Yuvan is a self-educated 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. Listen to him now.
Show notes coming soon. In the meanwhile, check out these links for Yuvan’s writings/work and his list of Tamil words for land and water below.
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.
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 email@example.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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 collectionand rare opportunity to hear from the best.
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: 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.
(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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org Look our for Season Three, coming soon. Till then, stay safe, 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.
Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep#19 (Edited show notes)
Lalitha Krishnan:Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 19 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. Today I am speaking to a dear friend and hillside neighbour, who I have long admired for his travel writing, his wit, and his take on life. He is William McKay Aitken (Bill Aitken). Bill was born in Scotland, hitchhiked to India across Europe in the 1950s, and stayed on to become a naturalized Indian citizen. Drawn by his love for the Himalayan mountains and rivers, and the plateaus of India, Bill has written extensively about them. He’s authored over a dozen books including the Nanda Devi Affair, Seven Sacred Rivers, Footloose in the Himalaya, Divining the Deccan, Exploring Indian Railways, Riding the Ranges: Travels on My Motorcycle, to name a few.
Lalitha Krishnan:Bill thank you so much for being a guest on the Heart of Conservation Podcast. I just re-read Footloose in the Himalaya. I last read it when it was published in… 2003, right?
Bill Aitken: 2003, the last book I wrote.
Lalitha Krishnan: And now that I live in Landour, it sounds, you know, more familiar than it did when I read it back in Ranikhet. You have crisscrossed India on your feet, your bike, by Indian rail, and looking at some of your book titles each of these travels seemed like their own literary pilgrimage so to speak.
Bill Aitken: Quiet, yeah.
Lalitha Krishnan: So, do you always know in advance what you going to write about the places you visit and does that somehow, you know, alter your experiences, does it make you more conscious?
Bill Aitken: Absolutely, unless you do your homework, you can bypass, you know, fabulous sites then when you get back home, to your chagrin you read about this place and if you haven’t read about it local people will always give you their own version of things. So, I remember in North Karnataka, I was looking for the village of this literary saint of Karnataka, Basaveshwara. I knew the village pretty well where he was reputed to have, you know, built up a following and I asked some villagers is this the place. They said, ”nahi hai”. They were of the opposite party, you know. He was a brahmin who had given up the sacred thread so he’s loathed by the Orthodox, so I mean, if I hadn’t done my homework but even then I’d stupidly believed them and I just sailed through. This is life, I think the most important thing for a traveler is to be distrustful of directions, just double check triple check.
Lalitha Krishnan: Sometimes asking for directions doesn’t help as I discovered today.
Bill Aitken: The most important thing for a traveller is to be distrustful of directions. Just double check, triple check.
Lalitha Krishnan:I am quoting you now from one your books, “the price you pay for living in the mountains is having to prefer your own two feet” so 90% of the time that I’ve met you by chance, is while you are going out on your walks. At 86, you walk and you walk twice a day. That’s despite, you know…
Bill Aitken: Except for the last month whenI had an allergy of the leg.
Lalitha Krishnan:Tell me about your love for walking and if it’s connected to nature.
Bill Aitken:Yeah absolutely, I think it’s the only place I mean ,the only place that you can really recollect nature, you know, when you’re walking under your feet every season different color of flowers, tiny flowers, and any speed more than walking, even jogging, you’re just going to miss these sort of unexpected beauties.
Lalitha Krishnan:I was looking at some of your old videos and in your interview with Ted Henry, I think, about your book ‘Sri Sathya Sai Baba – a Life’, you speak about the madness for the divine. You have done your share of, pardon my saying, the eat-pray-love sort of rite of passage before it was even fashionable. You spent time with Sarla Behn, previously Catherine Mary Heilman, in a Gandhian school and spent a few years in the Mirtola Ashram that is Guru Krishna Prem, previously Ronald Henry Nixon and his successor Shri Madhav Ashish, previously Alexander Phipps. What drew you to them and how did these experiences…
Bill Aitken: I had come across Sri Krishna Prem when in India House Library in London. I was doing this research for MA thesis on Mahatma Gandhi and this book by Krishna Prem, I’ve got it here, ‘Commentary on the Kathopnishad’ and he said, he started off by saying “procul este profani” that’s the Latin for ‘begone academics’ – bhago bhago – profane. He said you will never understand the meaning of life if you’re an academic, academics are overgrown schoolboys – afraid to face the world. So, I was hoping to be a budding academic so I threw this book aside in disgust. Then for my MA, the external examiner happened to be someone who knew Krishna Prem, a Bengali visiting fellow Durham(?) University and thanks to him I passed otherwise if it had been Angrez, he would have failed me because they were all missionaries who had no time for anything Hinduism. So then, this Bengali guy, he said, “if you ever go to India you must meet this Sri Krishna Prem, he lives in an ice cave”. Ha, Ha!… I thought 7000 feet, you know, sounds a bit unlikely. Anyway, I did meet Krishna Prem and he guided me to Sarla Devi’s Ashram in Kausani where I stayed for four years, sort of toughening up on the village life, bathing in cold water.
Lalitha Krishnan: Better than an ice cave, perhaps not warmer than a library haha.
Lalitha Krishnan: How did it influence you? Do you want to talk about these experiences, Mirtola, Kausani, these three people.
Bill Aitken: What happened was, you know, what really, I mean, turned my life around was I had hitchhiked to India and spent the 50 pounds I had started with. Reached Calcutta so I had to get a job teaching to pay for the onward fare, there was no road beyond Calcutta. I had to get a boat to Penang so I had to get a job teaching. When I was teaching I joined the Asiatic Society and I went in there one day and just happened casually looking at some books and I came across this particular book Nanda Devi by Eric Shipton and this book totally stunned me, knocked me over and I came out of that library no longer wanting to go around the world, just to see this mountain.
Lalitha Krishnan:So a lot of writers are disciplined, they say they are disciplined and have a routine but, you know, for your book, ‘Travels by a Lesser Line’ published in 1993, you travel to 14 states by train by for about two months or so and you reached the four corners, if you can call it that, of India and for your book ‘Nanda Devi Affair’ you rode long days on your bike carrying your typewriter along. I mean, I just can’t imagine, I mean, it sounds like a write-on-the-go adventure – people pay for those sort of things – sounds so exhausting. So why not a pen and a diary, I am just curious what you were thinking- about your writing process.
Bill Aitken: I had a travel column for the Delhi Statesman, so I reckon that the only way that I enjoy travel columns is if the remarks were sort of fresh, hot, you know, on the hoof. So every day… I would only do 200 km in a day, that was my maximum, otherwise, you get too pooped, you know, and if you have a drink at night to recover then you are totally gaga, you’re knocked out, so I had to keep this balance, you know, stay sober but also recollect and so the day’s journeys I would type out every evening, to get the fresh impressions.
Lalitha Krishnan:Why did you carry your typewriter along?
Bill Aitken:How else to record it? I mean, if you write a thing longhand and then write it up three weeks later when you get back, all the impressions have gone, the lively impression are what you actually felt on that ride nah, you have to get it down, fresh from the oven – garam garam.
Lalitha Krishnan: Writing is not easy, I think you made it harder for yourself.
Bill Aitken: No! I’ve always had the opposite, you know because if I correct anything, I will always write something entirely new, and then when I correct that I will revert it.
Lalitha Krishnan: Edit, edit, edit.
Bill Aitken: No, totally different, you know, I just have this sort of, you know, writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s cramp.
Lalitha Krishnan:So, you would type it all and then he would take it back and post it.
Bill Aitken: Yes.
Lalitha Krishnan: I know this is a question you get asked a lot but for aspiring writers of nature travel – what will you tell them to do or not do?
Bill Aitken:It depends entirely on your relationship with nature. If you really have the passion – woh apnay aap – you know, things will happen and it will work out for you, but if you’re sort of, you know, borrowing others wisdom, you probably won’t find it, you’ll find it uphill. I also find, you know, the whole vocabulary of this ‘Back to nature movement’, I mean – environment – what a stupid word, you know? I mean there is nothing real about ‘forest conservator’. What does it mean, you know? You should be guardian, you know. You guard the trees with your life. Who gives a hoot for trees? In Mirtola, we had a gurubhai called Jagdish Nautiyal. Brilliant guy. He went to America, he went to Canada rather, he won the gold medal and they said “please stay, we will appoint you professor”. And he said, “no, I’m a desh bhakt. I’m going back to the Forest Department”. He was as a junior in Almora district when he got back his fellow officers were so jealous, they sent him back to the old posting and he said “FU! I’m going back to Canada” and he’s a professor. I mean Hindustan mein, you know, the crab syndrome.
So, it is very hard to give advice because we’re all different, you know, some enter with their soul, others enter with their mind. For me, as I say it was a religious experience at Nanda Devi totally, you know, altered my destiny. Otherwise, I was going around the world, thinking I go back to England and, you know, lecture. Didn’t happen because if I was just, you know, hooked by this mountain. (Pointing to photograph of Nanda Devi). Here she is. And not everyone is going to be hooked.
Lalitha Krishnan:Not everyone is going to be hooked.I also wonder if, you know, for people who want to be writers, whether there are the habits to cultivate….
Bill Aitken:Look I have to plead of being a phony writer, I’m not like Ruskin, you know? Every day I was born to write, you know? Or Hugh and Colleen, you know? Or Steve, you know? They are writers I’m not you know? I’m basically someone who enjoys traveling and writing about it.
Lalitha Krishnan:You write when you are inspired.
Bill Aitken:I’m a traveler who writes not a writer who travels.
Lalitha Krishnan:I get it.
Bill Aitken: Since Prithvi passed away, I haven’t written, you know.
Lalitha Krishnan:You haven’t travelled either, have you travelled?
Bill Aitken: Exactly, but also, you know, I sort of… because I was a partner to this very exalted Maharani, I had to, you know, everyone just assumed I was a toy boy and I had to as it were do something so I started writing but I don’t have that – as I say like Ruskin is. I’m a bhakt of Nanda Devi, he’s a bhakt of the muse of literature, you know, he must write, it is his dharam.
Lalitha Krishnan:To each his own…
Bill Aitken: Absolutely, that’s why I say I can’t give advice to writers because I wouldn’t know where to begin. If you enjoy it, do it. I enjoy writing also and like many writers for example Sir V. S. Naipaul, he says “I have never read anything I have written”. I love my writing, I go back to it every day, I laugh, you know haha…
Lalitha Krishnan:I was going to ask you about your friendship with Ruskin Bond, both being here a long time, I know you are really good friends.
Bill Aitken: Ruskin was my neighbor here. So, I when I first came to Mussoorie he was very helpful and he appointed – he was an editor for ‘Imprint’ sort of like ‘Reader’s Digest’ sort of stuff and he appointed me his Assistant Rejections Editor because he was so kind-hearted he couldn’t find it in himself to reject. Even if the English were bad, if it had feeling he’d say “chalne dho”. So, I was an Assistant Rejections Editor. I also couldn’t reject because when people write with feeling who gives a hoot about the grammar? We had this Superintendent of police who was going to write a book called ‘India Good Everybody King’ which when you think of it is brilliant – how true. Everybody’s an archaic king, do your thing brother, yeh Hindustan hai. Anyway, I was always rejecting these and Ruskin said “no, no, no, he is the Superintendent of police”.
Lalitha Krishnan:We have so many writers on the hillside Hugh & Colleen Gantzer, Stephen Alter, Ganesh Saili. Why do you think – is it just a coincidence?
Bill Aitken: I’ve no idea, I have no idea. I can’t – I think partly Mussoorie is near to Delhi, halfway between Badrinath and Delhi, you know, and it’s also got, you know, quite a good educational crowd so I suppose it’s…. but I don’t really know but what I do know is everybody I speak to who comes to Landour is hooked: “I want to come again”. Why?
Lalitha Krishnan: I think it’s the air. Seeing a blue sky…
Bill Aitken: An actual forest of deodar and the and the peace and quiet…
Lalitha Krishnan: You were fortunate to meet Dr. Salim Ali and E R Hawkins. what was he like, I’m just curious, you know, and…
Bill Aitken: (Commenting on the book) Bombay centenary seminar 1983…
Lalitha Krishnan: Amazing signature….
Bill Aitken: Yeah!And his notebooks are beautiful, works of art.
Lalitha Krishnan: Lovely. What was they like, Bill?
Bill Aitken: I was at this seminar probably the only layman there, in the old days Bombay Natural History Society was all laymen and these are all international experts and specialists so I was really a sore thumb there but of course with a surname like Aitken, you know, you’re considered some descendant of the Edward Hamilton.
Lalitha Krishnan: Are you still connected with the Himalayan Club?
Bill Aitken: Well, you know, I’m an honorary member but I was a little upset that they started the preparations for the centenary, which is some time off, few years ahead, by having a – getting the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And I have a thing about the Dalai Lama, I sympathize with his plight because he is not just an individual, he is head of a very, you know, distressed community, Tibetan refugee community, so he has to have this respect. But I’m also a Himalayan writer and it just so happens that the best-selling book on the Himalaya was written by the Dalai Lama’s tutor – Heinrich Harrer, who was a thoroughly nasty bit of work. Harrer had been, anyway I don’t know if you want to go into because of this, Harrer had been chosen by Gestapo for the mass extermination. He was in charge, he was called ski instructor. The word Nazi code for extermination was resettlement. Ski instructor meant in-charge of the training troops for the gas chamber. So that’s why the Dalai Lama has …when he was asked don’t you know this about Heinrich Harrer…
Lalitha Krishnan: He was a child…he wasn’t very old then.
Bill Aitken: I mean, he was young but the point is the publisher people in the Himalayan circle, they all know this to be true about Harrer but they won’t blow his cover. They won’t say ‘yes he was a nasty bit of war.
Lalitha Krishnan: Why is that you think?
Bill Aitken:People are indifferent, Chalne dho you know, the past is past. I don’t know if you’ve read this book by Bill Bryson ‘Here and There’. He did the trip around Europe, one of his many travel books and he says the most shocking thing is that the president of Austria Kurt Waldheim, who got the job after being United Nations secretary-general; and he was in Greece as a German army officer and a piece of paper came on his desk saying 40,000 Jews are going to be sent to the gas chambers, please sign it. He signed it. President of Austria and then he said I thought they were going on holiday – sheer indifference – so this is why I objected. I’ve got nothing against the Dalai Lama but the fact was he was a child, his Regent invited 30 Nazi anthropologist to Lhasa, did you ever hear about this? No! It is a huge conspiracy of silence, so because I’m very upset that the best-selling book in the Himalaya was writte by such a nasty bit of work. Come on, publishers are making money, readers are being taken for a ride. He didn’t escape from Dehradun camp, the British offered him his freedom. He refused it. I mean…
Lalitha Krishnan: I guess it’s just business in the end… it’s all about the money in the end.
Bill Aitken:Anyways the Himalayan Club, I…Ha, hah, hah!!…
Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Do you have any regrets Bill?
Bill Aitken: About?
Lalitha Krishnan: Say Mirtola…?
Bill Aitken: No! because Sri Krishna Prem… when I joined Mirtola, he said, “what I will teach you I can give you no other guarantee that you’ll never regret it”. I never have.
Lalitha Krishnan: I usually request my guest to, you know, share a word, I don’t know….
Bill Aitken: I thought you were going to say play the bagpipes…
Lalitha Krishnan: I usually request my guest to share a word that means something to them this is just adding to our vocabulary as a nature writer. A word or a concept or maybe a quote – your own quote, something you like that you said.
Bill Aitken: Alright 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 actual 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.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s exactly what I think about you. In your book ‘Riding the Ranges’ you say ‘mountains don’t block your way, they invite closer inspection by making you slow down and find a way around’. I feel you tackle all the obstacles in your life that way and also I haven’t read all of your books but the ones I have are so delightful and regardless of how hard your journeys have been the thread that binds them is your sense of joy, I feel, and also wit and humour. It’s very uplifting.
Bill Aitken: If you love nature, it is divine. Unfortunately, the word divine is politically incorrect, but I’ve always been fascinated by divinity, you know? I mean to me the divine is real and nature – prakriti – is the most divine thing but I was brought up you know, with this Semitic, you know, man is worthless, come on, you know, man is divine. This is Mirtola teaching ‘man is the measure of all things’.
Lalitha Krishnan: Devine is nice without religion.
Bill Aitken: Exactly, religion is just a racket to try and reduce it to an infant, so you will pay the priest’s salary. Look at the church’s record now this Cardinal Pell, I mean, what a disaster nah? The thing is, I was born in front of this, it’s called Dumyat, and so this to me was, it stood in utter contrast to the church, you know? It stood in contrast to the church, you know, because they church is cold and, you know, like going to church is like Churchill wrote when he went to meet Stalin he said, “it’s like taking a lump of ice to the North Pole” and so the Dumyat was my touchstone for the divine, you see… and as a child, I used to love to sit on top listen to the music of the spheres and my dream was, you know, there you couldn’t settle on a mountain, you’d die of cold, you know. The only thing that could survive was sheep but I always… my aim in life was to dwell on a mountain and here I am on this beautiful mountain. So, to realize your dream, I think is the very most satisfying thing in the world.
Lalitha Krishnan: It’s important to have a dream, so…
Bill Aitken: Absolutely, and also to trust your dreams, you know, your actually dreams because they can really change your life. In Mirtola, you know, we had a big thing on dream interpretation….
Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, I’d heard about it. But was it…?
Bill Aitken: It could totally change your life and……
Lalitha Krishnan: No, but the interpretations, were they correct?
Bill Aitken: Well obviously in the scheme of things it could go horribly wrong but I remember one story…
Lalitha Krishnan: Did you interpret your own dreams?
Bill Aitken: Very badly because usually they’re very critical and nobody likes to criticize… so I was a very bad interpreter. But, I had this dream.. I once had a girlfriend who I wanted – we’re going to hitchhike around Europe another student and I when we set off, I spent the night in a home and on the mantlepiece was a photograph of a friend of mine in the University—Sandy, his name was Sandy, Scottish for Alexander— and suddenly I froze unconsciously and on that trip, poor girl, I never even held her hand because all my life I had been suppressed by my Big Brother Sandy. I mean, it suddenly came to me, you know, and poor gal, what had she done to suffer me? So dreams are… when I saw this photograph I never associated it, you know, Sandy but then the dream said Sandy is, you know, your sort of why you came to India, was to get away from – your mother likes Sandy, your father likes Sandy, everybody likes Sandy, nobody liked me – and Sandy got a pair of skates or speed skates when I got, it was figure skates. I mean, these resentments were real and only a dream can objectify them and say “you stupid fool. All your life you felt you loved Sandy and you all the time you wanted to kick his ass”.
Lalitha Krishnan: Did you tell him?
Bill Aitken: No, no, I mean, how will it help?
Lalitha Krishnan: Just to get it off your chest.
Bill Aitken: No, no, once again I’m the fool not him.
Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much Bill.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation; I am Lalitha Krishnan. Do check out Bill Aitkens books and you can listen to Heart of Conservation on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud or any other platform of your choice. Stay safe and keep listening.
Photo: Lalitha Krishnan. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.
Birdsong by hillside residents.
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