Mitigating the Urban Human-bee Conflict: Rajani Mani.

Heart of Conservation Podcast. On the #Feedspot List of Top 35 Conservation Podcasts Listen or read.

Season 4. Ep# 25 Show notes (edited)

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

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

0:56

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

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

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

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

3:25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:36

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

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

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

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

12:52

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

Rajani Mani: Where are you right now?

Lalitha Krishnan: Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

13:21

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

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

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

-Rajani Mani

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: So ‘respect’ is the word.

Rajani Mani: Yes. Exactly.

15:05

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

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

17:30

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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

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

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

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

19:25:

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

21:08

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

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

22:25

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

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

23:20

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I’ve seen those.

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

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

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

24:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27:50

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

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

Rajani Mani: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

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

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

https://indiabiodiversity.org/

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

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

O:06

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

0:46

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

1:20

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

4:15

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

4:48

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright.

6:47

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice.

8:25

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

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

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

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

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

10:25

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

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

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

12:27

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

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

13:22

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

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

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

17:46

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

18:04

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

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

22:41

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

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

23:31

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

23:52

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

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

“Would you hew me to the heartwood cutter?

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

28:55

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

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

29:27

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

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

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

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

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

31:51

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

Lalitha Krishnan: What is it called?

33:35

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

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

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

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

35:40

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

35:54

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

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

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

37:31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

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

41:47

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

Yuvan Aves:

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

43:20

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

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

46:01

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

46:51

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

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

“To be curved like a river”

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

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

Yuvan Aves: Thank you Lalitha

48:26

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy Yuvan Aves. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

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

Links to Yuvan’s writings and educational material etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

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

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

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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