How Tea is Becoming a Powerful Force for Elephant Conservation in India.

Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #16 Show Notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi guys. Thanks for listening in to Heart of Conservation Podcast (ep#16).  I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world.

How about a cup of chai? Join the club. Apparently, 25,000 cups of tea are drunk around the world every second.  Tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world being second, only to water. I wonder if the number has gone up with self-isolation? Fact is the Coronavirus has been a rude awakening forcing us to rethink how we live and consciously try and change how and what we consume. Say hello to Elephant Friendly tea. Yes, you heard right.

Today I ‘m speaking to Lisa Mills, program director at the Wildlife Conservation Enterprise Program at the University of Montana – Broader Impact Group.  The University of Montana in partnership with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), has released a science-based guide or standards for the certification of tea producers under the Certified Elephant Friendly™ Tea label. Lisa has been working to save the globally endangered Asian elephant for the past 10 years and is now facilitating the ‘Elephant Friendly Tea Certificate Program’ in northeast India.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa, welcome, and thank you so much for speaking to us on Heart of Conservation Podcast.


Lisa Mills: Thank you this is exciting.


Lalitha Krishnan: For me as well Lisa. Thank you. So, when and how did you start working with the Asian elephant?


Lisa Mills: Well it’s a bit of a long story but the brief version is that I am married to a wildlife biology professor and I also was working with the University of Montana when he got a sabbatical to go work in Asia and I needed to leave my position at the University to go spend six months in the country of Bhutan where he was training wildlife biologists. I’m a wildlife educator so I was looking for something to do. Our children were in school, in a village school in Bhutan and they were ages 8 and 10. I needed something to do. So I offered my services to the country of Bhutan. They said why don’t you do an education program on elephants. I said well I don’t know much about elephants but I’m certainly willing to pull together information with some research and see what we can do with lesson plans for teachers about elephants so that they can teach science-based information to children and think about human-elephant conflict, and what can be done and what’s helpful to people living in elephant zones. Well, this took a turn in that I realized that elephants are transboundary between India and Bhutan and the more I looked into this the more I saw that there was an opportunity for something more than lesson plans to give to teachers. There was a lot of interest in doing something transboundary with both countries involved in having the villages that lie in high human-elephant conflict zones coming together for a purpose to improve things for both people and elephants. I began that and then we got a couple of different grants that help start some… we did citizens science. So we actually had a group of volunteers from across six village sectors across the India side collecting information about elephants, what was happening and we had made the education program very real and alive in that they were able to share things that were really happening on a daily basis. And, we started mapping that. We got students here in the United States -college students involved in the product as well- taking information and mapping what was happening. So sort of what came of it was the very beginnings. It laid the groundwork for my current work but I wanted you to know it just started as something we would develop for teachers to use.


Lalitha Krishnan: But that sounds so interesting. Lisa, I have a very basic question. Could you explain the connection between elephants and tea? I don’t see everybody seeing that connection automatically.

Lisa Mills: So, back in the 1800s when the British established tea gardens in India there wasn’t a lot of thought about elephants and their movements of course and there wasn’t a lot of scientific work back then in this area but what happened was those tea plantations were established using …you know…the tea plants are not eaten by elephants but it was a plant that was derived from a native plant… there were different types some from China some from the far North East which is today the Northeast India region. These plants became useful commercially and the British established these tea gardens. They just plopped them right into the middle of where elephants have been moving forever and so what happened there is these tea garden stayed and they’re still there to this day and these elephants will move when they can as long as there are corridors and their movement areas are still open they use these areas. They don’t eat the tea plant but they use these as stopping places. They are quieter sometimes than the outside areas. Sometimes they’ll even birth their young inside these tea plantations. So you know, for elephants there is often no way to avoid tea plantations and just walk around them because they are sometimes quite large and they are in the middle of an area that they need to get from one forest fragment to another. Of course, as we lose more habitat overtime elephants have to really figure out how do they get what they need to get their needs met. Tea plantations play an important role certainly in some areas as far as, you know, what happens in those tea plantations really matters for elephants.


Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I knew some tea estates are part of elephant corridors and it’s news to me that the elephants sometimes even birth there. So basically, as elephant habitat is shrinking I suppose the number of elephants is also shrinking in all of Asia. Right?

Lisa Mills: All of Asia…India of course still has the most significant numbers of Asian elephant so when you are talking.. by some figures there is only 40,000 left in the world…of.Asian elephants and this species are quite different from the African elephant it’s cousin, right?
And India… the current estimates—we could check the numbers—the numbers are ever-changing depending on how the counts are done…they’re not perfect numbers because of course, these elephants are not easy e to tell the difference between individuals and they’re difficult to count in within a couple of days. So anyway, these counts are done in a way that gives us a pretty good estimate. So we are looking at under 40,000 elephants in all of Asia and in India, somewhere closer to, it looks like 27,000 or so. But we can check the latest numbers. And there is a percentage that are captive elephants in India as well. It is historical that elephants are kept in captivity but they also might play a role in conservation…even captive elephants at some point.


Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa what are the main reasons for elephant mortality in Assam?

Lisa Mills: Well, it’s beyond just Assam but where we did the original collecting of information with this idea in mind that something is causing extremely high mortality rate of elephants and we are trying to figure out what that is; it’s not perhaps a simple answer. But what we found is that back when we started this work in 2012-13, there was a lot of poisoning of elephants, and it’s kind of hard to tell what was the source of the poisoning was. We also found a lot of electrocutions and ditch deaths. So, there were these deep narrow ditches in tea plantations that carry the water out of the area during the monsoon season. They’re also difficult for young elephants to cross over without falling in. Sometimes…many times, the outcome is fine. The baby elephants move with the herd and can traverse these, but the numbers are also pretty surprising how many don’t make it. They get caught in there, and as the mother and other elephants try to dig them out, they often get covered in mud. We’ve seen a lot of ditch deaths but the number today the No 1 mortality cause over the last year has been electrocutions. So this is low hanging livewires. Also, people illegally tapping those live electric lines and putting, say, a wire around their crop field as preventing elephants from raiding a crop but the problem is, you know, it’s extremely dangerous for both elephants and humans, and other animals as well. So we’re finding a really high number of elephants are getting electrocuted. And this is entirely preventable.


Lalitha Krishnan: I’m a little surprised. I thought you were going to say elephant being hit by trains is the main cause of elephant deaths.

Lisa Mills: Yeah, those numbers are on the rise, for sure. I’d like to look at what those numbers are coming to that. Electrocutions, because they happen here and there all over the place, you know, and the numbers are adding up right? And I think people don’t always have the tools to think about an alternative for protecting their crops. you know there is such a thing as safe electrical fencing if you must fence. If you are just desperate and you must fence you can use electrical fencing in a way that is safe. And we do it with livestock all the time around the world. But training and having the proper supplies to do this takes up a lot of effort and you know, it needs to be a concentrated effort. And the people who are using these methods that are dangerous aren’t always in a position to go to a store and buy proper supplies or access training. Not that we want to encourage everything getting fenced off anyway but we understand it’s not easy to live in elephant movement zones and grow what you need to grow to survive.


Lalitha Krishnan: So, in situations like this how would a planter kind of resolve these conflicts?


Lisa Mills: Human elephant conflict is a very broad category. OK. For example, we have found over time if we bring science to this we see that elephant behaviour is often a reaction to what’s happening around it. So, when elephants get highly stressed, they have stress hormones go up and you can test for this even in the feces. You can test and see that their hormone level…certain hormones go up. These stress hormones also you know, relate to behaviour. So when an elephant is feeling highly stressed, like when they being chased, and harassed and constantly moved… nobody wants them. They’re being pushed, yelled at, things are being thrown at them… rocks are being thrown up them…When this is happening especially you watch, there is usually a male protecting the herd and this male can get quite aggressive towards people. So, a conflict might be an example that I saw in November and I see every year. I go to India every year to observe what’s happening in different places—what you’ll see is especially around the harvest time you know, around November, early December even late October, these elephants are trying to get a free meal along their pathway. A lot of the forest is gone and they’re just looking for that rice field that is coming… they can smell it from miles away and there just like, “We’re just got to get a meal”. In the dark of night, they might go out and try and raid a crop field. Well, of course, people have poured an entire year of work into this crop and it’s what the family needs to survive so there’s going to be conflicts from that. But also as elephants move through tea estates and tea farms, between these, between the farms where they can raid crops and between the forest where they can get native vegetation to forage on, and get to the water that they need and so on, they are going to keep encountering people. Like “We don’t want you near our village, near our crops.” So, there are people chasing them in one direction and then people chasing them in another direction and the stress levels get high and the aggression. Elephants can take a person and drop him and kill him just like just like that. I think one another thing we are seeing is those tea plantations where they have a plan and they manage it tightly, where people can’t come into the tea estate and harass elephants, where it is kept calm—there are some good examples of this out there—elephants can relax a bit there is less danger. Now, there are some best practices for guarding your crops. There are some ways to do things. It’s not always 100% safe but you don’t want elephants to get habituated to eating rice. You want them to go back to the forest. You want them to eat native vegetation but when they get habituated, they do regular crop-raiding. So, there are, sort of, some elephants that are more wild and there are some that are absolutely getting away with moving around during the harvest season close to the harvest season and raiding crops. And how to manage this? The forest department overseas elephants. But they, don’t of course, on their own have enough people to control crowds of these sizes or to stop all of this from happening. And they really don’t come into the tea estates themselves and handle it. So, what happens within the boundaries of the tea estate is up to the management. We see real differences in what happens. We also see where its kept calm there tend to be fewer conflicts that lead to you know, people getting hurt and killed, and elephants of course also can get killed from conflicts. I hope that helps.


Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, you painted a clearer picture for us. I read somewhere that sometimes elephants die because of chemical poisoning. How do you convince tea planter to go organic? It can’t be easy.


Lisa Mills: OK, first of all with the Elephant Friendly Certification Program that we had to establish what were the things causing problems with elephants. And this took a pilot …this took years of work and information. Early on we started including tea growers and even large companies were involved were saying. “What would it take to reduce all these hazards? What would it take to eliminate all these hazards?”. Elephants don’t appear to get poisoned by just walking through a conventional tea estate because that has been sprayed. That’s not at all what we are finding. What we are finding is improperly stored chemicals, curious elephants especially young elephants might get into some chemicals because they have salts in them and they might take them into the bodies and die a few hours later in another location. So, we are nesting on a campaign to go 100% organic but we find that organic growers will tend to… they’ve already you know, completely eliminated one of the potential hazards for elephants which are chemicals contributing to the potential for chemical poisoning of elephants. So, they have one major step already taken care of for it being elephant-friendly. Now a conventional tea grower might say, “Well if we could get an economic opportunity that would come from you know, doing what needs to be done to improve things then we would do it”. And they need to be able to offset those costs of changing what has been an industry that’s been running for long before we thought about this elephant-friendly certification program. By the way that is a partnership between the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. They are the certifying body and the University of Montana basically initiated this project and brought the science to this. But the certifying body is now is a group that is very, very used to doing certifications around the world that benefit wildlife. They understand fully that compliance takes effort time and often money to change things that have been not friendly towards wildlife in some way. The industry can change. It’s just often you have to find how you’re going to pay for it. That’s what tea growers tell us. If the market was developed for Elephant friendly products then it will be easier if we could see a price premium come from the sale of certified products it would be much easier for us to implement this. Because they are dealing with a number of different certification programs and pressures from industry. But we are seeing more and more tea growers showing interest and more and more are coming on board and some are going through certification at this time.


Lalitha Krishnan: So, did you manage to get a good mix of the smaller and bigger tea estates on board?

Lisa Mills: Yeah, we started with really…the pilot involved two small farms one small…l I should say smallish… for the organised sector tea gardens but now we are getting some interest from what I understand… the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network is coordinating the actual certification- from what I understand, interests have come from really large growers to small growers. It is I would say right now, the ones going through the certification process this time I would consider to be small to medium operations but we are definitely beginning to see interest from not just from small grower sector but from the large grower organised tea sector where we’re seeing the interest. But part of that is the markets beginning to respond. We’re seeing brands beginning to say, “We will carry the certified elephant-friendly products”. That drives a lot of this. If there is a market, I think there is an opportunity here for the growers.


Lalitha Krishnan: That really sounds encouraging.

Lisa Mills: It is. I didn’t know because we’ve had our bumps believe me. The pilot was full of bumps along the way but we learned a lot and we keep learning. I think if we can continue to find ways to connect growers and brands and make sure this scale of opportunity happens and keeps happening, I think we can do a lot of good.


Lalitha Krishnan: Could you give an idea or a few examples of some elephant-friendly practices that are being employed in some tea estates?


Lisa Mills: Elephant friendly standards… there’s a link to it on the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network; there is a whole page for Elephant friendly and now a link to the standards is posted there. So, anyone can go look at them there. I am just going to give you some highlights for those interested they can read the whole document which is quite extensive. But basically, they’re looking at eliminating the risk of electrocution; so, no low hanging electrical live wires that elephant can touch even with their trunk. There has to be no electrical fencing that is you know, unsafe for livestock. So basically, elephants are kind of like equivalent to horses or cows or people in that if they touch a fence it is just as hazardous to a person or an elephant. So, you know you’re looking for that as well. They can use electric electrical fencing if it is safe and there is a way to do that. We’re are also looking at keeping the elephant corridors open so there is no news of elephant movement you reduce conflict by allowing elephants to move without encountering fences and walls. And so basically as they one of the requirements is that they know the elephant movement patterns and they make sure these corridors of movement remain open and that elephants can move freely disturbed. The other thing is there has to be a human-elephant man conflict management plan in place. So that’s a requirement. We have some tips and helpers for folks who want to develop those plans but those are based on research. They have been tried and proved. There is no perfect solution; it is difficult no doubt but there are best practices and there are some things that make things worse. So, we look at those and then also ditches…. these deep narrow ditches that are about the size that a baby elephant would fall into and not be able to come out… you are really looking for… like some tea plantations have mitigated these. They have filled them if there were some problematic ones in the elephant movement areas. They might fill them a bit with rock and make them less steep or give them soft angles to the sides so that elephants can cross more safely in these zones. They’re also looking at if the use chemicals how they store them. Are they elephant proof? And also, safety issues like wells water wells and ponds. Are they safe so that elephants can’t fall in them and not be able to get back out? So, having either if it’s a well is it covered safely so that elephants, especially young elephants, can’t get trapped but also a pond having safely graded slope on the edges so that elephants can get back out. You’ve seen probably pictures of these where elephants get trapped in the water area and can get back out it happens.


Lalitha Krishnan: It happens.


Lisa Mills: Those are some of them. There are others as well but a lot of it has to do with you know, are you allowing people to come into the tea plantation from outside and harass and chase elephants? That would be an absolute NO. That should not be allowed as it only increases stress levels of these elephants and makes it more dangerous perhaps for the people in the next town over but elephants need safe passage and tea growers in these zones are a part of the bigger picture. We hope if we get enough tea plantations co-operating and coordinating together and helping the forest department calm the situation, then you get your, you know, think about… I don’t know… in some cases is there an alternative to growing crops that are attractive to elephants in key movement areas. A few folks have worked on this. What can be done? Are there alternate crops that elephants won’t raid? Are there opportunities for growing these crops elsewhere so people will have the food they need without it being raided in the middle of the night where elephants must move you know? These are just a few of the highlights but you can look up the rest and read it all

Lalitha Krishnan: This is important Lisa so I’m going to summarise what you said.1 Ensuring that there are no low hanging electric live wiring or unsafe fencing, keeping elephant corridors open, having a human-elephant conflict management plan in place based on best practice; fixing deep ditches, making storing of chemicals elephant-proof and managing safety issues with wells and ponds. And restricting people from outside the estates from coming into the estate to chase elephants. These are just some of the requirements for elephant-friendly tea certification. One can read up some of the rest online.
Would it be right to say that part of the elephant-friendly tea profits goes back into conservation?


Lisa Mills: Depends on the commercial company. Elephant Origins is one company that is putting money right back into a fund that helps communities basically with their co-existence work with elephants. Any company sourcing certified elephant-friendly tea basically they are all helping support the program itself and to help it expand and spread. So, any sales will help both the farms themselves and will also help, you know, raise these issues more broadly. Whether they donate an extra percentage back or not. That is just something that Elephant Origins has made part of its mission as a company to be philanthropic and give back and raise money for…so much more is needed. Meeting certification alone is a significant step towards conservation though.


Lalitha Krishnan: Moving on, unlike the US, as far as I know, there aren’t any specific-species-friendly products in India. Do you see a future market here for say ‘leopard-friendly coffee’ or something similar?


Lisa Mills: Well, there was one… a couple of attempts have been made. There’s been a ‘wildlife-friendly certified’ coffee. I am not sure if they are actively continuing. I think they’re working on it… they did a pilot I think they are working on it with the farmers now. That would be a more general ‘wildlife-friendly’ it would include a number of species. There’s also someone working on spices under ‘wildlife-friendly’ as well. Ok here’s an example there is a ‘Jaguar Friendly’ program’ kind of like the University of Montana is involved with elephant-friendly there is a group called Procat Columbia and they are working in South America with coffee farmers to protect jaguar habitat. Like elephants move through tea, jaguars move through these coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Colombia, and maybe other countries as well. And they are doing really well because they founded a company that sells coffee that has a good market and they are selling that into the supply chain as Jaguar Friendly Coffee. And I think that… so far so good. There’s also a project called Ibis Rice out of Cambodia. It’s a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network who we partner with for certification. And that has been really successful. The rice goes into European markets I believe and also in Asian markets and it protects the Ibis Bird. These farmers have to commit to not cutting down any additional forest they have…certain things but they get a price premium for that rice. And it has been a really effective program from what I understand. I think the potential in India is huge. The biodiversity that India has and the need for producing foods, beverages are great and there is also an international market that is there already and can be expanded I believe. So, I think absolutely, leopard friendly, hornbill-friendly… you have so much biodiversity. How to protect it? Getting creative. I will say these things aren’t easy. It’s many years of work for us and we are just getting started.


Lalitha Krishnan: This is the beginning. The coronavirus is already making us think about changing our evil ways so to speak and making us more conscious about what we’re doing and consuming.


Lisa Mills: I hope that is the outcome. It is absolutely… I noticed there is a change here even people are starting gardens. I know I am. People are thinking about where their money is going…. in ways that we have never been, truly, forced to. My hope is that it will inspire conservation by the average person. You can’t always think of how to help; it all seems like too much to do but what choices you make at the grocery store… the market, do really matter.


Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa do you have something you’d like people to remember?


Lisa Mills: 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.


Lalitha Krishnan: Anyway, in India, you needn’t worry about people drinking less chai.


Lisa Mills: We have tea everywhere we go. I love it. I love India. Tea ..its the social fabric of society.

Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely. I usually ask my guests to share a new word or term that’s conservation-related. I think elephant-friendly is a good one for many of us. But do you want to add something more?


Lisa Mills: I would say is that don’t ever doubt the power of just a single cup of tea. 1 cup of tea… that drinking one that is elephant-friendly you know is supporting that farmer whenever they took the steps… a lot of work went into meeting the criteria and what I would say is I will leave you with the thought it’s extremely powerful, this one cup of tea. Imagine that multiplied by all the people that drink tea and how powerful a change will happen. I mean these are elephants that are truly endangered. They’re globally endangered. We could lose them, literally lose them in the next 20 to 40 years on this planet if we don’t intervene. And that’s what these cups of tea are basically like a major intervention for conservation. I’d love to see people drinking elephant-friendly tea and sending stories of how they felt and how they feel about that. Drinking tea that is truly not harming elephants is a wonderful thing and we invite those big brands… those big growers to get on board. I think there is going to be more opportunity overtime for them to see economic benefit. They got to see it sometimes to make changes happen. Because you know they are working on thin margins often but it’s a powerful force. So, thank you.


Lalitha Krishnan: In India, we love our chai and we love our elephants. The elephant-friendly label means we enjoy chai while elephants can roam free and safe like they were meant to. Do read up The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN)- India for more info.


I’m Lalitha Krishnan. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation podcast. You can listen to previous episodes on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple podcasts, or several other platforms. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay safe. Stay consciously healthy and keep listening.

#wildlifefriendly #elephantfriendly #assam #tea #chai #humanwildlifeconflict #teagrowers #teamarkets #wildlife #heartofconservationpodcast

Bhavna Menon: Saving the Wilderness Through Community Participation

Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep#14 Show Notes (Edited)

Introduction:

Lalitha Krishnan:You’re listening to Heart of Conservation Podcast, Season II, Episode #14. I am your host Lalitha Krishna keeping you informed and connected with the natural world by bringing you stories from the wild.

My guest today is Bhavna Menon. She is the programme manager at the Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO that works in and around three Tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. I am doubly grateful to Bhavna because we had to rerecord this podcast because of technical issues.

Thank you Bhavna, for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast for the second time. To begin with, we were talking about how Last Wilderness Foundation has been working in Madhya Pradesh since 2009 and you’ve been engaged with the forest department, urban and the rural l communities over there. So briefly, could you tell me how it all started? What was the goal when you started?

Bhavna MenonSure. Last wilderness Foundation was started in 2009 like you rightly mentioned by an individual called Nikhil Nagle. So, when he met the Field Director of the Bhadhavgad Tiger reserve in 2010, Mr. C K Patil, Mr. Patil asked Nikhil to first send a team to understand the on-ground challenges faced by the villagers in the buffer villages surrounding a tiger reserve. And when we did the survey, of about 33 villages which were in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, we found man-animal conflict to be the main reason and problem behind working out proper conservation strategy. So what we decided to do was to start a healthy dialogue with the villagers which couldn’t be done by just meeting them. There had to be something more fruitful coming out of it…something more personal coming out of it. So what we did is we took the kiddos of the villages—there are about a 100 odd villages in the buffer zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve now—So, over seven years, we took the kiddos inside the park for a safari because it would probably not make sense for us to tell them, save the tiger…save the forest…without them having to experience the forest or an animal.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Bhavna Menon: We took them on a safari; spent the whole day with them…had lunch with them, we did presentations; we asked them what their idea of forests and forest conservation was and at the end of the end we would try to tell them, “Yes, now that we have experienced the forest together, what can we do to protect the forests?” So many a time kids would come up with solutions. “Plant trees.” “Yes, we should not set fires in the forest”. “Yes, we can perhaps, think about reporting illegal incidents”, which was a win-win situation for us. And via the kiddos, even the adults were getting impacted in a manner because the kids would rush back home and say, “Oh my God, we saw a tiger today and it was harmless. It didn’t do anything to us.” “It was huge and big; it had long claws and big teeth but it only used that to hunt its natural prey.” It walked right past us when it saw us and it was that beautiful thing they saw. Once, a tiger was walking past the Gypsy (jeep) and this kid kept backing into me and finally without realizing she sat on my lap. And she said, “How big it is. How beautiful it is.” She kept whispering that as if she was in bliss. The way the mindset of the community members changed via the kids, via the inclusion of the community members in conservation, we saw a dramatic change.

Another impact that we saw because of the Village Kids Awareness Programme is that it extended to the adults. Once we had gone to this village in the buffer zone called Badwar which was anyway, a sensitive village and there we quite a few incidents of man-animal, man-tiger conflict in that area. So we decided to do the Village kids Awareness Programme in that area. And the day we arrived, we learned of an elderly gentleman succumbing to his injuries because of an encounter with a tiger in the forest when he had gone to… Basically, he was a herder. He had taken the cattle to the forests and he encountered a tiger and a kill and the tiger had attacked him etc. and he passed away. To meet the family members, we visited them, we just sat quietly—no one spoke a word—and we decided, out of respect to the community members, that we could not run the pogramme in the village because it would be very insensitive to work in that village at that point of time and tell them to protect the tiger. But, the most amazing part was, the next morning, this gentleman walks up to our canter…to our car and says, “Why aren’t you guys doing the programme? I want you to do the programme and I want you to take my kids in the first batch of the programme. I want them to learn about the forest and respect the forest and understand why it’s important to protect it.” From then on, we realized that we had opened the channel. Thanks to the forest department and the community this channel was open wherein we can reach out to the main stakeholders of conservation and tell them that we can work together as a team where we could learn from each other and protect the wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. Let’s talk about the forest department. I know you said the channels were open but in what way did you interact with them or engage with them?

Bhavna Menon: So,we started working with the forest department by conducting workshops. So although the frontline staff is very beautifully equipped to protect the forest, we wanted to equip them with certain topics slightly more thanks to the experts in the field. Like birding, a little more information about the biodiversity… Then slowly, we moved on to how they could—because we had worked with communities—we gave them a little bit of information on how they could deal with members of the community in times of conflict when we were not there. Our idea was to bridge the gap between the forest department and the community members via these workshops so that even if we are not there, they are not dependent on an external force like an NGO coming there and working. And they could do that themselves. They were their people. So they could have that connect between themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: Do you think that this connection is now well established and they don’t need outside help so much now?

Bhavna Menon: Well, it’s an ongoing process I would say. It needs constant follow up. You need constant dialogue because they are people after all. People need to communicate. I don’t think it will be a one-time thing. Of course, there’s a huge adhesive that’s come into place but still, we need to do a lot of work. A lot of work still needs to go in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Can we start talking about the communities? Tell me about the Pardis and what initiatives you are taking with them in particular?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. We came in contact with the Pardhis in 2009 when the tigers in Panna (tiger reserve) had disappeared. There were no tigers in Panna. The Field Director, Mr. R. S. Murthy, invited us to Panna to meet with the Pardis to see the forest. And the first thing we heard from everyone is how notorious the Pardhis are. How they are a criminal tribe. How they are hunters and that Panna had suffered a lot because of Pardis. But despite all these preconceived notions I had held about them, as soon as I went to visit the hostels that house the Pardi kids—which in fact, was started by the former Field Director, before Mr. R. S. Murthy, Mr. G. Krishnamoorthy…Mr. Gola Krishnamoorthy, it was his visionary plan to work with the communities at some point and start two hostels for the boys and girls. So the minute I opened the gate of the girls’ hostel, I saw this number of kids rushing towards me who have no idea who I am but they clung to just any part of my body. I found kids hanging from my arms, legs feet…. All they said was, “hello”, “welcome,” “please come and sit”, “have chai”. And I was wondering, am I in the right place? 

But the warmth, the genuine love they showed someone who didn’t even know them was brilliant and that was when I and the Director, Mr. Venkatesh, we decided we needed to do something to secure the future of these kids. So what we did, continuously, from 2009 to 2015 we kept visiting them to understand more about the community, kept an ongoing dialogue with them and in 2015 we ran a vocational training programme which was a two-month training programme with both the boys and girls. Wherein the children themselves choose what vocations they would like to pursue. The girls did stitching and the boys did an electricians’ programme. Local teachers were employed to teach them the same and we really bonded. All of us over two months really bonded. We had volunteers coming in who had also interacted with the kids and the success was that because of these hostels and because of these continuous dialogues, we now have five Pardi students who are pursuing their graduations –higher studies and they are the first line of Pardhis graduates from the Pardi community.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s impressive. It’s something, to be proud of for sure. For them and the younger kids. Very inspiring.

Bhavna Menon: Lalitha, another great success story that has come out of working with the Pardhis is a girl called Reesna, Pardhi from the Pardhi community who has been absorbed by Taj Safaris after an initiative I am going to tell you about so basically when we were working with the kids and the adults saw the success of the programme, the adults in the community started demanding that we work with them as well. They kept saying, “why aren’t you working with us?” So we said, “OK, what would you like to do?” They said, “We like the forest, we like to walk in the forest. We can tell you all about birds and animals and, trees and medicinal herbs.” So I said, “Great”. So then we met with Taj safaris, we met with a gentleman whose extremely pro community. He’s called Mr. Nagendra Singh Hada who is the Area Director of Taj Safaris and because of his excellent team of naturalists, and our volunteers, we trained twelve Pardhi guides for three periods of training and because of that we started something called ‘Walk with Pardhis’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I have read about that.

Bhavna Menon: It’s a walk in the territorial area. Guests can go for a walk and there are beautiful gorges you can encounter on your walk there. The animals they (the Pardhis) mimic, the birds they mimic…if you shut your eyes you won’t be able to tell the difference if it’s animal or if it’s a Pardhi guide imitating the animal. It’s super incredible. And because of this, there is a particular girl called Reesna Pardhi who was also trained as part of the Pardhi initiative. The guests loved her so much and Taj saw so much potential in her that she is now working at the Taj Kahna Property, Banjaar Tola. If someone is visiting Kanha, they can most certainly visit Reesna also. She is a lovely, confident young woman now and yes, that’s what we are trying to do with the Pardhis. 

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear. Moving on, the other tribal communities you worked with, the Baiga community and the Gonds. So tell me about the jewellery workshops and the community in general.

Bhavna Menon: The Baiga community-the Baigas we met with-live in the buffer zone of Kanha tiger reserve another beautiful park and there we work with an extremely visionary forest officer called Mr. Surendra Khare who is like this champion for women empowerment In Kahna. I would like to say something before the Baiga community workshop about something they have done in Kahna Lalitha if I may?

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course. Please do.

Bhavna Menon: First time, there was a visually impaired camp that we ran in Kanha with the vision of Mr. Khare. There was this little girl called Tulsa. She is visually –impaired, she called up Mr. Khare Sir once and shed asked. “Why aren’t you showing me the jungle?” He was very puzzled and taken aback and emotional all at once and he said, “yah, actually…why not”? There should be no difference between kiddos wherever they are. We’ve done about three visually impaired camps in Kanha. We run the hearing impaired camp based on sign language. We run the visually impaired camps based on a sensory nature trail, as well as sounds.

Lalitha Krishnan: How many kids came on that (visually impaired camps)?

Bhavna Menon: So the first batch had 23 kids then there was a batch of 40 kids. So different groups had come from NAD(?) Bombay. So one had come from the Netraheen Kanya Vidyalaya, Jabalpur and one was from Justice Tankha Memorial School, Jabalpur and that was a hearing impaired camp. So a different number of people have come to each camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite the initiative. Unfortunately in our society, challenged people are left on the side or not included.

Bhavna Menon: Yah, and the experience Lalitha…I learned so much from there. I mean, I thought we’ll go and tell them…in fact, there was a time when a tiger was walking by our canter. The kids could only hear it. These were the visually-impaired kids. They could only hear it walking in the grass. They could hear rustling. And they said, “Oh my God, I saw a tiger”. And the happiness was just contagious. Everybody was crying by the end of that camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can just imagine. Just visualizing it in my head I’m thinking, what a joy to hear something like that.

Bhavna Menon: They were just bouncing around camp and they’re happy and they’re singing and they’re not…I’ve never seen them feel sorry for themselves. And this was because of Mr. Khare. Had it not been for that Officer, none of this would have happened. This again is an extract of what the forest department is doing. After doing these camps we realized there was a lot of more work to be done in Kanha and Mr. Khare encouraged us since we had already worked with communities and we had had a dialogue with the people. He encouraged us to work with the Baiga community who live in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. They are very dependent on the forest produce as a source of livelihood. Women usually visit the forests and collect a leaf called Mahul. It’s a creeper with a very big leaf. They make little plates and bowls of those which are then sold in the market for Rs. 30/- 40/-. So you have to collect a whole lot of them to make plates for which they used to spend the whole time in the forest which encourages encounters with wild animals and encourages the chance of a conflict. So Mr. Khare said, “why don’t you work with these ladies concerning livelihood. We spent three-four months discussing and visiting the ladies and we finally chanced upon an elderly lady in the village who was wearing very beautiful silver coin jewellery. We said, “Okay, where did you find this from?” She said, “No we made it.”

“Wow, with what machinery?”

“No, we make everything by hand. Nothing is machine-made. Nothing is bought except the raw material.”

We said, “Okay, that’s brilliant, Can you make this for us?”

A group of 10 women started laughing and saying. “Who do you think is going to wear this in the city? No one’s going to wear it. It’s a village thing, it’s a tribal thing”. They sometimes feel shy that people will make fun of them. In fact, they have amazing tattoos on their body. Baigas are famous for tattoos on their body. But unfortunately, the younger generation is refraining from doing it because everybody will tease them in school and colleges saying, “Oh, this one’s is a Baiga”. So that also hit us and we said, “No you should be proud of this.” So we started giving them ideas: “You can make bracelets, necklaces.” So we started giving them the raw material. We have a branding partner called “Natureworks India’ which helps us sell the jewellery and the response has been beautiful. We are working with some 40 odd ladies now across four villages. Reduction in the forest has happened drastically because ladies can now sit at home instead of being in the forest. They can sit at home and make jewellery, It’s a whole day’s work. They get paid on the spot…as soon as they make the jewellery. The beautiful part is men used to mock them. “Why are you making this jewellery? Who’s going to buy it?” They’ve seen their wives being successful in business. When their wives are ill or pregnant, the men sit and make the jewellery.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? That’s a change. That I’d love to see.

Bhavna Menon: Youshould see the men running around carrying necklaces instead of the women.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good news. I have seen them (the jewellery) on social media and they look fabulous And colourful.

Bhavna Menon: Yes. Veryhappy.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s some mention of the Gond tribe or community you work with.

Bhavna Menon: Yes,that’s in Basically, what I’m trying to do also Lalitha, is to include guests and tourists to visit community members. What hit me once was when I was on a safari, a very happy guest said, “Oh we saw five tigers today”. 

I said, “Lovely. If you have time, why don’t you visit a village?

“What? They have villages here? I thought there were only forests and resorts.”

“No, no. There are lots of villages and lots of amazing people you can meet if you can step outside the confines of your resort.”

“Wow. What are the activities you offer?”

Then and there, Vidya and I decided to pen down a list of activities guests can do while they are visiting the tiger reserves. I am happy to say those tour operators especially, who are helping us with this do encourage guests to do these activities. We have village walks, we do lunch, breakfast, dinner with villagers if you choose that an option. We have jewellery making workshops wherein you can go to the village, sit with the Baiga people and make jewellery. And then we have the tribal dance. People while eating their dinner or while they are having chai, can sit and watch the dance. More often than not, guests are dancing themselves. It’s a contagious dance. They get up and start dancing themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great and is homestay a possibility or not…because they are living on the fringe?

Bhavna Menon: Homestay is a possibility. It requires a little bit of work as we need to speak to the community members. Because community members need to be comfortable with strangers staying in their houses as they are in remote areas. So the idea is to get them on board. A lot of them in Panna and Bandhavgarh are on board with this idea. We’ve been in talks with them. They want to be trained in regards to hospitality so we will be exploring this and maybe in the next few years when you come to Central India, we can put you up in a homestay.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I look forward to that. So what other outreach programmes or initiatives have you’ll be taking in these areas.

Bhavna Menon: So we run the nature education programme in these areas in association with the forest department, with the help of brilliant volunteers in Kanha. The nature education programme is very very similar to the Village Kids Awareness Programme of Bandhavgarh that we had started in 2012. Where kids from the buffer zone are taken inside the forests and we tell them about the interconnect of denizens of the forest. Apart from that a very important programme that we run from the conservation point of view is the Forest Fire Prevention Programme in Pannah. That again, Mr. K S Bhadoriya who is the current Field Director of Panna…he’s been extremely supportive and he’s been practically part of each and every session that we do with villagers. He travels for one hour and comes down every time and sits with the villagers. So the idea is to understand/ first talk to the villagers about their challenges and then tell the villagers. “Now that the tigers have a magnificent comeback in Panna, we need to protect them.” The biggest problem in Panna is fire. It is an extremely dry landscape. So we need to talk to the people with special emphasis on how to prevent forest fires in the landscapes. Whether via reporting fires to the fires department or patrolling teams and helping the forest department in helping different regions for fire and other illegal activities. We are encouraging community members to do so via our sessions.

Bhavna Menon: 

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok. And these fires you are talking about. Do they happen in April…the dry seasons?

Bhavna Menon: It happens in the summer months andacres and acres of forest get burnt becausethe landscape is so dry and it is completely grassland. So, one spark can actually ignite the whole forest. It’ happened in Panna before but I’m very happy to report that since we started working in 2019 there hasn’t been a case of forest fires last year. We’ve done two sessions with the villagers in 2019 and 2020 and covered almost 37 villages and 1200 villagers. There hasn’t been a case of forest fires. We are hoping to God, fingers crossed that there won’t be any forest fires this summer.

Lalitha Krishnan: Fingers crossed and congratulations to you and your team for making it possible.

Bhavna Menon: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: 1200 people is a big number. You were talking about volunteers. I wanted to know if anyone wanted to volunteer in any of these camps or places that you work in how long would they have to stay and what sort of work would you expect them to do? What are the options for anyone who is interested or goes to your website or connects with you? This is just to give them a feel for what it will be like.

Bhavna Menon: Ideally we call upon volunteers when there is a project in place. Suppose there’s a Nature Education Camp in place like the Visually –impaired Camp. We had volunteers for that also. Then, mostly conservation outreach programmes, even the forest fire prevention programme we had volunteers coming in and helping us. When we were training the Pardhis, at that time also we had volunteers who were staying on for two-three weeks and helping us see the project through. That’s how volunteering works. But suppose people want to write to us irrespective of an ongoing project, so we may shortlist them later, they can write to us on an email Id that we’ve provided on the website. It’s called conservarationatthelastwilderness.org. All the details of our project and the email id is mentioned on our website.

Lalitha Krishnan:  That’s good to know. You mentioned Bhavna that you’ve been working for nine years or around nine years. First I want to know how you started working for this organization and for you’ve been personally affected. You did say a bit of that but you can expand.

Bhavna Menon: I’ve always been interested in wildlife and conservation, forest and people. I’m very interested in meeting people but I was never a science buff. I was always an English Literature buff. I did Psychology for three years. And it was when I moved to pursue my post-graduation in journalism from Xaviers in Mumbai, this came after my college ended. This came as a college placement. Our founder Director Mr. Nikhil Nagle was looking for media students to help him put together a comprehensive website on wildlife and communities, and conservation efforts in different areas because he said, “there isn’t a good enough website as of now, which gives all this information.” So when he hired us, he hired some students from Sophia’s, some from Xaviers. We were a biggish team then. Now we are an extremely big team of two people. We started working then. We travelled to tiger reserves and collected the information. Every time we would come back and tell Nikhil about the different efforts being taken, he thought to himself and then he said it out loud to us: “You know, why don’t we give back to the forest as well?” Because, the tiger, he claims has given him so much in life—such happiness—he wanted to give back to the tigers as well. So that’s how we started work. We all build the NGO together and that’s how we started conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: And do you want to tell me what the experience has been like for you?

Bhavna Menon: I think when I started out in this field I came from a lot of privilege. I carried with me a whole bag of preconceived notions but the day I walked out from the field, all of that just vanished into thin air. I realised that I knew nothing. I unlearnt and learned a lot of things thanks to the community members and they grounded me. I felt grounded when I realized the challenges people faced n villages and how they live. I always say this to people, even though it sounds real clichéd, that the real India is in the villages. The cities are beautiful yes but India exists in the villages. In the past nine years, I have changed a lot and I have learned to accept people for who they are. I’ve not been judgemental of people and I come with a very broad mind thanks to conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent

Bhavna Menon: But the only thing I want to say is none of this would have been possible, like I said before, without our field coordinators. We have had some brilliant field coordinators like Indrabanji who handles Panna and Pushpenderji who handles Bandhavgarh. Disksha, she used to work in Kanha. Now we have Mr. Ram Kishore who works with us and volunteers. It sounds great that we are doing a brilliant job but it’s a huge team that’s behind this…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m sure. So, how many people actually work in your office?

Bhavna Menon: Just me and Vidhya. Vidhya is my Director and I am the Programmes Manager for the organisation.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Hats off to you guys.

Bhavna Menon: All of two women team

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing. I want to know how FWF is funded and whether you require funding and how does it work if somebody is interested in funding you?

Bhavna Menon: Yes. As an NGO we are definitely looking for funding because a: we definitely want these projects to be sustainable in the long term. We wouldn’t want them to stop because we don’t have funds. Secondly, we are slowly expanding. We are working with more and more community members for which again, we need funds. So if anybody wants to contribute or wants to donate either their time or financially support us, they can again, write to us at conservation@thelastwilderness.org or they can directly contact me. I am available on social media and mail.

Lalitha Krishnan: One last question. I always ask my guests to share a word that is significant to them or to conservation. So what is yours?

Bhavna Menon: 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to say, it works both ways for the people involved. That’s lovely. Such a pleasure talking to you! Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. You can listen to it on Google podcast, Spotify, Apple podcast and many other platforms. If you know somebody who is doing interesting work and whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And keep listening. Bye for now.

 Introdcution:

Lalitha Krishnan:You’re listening to Heart of Conservation Podcast, Season II, Episode #14. I am your host Lalitha Krishna keeping you informed and connected with the natural world by bringing you stories from the wild.

My guest today is Bhavna Menon. She is the programme manager at the Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO that works in and around three Tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. I am doubly grateful to Bhavna because we had to rerecord this podcast because of technical issues.

Thank you Bhavna, for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast for the second time. To begin with, we were talking about how Last Wilderness Foundation has been working in Madhya Pradesh since 2009 and you’ve been engaged with the forest department, urban and the rural l communities over there. So briefly, could you tell me how it all started? What was the goal when you started?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. Last wilderness Foundation was started in 2009 like you rightly mentioned by an individual called Nikhil Nagle. So, when he met the Field Director of the Bhadhavgad Tiger reserve in 2010, Mr. C K Patil, Mr. Patil asked Nikhil to first send a team to understand the on-ground challenges faced by the villagers in the buffer villages surrounding a tiger reserve. And when we did the survey, of about 33 villages which were in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, we found man-animal conflict to be the main reason and problem behind working out proper conservation strategy. So what we decided to do was to start a healthy dialogue with the villagers which couldn’t be done by just meeting them. There had to be something more fruitful coming out of it…something more personal coming out of it. So what we did is we took the kiddos of the villages—there are about a 100 odd villages in the buffer zone of the Bhadavgad Tiger Reserve now—So, over seven years, we took the kiddos inside the park for a safari because it would probably not make sense for us to tell them, save the tiger…save the forest…without them having to experience the forest or an animal.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Bhavna Menon: We took them on a safari; spent the whole day with them…had lunch with them, we did presentations; we asked them what their idea of forests and forest conservation was and at the end of the end we would try to tell them, “Yes, now that we have experienced the forest together, what can we do to protect the forests?” So many a time kids would come up with solutions. “Plant trees.” “Yes, we should not set fires in the forest”. “Yes, we can perhaps, think about reporting illegal incidents”, which was a win-win situation for us. And via the kiddos, even the adults were getting impacted in a manner because the kids would rush back home and say, “Oh my God, we saw a tiger today and it was harmless. It didn’t do anything to us.” “It was huge and big; it had long claws and big teeth but it only used that to hunt its natural prey.” It walked right past us when it saw us and it was that beautiful thing they saw. Once, a tiger was walking past the Gypsy (jeep) and this kid kept backing into me and finally without realizing she sat on my lap. And she said, “How big it is. How beautiful it is.” She kept whispering that as if she was in bliss. The way the mindset of the community members changed via the kids, via the inclusion of the community members in conservation, we saw a dramatic change.

Another impact that we saw because of the Village Kids Awareness Programme is that it extended to the adults. Once we had gone to this village in the buffer zone called Badwar which was anyway, a sensitive village and there we quite a few incidents of man-animal, man-tiger conflict in that area. So we decided to do the Village kids Awareness Programme in that area. And the day we arrived, we learned of an elderly gentleman succumbing to his injuries because of an encounter with a tiger in the forest when he had gone to… Basically, he was a herder. He had taken the cattle to the forests and he encountered a tiger and a kill and the tiger had attacked him etc. and he passed away. To meet the family members, we visited them, we just sat quietly—no one spoke a word—and we decided, out of respect to the community members, that we could not run the pogramme in the village because it would be very insensitive to work in that village at that point of time and tell them to protect the tiger. But, the most amazing part was, the next morning, this gentleman walks up to our canter…to our car and says, “Why aren’t you guys doing the programme? I want you to do the programme and I want you to take my kids in the first batch of the programme. I want them to learn about the forest and respect the forest and understand why it’s important to protect it.” From then on, we realized that we had opened the channel. Thanks to the forest department and the community this channel was open wherein we can reach out to the main stakeholders of conservation and tell them that we can work together as a team where we could learn from each other and protect the wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. Let’s talk about the forest department. I know you said the channels were open but in what way did you interact with them or engage with them?

Bhavna Menon: So,we started working with the forest department by conducting workshops. So although the frontline staff is very beautifully equipped to protect the forest, we wanted to equip them with certain topics slightly more thanks to the experts in the field. Like birding, a little more information about the biodiversity… Then slowly, we moved on to how they could—because we had worked with communities—we gave them a little bit of information on how they could deal with members of the community in times of conflict when we were not there. Our idea was to bridge the gap between the forest department and the community members via these workshops so that even if we are not there, they are not dependent on an external force like an NGO coming there and working. And they could do that themselves. They were their people. So they could have that connect between themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: Do you think that this connection is now well established and they don’t need outside help so much now?

Bhavna Menon: Well, it’s an ongoing process I would say. It needs constant follow up. You need constant dialogue because they are people after all. People need to communicate. I don’t think it will be a one-time thing. Of course, there’s a huge adhesive that’s come into place but still, we need to do a lot of work. A lot of work still needs to go in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Can we start talking about the communities? Tell me about the Pardis and what initiatives you are taking with them in particular?

Bhavna Menon: Sure. We came in contact with the Pardis in 2009 when the tigers in Panna (tiger reserve) had disappeared. There were no tigers in Panna. The Field Director, Mr. R. S. Murthy, invited us to Panna to meet with the Pardis to see the forest. And the first thing we heard from everyone is how notorious the Pardhis are. How they are a criminal tribe. How they are hunters and that Panna had suffered a lot because of Pardis. But despite all these preconceived notions I had held about them, as soon as I went to visit the hostels that house the Pardi kids—which in fact, was started by the former Field Director, before Mr. R. S. Murthy, Mr. G Krishnamurthy…Mr. Gola Krishnamurthy, it was his visionary plan to work with the communities at some point and start two hostels for the boys and girls. So the minute I opened the gate of the girls’ hostel, I saw this number of kids rushing towards me who have no idea who I am but they clung to just any part of my body. I found kids hanging from my arms, legs feet…. All they said was, “hello”, “welcome,” “please come and sit”, “have chai”. And I was wondering, am I in the right place? 

But the warmth, the genuine love they showed someone who didn’t even know them was brilliant and that was when I and the Director, Mr. Venkatesh, we decided we needed to do something to secure the future of these kids. So what we did, continuously, from 2009 to 2015 we kept visiting them to understand more about the community, kept an ongoing dialogue with them and in 2015 we ran a vocational training programme which was a two-month training programme with both the boys and girls. Wherein the children themselves choose what vocations they would like to pursue. The girls did stitching and the boys did an electricians’ programme. Local teachers were employed to teach them the same and we really bonded. All of us over two months really bonded. We had volunteers coming in who had also interacted with the kids and the success was that because of these hostels and because of these continuous dialogues, we now have five Pardi students who are pursuing their graduations –higher studies and they are the first line of Pardhis graduates from the Pardi community.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s impressive. It’s something, to be proud of for sure. For them and the younger kids. Very inspiring.

Bhavna Menon: Lalitha, another great success story that has come out of working with the Pardis is a girl called Risna Pardhi from the Pardi community who has been absorbed by Taj Safaris after an initiative I am going to tell you about so basically when we were working with the kids and the adults saw the success of the programme, the adults in the community started demanding that we work with them as well. They kept saying, “why aren’t you working with us?” So we said, “OK, what would you like to do?” They said, “We like the forest, we like to walk in the forest. We can tell you all about birds and animals and, trees and medicinal herbs.” So I said, “Great”. So then we met with Taj safaris, we met with a gentleman whose extremely pro community. He’s called Mr. Nagendra Singh Hada who is the Area Director of Taj Safaris and because of his excellent team of naturalists, and our volunteers, we trained twelve Pardi guides for three periods of training and because of that we started something called ‘Walk with Pardis’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I have read about that.

Bhavna Menon: It’s a walk in the territorial area. Guests can go for a walk and there are beautiful gorges you can encounter on your walk there. The animals they (the Pardis) mimic, the birds they mimic…if you shut your eyes you won’t be able to tell the difference if it’s animal or if it’s a Pardi guide imitating the animal. It’s super incredible. And because of this, there is a particular girl called Reesna Pardi who was also trained as part of the Pardi initiative. The guests loved her so much and Taj saw so much potential in her that she is now working at the Taj Kahna Property, Bunchar tola. If someone is visiting Kahna, they can most certainly visit Reesna also. She is a lovely, confident young woman now and yes, that’s what we are trying to do with the Pardis. 

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear. Moving on, the other tribal communities you worked with, the Baiga community and the Gonds. So tell me about the jewellery workshops and the community in general.

Bhavna Menon: The Baiga community-the Baigas we met with-live 

in the buffer zone of Kahna tiger reserve another beautiful park and there we work with an extremely visionary forest officer called Mr. Surendra Kahrey who is like this champion for women empowerment In Kahna. I would like to say something before the Baiga community workshop about something they have done in Kahna Lalitha if I may…

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course. Please do.

Bhavna Menon: First time, there was a visually impaired camp that we ran in Kanha with the vision of Mr. Karhe. There was this little girl called Tulsa. She is visually –impaired, she called up Mr. Karhe Sir once and shed asked. “why aren’t you showing me the jungle?” He was very puzzled and taken aback and emotional all at once and he said, ”yah, actually…why not”? There should be no difference between kiddos wherever they are. We’ve done about three visually impaired camps n Kanha. We run the hearing impaired camp based on sign language. We run the visually impaired camps based on a sensory nature trail, as well as sounds.

Lalitha Krishnan: How many kids came on that (visually impaired camps)?

Bhavna Menon: So the first batch had 23 kids then there was a batch of 40 kids. So different groups had come from NAD Bombay. So one had come from the Netrya vidyala, Jabalpur and one was from Justice Tanka Memorial School, Jabalpur and that was a hearing impaired camp. So a different number of people have come to each camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite the initiative. Unfortunately in our society, challenged people are left on the side or not included.

Bhavna Menon: Yah, and the experience Lalitha…I learned so much from there. I mean, I thought we’ll go and tell them…in fact, there was a time when a tiger was walking by our canter. The kids could only hear it. These were the visually-impaired kids. They could only hear it walking in the grass. They could hear rustling. And they said, “Oh my God, I saw a tiger”. And the happiness was just contagious. Everybody was crying by the end of that camp.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can just imagine. Just visualizing it in my head I’m thinking, what a joy to hear something like that.

Bhavna Menon: They were just bouncing around camp and they’re happy and they’re singing and they’re not…I’ve never seen them feel sorry for themselves. And this was because of Mr. Kahre. Had it not been for that Officer, none of this would have happened. This again is an extract of what the forest department is doing. After doing these camps we realized there was a lot of more work to be done in Kanha and Mr. Karhe encouraged us since we had already worked with communities and we had had a dialogue with the people. He encouraged us to work with the Baiga community who live in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. They are very dependent on the forest produce as a source of livelihood. Women usually visit the forests and collect a leaf called Mahul. It’s a creeper with a very big leaf. They make little plates and bowls of those which are then sold in the market for Rs. 30/- 40/-. So you have to collect a whole lot of them to make plates for which they used to spend the whole time in the forest which encourages encounters with wild animals and encourages the chance of a conflict. So Mr. Karhe said, “why don’t you work with these ladies concerning livelihood. We spent three-four months discussing and visiting the ladies and we finally chanced upon an elderly lady in the village who was wearing very beautiful silver coin jewellery. We said, “Okay, where did you find this from?” She said, “No we made it.”

“Wow, with what machinery?”

“No, we make everything by hand. Nothing is machine-made. Nothing is bought except the raw material.”

We said, “Okay, that’s brilliant, Can you make this for us?”

A group of 10 women started laughing and saying. “Who do you think is going to wear this in the city? No one’s going to wear it. It’s a village thing, it’s a tribal thing”. They sometimes feel shy that people will make fun of them. In fact, they have amazing tattoos on their body. Baigas are famous for tattoos on their body. But unfortunately, the younger generation is refraining from doing it because everybody will tease them in school and colleges saying,” Arey this one’s is a Baiga”. So that also hit us and we said, “No you should be proud of this.” So we started giving them ideas: “You can make bracelets, necklaces.” So we started giving them the raw material. We have a branding partner called “Natureworks India’ which helps us sell the jewellery and the response has been beautiful. We are working with some 40 odd ladies now across four villages. Reduction in the forest has happened drastically because ladies can now sit at home instead of being in the forest. They can sit at home and make jewellery, It’s a whole day’s work. They get paid on the spot…as soon as they make the jewellery. The beautiful part is men used to mock them. “Why are you making this jewellery? Who’s going to buy it?” They’ve seen their wives being successful in business. When their wives are ill or pregnant, the men sit and make the jewellery.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? That’s a change. That I’d love to see.

Bhavna Menon: Youshould see the men running around carrying necklaces instead of the women.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good news. I have seen them (the jewellery) on social media and they look fabulous And colourful.

Bhavna Menon: Yes. Veryhappy.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s some mention of the Gond tribe or community you work with.

Bhavna Menon: Yes,that’s in Bandhavgarh. Basically, what I’m trying to do also Lalitha, is to include guests and tourists to visit community members. What hit me once was when I was on a safari, a very happy guest said, “Oh we saw five tigers today”. 

I said, “Lovely. If you have time, why don’t you visit a village?

“What? They have villages here? I thought there were only forests and resorts.”

“No, no. There are lots of villages and lots of amazing people you can meet if you can step outside the confines of your resort.”

“Wow. What are the activities you offer?”

Then and there, Vidya and I decided to pen down a list of activities guests can do while they are visiting the tiger reserves. I am happy to say those tour operators especially, who are helping us with this do encourage guests to do these activities. We have village walks, we do lunch, breakfast, dinner with villagers if you choose that an option. We have jewellery making workshops wherein you can go to the village, sit with the Baiga people and make jewellery. And then we have the tribal dance. People while eating their dinner or while they are having chai, can sit and watch the dance. More often than not, guests are dancing themselves. It’s a contagious dance. They get up and start dancing themselves.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great and is homestay a possibility or not…because they are living on the fringe?

Bhavna Menon: Homestay is a possibility. It requires a little bit of work as we need to speak to the community members. Because community members need to be comfortable with strangers staying in their houses as they are in remote areas. So the idea is to get them on board. A lot of them in Pannah and Bhandhavgad are on board with this idea. We’ve been in talks with them. They want to be trained in regards to hospitality so we will be exploring this and maybe in the next few years when you come to Central India, we can put you up in a homestay.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I look forward to that. So what other outreach programmes or initiatives have you’ll be taking in these areas.

Bhavna Menon: So we run the nature education programme in these areas in association with the forest department, with the help of brilliant volunteers in Kahna. The nature education programme is very very similar to the Village Kids Awareness Programme of Bhandhavgad that we had started in 2012. Where kids from the buffer zone are taken inside the forests and we tell them about the interconnect of denizens of the forest. Apart from that a very important programme that we run from the conservation point of view is the Forest Fire Prevention Programme in Pannah. That again, Mr. K. S Badhoria who is the current Field Director of Pannah…he’s been extremely supportive and he’s been practically part of each and every session that we do with villagers. He travels for one hour and comes down every time and sits with the villagers. So the idea is to understand/ first talk to the villagers about their challenges and then tell the villagers. “Now that the tigers have a magnificent comeback in Pannah, we need to protect them.” The biggest problem in Pannah is fire. It is an extremely dry landscape. So we need to talk to the people with special emphasis on how to prevent forest fires in the landscapes. Whether via reporting fires to the fires department or patrolling teams and helping the forest department in helping different regions for fire and other illegal activities. We are encouraging community members to do so via our sessions.

Bhavna Menon: 

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok. And these fires you are talking about. Do they happen in April…the dry seasons?

Bhavna Menon: It happens in the summer months andacres and acres of forest get burnt becausethe landscape is so dry and it is completely grassland. So, one spark can actually ignite the whole forest. It’ happened in Pannah before but I’m very happy to report that since we started working in 2019 there hasn’t been a case of forest fires last year. We‘ve done two sessions with the villagers in 2019 and 2020 and covered almost 37 villages and 1200 villagers. There hasn’t been a case of forest fires. We are hoping to God, fingers crossed that there won’t be any forest fires this summer.

Lalitha Krishnan: Fingers crossed and congratulations to you and your team for making it possible.

Bhavna Menon: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: 1200 people is a big number. You were talking about volunteers. I wanted to know if anyone wanted to volunteer in any of these camps or places that you work in how long would they have to stay and what sort of work would you expect them to do? What are the options for anyone who is interested or goes to your website or connects with you? This is just to give them a feel for what it will be like.

Bhavna Menon: Ideally we call upon volunteers when there is a project in place. Suppose there’s a Nature Education Camp in place like the Visually –impaired Camp. We had volunteers for that also. Then, mostly conservation outreach programmes, even the forest fire prevention programme we had volunteers coming in and helping us. When we were training the Pardhis, at that time also we had volunteers who were staying on for two-three weeks and helping us see the project through. That’s how volunteering works. But suppose people want to write to us irrespective of an ongoing project, so we may shortlist them later, they can write to us on an email Id that we’ve provided on the website. It’s called conservarationatthelastwilderness.org. All the details of our project and the email id is mentioned on our website.

Lalitha Krishnan:  That’s good to know.You mentioned Bhavna that you’ve been working for nine years or around nine years. First I want to know how you started working for this organization and for you’ve been personally affected. You did say a bit of that but you can expand.

Bhavna Menon: I’ve always been interested in wildlife and conservation, forest and people. I’m very interested in meeting people but I was never a science buff. I was always an English Literature buff. I did Psychology for three years. And it was when I moved to pursue my post-graduation in journalism from Xaviers in Mumbai, this came after my college ended. This came as a college placement. Our founder Director Mr. Nikhil Nagle was looking for media students to help him put together a comprehensive website on wildlife and communities, and conservation efforts in different areas because he said, “there isn’t a good enough website as of now, which gives all this information.” So when he hired us, he hired some students from Sophia’s, some from Xaviers. We were a biggish team then. Now we are an extremely big team of two people. We started working then. We travelled to tiger reserves and collected the information. Every time we would come back and tell Nikhil about the different efforts being taken, he thought to himself and then he said it out loud to us: “You know, why don’t we give back to the forest as well?” Because, the tiger, he claims has given him so much in life—such happiness—he wanted to give back to the tigers as well. So that’s how we started work. We all build the NGO together and that’s how we started conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: And do you want to tell me what the experience has been like for you?

Bhavna Menon: I think when I started out in this field I came from a lot of privilege. I carried with me a whole bag of preconceived notions but the day I walked out from the field, all of that just vanished into thin air. I realised that I knew nothing. I unlearnt and learned a lot of things thanks to the community members and they grounded me. I felt grounded when I realized the challenges people faced n villages and how they live. I always say this to people, even though it sounds real clichéd, that the real India is in the villages. The cities are beautiful yes but India exists in the villages. In the past nine years, I have changed a lot and I have learned to accept people for who they are. I’ve not been judgemental of people and I come with a very broad mind thanks to conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent

Bhavna Menon: But the only thing I want to say is none of this would have been possible, like I said before, without our field coordinators. We have had some brilliant field coordinators like Indrabanji who handles Panna and Pushpendrji who handles Bandhavgarh. Disksha, she used to work in Kanha. Now we have Mr. Ram Kishore who works with us and volunteers. It sounds great that we are doing a brilliant job but it’s a huge team that’s behind this…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m sure. So, how many people actually work in your office?

Bhavna Menon: Just me and Vidhya. Vidhya is my Director and I am the Programmes Manager for the organisation.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Hats off to you guys.

Bhavna Menon: All of two women team

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing. I want to know how FWF is funded and whether you require funding and how does it work if somebody is interested in funding you?

Bhavna Menon: Yes. As an NGO we are definitely looking for funding because a: we definitely want these projects to be sustainable in the long term. We wouldn’t want them to stop because we don’t have funds. Secondly, we are slowly expanding. We are working with more and more community members for which again, we need funds. So if anybody wants to contribute or wants to donate either their time or financially support us, they can again, write to us at conservation@thelastwilderness.org or they can directly contact me. I am available on social media and mail.

Lalitha Krishnan: One last question. I always ask my guests to share a word that is significant to them or to conservation. So what is yours?

Bhavna Menon: 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to say, it works both ways for the people involved. That’s lovely. Such a pleasure talking to you! Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. You can listen to it on Google podcast, Spotify, Apple podcast and many other platforms. If you know somebody who is doing interesting work and whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And keep listening. Bye for now.

Photo Courtesy Bhavna Menon

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

Earthy Matters: 46th in Feedspot List of Top 75 Wildlife Blogs on the Web. Pretty Stoked.

Top 75 Wildlife Blogs, Websites And Newsletters To Follow in 2019 Last Updated Sep 19, 2019, via Feedspot

‘Heart of Conservation Podcast’ also on the Feedspot list of wildlife -podcasts.

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46. Earthy Matters

Earthy Matters

About Blog I live in the foothills of the Himalaya and welcome you to a glimpse of my world. The landscape is never the same on any two days and I’d like to share its uniqueness: all the quirks & surprises the mountains dole out. Bird & animal behavior, flowers & bugs, sky & earth, people & their stories. You’ll find them all here. Come. Grab your favourite cuppa and join me as I document wildlife through writing, podcasting and photography.
Frequency about 1 post per month.
Blog earthymatters.blog

18. Heart of Conservation

Heart of Conservation

About Podcast I want to reconnect my fellow Indians to nature through storytelling and to share everything I learn by entertaining, creating awareness, and bringing back the ‘awe’ of our natural world seamlessly.
Frequency about 1 post per month.
Podcast soundcloud.com/heart_of_cons..
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Dr. Sejal Wohra: Intrepid Woman Leader Ep#5

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

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Ep#5 Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #5. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

Lalitha Krishnan: A 20 min walk from my home is a natural forest that forms a wildlife corridor between the Shivaliks and the middle Himalaya. Over the years, I have seen this stretch of land being converted into the incredible Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. This is the only privately owned and managed wildlife sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It came about thanks to the vision and effort of one woman. She practically commuted every weekend from Delhi or whenever she could get away from her demanding job to make this happen.

I am so pleased to introduce you to the woman who truly needs no introduction. She’s Dr. Sejal Wohra, Programme Director at Worldwide Fund for Nature- India. She has been working for over 25 years of the field of environmental conservation and spearheads a team of over 300 professionals tackling the whole gamut of conservation concerns. Welcome to Heart of Conservation podcast Dr. Sejal Worah. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: My first question to you is, as a woman leader who’s in a very influential and enviable position at WWF India, what has your journey been like through all the years?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s hard to really explain the journey because some things were things I was determined to do and some things just happened in life. I grew up in and around Mussoorie so we’ve always grown up in nature. Ever since I was little, I kind of had this affinity for nature and as I grew up, I knew I wanted to do something. Something that would keep me close to nature and ecology. So I went to school like we all do, I went through university like we all do. Then after I finished my bachelors in Mumbai I kind of looked around for something that would, you know, help me learn more about nature.

At that time in India, there was no university that offered anything in conservation. There was no Wildlife Institute of India. There was no NCBS. It was also a time in the 80s when—I mean nothing has changed today—when people were looking to the US as a future study option. So I said, OK, let me look around. And lo and behold, I was amazed to find that there were so many universities in the US that offered degrees in wildlife conservation. I did my Masters in wildlife conservation. But, I realized, after I finished my Masters that while I enjoyed the courses and the learning in the US I really wanted to do something on the ground. I really wanted to do applied conservation…and I didn’t think I wanted to do it in the US. So I was thinking, what should I do. Should I do a Ph.D.? Should I go back to India? My worry about coming back to India at that time was not that I was a woman in this field but that I wouldn’t get a job. I just thought, who is going to give anybody a job with a degree in wildlife biology, wildlife conservation in those days? Funnily enough, the day I was graduating there was somebody from India who came to give a talk. …in the US, at my university. It turned out that he was the CEO of WWF India at that time.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Bizarre. Anyway, he gave his talk and at the end of the talk—he looked at me because I was obviously Indian…I was the only Indian in that class–he asked me, “So, what do you want to do next?” I said, “Well I would love to come back to India but no one is going to give me a job?” He said, “Why don’t you come meet me, we’ll give you a job.” So, I said, “OK”. I packed my bags and landed up in Mumbai.

A week later, I was at the door of WWF India saying, “Here I am, you promised me a job.” Yeah, that was my first job.” My first job really was doing nature education at WWF India in Mumbai. It was great fun. We used to run these nature camps. There were these iconic nature camps that WWF ran in those days. And I think a whole generation of conservationists in India, you know of my generation have come through those nature camps. It is kind of something that has died out.

Lalitha Krishnan: You think?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Well, it’s happening but in a very different way than what we used to do. But, yes, that was my grounding in conservation. When I came, I was thrown right into the deep end. We used to spend weeks and weeks and weeks in the forests with small kids teaching them about nature. What more do you want?

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Anyway, I did that for a while then I kind of started getting itchy feet. Again, I wanted to do again, something that would ground me and take me back to conservation. We used to travel a lot in those days with friends; we used to hike and trek in the Sahaydris. There was one place, that caught my imagination. This was a place in south Gujarat called the Dangs which was a tribal district, which was very unique in those days. And I thought it would be fun to spend a few years just studying the ecology of this place. So I managed to get a grant and I went off to…study ecology in the Dhans and that was challenging.

Let me tell you. That was the first time that I felt that—you know you had asked me what it is to be a woman in this field?

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, Yes.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: That was the first time I felt a little bit alone and I felt this is not what I am meant to do in India. Which is live completely alone in the forests with tribals… you know? Spending hours in the forests, driving a jeep at four in the morning, through remote areas, all by myself… People would come and you know, and visit me once in a while, and many of them would remark on this and say, “What are earth is a woman like you doing here sitting here in the middle of the night in a remote forest guest house surrounded by maps and dead insects.” “What’s going on?”

Lalitha Krishnan: In low light?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: In low light, No light. The good thing about it was my family never questioned me. That was the great part. That, despite my doing something very unconventional in those days, I had the full support of my parents and my family which is what helped. Because without that I don’t think, I could have survived those years.

Again it was serendipity. I was sitting in the forest rest house one fine day and a group of university professors from Pune University walked in. And they said, “What are you doing?” And, I told them what I was doing. And they said, “This is amazing work and you have amazing data. Why don’t you register for a Ph.D.?” So I said OK, why not?” So that’s how my Ph.D. started.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh…Ok

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I registered with the University of Pune. I finished my Ph.D. and then again, I was at a loose end. Believe me, it was not an easy sector to find a job in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Still isn’t, is it?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Still isn’t. So there I was, with a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and was wondering how what do I do? Funnily enough–so what happened then?– there was an international conference on parks and protected areas. This was happening in Venezuela, of all the places. Someone suggested to me, “Why not go to this conference because your work is really interesting?” “And you should present a paper.” So somehow I managed to get a grant and went off for this conference and presented my paper. A gentleman walked up to me after the presentation and said, “That was very interesting. Would you like to work with us?”

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I was like, “Who’s this? Who are you?” “Work where?” He said, “I’m the programme head of WWF in the UK and I would like you to come work with us in the UK and head our Asia team.” I said, “ No, no I don’t want to do that…

Lalitha Krishnan: This is just from your speech…your presentation?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yah. Just from my presentation. I said, “No way, I am a field person, I do not want to sit in an office. I definitely do not want to go to the UK. I want to go back and sit in another forest you know? This is what we think in that stage in life because we are so passionate about what we do we think we want to do it forever. Be close to nature. Be close to wildlife. Anyway, a lot of my friends convinced me and said, “You should try this for a couple of years.” “You’ve done enough.” “Why don’t you give it a shot?” “What’s the harm?”

So, I said, “What’s the harm?” I packed my bags and went off to the UK. I spent a couple of years there—about three years in the UK. It was an interesting job but I was just aching to get back.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I just could not handle…it was fun…but I just thought, one more miserable winter in the UK and I’m just going to die. So then, I wrote my own proposal. By that time, I realized that I was very interested in capacity building, training, and teaching. So I wrote up a proposal, I got a grant and then and I moved to Bangkok.

Then, I spent five years in Thailand but it was more of a regional hub and at that time I was working in 15 different countries. It was amazing.. so everything from Pakistan to Fiji.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like a dream.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It was. It was really interesting and really, really fun. I saw so much conservation. I got so much experience in learning what goes on in different countries. But then, once again I realized that I had had enough after five years and I always knew that I wanted to come back to India. It was never in my mind that I would stay away from India forever. I had been away by then for more than 10 years. I felt like if I don’t go back now I am going to be out of touch. I don’t know what’s going on in my own country. So, I packed my bags. I came back to India and landed up in Mussoorie, which was home. I worked out of Mussoorie for several years. I was doing consultancy for the UN; I was travelling, I was working in India…  After three or four years of doing that I again started getting a little bit of, you know, this feeling, that I’m doing great stuff, I’m doing well as a professional, I’ve got a good career but am I making a difference. I’m doing lots of little things, I am advising a lot of people on how they should do things but what difference am I making to India, to a place or to a people? Again, the WWF India job just happened. It was something that people have been telling me for a long time, saying, “You’re in India, you know WWF, why don’t you go and work for WWF India? I said, “No way I’m going to be a manager, I hate management, I have never been trained in management. I’m a conservationist. What do I know about people management?” But all that was in vain. I got into the job and I have been there for over 10 years. We have a great team. I am proud to say I built up a fantastic team and a great programme. Today I feel pretty satisfied that I have made a difference not just in the people I have trained…anywhere in the world, it’s amazing. I go to so many places in the world and people come up to me and say, “That training I did with you changed my life”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? Wow.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Or “changed my career or changed the course of my thinking”. And that is an amazing feeling. Also in WWF, I think we have gone on a long journey. Things have changed a lot. Finally, my little project in Mussoorie, Jaberkhet, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects in my life.

Lalitha Krishnan: We will definitely talk about that a little later.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: So that’s my journey. It’s been fantastic and I’ve never really felt hampered being a woman in this journey. Except when I came back to India and didn’t have grey hair. Because people would not take you seriously. But now that I have grey hair and I look kind of experienced.

Lalitha Krishnan: Haha, you are experienced

Dr. SejalWohra: The woman factor doesn’t come in the way and people take me more seriously.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s pretty incredible. You were talking about your journey in the last 25 years. What has changed since you started and what is the state of conservation in India?

Dr. SejalWohra: Let me talk about the good and not so good. On the good side, what has changed is just the sheer number of people in this sector. As I told you when I started, I didn’t know where I would go, what I would do. There were so few people who were in this sector and most of us were wondering what would be our future. My parents, my relatives would get a lot of pressure;. “What is your daughter doing?” “How is she ever going to get a job?” “Just get her married off.” Because this is a crazy field to be in.

But today, it’s amazing. The number of universities offering this course in conservation and wildlife biology…the number of young people opting for this and the amount of cross-fertilization that is going on… It’s no longer a sector in conservation and wildlife biology… it cuts across everything. It cuts across law, communications, policy… The sector has exploded in a very positive way. There are lots and lots of people and lots of momentum. Lots of good research going on…lots of activism, going on. That part to me is the good part in terms of what’s changed dramatically.

I think the challenge is that we are not winning too many battles. That sometimes gets frustrating. In the last 10 years I’ve started feeling a lit bit –what should I say, depressed is not the right word—a little bit less optimistic than I used to. This is a sector in which you have to feel super optimistic. You have to keep telling yourself that every little victory is a battle won. And that whatever you save, whatever you delay, wherever you can get a small win, you have to celebrate it. Now we are finding that even the small wins are getting harder and harder to get. All the news that you see today is negative—it’s depressing…it’s how much we are losing. Certainly, on some fronts, we are doing well but overall the picture is not looking great for India.

The challenges are just starting. For a country that’s on an economic precipice, where things are going to boom, one just wonders how we are going to balance the conservation requirements and ecology with the development that we need. I am not saying that we don’t need that development.

Lalitha Krishnan: Is it because we are not highlighting the positive? Is it because media tends to just highlight the negative? Do you think that’s (one of) the reasons?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s a bit of both. Yes, media, of course, like sensational stuff. And usually, sensational stuff is negative. Very often and I can tell you this. When we’ve tried to put out positive stories, and we’ve tried to put out positive stories, and we put out a lot because nobody wants to hear gloom and doom all the time we are often told by the editors of the newspaper said, “this is too boring”. “It’s too bland.” But, the minute there is a negative story we get approached by a hundred of them saying, “Give us a sound bite, tell us what’s going on?” And the other problem is nobody wants to hear the story. Everybody wants a sound bite. And sound bites are often negative. Or they don’t tell you the story. When you try to connect the dots, they cut out all the stuff. So really we do not understand the full picture… we do not understand the complexity of what’s going on. We are just working on sound bites and single sentences and twitter and stuff like that.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, and we tend to believe what we hear or see (on social media).

Dr. Sejal Wohra: That is a challenge I think. Trying to tell the story in a smart way. This is what we keep telling ourselves. We challenge ourselves to say in this era of short attention span – where everyone has a short attention span – how do you grab the attention but also sustain it? We need to get smarter too. We need to get smarter at how we communicate. I think we conservationist haven’t learned the art of communicating with today’s generation. Unless we do that, we are going to lose their interest.

Lalitha Krishnan: I would have thought today’s generation is more aware than our generation.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: They are more aware but they also want short-term solutions

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s like …we do this ‘Earth Hour’ thing, every year. You’ve heard about it? It’s a single action.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: You switch off your lights and you feel good about it. Stop using straws and you will feel good about it. Give up this and you will feel good about it. Which is all good and they’re very quick to pick those up. Those are snappy messages that you can send out on social media and stuff. But really, it’s about a lifestyle change.

Lalitha Krishnan: And that’s hard for them.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, that’s hard And the danger is by giving people these short fixes you make them feel that they have done their bit. And that’s enough.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Dr. Sejal Wohra: So, there is a good and a bad side to it as well. The good side is that people are doing something. The bad side is they think it that is enough. Unless we tell the whole story.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. You worked in over 20 countries in south-east Asia, thePacific and East Africa.  Can you tell us your most unforgettable experience? It could positive or tell us positive and negative? Do you remember (them)?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let me start with the negative. I am not sure if it was negative but it was shocking. If you’re in the conservation field and in your sort of formative years, one of the places that make an unforgettable impression on your mind that you read about and you dream about is obviously rain forests. Rainforests are the thing. And, Borneo is another place we all dream about. We have this picture of Borneo in our heads. I got a chance– of course as part of my travels in South East Asia– to go to Borneo. I was excited beyond belief. I was so thrilled to be going to Borneo. I had this image in my head. I had read all the books, seen all the movies. There I was, landing in Sabah. We were driving, actually, to a very remote village where we were working with the community there. So, I was excited. This was the place on the border of Sabah and Kalimantan as deep in Borneo as you can get. And, we drove for something like seven hours on makeshift roads mostly. And it was probably one of the most depressing drives of my life.

Lalitha Krishnan: Why?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Because the only thing you saw was logging trucks. The only thing you’re so was logged over forests. Or burnt forests. Or forests, that has been converted to palm oil. And literally, I must’ve counted thousands and thousands of trucks with these enormous rainforest trees…

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nooo. Your dream must have just shattered.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I just thought… Frankly, I don’t think I have recovered from that. And I never wanted to go again. I’ve been since to other parts of Borneo–they are amazing and remarkable –it just made me realize that there is no stopping the amount of resources that humans need.

Lalitha Krishnan: How long back was this?

Dr. SejalWohra: About 20 years ago.

Lalitha Krishnan: And, they’re still at it?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, still at it. And it’s relentless. I think that was my wake up moment to the reality is that going on. Of course, I realize that there are so many issues. We work on logging, all kinds of issues related to logging but at that time, I was just starting. And it was an eye-opener.

In terms of something exciting and really positive… I sort of shifted my career a little bit in terms of pure conservation to working with people and communities and looking at the interface between social issues and conservation. That was very interesting for me… something I was deeply interested in.

So as part of that, we were working in Thailand with the fishing community. The problem here was there was a small fishing community, which was heavily threatened by trawlers. So the trawlers were coming in and scooping up all the fish and destroying the entire ecosystem small fishermen were just being left out in the cold. And we wanted to work with them to devise strategies on how we could help them conserve their resources and you know, deal with the trawler menace.

It was amazing. We were sitting with these fishermen… they would go out fishing all day and come back dog tired at the end of the day. Then we would start a discussion with them. Literally, we would sit through the night— they were Muslim fisherman, in southern Thailand —they would go, say their prayers, come back and we sit and sit and sit, talk, drink coffee and talk, drink coffee and talk all the way into morning until they had to go for prayer again. Literally, we would spend night after night sitting down and devising strategies and thinking about how we could solve the problem. And to me, just this incredible connect this community had with their issues, their resources… and how eager they were, how committed they were to solve their problem made me realize that the solution to conservation problems doesn’t lie with governments, doesn’t lie in policies, doesn’t lie with conservationists but it lies with the people.

Lalitha Krishnan: With the people.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: And again, that was an eye-opener for me. For me, it is just a career, a job but for these people, it’s their life. It was a mind-blowing experience for me to spend a week just talking through the night and coming up with a solution. I still think that was one of the most successful projects that I have been associated with.

Lalitha Krishnan: So that must have been hard because I’m sure none of them spoke English and you needed a translator. But over and above all of these issues, you still managed to solve the problems.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah. We had an amazing team in Thailand. Some people were very connected. I learned over those years –those five years in South East Asia to do a lot through translations. I did speak a smattering of Thai… and you realize when you work in different cultures how quickly you start picking up body language, how quickly you start picking up words, phrases, tones…

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s not really a barrier in the end.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah. Exactly. If you’re on the same side then actually you can communicate without languages.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Dr. Wohra, the Himalayas, I know, is a big part of who you are today. You grew up here as a child; you worked here as a young professional in the past and even now you continue to be passionate and immersed in projects in and around these hillsides. I was wondering if you had any apprehensions at all or concerns about the future of these beautiful mountains we are living on.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: The Himalayas are of course unique. You and I both know this and we live here because we love the place. I genuinely think that in India, we don’t realize the value of the Himalayas although; we pay a lot of lip service to the Himalayas. We talk about Himalayan ecosystems… there is a number of missions. The Ministry of Environment has a mission on the Himalayas. NITI Aayog has a sustainable Himalayas sort of mission as well. We have tourism things that focus on the Himalayas. We have adventure people who are focusing on the Himalayas. We have so much that in theory is dedicated to sustainable development or sustainable tourism. The word sustainable…

Lalitha Krishnan: The most commonly used word.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Every time they talk about the Himalayas they say it’s going to be about sustainable development. But the actual development that you see in the Himalayas, particularly in Uttarakhand I should say, is anything but sustainable. I mean anyone can look around these mountains–not just Mussoorie, but anywhere you go– and see that and neither is the road building sustainable, neither is the infrastructure sustainable. And by sustainable I don’t just mean ecologically, I also mean from the human point of view. Neither is our river management sustainable. Neither is our tourism sustainable. Absolutely, to my mind, this is a disaster waiting to happen, you know? The sad part to me is that disasters are happening- both small and big; annually, yearly. But that does not seem to change the paradigm or the trajectory of development.

So what saddens me the most is actually when I look at the formation of Uttarakhand – and you and I were probably both here when it was formed from UP—the battle cry at that time for Uttarakhand was around ‘Jal, Jungle Zameen.’ It was all around resources. You know the ‘Chipko’ movement started here. This was a watershed movement in Indian environment activism. So this is the home of resources and resource management, and people’s activism. And today when you look at what’s going on; today when I actually look at people sitting in dharna to be allowed to cut hundreds of trees; to be allowed to build roads…I am not denying or saying we don’t need roads. But isn’t there some way to balance the kind of development we are doing? Shouldn’t we give some leeway to the future generations? Shouldn’t we think about what it is going to look like in 15 or 20 years if we trash every piece of these amazing mountains that we’ve got?

Today, I looked out of the window and saw another big part of the mountainside being gouged out… just literally being gouged out of the mountain to build another huge development. Just in front of my eyes on a steep slope.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s already packed with this. There is hardly any ground left to build on.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Every hill slope that I’m looking at is now just a series of buildings. Again, this is unsustainable. This not good for people, or for the environment. The challenge I think, which we face in the Himalayas is, on the one hand, we say we need to treat these mountains differently because they are different from the plains—that was the whole argument for getting different mountain states but the development that we are doing in the mountains is no different from the development we are doing in the plains. The greed that we are seeing in the people of the mountains to make as much money as quickly as possible is no different from what we have seen anywhere else. So I think this whole pride that separated us—and we felt, you know, we are from the mountains and we are different—to me is a tragedy. Frankly, it’s just a tragedy.

So if there is one thing that depresses me more than anything else it is the seeing the way the way Himalayas are being destroyed systematically in front of our eyes.

Lalitha Krishnan: And you’re talking about the whole Indian Himalayas? Or you feel its worse in Uttarakhand?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I’m talking of the western Himalayas more. The eastern Indian Himalayas are still, of course in a better shape. We work in Arunachal. It’s still very different.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s hard to get there.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s probably the reason, right? Sikkim is interesting. Second is an interesting model. Because Sikkim always claimed they have a different development paradigm. They have a different form of tourism. But if you look at Sikkim today — look at Gangtok— it’s no different, right? Gangtok looks no different than Darjeeling or from Simla– Again, another urban disaster in the making. Some parts of cleaner, it may be better managed but at the end of the day, it looks like in an urban disaster in the making. Sikkim has just opened its first airport. We know what happens. I saw Ladakh change dramatically in the last 20 years once the flights started coming in and it is unrecognizable today.

So, with all the good intentions…Ladakh had probably the strongest tourism sector. It had a really good association of tour operators who were really trying to keep Ladakh special and separate. It’s gone.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s gone. I hope it doesn’t happen to Spiti.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Spiti, is on the way. Arunachal is on the way. Because there’s a big push to move tourism into Arunachal. They want to open up more areas in the Himalayas – they want to open more peaks for mountaineering, they want to open more areas for adventures sports. Trekking tourism, you know, it has taken off in such a big way but unmanaged.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s hardly much to trek to, I remember we used to take two days to get to (specific) villages, Now the road reaches there. And also there are new rules about not camping on bhugyals  (meadows).

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Not camping on bhugyals is interesting. It’s a reaction to really, bad management, right?

Lalitha Krishnan: I know.

Sejal Wohra. I agree that bans are bad but they way they have treated our bhugyals…

Lalitha Krishnan: We need to give them a chance to revive.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Nag Tibba is right next to Mussoorie. It’s a place where we used to hike when we were kids. It was pristine. I went to Nag Tibba recently and I was shocked. It is a garbage dump. It is a garbage dump. Why are we not able to manage tourism in this country? I do not understand.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, but there are operators who take 50-100 people at one go and if you now go to some of the places I used to (trek) to or have been to, its full of dug out toilets pits…

Dr. Sejal Wohra: And toilet paper everywhere.

Lalitha Krishnan: There are no places to really camp. It’s ruined. And we used to go there to see the flowers in the monsoons.

Dr. Sejal Wohra:  So this is the problem. We have a regulatory regime but we are not able to regulate. So we swing from over exploitation to bans. And that is not the way to handle things.

Lalitha Krishnan: For sure.  Like we were discussing in our country, we live in close proximity to wildlife and we read about human-wildlife conflicts all the time. What are we doing to mitigate or intervene or even empower communities that live on the edge?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: This is again a very big challenge that we are going to have to resolve if we want conservation to have a future in India. We live in a crowded country which is both crowded with people and with wildlife. And if you were to ask me one positive thing, I said so many negative things, what amazes me and especially amazed me when I came back from Southeast Asia to India is that we have so much wildlife in our country.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is so true.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: In South East Asia it’s the typical empty forest syndrome. They have amazing forests, beautiful rainforest. Birdlife is pretty good, in some places but you don’t see mammals. You don’t see large mammals. You come to India and you see just about everything. I know my friends from Southeast Asia die to come to India. This friend of mine worked for years on elephants in Thailand and she saw maybe one herd.

Lalitha Krishnan: One wild herd.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I have colleagues who have been working on tigers in Thailand for 15 years and have never seen a wild tiger except on camera (traps).

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: So given all that, we are blessed. In many ways, we are blessed and there are many reasons for this. One of the many reasons for this is the famous tolerance of Indians that people talk about which we absolutely should not take for granted.

Lalitha Krishnan: Even animal tolerance no? They also are being tolerant.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. People rubbish the word coexistence but I can tell you that even in this little forest of Jaberkhet, that we’ve got next door-it’s right in the middle of Mussoorie; there are all kinds of things going on there. There is a clear co-existence that you see. Because we know that there are large animals there who are watching us or behaving in a way or altering their behavior in a way that doesn’t come into conflict. So I think there is a lot to be said for tolerance, coexistence but as I said we can’t take it for granted. But there is a whole generation of Indians who are growing up with a disconnect. Even now, I have heard older generations of villagers – they have seen elephants rampaging through their fields, they see a leopard taking their life stock livestock and they will still be quite philosophical about it. They will say, “Well, it happens. We’ve lived through this”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Animals too, need to eat. That’s usually the response.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s a kind of risk you take and manage in those kinds of areas. But the younger generation doesn’t want to. The want that leopard shot, they want that tiger killed, they wanted it captured. That’s going to increase and that’s how it is in most countries in the world. Where you’re not going to tolerate dangerous animals. When it comes to a choice between humans and animals it’s always going to be humans. So, we are reaching that stage. Unless we find smart, effective, efficient, rapid ways of dealing with conflict, this is something that is going to come back and bite us. Because people were just one those animals eliminated. We may save the species, maybe but individual animals will definitely suffer as a result of it.

So we’re working a lot on the conflict at multiple levels. Conflict needs to be addressed at three levels: one is immediate and short-term. People need to see an immediate response to conflict. Very often we do that through giving immediate relief or giving a small amount of compensation – immediately after the conflict or having a rapid response force that makes people feel the lives are valued, the crops are valued, their resources are valued. That’s the short-term response

But we need a median-term response as well which starts looking at: What are the physical barriers? What can we do in terms of cropping patterns? Can we grow alternative crops? Can we have you know, the right kind of barriers in the right kinds of places to actually _____create physical distance between humans and wildlife?

The long-term solution or long-term solution issue really is space. It’s all about space.

Lalitha Krishnan: Which is almost impossible, isn’t it?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Which is impossible but not quite. One of the things we have been fighting a lot for is corridors, right? So you leave those corridors, you leave that space. Even agricultural fields, for example, are forming a buffer for a lot of wildlife. So, we need to understand the role that land use mosaics play in mitigating conflict and not have these hard barriers. We need softer measures to deal with how animals disperse. We need a better understanding of how they disperse and when animals and people come into conflict.

One of the things I hear a lot from a number of people is that numbers are increasing. There’s more conflict because there are more leopards. There is more conflict because there are more tigers. There is more conflict because there are more elephants. In pockets, there have been increases but part of the reason there are conflicts are that we are encroaching into their space. We are blocking corridors. We are blocking passages. So, we are coming much more in proximity to those animals. It is not necessarily that the animals that are coming and deliberately attacking us but we are increasingly in their space and there are behavioural issues. You know, another interesting factor we are seeing is leopard attacks. Villagers in Uttarakhand have lived with leopards all their lives. They know what to do and what not to do. They know that you don’t go walking out in the dark in the nallas with the dog. They know there are certain behaviours that you avoid. But with so many settlers coming in, labourers coming in, people coming in from the outside, who have absolutely no clue how to live with wildlife, they are doing things you would not normally do if you lived with wildlife. And a lot of the conflict is happening to these people. So, there’s a huge amount of education and awareness to be done as well because it’s like having a highway next to your house.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: You had a two-lane road and that road has become a highway. You tell your children how to behave when there is a highway next to your house. Similarly, you also need to know how to behave when there I wildlife living next to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Dangerous things are all around us. It’s not just wildlife, that is dangerous. Cars are dangerous. So, I think we got to put it in context and not overreact sometimes.

Also, the media plays a role in this, I am sorry to say. Sometimes the way these stories are portrayed. It’s always, “Killer on the lose”, or, “rampaging tiger”, or “marauding elephant”. So, it’s also how this is portrayed. There are so many things we can do.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re right. We don’t know how to behave when we see wildlife. There were two leopard spottings in this area. One was right near the school gate.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I heard that.

Lalitha Krishnan: There was this driver coming up and there was a leopard sitting on the edge. He has taken this video and his passengers are shouting and this tolerant leopard just sat there for 15 minutes and then turned around and walked away. So, we don’t even know what to do. It’s horrible.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: What I think is amazing is that how little conflict there is. Because, if you think about it, these leopards around Mussoorie are living with us all the time. They are all around us whether you like it or not.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re seeing us even if we don’t see them.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. So, the thing is if they were as blood-thirsty as they are portrayed to be, we would be having problems every day.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sure.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: The fact is they are avoiding us and we are only coming into conflict when it’s unavoidable. To me, the story is not about conflict, to me, the story is really about coexistence. That..look it’s amazing. That actually we are living with these wild animals with so little conflict.

Lalitha Krishnan: True. Closer home, all of us in Mussoorie feel so proud and privileged to live close to Jaberkhet Nature Reserve. Could you briefly tell us the before and after story…because I think everybody should know this. It’s been such a success and a wonderful thing.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I don’t know if there’s a real before and after but I think I’ve told this story in different ways at different times. I’ll try and encapsulate it. We grew up in Mussoorie. We’ve been coming here since 1962 or 63. My sister was in Woodstock. As you probably know, Flag hill, as it was known…

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes

Dr. Sejal Wohra: …was a regular haunt of Woodstock students for hiking, picnics…

Lalitha Krishnan: Still is.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Along with her, my sister, we used to go to Flag hill and hike and camp and really loved the place. But when you’re a child it’s a different context. And we always thought that this was the most amazing place on the planet. Then, of course, I grew up, I went away…I told you my history. Then, I came back to Mussoorie after 15 years or so and went back to Flag hill. It was like a, you know, a Flag Hill revisiting. I was actually quite shocked. Because it looks very different when you are an adult. Also, because by that time I was in conservation, an ecologist…so I was looking at it from the eyes of an ecologist. And I thought, “My God, this place is in a mess”. Not just because of the trash and physical manifestation but it was heavily degraded; it was badly overused. Also, at that time, I realized, the whole of Mussoorie had changed. And there was so much development as I told you. Every hillside was being eyed by developers for building, constructions, resorts etc.

I just thought, you know, “Here I am, I have spent the last twenty years of my life telling the rest of the world how to do conservation and I come back home and I see this situation.” You can’t just sit back, you can’t keep quiet.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, you can’t.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: You can’t turn a blind eye to it and say “I’ll tell everybody else how to do things and I won’t try and sort out my own mess”. So then, I thought we must do something in Mussoorie or Mussoorie was just going to be another sad case of bad development. So, Flag hill or Jaberkhet as the area is known as, was something that I really felt strongly – that we could turn it around. We had no idea how to do it. I didn’t even know who owned it. I didn’t even know it was a private forest actually, at that time. I just thought, here’s a place. It’s one of those things you don’t question, right? You don’t ask those questions…in those days.

My sister then had a Woodstock reunion and I think it was the class of 72 or some such thing. Anyway, she went for this reunion. I think Steve was in that reunion. This guy called Vipul Jain turns up at that reunion and he’s a businessman from Bombay. My sister gets chatting with him and then he says, “I own Flag hill”. Then she says, “Oh my God, we’ve been looking for you for 30 years. Please talk to my sister”.

Lalitha Krishnan: What a breakthrough.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I think my life has been a series of chance things. Nothing has been planned. Anyway, Vipul and I got talking, and he narrated to me, how his father had tried, in many ways to, do things in Jaberkhet. They tried to have an orchard, they had tried flower fields, and they tried growing vegetables but nothing had succeded. He had also planted trees. At that time, the forest was also being worked. They were actually cutting the trees and selling them as well. Earlier on, this entire forest was used for making charcoal for the brewery in Mussoorie. It’s not like the forest had not been used for a long time. Now they were just open access. They were not just being used but they were being misused. Anyway, he and I started talking and I kind of said, “Since you got this land and you are not using it, why don’t we do something we can actually leave for future generations? Something that you can be proud of… your father’s memory and I can use the skills that I’ve learned all these years and do something for Mussoorie. Credit to him, he agreed and put it in my hands. He said, “Ok fine”. In a way, “Show me what you can do”. And so we started the journey.

It was me, and Rajender. Rajender is the guy who brings milk from a village that is 10 k away. He walks 20 k every day. He and I started this little project to figure out what we could do.

Lalitha Krishnan: A two-person team?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: A two-person team…a lot of villagers against us. A lot of people basically not understanding what we were trying to do-thinking we were privatizing the place…and we were just going to make a lot of money out of it. So we had lots of meetings, lots of discussions with villagers. People would come and break my walls, they would break my fences…

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, they would write nasty things about me… a whole history of…

Lalitha Krishnan: I didn’t know that part.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: The toughest part for me was managing the use by the people from Jaberkhet and Bhatta Ghat…mostly the cows being grazed.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s hard.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: You know, it was a free for all forest. You could come and cut trees. You could come and do whatever you wanted. And suddenly here’s somebody saying, “Well, you can’t do that anymore as you want it. Now there are going to be certain rules.” I kept trying to explain to them, that, “This was going to good for you in the long run. That people will come. They will appreciate the place. Jobs will be created. There will be mann (status) for you. People will talk about this place. Right now you’re not on the map. It was a long journey.

For three years we struggled away, did the restoration, cleaned it up, somehow managed the cows, somehow managed to get the community on our side, creating jobs, employed the local people…did this, that and the other.

We then trained the local boys to become nature guides and that was quite a turning point for me.

Lalitha Krishnan: And for them, I think. Don’t you think so?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Well, the funny thing was we had this training and I got 12 local boys from surrounding villages to come. We did this three-day training for them to say here’s an alternative career option rather than becoming a taxi driver or working in a restaurant or going off to Dubai which is what these kids aspire to do. This is a job that will give you name and fame and be satisfying. When I asked, “Who is going to come work for me?” No, none of them were interested. They all wanted to go work in hotels and stuff. Out of the 12, no one was interested except for this one young kid who was actually the quietest of the lot in the class. And, the one who t I thought had the least promise. He walked up to me and said, “I am willing to do the job.” And I turned around and said, “Nah, not really.”

I am so glad I took him on. Because I had no choice. He was the only one I had. Virender, is, of course, the find of the century. He has turned into this amazing naturalist and bird watcher. He has won a national award. He is like the star. Everybody who writes comments on Jaberkhet writes about Virender. The great thing is that he’s become like a rock star in town. Everybody wants to be him. So now all the young boys are coming to me. Their mothers are coming to me. Women, who are dead against me are now saying, “Can you give my son a job?” Now I have four of these young boys working for me.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was thinking, it must look to them like when you started off in conservation by saying, “What am I going to get out of this?” Now they see the difference and see that there’s a future here.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yes, Some of the boys here, like Vipul, he used to work in a restaurant here in Bhatta Ghat. He’s left that and become a nature guide. According to him, this is a much more satisfying job than slaving behind and making bun omelettes and Maggie noodles for tourists.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I would think.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: If you ask me what’s been one of the most satisfying things, Jaberkhet, of course, has been a great story. We are now on the map. People come all the way from Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai…forget about Delhi and Mussoorie…people are coming from far away just to see the place and learn about the story.

The other nice thing and what I really wanted it to be is a model. And that’s starting to happen because people are coming to me from Hyderabad, from Sikkim…

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so good.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: …saying, “I have a patch of forest. Can I do this with my forest? I say, “Yeah, please do it.” So people are seeing it as a model.

The third thing that I’m really keen on is, you know, Uttarakhand has a whole bunch of van panchayats which are community owned forests which are scattered all over the state. These forests are under great threat. Because, there are roads being built through them, they’re being cut down, they’re being decimated. And these van panchayats have a huge potential to become a network of nature reserves. Increasingly the van panchayat leaders are coming. Recently, we had 20 of these van panchayat leaders come to Jaberkhet to say, “How can we actually set up something like this in our villages?” So I think if this little experiment that we have set up in Mussoorie can become a model for the whole state, then I start seeing some hope for Uttarakhand.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing that they even know about it.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: There is hope for these small patches of forests. The other thing I would like to say about Jaberkhet is that— and I’m now speaking again as an ecologist, rather than anything else—initially I thought, “What’s a hundred acres?” Jaberkhet is a 100 acres but it’s surrounded by much more. It’s got Woodstock forests on one side, it’s got cantonment, it’s got the reserve forest, and other private forests…so it’s quite a large area. The vision and the hope that I have is that one fine day we will be able to connect all of these into one large defacto protected area.

Lalitha Krishnan: We’ll all cross our fingers for you.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let’s hope that happens. But even a small patch can make a difference. The story of Jaberkhet is the story of two or three things. One is that individuals can make a difference. You don’t need the state…you won’t need large amounts of money. I’ve invested some money but it’s not an unimaginable sum of money. It’s something I could afford and wanted to do so it’s not a lot. Success breeds success. And the other is that other private forest owners who are much more commercial-minded have been watching very carefully. And I am exaggerating the success a little bit…

Lalitha Krishnan: No you’re not. It’s such a healthy…

Dr. Sejal Wohra: For them, it’s not the health of the forest. It’s about how much money you are making.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: They’re interested to know if it is a viable business model. The minute it becomes a viable business model conservation will start becoming something that they will do. Otherwise, they just see the forest as a liability. My fervent hope is that we start actually doing well as a business not because we want to make money that because I hope that it will encourage other forest private forest owners to say, “Hey, it’s a moneymaking model… It’s not just one crazy woman doing her hobby”.

Lalitha Krishnan: I see what you mean. But we are also proud of you and so privileged to have Jabberkhet next to us.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Such a fantastic story and it’s been the support of everybody around. I should say that the initial hostility that I had has completely turned around. And we have so much support from everybody right from put stuff to people living around in the community to the taxi drivers, to the restaurant owners… everybody sees this, you know, just as we had hoped. That it would be something to be proud of rather than to be something to sneer at or say that this is a crazy idea. Yeah, let’s hope it goes from strength to strength. My dream is that it becomes sustainable and the locals can manage it themselves and I can step back and leave it to them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? Wow. That’s really ambitious but I’m sure it will happen.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let’s hope so.

Lalitha Krishnan: You must have so many stories Dr. Wohra. Do you think you will ever write a book?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Oh gosh, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Dr. Sejal Wohra: First of all, you need time to write a book. I need to stop this frantic pace of things that I am doing and the travel, and the work, and pause and take a deep breath. I shouldn’t say this but I’ve been kind of looking around and saying everybody is writing a book. So, why the hell am I not writing a book? I think people with less interesting lives with me are writing a book. Certainly, I can write a book.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, please do write a book.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: But it requires a certain temperament and at some point — I have never made notes–I have never actually kept notes of the journey or incidents or stuff like that.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re a strange conservationist. I thought they always made notes.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I have all those books but there are all technical. So they all notes about meetings and field visits and this and that but I haven’t captured the anecdotes. The stuff that makes a book interesting is the anecdotes.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess with time you will remember.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: They’re all there in my head. Sooner or later I should put it down. My hope is that I will retire soon and maybe that’s a good project to take up.

Lalitha Krishnan: I look forward to that.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: If not a book at least something.

Lalitha Krishnan: Jottings… memories

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Good point. I should. Thanks for that idea.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. I request all my guests to share a scientific term or word that they like or think is significant. What’s yours?

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.

Lalitha Krishnan: We all are.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great but I guess it would work in a city rather than a place where you have to walk two miles just to meet your neighbour.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Yeah, and that’s where the consumption happens.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Dr. Sejal Wohra: So even if people start thinking along the lines of, “I’ve bought this but I’m not going to use it for another year…

Lalitha Krishnan: Or it is lying in my cupboard for the past six months even.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Exactly. We’ve started a little thing like that in our office as well Where we have a corner in the office where people leave stuff that they either don’t want or are willing to share. And people just keep exchanging things and this can be done by anybody… any community can do this.

Lalitha Krishnan: I know people do that with books but it’s the hardest to give away.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I feel we should do this with everything. So, I think the more we change our mindset about things and stuff. I need this, I need this. We have to get away from that…the more we’ll change society.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a wonderful word – a wonderful concept. Thank you so much Dr. Wohra. I really enjoyed speaking to you. I think we have lots more to talk about. Hope you’ll join us again someday on another episode.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Thanks. It was a pleasure. It’s always fun to talk to somebody who understands what you’re talking about so thanks for being a good listener.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you.

Lalitha Krishnan:. I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Stay tuned for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation.

If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me with details at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents

 


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