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

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

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

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


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

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

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

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

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

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

Women for Nature: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia.

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

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

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

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

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

Mittal Gala: Thank you, Lalitha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mittal Gala: Yes, yes!

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah sure yeah! Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: You are kidding me, Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Really!!

Mittal Gala: They are crazy birders.

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

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

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

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

Mittal Gala: Yeah, that’s true.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode, stayed tuned for Part 2. I am Lalitha Krishnan and you are listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthymatters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation is available on several platforms, so do check it out and till next time stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

Photos courtesy: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

Collective Wisdom:The Best From My Guests Ep#20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dritiman Mukherjee: The Philosophy of Photography. EP#11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Intrepid Woman Leader Ep#5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cara Tejpal: Eco Warrior Ep#9

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

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

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

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

Suniti Bhushan: Reconnecting Children to Nature Ep#6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

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

Nina Sengupta: Your Guide to Urban Foraging Ep#18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.


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

Imagine Living Without Running Water. Aditi Mukherji Tells us What the Drying of Himalayan Springs Means for India.

Heart of Conservation Podcast Episode 15 Show Notes (Edited)

Introduction:

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi guys. Thanks for listening in to Heart of Conservation Podcast (Ep#15).  I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan. I hope you’re staying healthy, washing your hands regularly, and keeping sane. Talking of water, there are a lot of people in our country (India) who don’t have access to running water. I’m not going to say more. Let me introduce my guest Aditi Mukherji. She’s a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute. She is a human geographer by training with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, the United Kingdom where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.  She has over 20 years of experience working on policies and institutions of water resources management with a special focus on water-energy-food nexus. She is the first-ever recipient of the Borlaug Field Award (2012) endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation and given by the World Food Prize Foundation, USA.  

Listen on soundcloud, spotify, apple podcast, Podtail, mytuner radio, iheartradio, himalaya app, playerfm, podcast app, google podcast…

Aditi is the coordinating lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is to be published in 2021. In her previous job as the Theme Leader of the Water and Air theme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal, she co-edited a report on the effects of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. This report that has woken the world to the possible reality that the Hindu Kush Himalayas could lose as much as 90% of its snow and ice by 2100 due to retreating glaciers, glacier-fed rivers, and carbon emissions.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you, Aditi for speaking to Heart of Conservation Podcast.  Today you’re going to talk to us about spring water sources in the Hindu-Kush Region and the Indian Himalaya running dry. To start, could you tell us about springs?

Aditi Mukherji: Springs are, as you know, the main source of water in the mountains and even though they come out on the surface, essentially, they’re groundwater. So, what happens when rain falls, it seeps through the cracks and fissures in the mountains and the hills and then they kind of get stored inside the aquifers. There’s a bit of storage that happens and when it comes out…this coming out could be completely on another side of the hill. Basically, when the water comes out, we call it springs. But we have to remember essentially that water is rainwater and it infiltrates through the rocks and fissures in the hills and mountains, and then it comes out at one point. That is the discharge point. So, the discharge point is called the spring. While where the rainwater actually falls, it is called the recharge point and in between is the pathway…the pathway the water follows inside the hill-inside the rocks, coming from the discharge area. Springs are often the point where discharge happens.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you for clarifying that for our listeners. If we didn’t exactly know what springs are, there’s no doubt now. Aditi, when we talk about springs in the Hindu Kush, how many are we talking about and what areas are we talking about?  More importantly, how bad is the situation?

Aditi Mukherji: We don’t have the numbers. The best that we have are anecdotal numbers and we have been talking of anything between 2-4 million springs which I personally think is a bit of an underestimate too. Hindu Kush Himalaya is a wide region starting all the way from Afghanistan to Myanmar and in all these eight countries you would find the occurrence of springs. The numbers are kind of huge, we don’t really know. I will give you an example. So, in my previous job when we did some fieldwork in Nepal, in a spring-shed not so far from Kathmandu, it was a very small area, less than 10 km sq.…and we mapped more than 200 springs. So, we are talking of very large numbers. We don’t know what those actual numbers are.  And the best guesstimate we have is anywhere from 2-4 million springs. The areas we’re talking about generally the hills and the mountains of this Hindu Kush Himalayas. Having said that there are also springs in the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats in India. So basically, any place with an elevation and the geology, you would find springs.

So your question about how bad it is in terms of drying up…again, our numbers are anecdotal but I would think anything around 30-50% if not more of those springs are drying up and even more, at least 2/3rds of springs have shown a reduction in discharge of the springs. So the numbers are huge, the problem is huge and this is something you would get to know the moment you talk to any hill person, any pahadi. And they would tell you how their springs used to be much more productive when they were children and now, they have to walk further, the spring’s discharge is not enough. It’s a very severe problem in the hills and mountains of our region.  

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re so right. It’s one of the major issues in the hills and mountains. What are the factors that make springs and groundwater dry out?

Aditi Mukherji: I would divide the factors for springs either drying up or reducing. There are a number of things that could happen. Either spring could either dry up completely or the discharge could reduce substantially. Or the springs that used to be annual perianal—they would flow all throughout the year—they become more seasonal and flow during the rainfall. The fourth thing that can happen and often happens is the water quality in the spring deteriorates. We use all these four instances to show that the springs have been affected negatively. To sum up: springs drying up, becoming seasonal, the discharge of the spring reducing from what used to be previously and water quality becoming poorer.

The causes are primarily two broad causes. One could be changes in the rainfall regime. If your rainfall has changed, if your rainfall amount has gone down or it has become more periodic, which means you have shorter spells but more intense rainfall, or even if your total quantity of rain has not gone down, it means it can affect recharge.

As I said, springs are simply rainwater that gets captured on the hills, kind of emerges through the cracks and emerges on another side at discharge points. So, if your rainfall itself has changed that could be one cause. But primarily what we are are finding, and again, we need more evidence on this rainfall changing…changes in rainfall and how it is affecting springs. We don’t have a lot of it (evidence) but what we are finding more of is that often springs are drying for a second reason which are changes in infrastructure. Road construction, hydropower construction. All these kinds of human interventions, we find, more often…we can find immediately that if there’s a hydropower construction happening, there’s a tunnel that was done, and immediately after tunneling, there was some kind of compaction. The spring pathway—I told you the recharge area from the waterfalls and the discharge from where the water comes out—the entire pathway may have been disturbed. We found springs have also dried after earthquakes. Similar thing; there was like a ‘shaking of the inside of the hill’ so to say, in very layman’s language and that disturbs the very underlying geology of the mountains. To sum up two main things: Change in rainfall; the quantity of rainfall, as well as the periodicity of the rainfall and the second, are more human causes; building, construction of a road. You construct a road and you cut off the recharge area form the discharge area. You construct hydropower, do blasting and the underlying geology of the mountains are disturbed. And the third reason is earthquakes which kind of, has a similar effect to what hydropower would be doing in terms of blasting. It’s you know, the same shaking of the mountains and changing of the underlying geology.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi, I know we can’t prevent natural disasters like earthquakes but when you’re talking of human intervention—I don’t know if this is a silly question—aren’t feasibility studies done before building and blasting…making roads or dams, etc?

Aditi Mukherji: No and unfortunately no. And that is not at all a silly question. To me, that is one of the most important questions. Why are infrastructures designed in the hills and mountains without taking into account whether springs would be disturbed? Springs are often the only source of water for these mountain people. There are rivers but the rivers are too deep down. They may be glaciers but they may be too far away from where the people are. Springs are the absolutely the only source of water that people of our hills and mountains in the Himalayas depend so it is quite surprising that most of the infrastructure projects are not designed with an understanding of what that infrastructure would do in terms of disturbing the recharge area. Very often we build roads, where previously, there used to be recharge. When recharge no longer happens springs dry up or we are cutting through the road in such a way that it will disconnect the recharge area from the discharge area. This means because the water can no longer get recharged and flow out to the designated points, the springs will dry. So, I think it’s of paramount interest that these hydro-geological considerations, a proper geological mapping with a focus on springs are undertaken before we design any of these infrastructures.

Interestingly also, you are aware for hydropower, so many communities in our region protect against hydropower. One of the reasons also why they protest is also that their drinking water sources dry up. While there is compensation for things like you know, if your house gets a crack or your assets are destroyed, then there is a system of compensation. But if your spring dries because the hydropower came up then it’s often very difficult for communities to ask for proper compensation. That’s when they really come out on the streets to protest. So I would say, this should become very very important.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for that explanation. Aditi, technically speaking, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? First of all is it humanly possible to do that? If so, have we successfully achieved that in our country?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, absolutely. It’s possible. How long it takes to rejuvenate a spring would depend on the nature of the spring. First, let me come to the second part of your question… Is it humanly possible to rejuvenate a spring? Yes, it is possible. It is not rocket science. It is not completed. It is not super complicated. You need people trained in field geology. You need people trained in basic hydrology, hydro-geology but it is possible to demarcate which is the recharge area of the spring. As I said it’s again, all rainwater falling into a plain that is recharging and then there is a flow path inside the hills and the mountains and then the spring comes out in the discharge point. Once you have actually identified the recharge area more or less—you don’t have to do it with super accuracy—but if you know that this is the part of the hill where when the rain falls and because the rocks are sloping in a certain way, they are dipping in a certain way, the water if it falls at that point, say point ‘A’, then water will take a certain path and it will come out as a spring in a point ‘Y’. As soon as you can map that with a certain level of certainty and for that you need expertise in field geology, that’s something that is not very complicated.

We have in India, the mountain state of Sikkim. They have done tremendous work in spring rejuvenation. So, Sikkim has to date rejuvenated more than a hundred springs if not more. They did exactly this.  They trained their community workers, their panchayats, some technical people were trained in this basic understanding of geology. Basically, to know what kind of rocks there are in the hills or mountains, in which way are the rocks dipping, which is the slope of the rock and they could then identify the recharge area. Once you identify the recharge area, then you do very simple watershed activities. You dig a hole, you dig a trench…you know, it depends on the slope of the land, what activities you can do and what you cannot but then there’s a very clear guideline around this. We have been doing this watershed for ages. Now the important part is don’t do watershed activities blindly everywhere. Just identify the recharge area and do the watershed activities such as trenching which will mean that the rainwater that falls on that recharge area…and if you have done things like trenches… that water will reside a bit longer and that will flow down. That’s important to identify the recharge area. Then you can also say, this is the flow path. Let’s not construct a road here. If we do it, it will obstruct the flow.

Now coming to your question, has it been successfully achieved? Yes. We have done this when I was with ICIMOD. We have successfully done it in Nepal. Two springs were rejuvenated in the sense that they discharged more than double in just one season. We did the intervention, we identified the recharge are and did the trenches, etc., before the monsoon. And, right after the monsoon, we kept monitoring those. We saw that the spring but they also continued to have water for longer than usual.

And, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? That would really depend on the nature of the storage. You know, there is a bit of an aquifer that is storing that water. So, depending on how big it is or how permeable, how porous it is…that kind of determines. If it’s a fairly large one, that requires recharge coming from various sources, maybe you’re talking of maybe one full year or more…but if it’s a smaller, very localised spring with a localised small recharge area, you can expect the spring to have to have been rejuvenated—by that I mean—if it has become seasonal, to expand its seasonality, to increase its discharge, you can do it within a season.  Since you are talking from Mussoorie, there’s also a very good NGO in Uttarakhand called Peoples Science Institute (PSI). They have also rejuvenated a lot of springs in and around Dehradun. A lot of NGOs are doing this. Springs have been rejuvenated in north-east India; Sikkim is one example. They’ve done the same in Meghalaya, in Darjeeling in West Bengal…

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to know. As the lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could you tell what collaborative measures or sharing of information happens between countries?

Aditi Mukherji: Basically, the IPCC report is a scientific report. So, the science gets communicated to all the countries, all the signatory countries of the UNFCCC. What happens is that the scientific report itself is not subject to government negotiation and governments just accept it the way it is. There is one document called the Summary for Policy Makers. That gets vetted during the final plenary session. For example, our cycle finishes in 2021. Sometime in October, 2021there will be a summary for policymakers which will be written for this entire report and that gets presented at that plenary. And, that’s where all the 98 countries, if I am not mistaken, are the signatories. That’s when the countries, you know, negotiate and say, “OK, this wording is not suitable, you can change that wording, etc. etc”. Having said that, the main science report doesn’t get changed by governments. That’s the science behind it. So that’s not up for negotiation. What’s up for negotiation is a bit of the summary for policymakers.

Lalitha Krishnan: Talking at the grass-root level, say the community level what can people do to maintain springs in their area?

Aditi Mukherji: The important part is to identify where the recharge area is. While our field geology can help it, we have seen through experience that the majority of the villagers, somehow or the other know where the recharge is happening. They just have that local knowledge, that traditional knowledge, that understanding of how those rocks are sloping and dipping. So, communities have to identify the recharge area and make sure the recharge area is kept clean. For example, no open defecation in the recharge area, because if that happens then the water quality that flows becomes dirty. Similarly, if possible, keep that recharge area well planted, don’t construct buildings in that recharge area which will impede the actual amount of recharge. So once communities identify where the recharge area is, they need to protect that recharge area through good land management practices.  That kind of happens in many places, in many other places it doesn’t. There’s again this example of Nepal that I’m aware of. Many of the recharge areas were also wallowing ponds for buffalos. At some point, in the 70s, it was thought that those were also breeding ground for mosquitoes. Malaria eradication was big in those days. So many of these ponds were actually covered up and community health centres built on them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no.

Aditi Mukherji: That’s when people started realising that many of their springs were drying up because those ponds were actually the recharge ponds for those springs. So, the measure the communities can take is just protecting the recharge area. Protect it like your life depends on it.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do you think of the measures our government is taking to rejuvenate springs?

Aditi Mukherji: I think it’s very encouraging. The NITI Aayog commission has set up a task force on the Himalayas and Spring Revival is one of those topics of that task force. And now that the report has been finalised and has been shared with all the eleven mountain states…all the elevens states have been doing tremendous activities. So I would say that India is showing very innovative leadership when it comes to spring rejuvenation. Something perhaps, our neighbouring countries can take inspiration from. Sikkim is a great example. There has been a great co-learning between Sikkim and Bhutan. Bhutan has now taken up spring rejuvenation in quite a significant way. India is doing that as well. So, I think, the measures the government is talking is they are now trying to map springs. I recently read that there is some plan to engage drones in spring mapping. I wasn’t quite sure if that was the best approach. What Sikkim did was they really used their panchayat mechanism and got the panchayat officials trained in identifying theses recharge areas and they used the funds from the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to do those recharge activities like digging of trenches etc. To support that the government has taken this very seriously, perhaps, there has to be a bigger role for the local elected bodies. That might be something that needs a bit more mainstreaming so that it’s the elected panchayats that do more of the work because they are best placed to map springs, identify recharge areas, etc.

Lalitha Krishnan: I have two more questions for you Aditi. We’re living in such unusual times. I wanted to know if the COVID 19 disease or the Coronavirus is impacting people…everyone from having access to running water?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it looks like in spite of all our progress, what seems to be the best precaution that everybody is recommending – WHO and the government and the one that’s proven is washing your hands frequently with soap and in running water. Now imagine living in a house where you don’t have running water. Imagine the only spring in your village has dried up and there isn’t any running water. This COVID19 has brought up the importance of having access to water near where you live. That’s again why we have to do something about all these springs drying up. This needs to be done on an emergency basis.

Lalitha Krishnan: When we open our taps to wash our hands we barely think about where the water is coming from. We’re sitting comfortably in our houses, stocking up…we may be quarantined but we are comfortable. So thanks for reminding us that there are people out there who don’t even have access to running water.

Aditi Mukherji: Absolutely. In a relatively well-managed village where springs are in good condition, they would usually have one stand post shared by 8-10 families. So that’s a good case. In villages where the springs have dried up or where there isn’t any infrastructure – where everybody would have to walk to the source of the spring… then there are springs where the waters being rationed…we have come across many springs where the village committee would literally lock up the spring. They would open it for one hour every morning and every evening simply because there isn’t enough water for everyone for 24 hours. In those circumstances, it would be really hard for people to follow this very basic advice of handwashing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Most of us have a lot to be grateful for. Aditi, I do have to ask you. Do you have hope?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it would be hard without it right?

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course, you’re right. When our researchers and scientists are optimistic, it gives us hope too. Ok Aditi, this is my last question to you and a request. I ask all my guests to share a new word to help us improve our vocabulary. So, is there a word that you’d like to share with us?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi thank you so much for everything you’re doing. It’s been a real honour talking to you.

Aditi Mukherji: Thanks so much.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. You can listen to it on many platforms -Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple podcast and many, many more. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay safe. Stay healthy and keep listening.

Photo courtesy Aditi Mukherji.

Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

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.

Meet Almitra Patel. The Garbologist who gave India Solid Waste Management Rules.

EP#13 Heart of Conservation Podcast. Shownotes.

Lalitha Krishnan: Welcome to Heart Of Conservation Podcast Season 2, This episode 13. I’m Lalitha Krishnan, you host, bringing you inspiring stories that keep you informed and connected with our natural world. I’m talking to Almitra Patel today. She’s an environmental policy advocate and anti-pollution activist, and also one of the most unusual and amazing persons I know. Her Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court against the open dumping of municipal solid waste was instrumental in the drafting of the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rule in India.  Her clean up India campaign started 20+ long years… long before it hit our billboards and screens perhaps even our conscience. While you and I were travelling to pretty places she was visiting garbage dumps all over the country. Somewhere in between these visits, she lost her sense of smell.   

Her endless energy and determination have resulted in waste management policies being implemented at the home level, village level, small and big towns and cities all over India. It’s no wonder then that she was the best-qualified person to draft the Swach Bharat manual.? Not one to sit still, Almitra is now looking into phosphorous carrying detergents that are polluting our water bodies. She wants manufacturers to label their products so we make the right choice. Her’s is an ongoing journey of activism but let’s hear it from her.

Welcome and thank you Almitra for being a guest on Heart of Conservation Podcast. Almitra, I’ve known you for 25+ years and I’ve never been able to keep up with all the incredible things you do. In 1959 you became the first Indian woman engineer to graduate from MIT. You’re also associated with saving the Gir Lions, being a tree warden, saving Ulsoor Lake,  and building low-cost homes. Our country has its first ‘Municipal Solid Waste Management Rule or MSW thanks to you. It all started when the frogs stopped singing in your backyard. Is that right?

Almitra Patel: On the beautiful country road to our farm. Because Bangalore was dumping its garbage on the roadside there. It was a horrifying thing with stray dogs turning feral with no leader of the pack. They would gather together in the evening; and attack children going to school in the mornings, farmers going home after dusk and, killing livestock by day or by night…coming into farms and killing fowls…chickens, ducks. So there was no human restraint to their behaviour. They all became wild and followed a pack leader and at dawn and dusk, the dogs would gather in packs and chase two-wheelers, chase farmers and go out marauding and killing animals, even in the day time, even at midday. So, when I tried to help Bangalore clean up its act…in the meanwhile, there was a Capt. S. Vellu, from EXNORA, Chennai.  I had been in touch with him for almost a year. Then there was the Surat plague on 24th September 1994. He said, “India is sitting on a time bomb.” Surat became like that because the garbage blocked the drains. The choked drains flooded the rat holes which made them come out and (caused) the plague and so on. So he said, we got to do a Clean India campaign- 30 cities in 30 days, starting on 2nd October. Which was what, 8,9 days away? And, we did it. We did the 30 cities and it was such an eye-opener because all the municipal people we met-all the commissioners-when we asked, “So what are you doing with your garbage?” They’d say, “I don’t know.” Ting. Ting. Ting. Call the sanitary inspector. He’d yell out, call the driver. And only the lowest man knew where he chucked anything. So all the municipal officers… when we explained, “Keep your wet and dry waste unmixed so both can be recycled, and have doorstep collections so there’s no waste on the road, and so on, they said, “Oh Won’t you start a scheme for us? Won’t you come back at the end of your tour?’’  And so, it became apparent that there was a need to do something on a national level. We went around in my high roof red Maruti van and the banner which Velu put up at the back (read) ‘Clean up and flourish or pile up and perish’.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like that. So, the municipal commissioners did take you seriously?

Almitra Patel: They did. They welcomed us. They said, “Nobody has ever told us what to do.  We only see pictures in the newspaper of overflowing dustbins, choked drains, burning garbage and no one says what to do. That was the need for the rules so that everyone could have a road map.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like Capt. Vellu knew what he was doing

Almitra Patel:He had worked with EXNORA in Chennai- Excellent, Novel, Radical. This was MB Nirmal banker who went to Hong Kong with 11 other bankers on a study tour. The others went shopping and sightseeing and he kept going around, wondering, “How can this place be so clean?”  And he came back to Chennai and he conceptualized this. He found the waste pickers grubbing in dustbins and he asked them, “What are you looking for?”  (They replied) “Trying to take out recyclables to feed our families and educate our children. So then he said, “I’ll give you uniforms, I’ll call you ‘street beautifiers’ and I’ll ask you to collect dry waste, clean separate dry waste from every home.” Then he called some actor, cricketer for a neighbourhood meeting so everybody came. Then, those people said, “Keep your waste separate, don’t chuck it 24 hours a day at your neighbour’s gate, you know? Wait till it will be collected.” So, the whole policy which we have, I mean the rules, actually came from NB Nirmal’s EXNORA. And, Vellu had been sent to Bangalore after a year in Vijayawada, to spend a year in Bangalore implementing that model somewhere.  Then he said, “I can’t be sitting around. If I take a year per city it will take 300 years to cover India’s 300 Class I cities, means, one-lakh plus populations. That was the drivers first for the Clean India Campaign and after that, I was told, “If you want to get anything done, then go to the Supreme Court and ask for it.

Lalitha Krishnan: That must have taken a great deal of patience and determination. Tell us how that went?

Almitra Patel: Well, I thought I’d walk in, ask the court that municipalities need land for composting. Municipalities can’t do composting within their limits in a big centralised way. Because they can’t purchase land outside their municipal limits, the state has to give it to them. So, I thought I’d just ask for waste management sites, say thank you and go home. And the case took 20 years. 54 hearings in the Supreme Court…for three-four years nothing happened. Then it went to the NGT and I think there were 15 hearings there till December 16. So, from December ‘96 to almost to the date, December ’16, it finished.

Lalitha Krishnan: Goodness. Hats off and thank you from all of India. I heard you have visited multiple dumping grounds, over 170?

Almitra Patel: Now it is 206 dumping grounds and their municipalities in that ’94 trip all over India. And, if I visit one, more than once, I don’t count them twice. 206 different ones. Some, I’ve been 3, 4 5 times.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Almitra Patel: Yes. Over these 25 years.

Lalitha Krishnan: it’s pretty potent stuff. Frankly, I am not sure if I would be able to stomach that. I ‘am not sure how many listeners could either.

Almitra Patel: A fortunate thing that happened is my nose stopped functioning about 17 years ago. Everyone goes around with a hanky on their nose and feeling sick. I don’t notice a thing and I have to ask my driver, “Has the smell begun? Is it worse?”  

Lalitha Krishnan:  I love the way you’re laughing about it. Without meaning to sound rude, not smelling anything sounds like a good criterion for checking out garbage dumps.

Almitra Patel: The most amazing thing is that the court-appointed this expert committee in Jan ’98 and we gave an interim report in November ’98 that’s eight of us, meeting every month and so on. And then, one of the members said, “Eight people cannot decide for the whole country. And so (we) asked the court for permission to present this interim report to all the commissioners of 300 Class I cities. So, 75 each, at Calcutta, Chennai, Bombay and Delhi.  Delhi had the least attendance. Calcutta had the best from the eastern region. One of them presented all our things and said, “Do you have comments and so on?” There was very good buy-in and I am very proud that these rules are perhaps, the first to my knowledge, that is framed by a committee with consensus. Otherwise, you have a group of 6-7-8 out of which 2-3 are active, and it’s a rule for everybody. Luckily, the 2000 rules-it was early days. People didn’t even know the difference between compostable food waste, which we call, ‘wet waste’ for short and recyclables, which we call ‘dry waste’ for short. In those days, there was only compostable, recyclables and debris-innards, the third kind. It was only between then and now; now the 2016 Rules which have come are much more detailed and elaborate. At that time, you couldn’t afford to tell someone, “You shall…”. You could only say, “You should advise citizens to do this…”.  Now it is a rule. Everyone has to do this because the situation has gone so much more out of hand.  Kids in schools are also learning about it now. ‘Wet’, ‘dry’, ‘doorstep’, ‘recycling’, ‘composting’. These are all now household words.

Lalitha Krishnan:  But not terms like leachate, windrow, biomining etc. I know you are going to explain all of this.

Almitra Patel:I also, as a city person in Bombay, would give my waste to the servant to take downstairs. I never followed him downstairs to see what he put it in. Or ask the people in the vehicle, “where is the waste going?” “To Deonar?” Or anything like that. So, only after I got onto this journey, did I begin to worry about where is it ending?

Lalitha Krishnan: Garbage has become such a huge issue but most of us don’t know much about handling it or know where it’s going or rather choose not to know.

Almitra Patel:I think it’s important for people to know from Vedic times, until the late 70s, there were no dumpsites. No Indian city needed a dumpsite because there was no plastic. The only thing that came out of a house was kitchen waste. And farmers, after bringing their produce into town would actually fight over the dustbins and have a teka, “this is my lane”, “my lane”, and take it back for composting on their farms. Two things killed this. One was the Green Revolution which told the farmers, “You just add urea and your crops will jump out of the ground and you don’t need to worry about composting” Second thing, the plastic yug began. When people said, “I don’t need this food waste, this plastic waste…in those days if we had the wits and foresight and told people, “Don’t chuck plastic in the food”, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So, there were no real mountains of waste at that time. It began, as I said, in ’91 and in ’94, we decided to do something about it when they started dumping this unwanted mixed waste on the roadside.

Lalitha Krishnan: What can we do at home to minimise the pile up on the dumping sites?

Almitra Patel: The whole idea is people will keep their dry and wet waste separate. It will not lead to mountains of mixed waste in some poor villager’s backyard with the leachate going into their groundwater and methane coming out and causing global warming. My latest interest has been to bring down these old heaps and that is done by bioremediation or biomining. What cities are doing at present; they’ll drive to some dumping ground, they’ll unload the truck, have an earth mover level it, drive over it, compact it…maybe, cover it with earth occasionally. But, instead, if they would simply only do which has to be done in every compost plant…that is to unload the waste in windrows which means, long, narrow heaps-parallel heaps, about 2-2.5 metres, not more. And these heaps can be very easily formed as a tipper truck moves slowly forward while unloading. So, it can just unload it in a long heap. You need one parking lot manager-type person saying, “This row is over, now start a parallel one and Truck no. 6, 7, 8, 9 can form the next one. Then, if you spray that with bio-cultures and turn it weekly, then the moisture goes out and some of the carbon turns to carbon dioxide with air. That’s why it’s called ‘Windrows’. So, wind can blow between the rows and aerate the heaps. And the volume comes down to 40%. Imagine that?

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s nearly half. And not so difficult to do either.

 Almitra Patel: Almost half. So, if they do that then, you won’t have a big new heap. And, after four turnings, that waste is stabilised like leaves on a forest floor. There’s no leachate, no methane, no smell. That stabilized waste can be used anywhere. If we give it wet waste, compostable waste, then all of that can go straight, as is, to farms or restoring degraded land. So, now there are new options available where if you go to YouTube, Almitra Patel and look for Gurugram, Faridabad or look for Nagpur or Kumbakonam. These are three which describe simple ways of bioremediating. What they want to do which gets them a lot of money and a lot of excuses for land to flog to someone and pollute is ‘capping’. This means just covering with a plastic sheet, soil and grass, so it will look pretty but it’s like lipstick on mouth cancer. Everything is still decomposing inside generating leachate into the ground and the methane is slipping out of the sides of the cover. You can’t seal it because it was not lined in the first place. So, this capping is what they do in the West when they have a full bottom and side-lined pit and then if you put a liner on top – what they call a dry tomb. So, it makes no sense when you have an unlined dumpsite in India or anywhere else.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I just hope people are listening. It just seems like we don’t know enough about handling solid waste. 

Almitra Patel: Another thing which is a new kind of solid waste is fecal sludge. Septic tank sludge. This is something that your listeners should know. We have been coned by advertisers into using phenyl, bleach and strong microbe -killers which all go through your toilets and drains into your septic tanks killing the microbes which are supposed to live there and digest your solid waste. People complain why they have to empty their septic tanks every year, at huge expense – six to seven thousand (rupees) or more. At our school in Devlali, near Nashik, with 4000 kids, all day scholars, they used to empty the septic tank annually.  After we started adding a bio-culture, from one supplier, for eleven years we haven’t emptied the septic tank. That’s because we stopped using phenyl, and we started using liquid soap, one tbsp in the bucket to clean the toilets or composting bio-culture itself to wash the toilets so that it would end up in the septic tank. All the sludge would get digested in the septic tank. So, you never need to clean it.  And that water doesn’t overload your sewage treatment plants which empty into lakes and destroy the lakes. Because the sewage treatment plants in India only lower the Ph. They monitor the Ph and COD which is Chemical Oxygen Demand, and BOD which is Biological Oxygen Demand. They try to reduce that but they don’t reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus which are nutrients that are flowing with wastewater into the lakes and growing water-hyacinths and all the aquatic vegetation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Where can one access bio cultures?  Is it easily available?

Almitra Patel: Not yet but if people begin to ask their supermarkets for them then it would show up on the shelves. Otherwise, just use Fem and that kind of liquid soap, not the microbicidal, bactericidal handwash. Use plain liquid soap. That’s good enough to wash your toilets.

Lalitha Krishnan: Almitra I know you must have many stories to tell but what part of your journey gave you made you feel satisfied or made you say This is what I hoped for?

Almitra Patel:  What was for me, a great success, in this case, was, you know, I had asked for hyenic, eco -friendly management for 300 Class I cities, (I Lakh plus population) but the rules came out applying to all urban, local bodies, which means even 20,000 plus populations. So, that covered 4-5000 more cities. Another thing; in the beginning when the court directed all the states to give composting sites to their major cities, it happened. And I was happy about it. But all the cities misused this. Instead of dumping it on the highways, they said. “Yeah, now I got land and they rushed and dumped everything is a huge dump pile on a site which was meant for composting and doing it properly. So, what was non-point population along the highways – no man’s land of road-shoulders suddenly became point pollution for the villagers around these dumps. So, my dream became my nightmare. Now what we’re saying is that cities don’t have a right to ruin the life and heath of villagers outside for no reason with waste that isn’t there’s even. So, the trend, in the 2016 rules also, they are preferring decentralised composting with the city. There’s a lot of push back. Everyone says, not in my road, not in my park, not opposite my house…” But it’s your waste.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so typical. We don’t want to see anyone else’s garbage; we barely want to see our own.

Almitra Patel:So that has to change.

Lalitha Krishnan:  What’s (a fitting example of a city/town) that comes to mind which has adopted good waste management practices.

Almitra Patel: Bangalore is the first in HSR layout park which has a Compost learning centre where they’ve got a shed with 13 different ‘home-composting models’ from -1,2-5-10 kgs. and a row of 7 open-air ‘community composting’ solutions. Anything from 50-500 kilo or one ton a day. What I like the best are lane composters. They are like large well-lit boxes raised off the ground so that air can go in from below and you put in some dry leaves; the waste can go in from some 40 houses and (you) sprinkle some bio-culture…it can even be sour curd and jaggery water or purchase bio-culture. Or a dilute 5% solution of fresh cow dung and again, some leaves. And you need twin boxes like this. One fills up in 15 days and you work on the second, leaving the first one to mature in 15 days. Then you empty that and begin again. And, that is so inconspicuous. You need people in the lane whoa re prepared to host it in front of their gate and take responsibility for managing it in order.

Lalitha Krishnan: Almitra thanks for sharing these But, if we want to know more about your work or delve into solid waste management a little more deeply where would you direct us.

Almitra Patel: http://www.almitrapatel.com/ So on the home page, top right, is a winking thing saying, ‘Free download. SWM guide Book’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent.

Almitra Patel:  That’s a 70-page manual that I wrote for the Swach Bharat Mission. Unlike the other manuals which the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs brings out, which starts with metro cities, this one begins with villages. Then goes to tiny towns, little bigger towns, medium towns and so on.

Lalitha Krishnan: In your long mission to clean up India, you must have come across some interesting people.

Almitra Patel: I’d like to share with people my hero. In 2003, I heard about a commissioner in S. A. Khadar Saheb, in Suryapet, which is about 3 hours east of Hyderabad. On his own, without even having studied the Solid Waste Rules, he just came up with the same idea. So, if people will look up Suryapet on my website, they can read about him. He also broke away from this common practice of Group-cleaning.  So, after the morning work, a dozen workers are put together to clean the street. One or two do it while you can see the others sitting around. So, he gave a half kilometre stretch of a drain to one person with a wheelie-bin to take out the silt and not leave it on the drain-side. Then he had a separate leak-proof lorry going around so that the wet silt from the drains could go from the wheelie-bin into the lorry and then it went on to road shoulders for road widening, pothole filling. He needed no dumpsite at all. The amazing thing was this was a town of one lakh, three-thousand population. And, he managed everything on a half-acre site right in the heart of town. Quarter-acre was where he did compost. Stack composting (which on my YouTube channel, you can look at Kolar).  After the stack compost was partly decomposed, he put it into vermi-bins for earthworms. And the driveway he constructed a shed on the quarter-acre with partitions for walls and he engaged, on salary, eight waste pickers saying, “Put your thin plastic, thick plastic, paper, cardboard, wood, metals in different gallas. He invited the kabbadi-wallasto come and purchase it from them. And within 6 months, his income every month from a one lakh population was one lakh rupees. Rs 45,000 from compost sale. Rs. 55,000 from the dry waste sale.  Minus four workers for the composting and eight waste pickers for the dry. It was an amazing self-sustaining model. He didn’t get a pie of support from the state, the centre…no grant, no NGOs…nothing. Just manging with municipal funds. So, he innovated beautifully. He took eight self-help groups to the bank and said, “The municipality is going to engage them for door-door collections so a tractor would drive every 6-7 houses and stop and collect the waste (wet and dry, separate) from the houses. Near the driver was a high well-meshed cage for dry waste and near the tail the wet waste. And everyone standing there could see clearly that the wet and dry were being managed separately and that their efforts were being valued. He went to the bank and said, “Give them a loan for brand new tractors. And the EMIs for it, the municipality will pay directly and deduct from the fees which we are going to pay them for the collection”. At the end of five years, the tractor belonged to a self-help group. Even while they were doing the collection, after they collected the waste in the morning, in the afternoon, if they wanted to move sand or lumber, they could use them and use the extra income on their own. It was their tractor. That was a beautiful model.

 Lalitha Krishnan:  Definitely sounds like it. Almitra so when it comes to small towns v/s big cities where so do you think SWM will work more efficiently?

Almitra Patel: My hope these days is for small towns. Because the big towns think they know it all. They are dragged away on foreign tours to sell them inappropriate technology like ‘waste to energy’. How do you burn waste which has 60% food? Waste, which is 85% moisture? How do you get energy out of a rotten tomato?  Unless you are doing bio methanation which is OK but incineration is an absolute No No. Big cities go for all these promises. These foreign people dare to come and say, “Don’t bother with your rules. Don’t bother to segregate. Just give your mixed waste, we’ll take care of everything. But you see what’s happening in Delhi. They promise 100% waste will end up as 5% ash. But in Delhi, Jindal in the middle of Okhla is sending over 30% of their intake as semi-burnt stuff to the dump. You can see charred coconut shells. Partly burnt cloth… Obviously, it’s not reaching temperatures of 1200 or whatever temp. it should if you can recognise it as a cloth or coconut. So, it’s a big fraud. Waste to Energy is the current big scam. So, my hope is with all the small towns. I think small-town people all know each other and can get together easier.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Knowing you Almitra I can ask confidently ask what else is on your plate?

Another thing I have been working on is the pollution of surface waters. Ulsoor Lake in Bangalore. Village ponds. Nobody can go and swim in the village pond like their fathers or grandfathers used to. It’s all fully choked with water hyacinths. And the reason is—which was discovered by scientists in the US and Canada, when Lake Eerie between the two countries was turning green with aquatic vegetation, which would sink to the bottom, die, consume the oxygen, kill all the fish. That’s called eutrophication. And they wondered what to do to save the lake. They found that in the late 60s, synthetic detergents had been invented and they were using phosphorous. Sodium tripolyphosphate as an ingredient in synthetic detergents. Not soaps but in synthetic detergents. So, over a three-year battle, we fought in the courts with all the multi-nationals also. They succeeded in limiting the phosphorus content, in 1973, to 2.2% phosphorous, by weight, in the detergent. And that rule is still followed and practiced today though the Washington State says, “We will have no phosphorous in dish-washing and clothes-washing machine detergents and so on.” Europe also followed suite with 2.2%. India has not. And the same MNCs who are following the rules abroad-in US, Canada, and EU…they control 80% of the detergent market in India.  There may small, small brands who are all making detergents for the big guys and they refuse to lower the phosphorus content.

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

I was speaking with environmental activist Almitra Patel. Check out her website almitrapatel .com. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. I’d love your feedback. Do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. If you know somebody whose story should be told or is doing interesting work, do contact me.

You can download Heart of Conservation podcast episodes for free on Soundcloud, Apple podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can also read the full transcript on earthymatters.blog. Bye for now.

Batman and MothLady

Ep# 12 An Interview with Rohit Chakravarty and Pritha Dey.

EP#12 Show notes (Edited).

[Photos courtesy: Rohit Chakravarty. Top-L-R Clockwise: Leisler’s Bat (Nyctalus leisleri), Eastern Barbastelle (Barbastella darjelingensis), .Woolly Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus luctus), Kashmir Long-eared Bat (Plecotus wardi), Pearson’s Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus pearsonii)]

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. You’re listening to Episode 12 of Heart of Conservation Podcast. Your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connect to our natural world. Today for the first time I am speaking to an interesting young researcher-couple who are both experts in their fields. Pritha Dey and Rohit Chakravarty. Pritha’s doctoral work included the study of insect biodiversity loss due to anthropogenic disturbances. My second guest is Pritha’s husband is Rohit Chakravarty. He is a bat biologist currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin. I met Pritha during a butterfly workshop in Devalsari, Uttarakhand and her knowledge and presentation on moths just blew me away. And so, I invited them to be guests on my show.


Pritha, Rohit, thank you so much for being on Heart of Conservation Podcast. It’s so fascinating to interview researchers anyway but to interview two who are a couple is a special bonus, I think. It’s intriguing that both of you are researching nocturnal creatures. Both of you have travelled in Uttarakhand in pursuit of your subjects. Let’ start with the basics. So Pritha, why moths?


Pritha Dey: Hi Lalitha, thank you for asking us to talk to you about our research.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure.

Pritha Dey: We are highly interested to talk about our research all the time. It’s new for us that both of us are doing it at the same time. So, I’ll start with my pursuits of moths. I finished my masters and immediately joined Wildlife Institute of India where there was a project to document the diversity of moths in twelve different protected areas. Initially it is was just the excitement to roam about in different places and studying moths but eventually, I started reading about them and learning about moths. What intrigued me most was diverse they are and at the same time how understudied, they are…being so ecologically so important.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


Pritha Dey: And the myths that we find in movies, that they are evil creatures are absolutely not true. I wanted to look into that more and yes, that’s why moths.


Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and I think you have passed on a little of that love to all of us who heard your presentation at the butterfly workshop. I for one was totally inspired and want to know more. Rohit how about you?
Rohit Chakravarty: Yes, it’s a privilege to be on HOC. I would simply say I chose bats because more than half of India is busy looking at tigers, leopards, lions, elephants…


Lalitha Krishnan: Seriously.

Rohit Chakravarty: Bears and all other charismatic animals. It started off with me looking for an empty niche for my research but in the end, it just took me beyond that empty niche. As we’re going to talk more about bats, we will hopefully convince the audience that bats are rather extraordinary animals. So more about that as we talk.


Lalitha Krishnan: Definitely. So Pritha, you completed your Ph.D. on the diversity patterns of the Geometridae family of moths along the elevation gradients in the western Himalaya. Could you tell us about this family of moths? And why you studied them in the Himalaya?

Pritha Dey: So, when I started working on the project on moths in the Himalayas, I found this particular family called the Geometridae family or commonly known as the Looper Moths. They are very abundant in mountain habitats. In mountains, you find them in huge numbers and they exhibit amazing variation in wing patterns and are hugely diverse with about 24000 species worldwide. Their taxonomy at the same time is very challenging and interesting. So, my idea was to work in the mountains and to merge moths. So, moths and mountains were the ideal study group for me. I chose the western Himalaya because it’s very interesting biogeographically as the tropical and the temperate elements kind of merge in this part of the country and we find very interesting diversity across all taxa. It is far less diverse than the eastern Himalaya where you find double the number of species of moths or other taxa. Yes, this was very interesting as a study group as well as a study area.

Lalitha Krishnan: Great. And the combination of moths and mountains just works right? And Rohit, correct me if I am wrong, I read that there are a thousand species of bats. Right? How many bat species do we have in India? There are so many myths about bats in general. They are not your everyday mammal either. What is the role of bats in nature?

Rohit Chakravarty: You’re correct about the 1000 species. There are close to 1,300 species of bats in the world. India has about 120 species so we have a really large diversity. And, bats are actually the most diverse group of mammals in India. They even outnumber rodents in India. You’re right. Bats are really not your everyday mammal. They are way more extraordinary than most mammals we come across in our day to day life. They are the only mammals that can fly. They use ultrasound to navigate and they have very long lifespans. From the point, for an animal that is barely the size of a mouse, it actually lives way longer than a tiger would.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow

Rohit Chakravarty: So, bats are really long-lived and their role in nature… There are two broad categories. There are fruit bats and there are insectivores bats. So, fruit bats pollinate flowers and they disperse seeds of different trees. Some of the flowers that they pollinate, include extremely important cash crops like agave and durian. Durian is a very important food plant.

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course.

Rohit Chakravarty: Agave is the plant that is responsible for producing tequila.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

Rohit Chakravarty: So, without bats, there won’t be any tequila. People are also trying to find out more about how bats are important in systems that produce cocoa. There might be many interesting results coming out soon. Insectivores bats eat tons of pest insects, which also include moths, unfortunately…

Lalitha Krishnan: I know, I am going to ask you about that. That’s interesting because considering there are so many bats, we barely see them. And now, you’ve added a twist by saying they pollinate agave. It just made me think, do people actually breed bats by any chance?

Rohit Chakravarty: I’m not sure about it. People don’t breed bats for economic benefits. The only breeding facility that I know of is for research. Not really for economic benefits.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Pritha, tell us about the whole moth’s attraction to the flame/the whole moon connection and how many species of moths there are in the world and the Himalaya?


Pritha Dey: We are all very familiar with the phrase,” Like moths to the flame”. Actually, it’s very interesting. It’s very unique to this group of insects that their communication or orientation is towards the light. There’s a theory called the light compass theory which means that they orient their flight towards celestial light. They try to keep the celestial light as parallel and orient their flight towards the moon. So if we put any artificial source of light in their pathway, they get confused and try to orient their flight along that pathway along with that artificial light. So you mostly find moths flying in a circular manner around the lights in our houses or street lights if you see them. So that’s the reason. It’s kind of confusing for them so they fly towards the light and we are increasing their confusion by adopting artificial illumination. It’s kind of hampering their ecology.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s like we know the way home but we use Google maps and end up in some small lane right?

Pritha Dey: Absolutely. Talking about the number of species, India has about 10,000 species of moths. I cannot even imagine how diverse they are. In the Himalayas, the eastern Himalayas have 50-60% of the total diversity, which is 5-6000 but if you come to the western Himalaya, it’s only 20-30% which is an estimated 2-3000 species in western Himalaya. You can imagine.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, and a major part of it is unexplored right. Both in the west and in the east?

Pritha Dey: Right. When I started out, I was the first person to study moths in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow. Nice.

Pritha Dey: To document them properly. So, such important areas are known for other kinds of wildlife but we don’t know much about moths from such a biodiverse state like Uttarakhand.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m glad you’re doing that and you can have a lifetime of doing that if you want. There are so many moths. Rohit you did mention that bats are the only mammals that fly. Do they migrate like birds do?

Rohit Chakravarti: They do and we know very little about that in India. Most of the studies on bat migration come from Europe and the US. Because the bat’s flight is not as efficient as that of birds, they cannot fly to the same order as birds do. Some birds can migrate from one pole to the other but bats are not capable of that. The maximum distance that they can cover is about 1000-3000 km.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a bit.

Rohit Chakravarty: That itself is a lot for an animal of that size. The interesting part though about bat migration is that unlike birds that migrate to remain active in a warmer climate, a lot of bats actually migrate and then they hibernate in much warmer conditions and much cooler conditions. So, bats do all sorts of interesting things that are rather unusual from the point of view of birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you say to warmer and cooler conditions?

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes, I say that because particularly the studies on bats migrating on mountains have shown that the females go lower down because they mate just before migrating. So, they have a growing embryo in them; the females carry a growing pup and they have to remain active for some period of time in order to let the pup grow in their body. Bu the males do not have any such pressures so what they do is that they actually migrate up the hill to much colder conditions where it is easier to go into hibernation. It’s just like us sleeping in winters. We tend to sleep longer in winter because it’s much nicer to sleep in colder conditions. It’s much easier for us to fall asleep in colder conditions so that’s what the males do.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and save energy, I guess.

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes.

[Photos courtesy: Pritha Dey. Top:Tanaorhinus kina. Below L-R: Amblychia sp., Naga Hawk moth (Acosmeryx naga), Peach blossom moth (Thyatira batis)}

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Pritha, back to you. There are day-flying moths and night-flying moths. I know this is a very basic question for you but for all of us who don’t know anything about moths, could you tell us 4 easy ways to help us differentiate a moth from a butterfly?

Pritha Dey: I’m very happy to answer very basic questions. So, moths and butterflies, they both belong to this order, Lepidoptera. Moths came earlier than butterflies. Butterflies evolved from moths. So, there are some connecting groups in the evolutionary tree which are the day-flying moths. So they have bright coloured wings like a butterfly do but mostly moths are nocturnal in behaviour.

The easiest way to differentiate between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennas. The antenna for butterflies is club-shaped. They have a round ball-like structure at the end of it whereas moths, they have fuzzy, hairy antennas. By looking at them also, butterflies are more slender but moths are fuzzy and hairy. If you look at them sitting also, butterflies close their wings when they sit on a leaf or a flower and moths sit with their wings open and flat on the surface.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

Pritha Dey: Of course, there are exceptions to these things that I’m telling you which actually prove the rule. Another difference is the pupal stage which is very scientific or taxonomic but I’ll still mention it. The moths in a pupal stage spin a covering around their developing stage which is called a cocoon. Which is spun by the moths. But for butterflies, the covering in which the developing stage is there is called chrysalis. It is part of their body that develops into this cover.

Another interesting thing that differentiates moths and butterflies is something called a wing coupling device. In moths, there is a tiny structure called the frenulum which actually joins the forewing and the hindwing but there is no structure like that in butterflies. So, that’s why you find their flight also a bit different. Butterflies, if you see them in flight it’s clearer and in moths, it’s a bit fuzzier and confused flight.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. And can one see this? Is this visible…the joint between the wings?

Pritha Dey: No. it’s visible under a microscope. So, the last two differentiations that I said are very scientific and taxonomic but for a layperson to differentiate between a moth and a butterfly, is to look at the antenna. That’s the giveaway.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is an easy and practical way for people who might be interested but don’t know how to start looking in their own garden to differentiate the moths and butterflies. Thank you so much. Rohit, since 2016 you have been working on bats in Uttarakhand. Could you tell us more about the bats in the Himalaya?

Rohit Chakravarty: So, Himalayan bats are quite unique. Like Pritha spoke about moths we see very similar patterns with bats as well. Just because of the geographical location of Uttarakhand, there are species that are at the edge of their distribution from Europe, from Eastern Asia like China, Japan, etc. and peninsular India. All of these species sort of merge in Uttarakhand. So it results in a unique diversity of tropical and temperate species. But what is even more fascinating for me is to see these small animals that fly. And flight, as you know, takes up a lot of energy. These small animals live in such elevation and they fly continuously throughout the night. So it’s very interesting from the point of view of physiology to know how these animals do that. At some point in time, it would be great to study these things. There are bats going even further, even in Ladakh which is at 3800-4000 metres. I don’t think there is any place in the whole world where bats occur at such high elevation. That’s unique.

Lalitha Krishnan: One had a concept in one’s head that bats usually live in caves. But now they’re all over urban areas, right?

Rohit Chakravarty: Bats have actually been in urban areas for a very long time. It’s really their ability to keep themselves concealed. Most people have bats in their houses but they don’t know about them until they see a pup lying on the ground or until they see a dead body in their house. But bats really have the ability to conceal themselves. And, they fly out at night, which again helps them conceal. So, bats have been with people for a very long time and it’s just that their secretive behaviour had helped them keep away from people while being close to them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Pretty smart. Pritha, back to you. Could you tell us about the independent project that followed your Ph.D. work?

Pritha Dey: When I came back from Germany after doing part of my Ph.D., I got funding from the Rufford Foundation (UK) where I got to study the moths from the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. It is another protected area in the western Himalaya which has not been explored for moths. We know the Himalayan Monal, we know the Musk deer, we know the Rhododendrons from this particular part of Uttarakhand but nothing about moths. In 2018 I did fieldwork there in the summer for two consecutive years. In 2019 also, I did some fieldwork. It’s been a very different diversity that I found from my earlier work in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve because it’s more oak-dominated, rhododendron dominated moist forest in that part of Uttarakhand. I already reported a new species to western Himalaya from that project. Most importantly I got to do a lot of outreach activities from that project where I could reach out to people from non-scientific backgrounds to talk about moths; how they’re important to our ecosystems and how is it important to conserve them. During that time also, I got to meet you at the Devalsari meet, which was also part of my outreach activity when I could give a talk about moths. Apart from science, I really like to reach out to people about my research which I think is very important for any kind of research. I take that from my independent project.


Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. And what is the species you discovered?


Pritha Dey: I didn’t discover. it’s an already existing species. It the Drepanid moth which is a hook tip moth that was previously known to be found only in the eastern Himalaya. So, I reported this along with Mr. Sanjay Sondhi. He also found it near Chakrata, in a place called Kanasar and I found it in Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. Both of these records are first time records from the western Himalaya. That was really something exciting.

Lalitha Krishnan: So cool. This might be a really stupid question but I haven’t heard of a …you know we have a national bird, a national animal, but do we have a national moth? Is that something we could do to promote moths?


Pritha Dey: We don’t as yet but we have state butterflies. We don’t have state moths as of yet. That gives me another reason to talk about moths more and to continue my research.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s an idea.

Pritha Dey: It’s an idea.

Lalitha Krishnan: Rohit, bats use many senses as you said but mostly their sense of hearing to communicate? You have trapped and recorded their ultrasonic calls. Could you tell us more about how they hunt, how they pick up sounds or avoid threats and stuff like that?

Rohit Chakravarty: Bats use ultrasound to navigate. They make these sounds that we can’t hear. We can’t hear ultrasounds. These sounds that bats make are really loud and sometimes they can be as loud as a firecracker. We are fortunate that we can’t hear it. When those sounds hit objects and come back to them, bats make all these mental calculations in split seconds in their minds where they calculate their distance with respect to the object, their position, their speed, etc. and they navigate. If it’s a hard object, for example, if it’s wood, or it’s a tree or a brick wall in front of them…hard objects reflect almost all of the sound that has hit on them. Whereas if it is a person, or if it’s an animal, that’s in front of a bat, the skin absorbs some sound and reflects part of the sound back to the bat. Depending on the time that it takes for the sound to be emitted and to be returned, and the intensity of the sound that is emitted and the intensity of the sound that comes back to the bats, bats make these calculations and they figure out if it’s an object that’s in front of them – whether it’s an enemy, whether they’re edging toward danger or towards food. So despite our politicians telling us that mathematics is not important, it’s really important for an animal to survive in the wild and they do it subconsciously.

Lalitha Krishnan: I won’t any anything about politicians. But bats sound pretty smart. That’s so cool. You also mentioned earlier that bats also feed on moths. I just read part of an article in a scientific journal which mention that a species of tiger moth has developed a defensive ultrasonic clicking technique that jams the sonar–exactly what you were talking about— of echolocating bats to avoid being eaten. They’re saying this is the “first conclusive evidence of sonar jamming in nature”. Who wants to talk about this?

Rohit Chakravarty: I’ll let Pritha answer.

Pritha Dey: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do they mean by moth-clicks?

Pritha Dey: Moths are majorly predated upon by bats. In the conversation so far we know that bats echolocate to hunt also. They hunt for moths by echolocating. One group of moths known as the tiger moth; they have—you talk about one species—but the entire family has developed this way of combating this echolocation by producing ultrasonic clicks. What they do is basically they produce the clicks at a certain frequency which are also ultrasonic. A frequency that hampers the echolocation of the flying bat and it confuses the bat as to where the moth is located. So, the bat gets confused about the location of the flying moth and cannot really predate on it. So, that’s how it functions and that’s how it evolved. So, the moths echolocate; they produce these ultrasonic clicks only in response to echolocating bats otherwise they do not use any ultrasound to communicate. They are mostly herbivores insects so they communicate only for mating which is mostly through pheromones.
This moth-bat ultrasound warfare is an evolutionary arms race and they are co-evolving new strategies. There is something called a ‘stealth echolocation’ by the bats also where they have devised a way to avoid this sonar jabbing by the tiger moths and at the same time, the moths are also devising new strategies to combat these echolocating bats. So yes, it’s eco-evolving, ongoing warfare in nature.

Lalitha Krishnan: This sounds like something straight out of the movies. You know this could be a hit and miss for both right?

Pritha Dey: Yes.

Rohit Chakravarty: It sounds more like the US and North Korea saying, “My button is bigger than yours.”

Lalitha Krishnan: Haha. Ok. You’ll have both studied abroad. Did anything stand out from those experiences? What did you bring back to your respective fields?

Pritha Dey: For me, I was in Germany for part of my Ph.D. After I completed my fieldwork in India, I came to Germany to complete the rest of it. My supervisor here (Germany) is a very funny and kind-hearted man who took me to South America and different parts of Europe for fieldwork.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nice.

Pritha Dey: I was exposed to a lot of—for the first time—I have seen so many people working on moths come together which I hardly see in India. The efficient networking that they share like all the scientists here – I am talking about the European community – the scientific networking and the taxonomic exchange that is required for lesser-known taxa is very efficient here. Which I took- something positive about my stay in Germany and want to take this culture back to India where more scientists work together toward conserving particular taxa. It would be more encouraging. We have so much diversity in India but very few people working on this kind of diversity. So yes, I took that back from my stay in Germany.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds so good. That sounds like a good thing to bring back. What about you Rohit.

Rohit Chakravarty: In the case of Bats, Germany is a great place to study in because Germany treats its bats like we treat our large animals. So, bats receive the highest levels of protection in German law. Whereas in India, they are completed unprotected except for a few species. What is even more heartening to see is almost every month, there are citizen science events where people go around the city either recording bat calls in a scientific framework. Or they are citizen groups that put identification rings on bats much like how people put rings to study migratory birds. So groups put rings on bats before they go into hibernation or during autumn. (They do this) To see how populations are faring in the city or see how populations are migrating from one part of Europe to another. Most of these studies have been going on for decades now. So, this culture of studying bats is really ingrained in them. That’s something I would really like to see in India- to bring back to India and continue for many years to come.
Other than that, of course, Germany is a technological hub. The technology we have here to study bats for e.g. miniature GPS tracking devices that you can put on bats to study their movements, study their foraging, and everything. So, that technology is something that I would ideally like to bring back to India.

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear that you’re interested. We don’t have enough of citizen science projects. They’re a good way of creating awareness and conserving wildlife. I’m going to get back to citizen science as both of you are interested. If somebody in India is interested in moths and starts off by taking photographs or wants to id or post pictures online what or where should he/she be looking? What sites or what forums?

Pritha Dey: Yes, you correctly pointed out that both of us are interested in the citizen science framework. There are many forums like the India Biodiversity Portal or different social media groups where people put up pictures of moths and get them identified. Here, I would like to emphasise a particular portal – the Moths of India website which comes under the Biodiversity Atlas Project in India. It is completely citizen science-based. I’m a team member of this initiative. How it functions is that you see a moth, you click a good resolution picture as others can identify it and you can just put it up as an observation with a date and the location. These two things are important. Anybody can register themselves and upload their observations. Then, there’s a team of reviewers. We get these observation uploads every day and we -a team of 7-8 people-we review it, try to properly identify it if it hasn’t already been done and then it is put up on our website. The website is very easily searchable. You can search by location or if you are a bit more oriented toward the moth taxonomy you can search by family or genus names and you can get your moth identified and see their distribution also which is based on whatever observations we have from different parts of the country.

Lalitha Krishnan: That will help. And for bats Rohit? What resources would a bat fan use? What website?

Rohit Chakravarty: So, I have written a detailed article on this and I would really urge the audience to google ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Bat watching’ and the article is up on ‘Conservation India’ You’ll be able to find it as soon as you google it. In that article I have listed down all the resources that people can refer to, all the equipment a bat watcher needs to start watching bats and to start identifying bats. Unfortunately, there are not any online portals that allow Indians to know more about Indian bats but there’s a lot of self-learning that people can do and I’m sure this article will help you get started.

Lalitha Krishnan: One could always start a group of sorts, right?

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes and we definitely do need something bat focused in due course of time but at the moment like ‘Moths of India’, we also have ‘Mammals of India’. Of course, we receive a lot more photographs of other large mammals but I would urge the audience to click photos of bats wherever they can find them and post them to groups of ‘Mammals of India’ and also India Biodiversity Portal.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. That helps, Thanks. I request both of you to share a conservation-related word/concept and tell us why it’s significant for you.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Bravo.

Rohit Chakravarty: My message is pretty similar to Pritha’s. As someone who works on a lesser-known group of animals. I believe that every animal is different and every animal tells a different story about the world. For e.g. a tiger might tell you a lot about forests and about how deer populations need to be controlled, how human interference needs to be managed, how corridors need to be connected etc. But a bat is a completely different animal and so is a moth and so is a frog. So, every animal tells a different story about the world. And, only when you study them, you understand what story it conveys and how you should protect its world in order to save the animal itself.
The other message that I would like to younger people is to have faith in science. To not lose hope in science and to develop an objective view of the world; not a subjective one. And to include science in the way we conserve species. Science is not the end result and it’s not the destination but it’s definitely something important we need to incorporate it in conservation measures.

Lalitha Krishnan: That was interesting and relevant for anyone who’s listening. Really great. Thank you so much Pritha and Rohit.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. I’d love your feedback. Do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. If you know somebody whose story should be told or is doing interesting work, do contact me.

If you want to know more about Pritha’s and Rohit’s work scroll down for the links. You can download Heart of Conservation podcast episodes for free on Soundcloud, Apple podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Bye for now.


For more info on bats write to rohit.chakravarty77@gmail.com. For more on moths, write to dey.pritha126@gmail.com

Also, check out “A beginners guide to bat watching

Mammals of Indian Subcontinent

Moths Of India

https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10693-like-a-moth-to-a-flame.

htmlhttps://www.livemint.com/Leisure/6vGVslxDp407q8vYzCsoVM/Searching-for-nightfliers-in-Uttarakhand.html

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.

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