idea that perhaps we could have night-landing facilities and we could expand the airport. So, the minister questioned him about why they wanted to do it. The reasoning he gave at that point in time was that at times there’s a lot of congestion at the Delhi airport, So Dehradun being just 45 flying-mins away from Delhi, probably, the aircraft could here and give some additional business to the state. So that argument was rebutted by the (civil aviation) minister saying that these services would not be required because very close to Delhi we have a place called Greater Noida…in Jewar…we’re already building India’s biggest international airport. Even bigger than the Indira Gandhi Terminal which is the Delhi airport. So, all the night landing…if there is congestion or if there is fog in Delhi–which there is during winter-time, there is a lot of fog in Delhi—so, visibility being poor, the flights cannot land. So, he suggested that perhaps they could perhaps take a call later on. At that point in time, one of us realized that the expansion would happen at the expense of the forest. Right now, the airport abuts, you know, two areas. One is the Thano forest area and the other area on the other side, toward the western side is already an agricultural area. As long as the airport expands in the agricultural area and people get compensated for the land the govt. acquires, we don’t have any issue…we don’t mind expansion of the airport. But we are concerned about the 10,000 trees that will fall for this planned expansion. This has only come to light now because once we have seen the environmental impact assessment report of the National Airports Authority and then we’ve come to realise that this is what the government is planning. And that raises the hackles.

Lalitha Krishnan: I know. Doon citizens have been working for years to save the rivers. The Rispana has been given a special ‘perirenal stream’ status

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: And this proposed airport also, if constructed will be close to the Song river. The implications of this for the river, for wildlife for all life around it, would be quite huge.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, definitely. It’s a huge cost involved.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. There’s also talk of the airport not only being used for commercial flights, parking of the aircrafts in the night and stuff but also for use by the air-force- both of which according to you is really not necessary because there’s another (air-force) airport/base close by.

Lokesh Ohri: That’s a veracious argument. I think all the projects being undertaken in Uttarakhand now…so the moment people start opposing them, they use this, you know, a smokescreen to say that it’s because of national security. And all these people who are crying about the environment and ecology, these people are posing a security risk to the nation. So, I just wanted to counter that argument. What is the security issue? What about India’s water security? Because if the Song gets polluted, and the Song contaminates the Ganga, then one-tenth of humanity is at risk because the Ganga supports one-tenth of humanity in terms of its water requirements.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Lokesh Ohri:  Now, we already have two air-force bases. We have an air-force base at Sarsawa, near Saharanpur which is like, you know… an air-force aircraft takes about eight minutes to reach Dehradun from Sarsawa. We have another big air-force base near Delhi. I think…so most of these fighter aircrafts are super-sonic, stiff like that. They take a very, very short time to reach the Himalayan frontiers. So, if we already have air-force bases which already have air-force materials, how is a commercial airport going to help the security of the nation? That is something I don’t understand.

Lalitha Krishnan: Point. If it’s already there, why (build) another one?

Lokesh Ohri: So, I’m saying, because we already have these two air-force bases and we have air-fields much closer to the border…so we have two airfields, one, right in Pithoragarh and one in Gauchar which cover Garhwal and Kumaon—which are the regions on the India-China frontier. So, expanding the runaway in Dehradun means you are expanding it only for airbus flights to land. Now airbus flights are essentially commercial flights. They have no security angle to them. Now we have been talking to various agencies, like agencies under the Ministry of Environments and Forests. The sense I am getting from Delhi is that Uttarakhand as a state has been the most reckless in terms of forwarding proposals for infrastructure. They have not looked at the wildlife angle. They have not looked at the forest angle. And, they are very callous about the ecological angles. I am getting information that even states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim which are much more precariously placed in India, in terms of security issues…they still look at the environmental costs in great detail. In the case of the airport in Dehradun, the forest land has been transferred to the National Airports Authority by making just one reference to the environmental angle saying that: “in conversations with forest officials it was found that no Schedule I species were found in the forest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. That’s amazing because it’s called an Elephant Reserve. What were they thinking?

Lokesh Ohri: Why did they name it Shivalik Elephant Reserve if no elephants are found there? It is common knowledge. Even when we went to the protests, we saw deer marks on the sand. There are so many research papers that say that this is the last surviving habitat of the Great Slaty Woodpecker.  So, the Great Slaty Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker species found in the world—it’s the largest bird among all the woodpeckers in the world. The Thano forest is the last surviving habitat for the Great Slaty Woodpecker. And, you know, this is a highly endangered species. And even when we look at Schedule I, it has the elephant, it has peafowl; and all these species are very commonly seen in the Thano forest. Any person who has walked through the forest can tell you that these species are found there. So, what were they thinking, who was consulted? They said, “we have consulted forest officials”. They did not even name forest officials. That’s why I wrote in the article that if they had named forest officials, these forest officials should be sacked. If a forest official does not even know what Schedule I is, then how is he expected to know the other schedules. And it’s their job to protect the forests. That’s what they are paid for. That’s what they are trained for.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is said is so true in many ways. We are creating tourism infrastructure by destroying the very experience a visitor seeks.

Lokesh Ohri: Yes, it’s very ironical.

Lalitha Krishnan: Also, very sad. What next? When are they going to make this decision?

 Lokesh Ohri: Actually, they still need approvals from two key bodies, from the government. So we are working on a strategy that we should raise that much noise that these permissions do not come through. But, given Uttarakhand’s track record…they don’t even wait for the final approvals to come and they start work on the project. We have seen that in the case of the Char Dham Mahamarg project: 4 lane highways going all the way up to Badrinath, Kedarnath, (Gangotri and Yamunotri). They did not even conduct an environmental impact assessment report and just went ahead with construction. So, given that track record, we are also keeping all legal options open. We are collecting the data; we are consulting the lawyers. A lot of groups in Dehradun have come together. For the first time, I am seeing that all the environmentally conscious, socially conscious groups have come together and we are all working in a coordinated way so that a legal option is also ready.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to hear. That’s hope. And I hope the Jolly grant stays the way it is. It’s so quaint and lovely. There’s a sense of homecoming when you reach there unlike these big commercial airports. Thank you so much for your time and for enlightening us about what’s happening on the ground. 

Lokesh Ohri: You’re welcome.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks Abhijay for speaking to me on the Heart of Conservation podcast.

Abhijay Negi: Most welcome and thank you for having me.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. As the activist founder of MAD which stands for Making A Difference by being the difference, you have spearheaded several environmental causes including river rejuvenation, wall transformations, plantation activities, earthquake relief operations, etc. You are an original Doon resident. Now with the proposed expansion of the Doon airport, up to 10,000 trees, they’re saying could be chopped down. This must be very close to your heart…as a resident of Doon. What does Thano mean for you? I thought let me ask you that first.

Protest Photo Courtesy MAD

Abhijay Negi: So, Thano means to me and to every nature-loving Doonite…one of the last remaining green spaces where you could hear birds talking in their own language, where you can spot the occasional deer. Where you can just be lost in the awe of nature and be at one with your inner self. People called Dehradun the city of grey hair and green hedges. It was meant to be this kind of a conservation bastion for the country, for the state. It was not a burden imposed on Dehradun. It came naturally to the Doon valley because it was a valley. If you look at Dehradun district or the Doon valley, it is uniquely placed between two major river systems of India. Ganga is on its east and Yamuna is on its west. When we talk of Ganga, four tributaries go into this river, and one of these main tributaries, which is the Song river comes and cuts across right through Thano.  Maldevta is also very close by. Thano is very close to the Rajaji National park and acts likes a natural bump (lost in translation) to it. That entire route to Rishikesh via Thano is also one of the most beautiful drives the city residents can find. So Thano means a lot to any nature-loving Doonite and therefore this crazy, crazy plan deserves to be opposed tooth and nail.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. It is the prettiest stretch. Even going to the airport …it’s so lovely to drive through that forest. I’m always looking out to see if I will spot any wildlife and invariably, I see some beautiful birds, you know, and it makes my day. So, this approval hasn’t come as yet from the…

Abhijay Negi: National Board of Wildlife

Lalitha Krishnan: …and MAD and other concerned citizens have held protests to oppose this expansion. It’s been compared to the Chipko movement, right? So, tell me something about it. How did it start? How did you organise and get so many people to participate?

Abhijay Negi: Yes,one thing about MAD, if I can give you a small context, the organisation started functioning in 2011. And more than an organisation it is like a movement. Much before this entire talk about Swachh Bharat, we as teenagers who had just passed out from school had got together, pooled in our resources, and started organising activities every Sunday—because that was the time when we free. And, we used our own pocket money resources to conduct these activities.

Gradually, with time, we started realising that just us cleaning waste or us planting trees is not going to solve systemic or chronic issues which is why we needed to work on policy. Even before this Thano movement, MAD has been successful in protecting the teas estates in Doon valley near Premnagar where an equally foolish and hellish plan was being discussed which was to concretise the tea gardens of Doon valley. And, to replace the lush green tea estates with repulsive structures in the name of a ‘smart city’. So, we at that time, in 2016, had campaigned that we should first be making the existing city smart instead of trying to be the most unsmart people and concretise green areas.

In addition to that we have also been successful in pressuring the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand—and directly so– because we went and met him -Mr. Harish Rawat in reversing the cycle ban in Mussoorie. Imagine, they were banning cycling. We had some success with that. So, this is probably the third or fourth major policy initiative of the government which we are opposing. I wouldn’t count the river rejuvenation here because that is something we are proposing. So, it is not just a group of opposition. Many people who are our detractors look at us as permanent pessimists. No. we do oppose anything and everything that has no green footprint. Which has no green thought. But that doesn’t mean we are people who are opposing things. Now coming back to Thano specifically, we have a very large volunteer base of around 50-60 youngsters who themselves get activated on such issues. And I would really, Lalithaji, attract your attention to some of the visuals of the Thano protest where you will see that all the banners that MAD volunteers carried…they were all carrying cloth banners.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I noticed that.

Abhijay Negi: We didn’t use any plastic banners. We were wearing our masks, we were very conscious, and then too, we were on the streets because this required to be challenged. It was not just MAD as you rightly noticed. Several organisations, individuals turned (up) on their own for something like this. And, we will do it many times. All of us are loosely in touch. We are coordinating amongst ourselves (to) what should be the next step. MAD for one, has been organising daily nukad-nataks outside Gandhi park—I just got back from one this evening. We will be having one tomorrow, the day after. We are also planning a series of other protests. We are having meetings. We had one with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests—a pretty disappointing one—none the less, we had one and we had one with the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board.  And we have urged the biodiversity board to into this situation. So, we are doing all that we can to stop this both on the street and off it.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. I was reading somewhere that you attended an internship in an ashram in Thano run by senior lawyer Mr. Mehta, is that right? I wasn’t sure what internship that was. Would you like to speak about it?

Abhijay Negi: Yes. In fact, I’m glad that you brought it up. It was in June 2015 that Mr. M C Mehta who is India’s most renowned environmental lawyer; he organised this camp at an ashram that he owns in Thano. There, we went for birdwatching…it was an experience of a kind where we were one with nature. We went into the forest, into the jungle, we heard the birds, spotted the deer, weren’t very lucky with the panther (aka leopard), but never the less we could always sense it around. That is how I can tell you that I know that place first hand. It is a beautiful place. That is why it is very sad for us to hear the Chief minister… The day before yesterday, he said, it’s a political conspiracy. He labelled all our efforts as a political conspiracy. And, it’s very sad that in the 21st century, for a hill state created on environmental issues—as one of the important issues why this state was created. And here we have a chief minister who would probably have even labelled the Chipko movement a political conspiracy. So anything that is celebrated worldwide would be a political conspiracy to him. He doesn’t even make the effort to understand these issues and that’s why we are trying to sensitize the forest dept., the Biodiversity Board… It’s just looking at it from the context of cutting and felling trees. It’s not just the trees. It’s an entire ecosystem you are jeopardising.  It’s the air of the valley. Nobody’s stopping them from going into Doiwala and buying private land. Please buy private land and expand your airport as you please. But, why do you have to so easily and readily come into the Thano forest like this?    

Lalitha Krishnan: What is the timeline here. What next? There’s a petition for it already.

Abhijay Negi: We are alert and prepared for any eventuality. If we get to know that they are actually getting on the ground with any tree felling our 100s of volunteers will be rushing there and stopping it be so physically. The second thing is we are preparing legally for all the steps we have to take. So far, we are still waiting to hear from the National Wildlife Board. We are trusting our institutions and we hope that the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board specifically will play a role here. (It) will step up to save the biodiversity of the area that the government is so eagerly willing to put on the axe. We are also working with other like-minded organisations since this is genuinely a city effort. Several organisations are up in arms against it and we are coordinating with each one of them. At the same time, we are also working to get into a dialogue with this government. We plan to call upon the relevant bureaucrats, relevant ministers, if possible, even the chief minister to put forward our point of view and to request them to roll it back.  So, we will do everything in our power.

Lalitha Krishnan: Good to know. One more question. Does your activism come in the way of your career as a lawyer?

Abhijay Negi: Yes, that is why…I wanted to have this conversation myself in the afternoon. It does come in the way of my lawyering sometimes. If we do file a public interest ligation where I am representing the cause, then all the interviews and everything will stop. I restrict myself to the courtroom as our legal ethics require. I have been involved in several public interest litigations, even for environmental causes. One of them…we’ve got a stay on any construction activity between the Rajpur area of Doon valley which is on…………. (lost in translation), a stay on any blasting activity in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. We also have worked on the health care system in Uttarakhand wherein an ongoing public interest litigation we’ve asked all primary health centres, community health centres, and district hospitals to submit to a questioner that we have prepared. We asked them if they have the basics of health care. So, these are issues I am actively grappling (lost in translation) within the courtroom…in the Nainital High Court. So of course, I can’t generate public opinion on them as much as I might want to but since the organisation is involved here, and we are very, very ably led by Mr. Karan Kapoor who is the current president, who has been working very hard in facilitating all these meetings. And with several volunteers, who are also up and doing the job, the movement goes on.

Lalitha Krishnan: I wish you all the best for your career and your activism and thank you for your efforts.

Abhijay Negi: Thank you for having me Lalithaji.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. This is close to my heart too because the thought of it (Thano ) disappearing forever is not acceptable.

Great slaty woodpecker photo courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay, thank you so much for speaking with me on the Heart of Conservation podcast. As a naturalist, I’m sure you’ve gone to the Thano forest a zillion times. Could you tell us a little about its biodiversity, the species, or what it is you love about it?

Sanjay Sondhi: So, you know, we’ve been going to Thano on multiple occasions in the last decade and I think close to  Dehradun, it’s one of the best bird-watching sites you can have. In fact, in recognition of this, its bird diversity, the 5th Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival was held from 9th-11th March by the Uttarakhand Forest Dept. and during the festival, we released the Preliminary Checklist of Birds of Thano. At that point in time, the checklist was 175 birds. Of course, this is just a preliminary list because even during the festival, we added another 6 or 7 species. My estimate is that it would have more than 250 species if properly surveyed. It’s incredible.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. And there’s so much there than just birds. The forest itself…the trees over there…what species of trees are more common.

Sanjay Sondhi: The forest itself, it’s a lot a broad-leaved forest. There’s a lot of sal over there. It’s a great spot for woodpeckers. I’m sure other people have also mentioned that it’s one of the few locations close to Dehradun where the Great Slaty woodpecker can be sighted.

Lalitha Krishnan: Which is (IUCN) vulnerable, right?

Sanjay Sondhi: Which is IUCN Vulnerable listed. Absolutely. You will not believe it that if you go to Thano, and you stand just in front of the forest resthouse, just standing beside the road, you will spot between 30 – 35 species in the forest around. Just standing in one single location. That’s the kind of avian richness the forest has.

You’re right, it’s not just birds. There are butterflies, there’s a lot of other stuff which actually hasn’t been properly documented. The butterflies… has just been opportunistic. We’re out there for a bird walk and whatever butterflies we see we document. But the quality of forest in that area is such that it’s clearly a biodiversity hotspot. And, to be cutting that to build an airport which is not required is just a travesty of justice I think.  Somebody said we need fresh air.  We don’t need more planes and another airport.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, and nobody is talking about the noise pollution that airports create or an international airport would.

Sanjay Sondhi: Correct.

Lalitha Krishnan: But Thano is not a designated hotspot is it?

Sanjay Sondhi: No, I don’t think there’s a formal designation as a hot spot but…There are designated important bird areas…I don’t think it is even designated as an important bird area but solely by the number of species that we see…and not just birds but other things…it’s a very, very rich biodiversity hotspot which is so close to Dehradun and so easily accessible.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Sanjay we’ve covered the wildlife, but you also wanted to speak about the people in and around Thano.

Sanjay Sondhi: I said, Thano is such a biodiverse area and if we develop it properly, it has such a great potential for birdwatching, homestays with benefits going to the local community. In fact,  Titli Trust-that’s our NGO and Cedar, jointly we are running a nature guide training programme for rural youth which extends from Thano to…………jheel  and it’s a 2-year programme where we’re training local youth in that area to become bird guides and nature guides in the hope that it becomes a livelihood opportunity plus they are strongly focused on conservation because if the biodiversity is not there, they won’t earn anything from nature guiding. And the response has been great. There have been lots of people who have joined and the youth is very enthused because they see this as a win-win where they earn from the area’s biodiversity and they also help conserving.   

Lalitha Krishnan: And they can stay at home rather than leave the state

Sanjay Sondhi: Absolutely. And the benefit goes to the local community who belong to that area. What could be better than that?

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Absolute win-win.

Sanjay Sondhi: There’s no better incentive for conservation than livelihoods that they can earn living in or near their home.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a great initiative. Thank you for this Sanjay.

( I hope enjoyed episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can read the show notes on my blog: Earthy matters. If you want to know more about the Thano movement, or about the work my guests do there’s lots of information on the net. You can also hear my podcast on Spotify, Soundcloud, Google podcast, or apple podcast, or other platforms of your choice. Till next time, stay safe and keep listening.)

Collective Wisdom:The Best From My Guests Ep#20

Listen/Read: 2 Seasons’ worth: Conservation-related Terms, Novel Ideas, Inspiring Messages & Reasons for Hope.

Hi, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. This is Episode #20 the last episode on season two. I am ever so grateful for your support and encouragement. I hope you are looking forward to Season 3 as much as I am. Episode 20 is special because I bring you the best of my guest so far. At the end of every episode, I usually ask my guest to share something that’s significant to them. It could be a new word for us, a novel concept or idea we could adopt or their thoughts, views and hopes. I hope you enjoy this collection and rare opportunity to hear from the best.

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: the only Sherpa Person with a Ph.D. in Anthropology Studying the Sherpas #1

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I don’t think it’s my favourite word necessarily but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s the word ‘Anthropocene’. The word ‘Anthropocene’ comes from the ancient Greek word: ‘antropose’ meaning human and ‘cene’ meaning recent. This is referring to the geological epoch and talking about current times when human activity is dominating the earth’s systems. The reason I’m interested in that is that I am spending a lot of time thinking about the Himalayas and why it is scared for us Himalayan people.

I’m also trying to connect this notion of sacred Himalaya with the ways people are thinking globally in terms of anthropocine, the new geological epoch. To me, this is interesting because, first of all in the Himalayas, nature, and human have always lived together. I don’t think humans are perceived as more important or above the natural world, which is the case for the western way of thinking where humans are considered above nature and control nature. From those ways of human nature relationship, I wonder what and how we can think about ‘Anthropocene’ and how it might be relevant to the Himalaya we know. So I‘m also wondering if it’s relevant. On the other hand, living on this planet-if, we consider ourselves global citizens-it might be important for us to think about what ‘Anthropocene’ is and where the conversations about the Himalayas fit in these larger global discussions of this new geological epoch. So those are the kind of questions that are in my head these days. That’s my word contribution to you.

Ajay Rastogi. The Pursuit of Consumerism and Science of Happiness Ep#7.

Ajay Rastogi: All species—you are a dog lover and you have had dogs practically all your life—if you look at their behaviour, do you see them carry grudges? I think if we can stop carrying grudges, start looking inside and with that reflection, try and bring integrity into our lives: then what I am feeling inside I’m trying to act outside as honestly as I can. Lalitha is also doing that. Chingoo-Mingoo is also doing that. Then I think we’ll make a better society. So my keyword is integrity. My only thing is if we can value the privileges we have, then let go some of it so that others can have an equally good life. But we are still insecure and I don’t know why, despite everything going.

Dritiman Mukherjee: The Philosophy of Photography. EP#11

(From original podcast:There’s a disconnect between the natural world and the masses and mostly I found, many policymakers are also disconnected with the natural world. So, what I am doing right now, what I am very much concerned about or what is very relevant for this time to me, is about ‘inclusion’. Inclusion of our ecosystem, in regular policy, social structure, everything. Because there is a disconnection, it is not included in our social system. So, whenever we see things, it looks like it’s separate. When we talk about development, we feel like nature, ecosystem, the natural world, forests…is a separate world from the word ‘development’. Actually, it is all included or inbuilt. When we talk about development…if someone is doing some deforestation, and we ask, why are you doing this? They say it’s a need for development.)
Development is about keeping the ecosystem inside. Do everything but keep the ecosystem intact. It is about inclusion. It is inbuilt. So, I feel we have to understand that we have to all of this into our regular system. For that, we have to connect the entire masses with nature. I do photography for this purpose. Photos are the strongest tool to connect to people emotionally

Bhavna Menon: Saving the Wilderness Through Community Participation Ep#14

Right. Mine would be inclusion and acceptance. Actually two words maybe, almost meaning the same thing. It’s a word I choose or associate with conservation very deeply because had I not accepted the people/community members around tiger reserves for whom they are…because Last Wilderness believes you should not change people. You should work with them to understand them and then find a solution together. So acceptance and inclusion are extremely important. They have accepted me for who I am so and so have I…which has helped me work for the past nine years in conservation and enjoy every bit of it.

Rohit Chakravarty and Pritha Dey: BatMan and Moth Lady Ep#12

Pritha Dey: What concerns me at the moment is the ongoing insect species decline that we see globally. It has gathered attention from scientists and politicians alike. We need more young people to be interested to study lesser-known taxa or less charismatic taxa from a country which is so hugely biodiverse like India. With the right techniques and tools, India has the potential to stand out in insect conservation. I would really reach out to the young people through this conversation that: Please be interested more in moths, butterflies, and other insects. Apart from science, it’s very important to reach out to the non-scientific community to achieve larger conservation goals and I would end by saying there’s a famous scientific article by the scientist, EO Wilson which says that:” Little things that run the world”; he talks about insects and arthropods. As long as you believe that so that’s the message that I would like to spread through this conversation.

Rohit Chakravarty: So, every animal tells a different story about the world. And, only when you study them, you understand what story it conveys and how you should protect its world in order to save the animal itself.
The other message that I would like to younger people is to have faith in science. To not lose hope in science and to develop an objective view of the world; not a subjective one. And to include science in the way we conserve species. Science is not the end result and it’s not the destination but it’s definitely something important we need to incorporate it in conservation measures.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

Volunteer Sagar Patel. (Translated): Our motto is: Go forward, don’t see backward. I’m Sagar Patel. I am a committee member of WCAWA. I have been working here for the past 7-8 years. Our main problem is to rescue injured turtles that are caught in nets. Once they are out, we treat them and once again return them into their natural habitat. Our area falls in the green zone. There are a lot of snakes here. Why should we rescue snakes? Snakes actually eat rats. They help farmers. Where do snakes come? Snakes come where there are rats. Snakes follow rats into homes. Earlier, people here used to kill a lot of snakes. When we started an awareness programme, the mortality rate of snakes came down. They call us when they see a snake and ask us to rescue it. We get 15-20 calls per day..we rescue that many snakes per day…..What is possible for us, we do. We don’t have proper facilities, we do the best we can with what we have.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: All these volunteers have been here before me. From childhood maybe, some have been involved in this great work. They are doing amazing work and I am very happy to say that they are doing this voluntarily without thinking of any gain they are going to get out of it. Of course, when our centre will grow, I will definitely see to it that each one of them will have some livelihood doing something they love. I don’t want them to do some work where they don’t have any interest. Their whole interest is in wildlife so they should get a good job here itself and they should do whatever they love. Because I feel what you love, you will do with more interest. They have this beautiful interest.

You call them at two o’clock in the night, you call them at three o’ clock in the night, within one call, they will be standing in front of you.

Wild Otters Pvt. Ltd. A Business Model for Conservation? Ep#10

Katrina Fernandes: Wild otters was started as a sole proprietorship. The aim was always to create a sustainable business model for conservation in the sense, trying to…rather than depending on funding and all the time writing grants, this, that and the other —sort of just trying to generate some sort of income to keep the place floating. That was the idea. Subsequently, we also realised that is not even possible. In terms that you can’t sell research. You can’t monetise research. You can’t make money out of pure research. You can do things that kind of help in other ways which is the internships and volunteers programmes, the workshops and the training programmes. So we do a bunch of those things. We get students from all over the world who do their placement years and their internships. We are also working with schools. We are working with one particular school called The Learning Centre which is into experiential learning. So everything is more tangible, more tactile, more outdoors and stuff like that. We are also working with The Owl House, with neurologically disabled kids. We do things with them like building insect hotels, also again tangible because we are trying to get them to be outdoors, tactile, using motor skills and stuff like that.

Katherine Bradshaw: So ‘spraint’ is otter poop and we mark this using a GPS device so this GPS device marks the exact point where this spraint is. And we can use this to create maps of otter activity and this allows us to see month to month where otter activity is and high activity and low activity and if they’re on the move.

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

This term is relatively new. And it is a convenient term because you know scientists use various kinds of terminology. But, in landscape terms, I think rewilding fits pretty well, where it’s also self-explanatory. Rewilding. Wilderness is the approach to the landscape treatment. Essentially what rewilding means is any fissured land, any landscape damaged due to human activity is restored to what one thinks—after referring to enough documentation, visiting forests and landscapes around then—and then imitating from nature and recreating those landscapes which were damaged. That, in a nutshell, is what rewilding is.

Rewilding is important as a vocabulary because it has its own direction. It has its own momentum. Rewilding. It’s not an ornamental garden path but re-wilding which is all-inclusive. It’s inclusive of the plant community, animals, insects, birds, higher plants, lower plants –all of that. So I think it is a sweet word.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Intrepid Woman Leader Ep#5

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s not necessarily a scientific term but I think the term of great importance in the conservational and environmental movement, which is ‘consumption’. To me, the future of this planet lies in us individually and collectively as human beings, to really question whether we need so much. I am as guilty as anybody else on that.When I look around and see just stuff— I think do we really need all this? If all of us humans lived with what we need this would be a very different planet. Unfortunately, the model of development that we have today is geared entirely towards consumption. It’s about getting people to consume more. Economies and countries thrive and build their economies on consumption rather than on sustainability. My dream is that we actually start questioning the whole concept of: “ Do we need to consume so much?” And we’ll have a different planet.

I’m going to make a plug here for some friends of mine who have started a very interesting venture. It’s called, ‘We share’. And the idea is to not buy stuff but to share stuff. They are going to set up a web platform where it will be a platform for sharing. So, it’s things that you buy but you only going to use once. Or you might just need now and then. And you can share it with others. So everybody starts buying less stuff and start sharing more stuff.

Bill Aitken: Nature as the Footprint of the Divine Ep#19

I give you that quote from Salim Ali, I thought I’d written it down I haven’t, anyway it’s to the effect that, you know, there are so many problems for a wildlifer that you just look on the bright side and just get on with what you love doing, don’t be weighed down by all the problems.

(The original Salim Ali quote: ” Be more realistic. Accept that we are all currently sailing through turbulent waters and should therefore avoid frittering our efforts on inconsequentials. In other words, be constructive and revel in the simple joy of life”-Salim Ali)

Mrs. Gandhi was a great wildlifer and he regretted that he hadn’t sort of pushed her to do more, but the main thing is, you know, stay positive because the worst thing is if you give up then nothing is going to happen. You have to see the bright side, just look on the bright side.

Cara Tejpal: Eco Warrior Ep#9

Another one of my focuses over the years has been on Asian elephants and Asian elephants conservation. I think what I wanted to talk about is both the inspiration I receive from nature and the heartbreak of working in conservation. That’s something we don’t talk about often.

So, a few years ago I ran something called the ‘Giant Refugees’ campaign with co-campaigner Aditya Panda, who is Orissa based. I had been hearing about this herd of elephants who have been trapped on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar from Aditya and my mentor, Prerna Bindra; and this one year, along with my cousins who are filmmakers, we decided to visit. What we witnessed was so heartbreaking. It was a mob of 300 men harassing a herd of elephants. It was absolutely savage on the part of humans not on the part of wild animals. I’m bringing this up because it was such an emotional moment for me. It was one of the first big campaigns I ran and it fizzled out after a few months. I learned a lot of lessons from it and I hope to revive it soon. But I think why I brought this up is because of a conversation I was having with many of my conservation colleagues and friends is a feeling of the absence of hope. I think we must all adhere to this religion of conservation optimism because that is the only way we are going to be able to inspire others. If all we project is a sinking ship then no one is going to want to stay on it.

Aditi Mukherji: What the Drying of Himalayan Springs Means for India Ep#14

I’d like to talk about ‘aquifers’. An aquifer is basically the water-bearing layer. We can’t see it because either if you’re living in the plains then it’s under the ground; in the mountains, it’s basically inside the rocks. It’s super important because the aquifer is where all your groundwater storage is. India completely depends on groundwater. 60% of our irrigated area gets irrigated from groundwater. 80% of our drinking water comes from groundwater. If we don’t take care of our aquifers, don’t ensure that our aquifers are not overexploited, our aquifers don’t get dirty, we would never have water security. That’s the word I would like your audience to know: ‘Aquifer’ which is the water bearing layer from which our life-saving water comes from.

Suniti Bhushan: Reconnecting Children to Nature Ep#6

If I may, there are two words…that have played a major role in my life. One is this is called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ which is I heard about 10 years ago. That has influenced a lot of what I do today. Basically working with children and getting them aware of nature, aware, of their surroundings, aware of their environment.

But recently, as I mentioned earlier, I became aware of this term ‘Plant Blindness’ and that actually struck a chord with me. Even when I am walking like just now when I was walking from the Hanifl Centre to your house, I was very aware of the fact that there were certain plants that were blooming- which are still blooming after the monsoon…The oak trees were getting new set of leaves and the ferns were going brown. The concept of plant blindness seems sad to me. That somebody can walk down a street even a city avenue street and not notice the trees or not know anything about the trees. Yeah, that struck a chord with me. I think it plays into the whole nature deficit disorder, which is also affecting adults. I know certain adults who have no clue. They live in cities…I mean two trees put together for them is a forest. Many of them are not aware of how nature affects us. Or how nature is good for our health. In many ways, a lot of mental illnesses in children are because of this nature deficit disorder because they are not exposed to greenery, they are not exposed to fresh air…the sheer peace of a forest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Fresh air is becoming harder and harder to come by.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes it’s harder and harder to get. So, these are two terms that really struck a chord with me. One of them like I said very, very recently.

Lisa Mills: How Every Single Cup of ‘Elephant-Friendly’ Teas Counts. Ep#16

I think for me, I want to make sure that the message is that we don’t necessarily want people to drink less tea. That is not our message. Tea is an affordable beverage that people can enjoy. It has health benefits and anti-oxidants. We don’t want people to shun away from it because they are afraid that it is harmful to elephants. Think about the industries that could take its place. That could be much more harmful to elephants. I think my message is encouraging good farming practices with things like certification but also other things. Knowing who your farmer is, you know, knowing what their practices are, make a difference. Not just for tea but for about anything in kind of that your relationship between where your food and beverages are grown versus just blindly picking up products. You know, it’s such a powerful force for change.

Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

I think for me, there are two words that are really really important.  And they go together. it’s not a fancy word – it’s ‘conservation’ and ‘livelihoods’. I believe the only way to conserve landscapes, species, flora, and fauna is to involve the people that live in that landscape. And the only way we can get them to conserve it is if we incentivize conservation by offering them a livelihood that incentivizes conservation. if they are actually earning money from saving their forests, that’s probably the best way to link conservation and livelihood.

Nina Sengupta: Your Guide to Urban Foraging Ep#18

Now the edge effect. You can have both, a positive and negative tilt to that. Edge is something that you create, it’s not always the ecotone, not always the natural boundary. Suppose I have a boundary of the forest, the natural boundary of the forest and grassland, that is an equal ecotonal area, that area will have more species but say I have cut a forest, I have cut a road in the forest and have created an edge, that edge is the boundary between the two communities, like nothing and forest would also have quite a bit of different, you know, different creatures but usually they tend to have the more generalist species. So suddenly you are favoring the generalist species rather than the forest dweller one, so it has, it can have negative impacts also and therefore, you know, as an ecologist always say that if you were actually… have a forest is better not to have it fragmented, better not to have a cut a road or cut a railway through it because you are creating more edge and that will actually affect the forest interior species or the overall health of the forests.

Salvador Lyngdoh: Wolf Biologist from the Himalayas. Ep # 2

A scientific term that I really like is: ‘keystone’. It’s like the keystone in a house…for an arch. If you have an arch, you have a keystone there. The keystone holds together a lot of things in an arch… if you have a bridge or something. The keystone is the stone that holds together the structure of the bridge. If you remove the keystone the whole bridge and arch collapse. That is one thing –that certain species or elements are keystones for conserving- many things revolve around that. Many things are also connected because of that. For e.g. you have fig species which are keystone species. A lot of animals and birds depend on the fig species.

Sometimes they are also called ‘framework species’- ‘Framework’ as they build the framework for everything. If you have these species in the beginning, then what happens is, ultimately the natural flow come in and it attracts a lot of animals and dispersers…those who feed on it ultimately disperse seeds. That’s how they act as a framework and support the entire framework also.

Keystone is one word I really like when you try to understand ecology in that sense. Sometimes keystone species can be called framework species.

Another term like that which I really like is ‘Trophic cascade’. We were talking of Yellowstone wolves and how they have a cascading effect. At the top level, you have these predators that regulate the prey population …the elk and the moose. In the Indian case for e.g. you have tigers that as top predators regulate a lot of the prey in the ecosystem. That way they control a part of the forest health as well by preventing the prey population from going over the carrying capacity as we call it. That way we try to understand how everything is connected with each other. I’ve given you three words. Keystone, framework and trophic cascade.

Almitra Patel. The Garbologist India SHould Thank for its Solid Waste Management Rules.Ep#13

There may small, small brands who are all making detergents for the big guys and they refuse to lower the phosphorus content.

Phosphorus is what is called a limiting nutrient. If you cut off the phosphorous, you cut off the aquatic plant growth. If you give phosphorous, it’s like a special booster nutrient for aquatic vegetation. Just like what urea or nitrogen is for land crops, phosphorous is for aquatic vegetation. So it’s so simple. I’ve been saying if the government doesn’t want to bite the bullet and restrict it at least make it mandatory to label the phosphorous content in detergents so that environment-conscious citizens can buy a low-phosphorous detergent. It’s an ongoing battle which hasn’t been won yet. But we need more voice to demand it.

Rita Banerji: How India’s Leading Wildlife and Environment Filmmaker Became a Catalyst for Change Ep#18

I think the word which comes to mind, there are many words actually, I guess, you know one of the things is interdependence, right, what we see in nature, right, I mean, why interdependence? Because there’s something in nature that lets (one) survive based on each other’s qualities, right?  If there is respect for each other’s way of being, nature is the best teacher in that sense, right? How to survive how different… like there will a canopy, there will be a fern, there will be a leaf, there will be a frog, probably but everybody is dependent on each other strengths for survival. I think if, we can learn that, even in the way we are with the way a way of being you know where we understand that we cannot operate alone as a single person. We are interdependent on each other for so many aspects of our being and if we respect that interdependence, I think, it can solve a lot of issues of protecting it. Whether it’s to do with protecting our forests, whether it’s to do with respecting human rights, whether it’s to do with the egos for example. So, I think, that respecting interdependence and learning from nature I mean that’s the best teacher I would say.

Lalitha Krishnan:. I hope you’re enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and , if you haven’t already, so subscribe to my podcast. It’s available on most on most platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud… You can also read the transcripts or show notes on my blog: Earthy Matters . I would love your feedback. Write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com Look our for Season Three, coming soon. Till then, stay safe, keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.


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