Urban Forager, Nina Sengupta Tells us how she’s Changing the World one Weed at a Time.

Heart of Conservation podcast Ep#18 Show notes (edited)

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Episode #18 Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 18 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. This monsoon has turned everything green and fresh and wild again, maybe a bit too wild for some of us. S,o what do you do when you see a weed occupying space with your favorite flower? Fling it aside, right? I pretty much do the same, I actually find weeding quite therapeutic. But how can you be sure you’re getting rid of the right plant? My guest today will enlighten us about the ordinary weed. She is Nina Sengupta an ecologist who lives in Auroville and works around the globe as an independent consultant, integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable development options. She’s worked in South & Southeast Asia, Africa, Finland, and the USA. She’s passionate about food forest, food gardening, art, films, and making life science active and participatory for all. She’s also published a coloring book for adults, the first of its kind on edible weeds.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast and am excited to talk to you. I will start with a very basic question.  So, what is urban foraging and how did you get into it.

Nina Sengupta: Get into it is entirely by chance but what is urban foraging? What is foraging? Let me explain that, that may help. Foraging involves searching, wandering and collecting food on your own from the wild or where it grows naturally but for free typically the items that are foraged are vegetables, fruits, roots, honey, and edibles but if you look at it ecologically, the theory foraging involves two key decisions of the foragers – what do forage and where to forage and for most animals who are surviving in the wild, wild animals, these are the two very critical decisions. So up until you know about 10,000 years back when humans started agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers, and out for a lot of their survival they depended on their skills to forage. So urban foraging is nothing but within the concrete jungle of urban areas that you find areas where things are growing wild, where you can forage or collect your food or greens or whatever you choose to, sometimes it’s also flowers for beautification but also definitely food items for free, for yourself, not for selling, you know, for yourself. That’s the key thing about foraging.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s interesting! I never thought of flowers as foraging but you so right and also to me, you know, foraging has always been a western concept, you know, you hear people picking mushrooms and strawberries and stuff like that in the woods. But I am sure in our country in rural areas, people with traditional knowledge do this all the time regularly and already and I’m sure their kids also, you know, know what is edible and what’s not. So I’m curious in urban India when you’re talking of foraging and for free is this, you think, is a recreational activity or are the people doing this regularly?

Nina Sengupta: Let me address this whole idea of the western concept, the term foraging is perhaps what we have tagged to a certain recreationally activity which is primarily coming to us from the West but, you know, if you really step back from it, how can gathering food that is seasonal, accessible and you can get it for free, how can that not be part of any culture and in any century really. So, you know, once I worked with a tribal group in India and one person, I clearly remember him saying, he kind of famously made a statement; that as long as the forest lives tribal people will not starve, you know, so I kind of remember, like it was amazing to me, because then I kind of thought that I am not there, I mean, where he is and there’s a huge truth to that and if you really look into the, you know, traditional village life you have there are people who would say, you know, after school they would come by while coming back home they will pick up this and this, this and that which they learned from their parents what to pick and those are the greens they seasonally picked. So, picking where, you know, it was not recreational at all, it was often not poverty-driven either. It was part of the lifestyle whereas if you right now look at, you know, what the foraging is, in the urban areas you find people who are consciously shifting to a healthier lifestyle. They are getting into foraging and those are, I won’t say recreational, it’s really going back to a more sensitive way of living but you can call it, you know, borderline recreational too but you also find, you know, people who are foraging when they have the access to, urban poor, those who actually forage to supplement their income. I always find this, you know, amazing this – typically old ladies who would come to the fringes of a market. They never get probably a place in the market but they would have their fares on the footpath, next to the footpath, in little portions, no weight or nothing and they always bring the seasonal, you know, greens and seasonal this and that, very small portions of each. Now what they’re doing is basically they are foraging, they are foraging for themselves and a little bit extra they go and sell for this little extra money. There is some kind of seasonal weed-like what you call chickweed (Portulaca quadrifida) this you actually rarely ever find in any of the supermarkets or any of the, you know, formal shops, you always find seasonally with these ladies. So, we do have a tradition of foraging, even urban foraging, but yes, the middle-class foraging perhaps came to us from the West.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. When you speak about it, I do remember seeing, you know, women with very little selling these greens and I always presumed it was from their garden but it’s interesting that they probably foraged it. So, Nina, in a city where would one, you know, I mean without being specific, what is an ideal spot to start forging in the city.

Nina Sengupta: My recommendation would be – the first step to foraging is recognizing. In your city if you have weed walks, like the one I conduct and many cities do actually, it’s best to join them because if you are new to this, not just once, join it as many times as possible until you recognize a handful say 5-6 of them almost like second nature, like you know, kind of see that and you know it is that.  Now where you are seeing and recognizing it may not be the ideal place for collecting it because often these are in the cities, these are next to the gutter or next to a leaky pipe, or pretty terribly bad polluted water but these are actually quite excellent places to see them, know them, and recognize them. It’s actually a good source of collecting seeds because you cannot collect and eat them because these plants also often bio-accumulate & bio-concentrate which means that if they’re growing in polluted water they are actually would concentrate those and heavy metals and pollution in them, so you definitely don’t want to collect and eat where you are not very sure that the water is relatively clean. So in an urban area, once you have recognized and if you’re going for a guided walk you will already know where you know it’s a safe place to collect but otherwise, you know, you say you are very confident of 5-6 plants that you are sure you can collect, then look at the fringes of the gardens even the edges of a flowering bed often, you know, where they get a lot of TLC -tender loving care every day the Flowers and all that get but you know the edges of that they start getting a little wild and start getting, you know, other plants which are not intentional, these are the places where it is absolutely safe to collect from and if you know that what they are you can. And sometimes, like you know each area in India for example has a primary seasonal flowering time. Once the garden kind of gets over there is a period when it says lull, know there is not the next, you know, set of plants hasn’t been planted, these are also the absolutely ideal time to forage because the weeds kind of takes over and it’s very easy to pick them at that time and you’re also very sure that they are safe.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! That’s interesting. Nina, I hope you’re going to be free after COVID time because I don’t know anyone else who takes people out on weed walks. Is there a network of people who do that or is, I think, it’s only you?

Nina Sengupta: I think is there somebody I mean there are lots of this you know pop up lunches and dinners where they do farm to plate kind of thing, you know, so I am just guessing when they’re doing farm to plate some of the things that they’re collecting, I am hoping, they’re also wild and not necessarily the vegetables but yes I know I didn’t realize that I was only one but you know hopefully not, hopefully, we are a tribe.

Lalitha Krishnan:  And, you know, you’re also talking about foraging being free but, you know, free for us but is there a law, is it legal, I mean, could you be arrested for eating wood sorrel or would you be doing a city a favor by clearing the weeds out?

Nina Sengupta: In India, really, who cares what (plants) you eat or as long as what you eat is not commercially super attractive or declared a narcotic. If it’s not either of this category whether, you know, I have, you know; whether I’m surviving on wood sorrel or something else really, you know, nobody, to me it feels like, that they have the time to but there’s an interesting anecdote I must share with you. There is a particular solanum like you know Solanaceae which is in the nightshade family is usually you don’t eat the leaves usually, you know, people kind of stay away from it, but there is a particular Solanaceae which is a lot in Solanum nigrum which is very, very nutritious, wonderful to eat and tasty and all that and I, it is it’s quite popular in South India, even though the plant grows anywhere actually pantropical not only everywhere in India but you know beyond, it is not something very popular elsewhere in India. So I went to Calcutta and I see that I am eyeing, that right all along on both sides of the road I’m walking there this Solanum nigrum is fruiting, beautiful, lush and nobody is collecting because nobody eats them and I have eyed them and eyed them for several days as I walked up and down. And then one day I decided I’d stop and just take some fruits as you know seeds so that you know I bring them back and plant them and as soon as I start collecting them, there were lots of benevolent people who just kind of crowded around me and said “Madam don’t, don’t you are going to die” so I must say that they were very sweet, very concerned people who were very bothered that what I eat I might, you know, might kill me but otherwise there is no particular law to stop me from eating something which is I collect, not that I have encountered but I don’t think so.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Tell me why do you forage? Is it just for the pleasure of I,t for the taste and also what do you get what do you get from it personally and also what would you forage for, you did mention a few?

Nina Sengupta:  Actually to begin with it, I mean I primarily again it still is, it’s fun, it’s a sense of discovery and there’s a wow factor because there is that sense of discovery and if you see something beautiful, you know, you inhale a chest full of air in wonder and that wonder-appreciation of nature is quite priceless and it almost does not happen it doesn’t matter if ultimately I get to pick something, you know, I think or eat or collect enough but that I know that they are there kind of has a huge a sense of security and well-being. That is, you know, it’s hard to articulate that sense that you get that despite being an urban area I have this amazing, you know, a wonderful bounty around me, it’s like even in a concrete jungle like nature kind of lets you know that it is there for you, you know, very close to you if you choose to pay attention.  So for me, I actually got very attracted to this tiny little flowers which many of the weeds have and you wonder at the detailing, you know, it’s just too good and you know, I have a haiku which I actually had included in my coloring book which says that ‘a flowering weed hearing its name, I looked anew at it’ and it’s so true because you figure out its name because of course I, first of all, it was a wonder for me, then being a trained ecologist it’s not that difficult even though I’m not a botanist, it’s not that hard to figure out, OK! let’s identify this species and then you read about it and then you’re like amazed by the different qualities of it and soon you realize that many of them, you know, natural remedies that you are very familiar, which comes in bottles, familiar bottles, they’re actually growing right next to you. So, this is how they look and some of them you can actually eat so that’s where it is that it started and it continues to be that because I still am discovering and figuring out absolutely new things almost regularly. So the things which I get to absolutely love, there is this particular weed, one I already mentioned, Solanum nigrum locally called manathakkali and there is a cousin of it called Solanum villosum which looks like tiny little red tomatoes and it’s beautiful and for me personally, there is a plant called Commelina benghalensis and it grows… it’s prolific, and has one of the most delicate blue and beautiful flowers and it turned out to be that it is amazing for, you know, intestinal health, gut health and yeah so and of course punarnava- it’s a very well-known ayurvedic medicine but it is also amazingly edible and quite tasty too. What I actually personally revel in discovering is that the ones which are not traditional, there so many greens, you know, locally if you ask they will say, you know, it’s a goat food. When there is terminology like that, you know that they are perhaps not in their traditional pantheon or things that they are using which also may indicate that it had become naturalized much later it is not part of Ayurveda sidha and all the other medicinal tradition but if you really investigate and find out about them we can be edible, they can be amazingly medicinal, they are just, you know, awesome. So, I’m still discovering, I’m still at that wow stage.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I can hear the wow in your voice. I guess every time you are attracted to something it sort of begins a whole voyage of discovery because then you go into it and find out more and more and more. Nina, you created a coloring book called “Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants of Auroville for Adults” on weeds, I love the idea but what made you think about it? And what do you think the experience of drawing weeds does, you know, for a person?

Nina Sengupta:  It’s a variety of things and since I have kind of come up with the book it has also extended into several other things which kind of justifies it, but for me it was, you know, I was very bothered about one character in me, I have noticed in me, that for example, there is deforestation going on in some part of our country and we’re all very bothered, we are, you know, signing up in some kind of a petition signature and then something else comes up – social, environmental, other factors, we’re totally, you know, shift to that but hardly ever there is an update on what actually happened to the other one and it bothered me that how we can let go of that, you know because there are people who for them it’s a part and parcel of their lives and they are, whether you forget or not, they will not be able to forget it. So I kind of thought that perhaps that nature doesn’t, you know, in urban life, nature is not such an integral part because you know we get our food from a grocery store, supermarkets, we, you know, have a park nearby too, so it’s not like if one goes, we go to the other , you know, it’s not such an end of the story and I kind of started asking people that you know how do they connect with nature and somebody who had made a statement famously that “I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go and a visit, I don’t connect with nature because I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go to a National Park every now and then”. And it struck me that, Oh my God is nature so disconnected that for an urban individual to connect to nature one has to actually physically take themselves out of the urban areas and go somewhere? Now, of course, there is always the bird watcher group and the other you know other wonderful tree groups and in different cities but what about people in general like they do they connect with nature? And I started thinking that what I can offer? What I can kind of point out for me and for all of us that we cannot ignore that it is right there in the cities? And I could come up with weeds because they are everywhere and so that’s how I started on, you know, focusing on weeds more carefully to make into a book. The reason I wanted to make it into a coloring book for adults because it is a concept that has remained with me since I was doing my studies abroad, that I had walked into a genetics class and I always, you know, was interested in art and here I walked into a genetics class and the professor was telling that you know you can pick yourself a coloring book and you can see the snow, learn about the cell structure that that way and for me mainstreaming coloring which is doodling and coloring was always like and you shouldn’t be doing in the class kind of training I had. So suddenly mainstreaming coloring as part of your education really seemed very attractive and from then on I always thought that you know, we should have our education also made a little more fun, little more light so that you can do it yourself so that when I made the coloring book I want it to be experiential that by holding the book it feels different, it is made in handmade paper, it is hand-stitched, it has no use of plastic in it and when you are a coloring, when you are sitting and coloring, I really believe that this calming act of coloring has an effect like osmosis, the kind of the information gets to you even without you paying attention and so it kind of gets to you in many levels, it kind of wraps you in in a certain experience, it informs you about plants. If you want to, you know, paint it crazy purple – that’s fine but you can still have a colored insert by which you can take outside and identify the weeds you want because everything is drawn to scale. So yeah that’s why.

Lalitha Krishnan: You know, I really hope people are listening with this lockdown we’re talking about growing our vegetables and microgreens, and people are thinking of taking up farming seriously. I mean, this sounds like the perfect climate to go foraging. Don’t you agree?

Nina Sengupta: It happened in our community how as I was and how it evolves here is… I had made the book and I actually thought everything has been very organic, you know, making thinking about making the book, making the book and I let it be, you know, I didn’t, you know, start off with uh doing weed walks and it turned out to be that some people… they were gathering up to know about local food and it didn’t have so much of interest that, you know if you publish a recipe people look at it but you know they’re not very sure so they didn’t know. So, there was a group which started, they started taking people’s small groups to different farms and actually there will be a demo on how to cook it. So one of them in one of these farm demo visits that they had gone, they found that they are using my coloring book as a reference so for a lot of people that was the first time they were getting to know there is something called you know edible weeds so they called me up and said you know can you show us a few? So that was the beginning of the weed walks and I realized that you know, one weed walk and one session was not enough so it kind of became regular but even then, even when you know very well, that this is edible, people are very interested learning, taking notes. I saw, barring a few exceptions, there not many people who graduated from knowing the weed to actually cooking and eating them. Even though, you know, we have plenty of safe places where it can be collected. But come lock down suddenly with this knowledge which was already they had gathered, they decided that let’s, you know, use it so there was absolutely amazing amount of energy we had, you know, there was a WhatsApp group but with hardly about 10 members it became soon a group of 90 which each one sharing their recipe on how differently they can use this weed and that weed, incorporate that a little technique, taking pictures and, you know, getting congratulation from each other. It actually really brought it into a full circle in which right now there are several people who who eat it and also this is their way of avoiding to go and stand in the line in a grocery store, they know that, you know, they can just go around and collect and how healthy and I call it ultra organic food and, you know, it has been right simply wonderful, you know, there are recipes which I would have never thought which, you know, part of this community, you know, it has developed so it’s yeah it has been a great journey as far as that is concerned.

Lalitha Krishnan: ‘Weed recipes’, that’s your new book I think. Yeah but definitely I think, you should do a webinar. There will be thousands of people who’d be really, really interested so that’s another way to promote but so do you do a lot of walks and how else can we promote foraging – school groups? I mean now it’s all online. Is there a platform that one can go to and read or forums to participate in?

Nina Sengupta: There are forums to participate, I have actually initiated a new Facebook group and also a Youtube channel where I actually, regularly, tell more about the weeds, individual weeds so that they, you know, sometimes if you see 10 and then you forget all of them. So we thought that we will concentrate on one or two at a time so that, you know, it can percolate and you know make more concentrated writeups on that, make a little video how it actually looks in the because… you know, the walks we cannot do at the moment until like, since the lockdown in March, we haven’t had a walk and we thought that it’s, instead of people using what they had already gained other than the ones which are already using, it’s a good way to connect to people who are… who can just look around their own homestead and start foraging from then on? So, yes, we do have… and also, you know, I feel that this activity is such a calming and grounding activity in a way that this has to come to each individual at their own pace. So, if it’s OK to just, you know, sit with a coloring book, read about it and then go out and, you know, get something, read about it before you actually try out. It’s OK, but there are others who do it much, you know, at a faster pace, so the pace is decided by you, but out once you already what is really nice is that…a couple of things. Most of the foraging weed that we are talking about they’re pantropical, there available everywhere and sometimes even in the temperate regions, in the summer months they are available. So I find it an amazing connection that I am eating a wild here in that wild grows in somebody else’s backyard halfway across the world or a half way across the country and I find it very connecting, you know, that factors are very connecting and we make those connections to our websites and the channels that we are trying to make and so what we’re trying to do here is …part of it is reclaiming our tradition because many of the weeds as you get to know you see that there are traditional users then we just, you know, we may have forgotten or lifestyle didn’t permit so we didn’t know whatever, so we are reclaiming our past in a way then we’re building on it at the present because culture and tradition are never static. It is dynamic and part of that dynamism is that there are weeds which are probably not part of our tradition but they’re here and now so you learn about them and you add to that… add to your repertoire of weeds that you forage from and thus kind of you are building on that culture, you know, that you are connecting with the past and your building in the present and the next obvious step is to take it to the future which you have not touched upon just now in your question, is to take it to the next generation. And I think that there cannot be anything more amazing that as parents and adults we can do is to take this knowledge to the kids and have them that sense of wonder from a much earlier age and so that’s one of the things that we are trying. Personally in my effort, I’m trying to reprint this book because now it is out of print… reprint this book and have two more volumes and the way I want to do is through crowdfunding because one more uh interest in doing so in that way that I want to involve people not just printing and publishing book but also take it as a package to the schools, you know, the schools will have all the three books may be and as part of this whole initiative, the teachers will get trained. I will have different sessions with the teachers and then with the kids so that there will be many more of this weed walks and the weed knowledge that will go and percolate amongst the children in the schools and that’s where, you know, that’s where you start picking up you know things will really get rolling, I think.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’ve given us so much food for thought…

Nina Sengupta: And the idea that it is getting in touch with the wild, it is actually the best wilderness that you can remain in touch with being an urbanite. So it, you know, when I am really connected to the natural world around me I am much more sensitive and sympathetic to somebody else elsewhere and I hope that that kind of feeling comes in the decision making in the choices that we make as consumers or as individual citizens in making our decisions. So that is hope from weed to changing the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Well this is the time to change the world. Nina, I also wanted to ask you where do you draw the line when it comes to foraging?

Nina Sengupta: I say the word foraging comes from a very western concept of foraging, where actually people do go and collect themselves to eat but it has also escalated to being a part of tourism, you know, that eating wild is part of the exotic feeling sometimes not even going to the wild, you know, sitting in the city there are famously this some restaurants in Nairobi, famous for over decades but we also now have started having them in India is that if you go there you will be served wild food. Now that’s to me is not foraging for if you are sitting in your city and somebody else is smoking the heck out of the rock bee to provide you the most amazing honey then that honey has a lot more ecological problems with it then values because the demand actually forces— demand beyond self and beyond the local area— forces a greater amount of, you know, taking off these resources and it’s a concern. One of the things that I probably … one of the things that I also am very interested in films, I do screen an environmental film series every year and I’m … you know a lot of my metaphors come from films… and if you even look at Satyajit Ray films or any films as such, you see people treat the forest as the edge of civilization. So when you go to the forest you let your hair down and you be somebody else and this feeling remains there and as people have in the risk they say the last couple of 20 years people have started moving more. You know there are more people who are working you know young people there working away from their family; they are traveling, they are going into tourism, there lot more people movement and these people when they’re moving and going into a very exotic place, they’re not necessarily sticking to their, you know, traditional meals or even the very hardcore vegetarians don’t remain vegetarian. So many wild foods are getting overexploited to serve… one thing is to serve the people who have moved away from their own community elsewhere so that they have, you know, a touch of their home and other people who are visiting and as tourists to their place and want to experience that taste of the wild without foraging. So, these two are actually very even, though it is termed as foraging, it’s called forest food you are eating local honey. You know, how healthy can it be? How sustainable it can be? It is actually anything but sustainable.

Lalitha Krishnan: One more question Nina, I usually ask my guests to share a word to improve our vocabulary and I know, I’m suggesting now, ecotonal and the term edge effect. So, would you mind explaining both?

Nina Sengupta: Yes, gladly but I will start with that I will take again a little step before I go to ecotonal, that much of our lives are now locked up in the screens, you know, be it, you know, in our mobile phone or computer screen and that bit hasn’t probably changed in our lockdown period either but, you know, life happens in the periphery. So it is that peripheral vision individuals have started losing more urbanities than not but there are you know it’s becoming our character like you know we are all if you’re going in the bus or train or plane you’re still looking at a screen, we’re looking at a screen, many are watching… The screen is our lives yet our lives are happening around so this is kind of in ecologically speaking ecotone is the region which is a transition between the two 2 biological communities two ecological areas. For example, an estuary is an ecotonal area because the river meets the ocean and the land is there in that area… that confluence is the ecotonal area and naturally, the ecotone between which is the confluence between the two habitats is always richer in species than either of the two. So, you know, given the area, you know, per unit area, there usually ecotones hold more species. 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Thank you so much, Nina!! That was enlightening, to say the least. You have introduced foraging, I mean, we knew it was somewhere on the edge of our consciousness now you have brought it right to our minds, into our hearts. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation, I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on Spotify or SoundCloud and other platforms of your choice. Keep listening and do check out Nina Sengupta’s YouTube channel. It’s called ‘Edible Weed Walk’. Stay safe and start foraging.

Photo courtesy Nina Sengupta.. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

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.

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

Rita Banerji. India's Leading Wildlife & Environment Filmmaker

Heart of Conservation Podcast Episode #17 Show Notes (Edited) Read or listen in.

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 17 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories that keep you connected to our natural world. Today, I’m speaking to India’s acclaimed wildlife/environment film make, Rita Banerji. She heads Dusty Foot Productions and in 2015 she founded The Green Hub a ‘youth and community-based fellowship and video-for-change program’ based out of northeast India.

Dr.  Schaller renowned biologist, conservationist, and author has actually visited Green HUB. He was so impressed by what Green Hub is doing and wanted to know what they are doing and how they are doing it. Rita and her team of The Green Hub Fellows have interacted with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who has watched their films. 

Rita has recently been selected as an Ashoka Fellow which is a lifelong fellowship for the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Check out www.ashoka.org. In 2017 she was awarded the National Geographic – CMS Prithvi Ratna Award, and in 2018 the RBS Earth Hero Award for contribution to the environment through films. Rita, welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast, and thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rita Banerji: It’s great to be here on the call with you.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s great to finally connect with you. So, to start with you made some incredibly powerful films. You’ve been filming in the Northeast since 2002 starting with the film on orphaned bear cubs. Your film on the wild meat trail won the Green Oscar. Now that it’s confirmed that the Coronavirus is zoonotic and there’s a link to wildlife trade and the interface between human, animal, and environment, your films seem particularly relevant. So, would you like to briefly tell us about the makings of these films?

Rita Banerji: This was right at the beginning of when we were starting our own production house Dusty Foot Productions, before that, I had worked with Riverbanks Studios for almost 10 years and most of my films were around human and wildlife issues. So we heard about this project which was about rehabilitating of re-introduction of orphan bear cubs into the wild and that was supposed to be in Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal and that was the first time they were trying something like that in India. Wildlife Trust of India was trying this, so we thought it would be something very important to record, and also, I do feel connected to the northeast because my mother is from Assam. But I have never lived here or never worked here so that’s how we decided to, me and Shilpi, who started Dusty Foot with me, we both decided to start documenting the story. During this period, I think we covered it over five years. 2002 we started… we kept filming till 2007 actually… in between we didn’t have any savings. Whatever other projects we were doing we were putting in our savings into this project but while we were documenting the story of the orphaned bear cubs, one thing became very clear that… and curiosity about it that it was clear that it’s because of hunting that there were so many orphaned cubs so that’s why there was a need to re-introduce them into the wild because you can’t keep them in zoos. So our question was that is there, you know, is there hunting which is related to illegal wildlife poaching which happens? Or is it also to do with just consumption of wild meat? And this is a question we wanted to explore further so that we didn’t want to make a film which was just based on our notions that traditional hunting is fine – it’s for sustenance and illegal poaching is bad. We really needed to understand whether wild meat, you know, hunting for wild meat had any impact on the status of wildlife in the northeast and that’s how we kept you know… it was linked to the bear story so we kept exploring you know this whole question kept filming and finally in 2006, I think both Shilpi & I took off for at the end of 2006 beginning of 2007 we saved up some money and just traveled around the northeast of 4 months to different parts, to Arunachal, Nagaland, Mizoram, parts of Assam and that’s where we came across wild meat markets and we realized that you know it was quite extensive and it wasn’t just to do with traditional hunting that was different. I mean I think earlier the hunting was like that the hunters had a lot of prestige in the village, very few hunters were there but over time with guns coming in and then a lot of the people moving from the villages to the towns, the demand for wild meat in towns increased and suddenly for something which was food for the village became a commercial commodity, you know, and that’s what kind of changed the whole balance. In a way, anything you saw was hunted and I think so that’s what the film explored – how do you strike the balance between traditional indigenous knowledge as well as adapt to changes, which are better for the environment and the people actually. So yeah that’s how this film happened and I think it was a big learning for us and I think it also laid the foundation for it was a turning point for us because this film made us realize that film is not enough. One has to work on the ground get connected to the community, work with the community, learn from them as well as then come with, you know, our own perceptions, or our own ideas of conservation.

Lalitha Krishnan: I also wanted to ask you, did you have a hard time filming all of this you know seeing wildlife meat being sold and talking to locals, or were there any uncomfortable moments?

Rita Banerji: It is an interesting question but as a filmmaker, actually because the film is such a visual medium, you know, unless you really get the content it will not have the kind of impact you want to have. Right? You can keep talking about the wild meat market but unless I see it myself and film it myself, the film or the story kind of, does not come across. So for us, it was really, really about exploring the facts and trying to really understand the issue in a deeper way. So yes, when you went to the market and you know, you saw these hundreds of birds, bunches of birds, civets in the market, it was a numbing experience. It was a numbing experience but at the same time, I think if your idea of a film is that you’re doing it to understand something deeper for making a difference then I think that objectivity comes as a filmmaker. So I won’t say there were challenges as such because for us it was something you know, every step was an exploration, every step we learned so many things about not northeast, about the forests, about the people, even the market. I mean it wasn’t just seeing wild meat and getting numbed by it but trying to understand the extent of it, you know, and talking to those people so I think for us it was more a learning journey and not really, what can I say, I think in some ways very difficult to say that it was challenging because it’s something which kind of we really felt was important in terms of doing and I think we really enjoyed the journey in terms of filming it because we spent so much time in the villages, we spent so much time traveling across the northeast. 

Lalitha Krishnan: I wonder if you have a similar response to my next question. You worked with Mike Pandey on his film ‘Shores of Silence- Whale Sharks’ in India which also won the Green Oscar in Wildscreen 2000. It’s one thing for me, watching it on my phone but I can’t imagine you actually being there watching a huge whale shark being hunted and dragged half alive and then watch it being gutted into small basket sized portions. I guess that also might have been quite a learning experience and an unforgettable experience for you.

Rita Banerji: ‘Shores of Silence’ and filming that, being part of that film and filming those moments I think those are times which are just frozen in your memory, you know. I think what was important to, I think, for Mike, me and Shibani, we were there when we got the first shot of the whale shark it was on the, I still remember, it was on the Veeraval port. We were filming and we were asking about this whale shark which is called the beral in the local language because of the barrel which is used to capture it and so in the local language they call it a beral. We saw this huge fish we had never seen it earlier, at least me and Shibani hadn’t, Mike had seen it in his childhood and we saw this huge fish being tied between boats and trawlers and being cut open. It was a very shocking kind of a moment but at the same time you know in India I think what happens is that anything you’re doing with wildlife is linked to people’s livelihood also and you cannot isolate your work only with wildlife or only with people it’s very difficult because every way you’re seeing communities which are vulnerable at the same time you’re seeing wildlife which is vulnerable. So when we saw that, I think all of us were very clear that one we have to see what the… we were sure that the whale shark has to be protected that was a clear thing at the same time we were sure that we did not want to make it a sensational kind of a clip. It could have been that the first shot you get you just release it in the news and it becomes big news and that’s the end of it may be or it just leads to a debate, right, so we really wanted to make a film where we understood it well and this is the same thing about getting facts right and I think we spent two years going back to the place. We didn’t get any shots there I think for two years… we just spoke to a lot of people and then one of the days we were walking on the beach and we found this small village and suddenly we saw these 3-4 whale sharks on the beach being cut up and I think it’s the same thing as a filmmaker you always if you have to protect something I think you have to also be able to record it and you should have to tell that story in a way with which leads to much larger protection of a species. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing to do but I think as filmmakers or as a camera person specially, you end up shooting so many things that somewhere you keep your vision in mind, why you’re making the film and I think if that clarity is there then it helps you. So yes it was not easy to see that it was not easy to see a whale shark being killed, it wasn’t easy for us to see the fins being cut and right in front of you but what happened after that was quite amazing; how people got together it wasn’t us the film just came out but other people took it up and it became a, you know, it got put under the wildlife protection act and I think that’s where… then you say, OK! you know, the film was worth it. I mean there are so many people involved with it I think everybody who was part of it I think at the end of it felt that the whale shark was protected.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Thanks for explaining that. That sounds like every conservationist’s environment/wildlife filmmaker’s dream come true.

In your recent Mangabay interview on Green Hub the first thing that stood out for me when you talk about the diversity of the fauna and flora you also speak about the diversity of communities. Often, not always, conservationists/policymakers tend to separate wildlife from the human as two different entities rather than ones that coexist. But your films, I feel, are the opposite. They are all made working with communities to save wildlife and preserve the people’s way of life simultaneously. Could you tell us about your journey with the filming alongside communities? 

Rita Banerji: I started my journey as a filmmaker in ’90 what…we joined Riverbanks in ‘91, I think, and over the next 20 years I think as part of Riverbanks as well as part of Dusty Foot I think we traveled a lot across India and all the films which we did, a lot of them were on wildlife. Like we did this whole film called the ‘Turtle Diaries’ or another film called ‘Right to survive’ which was on the Olive Ridley turtles conservation as well as the likelihood of traditional fish workers and many other stories like this. In no situation was any issue related to wildlife isolated from issues of people but the key thing which we saw in all these while filming all this was that solutions always there, you know. Even with the traditional fishing community, the scientists working there, the Oliver Ridleys coming to the beach, you know, the combination of the science, community and the wildlife, if one went into the facts, if you really got into the technicalities of what was required for conservation, everything was there. The solution was there but it comes down to the intention or the governance you know? Do you want to really be driven by that idea of coexistence, you know? And when the solutions are right there, will you work towards doing that, or are there larger interests?  And that situation one has seen replicated in many of the situations when you’re talking about human-wildlife interactions across India so in the northeast also. The northeast is an amazing place because here the forests are primarily community forest, especially in the Hill states, in Arunachal, in Nagaland, and so community plays a big role in how do natural resources will be protected and because they’ve lived with those resources the kind of knowledge people have is incredible. They may have been hunters but those hunters, when they walk into a forest, know where the squirrel is going to eat, where the wild boar is going to cross the path, where the deer is going to be trapped… It’s the kind of knowledge which needs to be respected also. So, when we talk of conservation if we don’t use this knowledge or we don’t respect their relationship with the landscape, their relationship with the forests and rivers, how are we going to talk about conservation? So, I think, that has always been the, what you say, the trigger for our films that one has to, has to be inclusive and I am very happy to also say that the if you talk to the uh the narrative even amongst the wildlife conservationist, amongst the young filmmakers, amongst the people now working with conservation I think the narrative has moved to that. Most of the people today like, you know, and so many people like you have Aparajita, you have so many other scientists with all these people working on the ground but everybody is working with community and conservation. So, I think, that whole narrative has shifted and people are much more sensitive to the idea that conservation cannot happen without involving the community, so yes.   

Lalitha Krishnan:  Rita, you’re so right. Ok So now, I’m quoting you here, “We have this false notion that traditional hunting is fine and illegal wildlife trade is the problem…” What do you mean exactly?

Rita Banerji: I can only talk from my own experience. So when we are filming the ‘Wild Meat Trail’ we had long conversations with people we were filming with, as well as, we also saw a lot of the wild meat markets and the way the amount of wild meat which was being sold; we attended a lot of festivals, the indigenous festivals, which also involved hunting to some extent. Now some of the observations which were there were very interesting. One was that earlier, for example, if there was a traditional festival which involved hunting, for example, macaques or something in their community forest, if you speak to the older hunters, you know, they would tell you that it was right near the village like we just walked across and spent some time in the forest, got back what we wanted but now it’s not that easy because now for the younger hunters or the younger people in the community they really have to walk deep into the forests, sometimes come back with nothing, you know, so when we’re talking about sustainable hunting, if there is anything like that, then this would not have happened, right? And so, many of the forests… it was so difficult to see any wildlife not because they were dense, they were dense, but at the same time you did not see much and this we saw across different festivals… it wasn’t just one community and one festival. We saw this in different places then also during some of the interviews, say, for example, we interviewed the oldest hunter in the village and we were at that time developing our eco-club ‘Under The Canopy’ manual and we wanted to know the local names of animals and it was such a fantastic session, 2 hours we sat with this person and he told us about the behavior of each and every animal, he would identify them on the photograph, he would tell about their behavior, he would tell us where that animal was found and he would give the local name. It was like it a 2-hour lecture on wildlife and it was just stunning, you know. Then, over the next two days we met another hunter who was maybe our age that time, mid-40s mid-30s or whatever, and we were asking about bears actually and we said that you know, what about if there was a mother bear would you kill it and it was a very straightforward answer that, ”Yeah I mean we won’t have any problems killing it”, and also his knowledge about wildlife wasn’t as deep as, he hadn’t seen so many animals. Then there was this young boy who was a teenager, I think, who made lovely sounds of birds, that’s how we came across him. He would also go hunting and make these amazing sounds of birds, mimic birds and all, but he had not seen any of the mammals for example which we were showing in the book. So you can see that overtime so much has gone and these are all indigenous communities we are talking about and I think what has tipped the balance is not the… maybe earlier the difference was that you had few hunters in the village, you know, they were highly respected because of their knowledge they would have even (?) customs before they went into the forest for hunting, come back with something and when they came back with the deer or something, the whole village shared it or at least 5-6 families shared it. Overtime the wild meat started having a commercial aspect to it because people started moving to the small towns and when you move to a small town the circle officer or the person working in the town is also part of that community and it has been a big jump. It’s not like our parents or grandparents or, you know, generations back when they were farmers or something but it’s like my father maybe somebody who’s never even stepped out of the village and I’m working in a town. So the fact is if you’re eating wild meat you’ll also want to eat wild meat if you’re in the town and that demand, I think, kind of tipped the balance because then wild meat started coming into towns or quantity increased, it had a cash component. It’s almost like an ATM that you have a bird you can sell it, you get cash and I think that has increased the extent of hunting and that’s what I meant by you know from where maybe years back when it was sustainable, we cannot say it is sustainable anymore in some ways.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, thanks for explaining that. Alongside your filming, you also started a wildlife education programme which you just mentioned: ‘Under The Canopy’ and the Hoolock Gibbon Eco Club in Nagaland. Could you tell us about that?

Rita Banerji: When we were making the ‘Wild Meat Trail’, one of the key things about the film was that…see with the Whale Shark film, it was a highly impactful film. Sometimes a film alone can make a difference. You make a film, the visuals are strong and you know that you make that film and it’ll make an impact. The whale shark film is like that. You can also see the clips of, in recent times the Amur Falcon clips which were shot by Ramki, Shashank, and Bano. They made a huge impact and, you know, the Amur Falcon got protected. But ‘Wild Meat Trail’ was a film which showed a certain thing which was happening for many years and it was many communities involved, it was the wild meat market, it was a way of life, it’s not something which can just change by making a film, you know. It was a very important moment for us when we realized that the film is important, yes, and it has been viewed and people appreciate the fact that this thing was brought out but then what? And I think that is what was pushing us to think, how can we work with the community? How can we actually go back …show the film? Talk to people? Then we were fortunate to get a grant from IUCN to make an extension plan with the ‘Wild Meat Trail’ which involved education and that is something which we could do. We also had to see what is it that we could do in the community because we did not have any experience. So that’s how we got together and as an extension of the ‘Wild Meat Trail’ we created this education module called ‘Under The Canopy’ which was along with a friend of mine Payal Maloor and she has something called ‘Grow Wild’ and we worked on the manual and the idea was to have a Training the Trainers programme and so our budget allowed us to have kind of two Training the Trainers workshops. So, our idea was that we’ll do it in the village where we had shot the ‘Wild Meat Trail’ and we will do it with North East Network which is an NGO which is working in Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya. The main thing was that we wanted to do the workshop in a way where it continued beyond just doing the workshop and we didn’t know at that time whether we’ll manage, but that was one of the ideas we had. That we should partner with people who have been working here for many years. So that’s how our journey started with North East Network and us kind of had the first Training the Trainers programme with local teachers who were invited from different villages including Khonoma, Chizami. This was in Chizami, North East Network has a centre in Chizami, Nagaland and that’s where we had the first Training the Trainers programme and it was really interesting because many of the teachers were into hunting, so this whole idea of not hunting, the whole idea of looking at wildlife differently and also understanding, you know, the ecosystem through the eyes of a frog, a bird, and everything. It was a very interesting workshop and the idea was that these trainers would then take it up with children in their schools where they were teaching, it could be a Sunday school, it could be a regular school and we also showed the film. So, the good thing was that ‘Under The Canopy’, that workshop became like a catalyst and everybody really enjoyed the workshop and they said can we make it a slightly longer programme. In fact, North East Network, the NGO I work with, said “can we make it a longer programme” and that’s when we designed this whole eco-club for kids. And the idea was that we’ll take 20 kids every year and they’ll be with us for three years and different resource people would come and just make them fall in love with wildlife. That was the main idea. So yeah, that model worked really well, the wonderful resource people, Sanjay Sondhi was part of it, Payal was part of it, Maya, one of our birders, was part of it. So we kept training the local trainers also and so this eco-club programme kind of then got adopted by other groups and they took it up in other villages and yeah that’s how ‘Under The Canopy’ happened and it is still running in 1 or 2 places including the Amur Falcon village Wokha, where the Amur Falcon project is ongoing.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Rita I am so much in awe, this makes you a very unusual filmmaker, one who goes way beyond the call of just filmmaking. We haven’t even started talking about The Green Hub.  I’d love to know about this project and how a partnership between a women’s rights organisation and wildlife documentary filmmaker is empowering youth and community in the northeast states.  

Rita Banerji: Yes, Green Hub is a different project altogether. I think the interesting part is that all these have been kind of you know you move towards a certain idea and all these kind of strengthen that work on the ground. So Green Hub was an idea which I had a long time back while I was making my films, I think, one of the things I felt was that if somebody young wants to get into conservation films, it’s not an easy thing, there’s no platform in India such, unless you work with another filmmaker, right, and at the same time, I felt that the video documentation which we do is so valuable for, at multiple levels. We make, say the wild Meat Trail is just a 25 minutes film but the amount of recording we have is like hundreds of tapes. Now out of those tapes if I actually go into it and really dig out all the materials that can be useful for, at multiple levels, for researchers, for educators, for trainers. So, these are the two thoughts that would keep running in my head that how do you get youth involved with conservation films or conservation, and at the same time how do you make video documentation a more valuable asset for people working on the ground. But finally, I was able to like, I think, from the seeding of the idea till when we started, it almost took me almost 15 years when we actually ended up starting Green Hub. One of the things, when we were doing Under The Canopy, was that we felt it’s a fantastic programme we saw children’s eyes lighting up when they look through the binoculars and, you know, we saw these kids who used to hunt take a pledge of not hunting, we saw them getting influenced, influencing their parents. So it was a very interesting project but at the end of it, you felt how do you really scale up conservation. What we’re trying to do, all the groups working in conservation put us all together, the scale of what is happening against it is so large that we have to have to work together and figure out how do you scale the idea of conservation? How do you scale up the idea of protecting all whatever we have? And that’s where, I think, the Green Hub model kind of fitted in and when I wanted to start it, I wanted to start it in the northeast because I spent so much time here and I also felt that North East Network was an organization I’d worked with earlier and they work with women and they had been working for more than 20 years that time when I started working with them, you know, I felt it such a strong kind of collaboration because women are so connected to natural resources, they are core to – whether you are looking at farming, whether you’re looking at the forest, whether you’re looking at NTFPs, whether you’re looking at the wellbeing of our community- and so I felt like when we are talking about conservation, when we are talking about environment collaboration between these two thought processes would be so strong which are somewhere both grounded on compassion in some way. That’s how I spoke to Dr. Monisha Behal the founder of North East Network and I told her about this idea and I think we both connected very strongly with the vision of involving youth and conservation and women and youth would be like the strongest combination. So that’s how we started Green Hub.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is excellent!! Tell us more and also, I’d like to know how your green hub fellows and the communities are coping with COVID-19

Rita Banerji: So, what the Green Hub is, is actually a fellowship programme and it’s based in the northeast, our hub is in Tezpur, Assam and every year what we do is we select 20 fellows from across the northeast states, all the states including Sikkim. It is quite a rigorous application process, we receive applications, we go through a phone interview, then there’s a face to face interview and our primary target group is the youth from remote areas belonging to indigenous communities or marginalized communities as well as their youth from urban centers also but somewhere we’re looking at that commitment to conservation and social change in some way and we started this in 2015 and this is the 5th year now we have 88 fellows including the drop-outs and what we do is then when they join us there with us for one year and then one year the first three months is intense training and video, and photography documentation, storytelling and there are different resource people who come from across the country for teaching and while there’s a lot of attention on the technical aspect of it they also get exposure on what’s happening on the ground. So for that what do we do is we partner with several organizations working in the northeast, as well as outside and the fellows have to make a work plan with the organisations and through the year make films along with these organizations. So, what happens is that they actually, if they’re making a film on human-elephant conflict, they have to actually go on the field and see what is happening, and record it. So, the understanding somewhere through the video documentation seeps in, you know, then there is the whole process of watching the footage, editing the footage, so the whole process of making the film is what we use for them to learn about the environment and conservation. The idea is that at the end of it, either they can take this field on but also the prime idea is that can they form a network of change-makers on the ground. Many of them, many of the Green Hub fellows have gone back, they are working with the communities, on restoration, on livelihoods on making youth collectives as well as documenting a lot of things happening in the northeast. So, it’s the network of youth across which we are hoping will kind of become a changemaker kind of a movement, you can say, which helps to protect the biodiversity here. In this COVID situation, the interesting thing has been, you asked me about COVID, the interesting thing has been that after the lockdown we couldn’t continue with our fellowship for two months because it starts in May but the immediate thing was that we had to get down to relief work because they’re a lot of daily wage workers and the lockdown kind of impacted a huge amount of community. So while we were doing our relief work here with food rations, the network of fellows helped a lot because – there was Johen who works in Karbi Anglong, there is  Salibon who works in Karbi Anglong, there is another Amen who works in the Silchar district, there is Rehan who works near Guwahati. So, what happened was that the alumni, many of the alumni called us that we need to help people in and we are doing relief work. So, it became an amazing network, thanks to the fellows, where we could reach out to various parts of Assam and Arunanchal for that matter. So, if we didn’t have the network fellows, we may not have been able to reach out to so many places. So you know, COVID time, somehow, for the first time one felt less……………. All these young youth fellows are there who are actually concerned about what is happening and are there to help their community during this time. I think that was nice, what do you say, a revelation. 

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s such a positive story. And it’s so nice that they thought for themselves that they wanted to do something for their community. Ok Rita, a few more questions.  How do you to ideate? If someone were to make a wildlife film, where you ask them to start.

Rita Banerji: I think, the way we approach a story…the first thing is that there are stories all around you.  Through making an environment film or wildlife film… earlier you know, this whole thing of resources was there; cameras were expensive now all that is reduced, technology is better, so one thing is stories are all around us so one is to really observe what is happening around you. That is one but the other thing is if you want to make any stories, our approach is really to get down to researching and finding the facts and really going on the ground to understand the issues before you start making the film. I think, for anybody, it’s very important especially anybody getting into this field, it is very important because every issue is so complex, there are so many layers to it. It’s never black and white. You may see a wild meat market but it’s not just a black-and-white story of hunting and wildlife getting killed there are so many layers to it. So I think, for a good filmmaker it’s very important to really spend time learning, travelling, researching, talking to multiple people, getting their perspectives right and then getting down to making their film and pushing it to the way they feel what they link up with the most. Like, I may link up with the community and wildlife situation, somebody else may be very closely linked to telling the wildlife story, the Natural History part of it, that is also very beautiful. As long as your facts are correct, as long as you’ve researched it, I think you’ll come out with a good story. And to also work on your technical, like, when we talk about a film, this would be the first way to, the more you explore the more ideas come that is one thing, also watching a lot of other people’s films helps a lot. Even today I do that, I watch other people’s work, your mind opens up to that and the third thing is not to compromise on your technical, not the camera but the way you film, the way you edit, the way you use sound. You have to work on each aspect of the film, not just one aspect like just shooting something well it does not make a good film, or just using good sound does not make a good film. Each aspect of it has to be worked out, including the voice over, the words you use. I think it’s a very intense process but it’s a combination of all this which makes a good film. Working hard at it.

Lalitha Krishnan: What I actually mean is, youhave this idea, you have the story in your head, you desperately want to make a film but you don’t have the technical skills is it still possible to direct that movie without the skills?

Rita Banerji: Yes, absolutely! You can be a director and really get a good camera person to work with you, you have editors, you have musicians, you have freelancers all over. It’s a market where a lot of people are there and you can do that. What happens with wildlife films and environment films is that, what helped us because we ourselves were camera people and editors, you know budgets are so low with films, right. Any film, whether it is a documentary, whether it is a wildlife film, with wildlife what happens is you need to spend a lot of time in the field, so that’s why you will see most of the wildlife filmmakers are the directors themselves and are doing multiple things themselves. It’s not like, because you are so passionate about that subject, the subject needs passion, you have to be mad enough to be in this field also. So you know, where you enjoy being in the field you don’t mind spending hours and hours walking the beach or sitting in the forest getting bitten by insects… So it’s that passion also which drives a lot of wildlife filmmakers to just get that one shot and be happy with it. So that’s the only difference, I would say,  that’s why you see that you know, a lot of wildlife filmmakers, environments filmmakers are directors, camerapersons themselves but at the same time, if you’re not a technical person but you are passionate about that story, it’s absolutely possible to make it because you have people to do that for you, as long as you have the vision and the idea but you need to be with people who really relate with you, sync with you, understand what you’re saying, you know, but it is absolutely possible for a person who wants to do a story even without the technical skills.     

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so encouraging Rita, I’m going to go and write that storyboard right away. I request all my guests to share a conservation/wildlife related word or term that means something to them. Do you have one?

Rita Banerji: 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.

Rita Banerji: Thanks.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a good one. A good many.Thank you, Rita. It’s been wonderful speaking with you and so inspiring. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation podcast. You can listen to previous episodes on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple podcasts, or several other platforms. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay home, stay safe, and keep listening.

Photo courtesy Rita Banerji. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes. Birdsong by hillside residents.

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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.

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

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited).

Listen through an embedded player (scroll) or read:

Lalitha Krishnan: Hello, you’re listening to episode #10 of Heart of Conservation,  your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishna bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world.

Ok, so today I’m taking you to an island in Goa where I went looking for the smooth-coated otter, Did you know that three out of 13 otter species are found in India?

Check them out at wildlotters.com.  So what did I do there? Scat analysis for one. It isn’t as bad as it sounds but seriously only when I started disassembling scat components and saw all that fish netting did it hit me for real. Our behaviour directly impacts wildlife.

Otters are kept as pets. Can you imagine? They are a huge part of the illegal wildlife trade. I found out this and more at Wild Otters an otter-research based organisation, tucked away in a corner of Chorao island in Goa. Part of the fun was getting there on a ferry.

So what else did I do there? Between several surveys, cataloguing camera trap data, early morning bird watching and late night video editing I bonded with a bunch of like-minded folks. This podcast is a by-product of conversations I had with a few interns, volunteers,  and staff especially Ecologist & Director, Dr. Katrina Fernandez, and Director and Chief of Communications, Kshitij Garg.

Also on Spotify,  Apple podcast, SoundCloud, Google podcast, Himalaya App, Android . Otter photos and sounds in podcast/blog/social media courtesy Wild Otters.

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.

Kshitij Garg: Hi, my name is Kshitij Garg. I’m the Director and Head of Communications here at WildOtters. I essentially came in to look after some marketing and activities around which we would make this place sustainable. We are still working towards that. This is a rather challenging field I would say. It’s not the usual run-of-the-mill business model or run-of-the-mill profession. It is rather specialised. And I don’t come from a zoology, biology background. I studied physics in college, then did a bunch of things pertaining to management consulting, marketing, tried my luck at physics again, then did a bit of journalism on the side.

Katrina Fernandes: The main thing we do here is research. At the moment we have a bunch of projects running. Primarily we are trying to figure out how the smooth-coated otter is adapting to and sustaining in a human-dominated, human-modified landscape.

Also, Chorao is in the middle of a river; it’s still estuary – all mangrove and brackish water, not fresh water. We are also trying to see how those adaptations have happened over time. We’ve always thought they require fresh water sources and we are trying to figure out where that line can be drawn as well. A lot of their habitat requirements in a pristine environment are way-way different from what it is here. They are making dens on top of concrete retaining walls and all sorts of modifications you know, and adaptations to those sort of modifications which are quite interesting. So trying to understand all of that.

We do a lot of camera trapping to get behavioral data as well. There is a lot of deficit in terms of information for the species based on whatever historical data has been collected. We try to address those gaps.  We don’t know much about their reproductive cycles and things like that. For instance, historically they have always been seen to have babies after the monsoon. But in 2017, we recorded a litter in May. That is completely out of character in terms of previous research done. So we’re wondering if that’s got to do with the productivity of the place or of course mangroves have a high productivity rate in sea species compared to freshwater species. There’s always fish, there’s always something going on. So essentially that provides more stability to a species such as the smooth coated otter.

Kshitij Garg: So one thing I am very closely involved with right now is…racking my brain over is how we can develop things that are interesting to different kinds of communities – this could be schools, colleges, universities, local communities, corporates. So, we are trying to see if there’s a way…of course, you speak of it to anybody…people get extremely excited. “Hey, you’re doing something that is fascinating, so out of the ordinary” But to build an engagement with them–to build an institutional level of engagement – isn’t straightforward. And, overall, through the history of Wild Otters, we have engaged with the public primarily through education. We run workshops, we run internship programmes and volunteering programmes, small field visits. So programmes can vary from four hours to four months. But, through most of this, the core content of all of this tends to be education. And though education is important… I mean…it isn’t the core of what we do. We run research projects; we try to study animals, their behaviours, threats to them, fill in data gaps… So we work very much within the scientific community to address some of these interesting issues essentially. I’m also particularly interested in seeing if citizen science can be a part of what we do. Is there a way to connect the community and get some interesting results out of data collection. These days everyone has a smartphone. What is the next best thing we can do? How can we get everyone together…can  they tell us about their sightings, can they tell us about other interesting things they might have observed? And is there a way of everyone feeling some sense of fulfillment at the end of such activities?

Katherine Bradshaw: So hello, I’m Katherine. I’m from the UK, Lincolnshire specifically. I was originally here on my university placement year. I study wildlife conservation at the University of Kent. Having spent so much time here and have gained so much knowledge on the otter population, and the species here in Goa, I decided to extend my stay here and use camera trapping across the island to observe otter behaviour in this human-dominated landscape. So originally I was looking at comparing low human activity to high human activity. But with the island having fisherman all over it, I decided that the whole island had high human activity. So, I’m camera trapping across it and then focusing on otter behaviour looking specifically at _____ behaviour which is typically when they are alert, on edge. So if there’s a threat nearby they stand up on their hind legs, look around and observe what is going on. So, I’m looking at behaviour like that and also grooming and defecation and just focusing on whether there’s a difference across the island. For my personal project, I’m checking camera traps twice a week-three to four days. This means I’m not losing out on too much footage if the camera trap does suffer from a problem.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a fact that otter pups are born blind. But swimming lessons?

Katherine: So swimming lessons for otter pups typically come after maybe one to two months. They will primarily be based in their denning sites which they dig into the bunds located here on the island. Once the otters have been in their dens for a long enough time, like one to two months, then they’ll take them out for swimming lessons. So they’ll start taking the pups by the throat, taking them out into the water, getting them used to the environment and bringing them back. Then you can slowly watch them begin to become proper otters.

Lalitha Krishnan: Katherine, what are otter dens made of?

Katherine Bradshaw: So the dens here on the island are typically dug into the bunds which are the manmade body separating the waterbody. Typically, they’re made of earth, sand, and soil and they’re dug out just to separate the fishing pools between each one. So these are really easy for the otters to dig into. They can just use their front legs, dig out and make a nice little den with various burrows into it.  They can also use various vegetation, like grass to cover it which will protect them from various threats.

Lalitha Krishnan: So we know that the smooth-coated otters have adapted to the brackish waters of these mangrove forests. How significant are the mangroves and what’s the relationship of the otter to its habitat?

Katherine Bradshaw: So mangrove ecosystems have a variety of different factors that they bring to the environment. They provide coastal protection, a habitat to a variety of species including otters and this, in turn, creates a whole ecosystem. Mangroves are definitely essential. So you can see on the island how the mangrove ecosystem keeps growing out. You can see the seeds and the pods as you walk along, falling into the water which is extending the mangrove which will provide further benefits.

Otters are a keystone species which means they are basically essential for the environment and being an apex predator they do serve an essential role. So by them being present in an ecosystem, it’s an indicator of the ecosystem being healthy. So therefore if you have otters, then yeah, it means you have a healthy ecosystem. And through the food chain which I’m sure you’re all aware of, through that, going down each one, otters can mean fish and fish can mean various other things. So the cycle continues and continues. So if you remove a component of that cycle, that cycle will not function in the same way. So if the otters were not here then, the ecosystem would be completely different from what we have right now.

Lalitha Krishnan: Katrina, talking about community, how have they adapted to your presence here on the island? What do they think of the work you’re doing here and how are you getting them to cooperate and help you conserve the otters and their habitat?

Katrina Fernandes: It’s a very indirect approach at the moment. We’ve been here now for essentially over a year…almost two years actually. I think, the fishing communities around–which is essentially the people who have direct contact with the otters–if there was to be conflict, it would be between the fishermen and the otters. Because they do eat a certain proportion of their catch. It is the fishermen’s livelihoods at the end of the day, we don’t have some large scale commercial operations going on here. It’s all about livelihoods, it’s going to feed people’s families and stuff like that. But we don’t push ourselves on them.  They’ve seen us. They’ve seen us go about to collect the data, they know exactly who we are and they see different people coming from all over the world. And, that has somehow brought some sort of value to the island, to the fishing community… because it’s like OK, “Why are all these people so interested? There must be something here.” That’s the thought process that is sort of…I like to think, to believe that that’s why we are not seeing any direct conflict in terms of retaliatory killings or things like that. As I said, it’s a two-way street. We are all outsiders at the end of the day.  You have to make very tiny footsteps into the community and let them trust you before you start imparting all this knowledge onto them.

Yeah, now you get fishermen who see us out there and they actually give us information. “Oh, the otters are not here right now; they’ve gone to that side…we saw them this morning. There were six of them.” So you know, now they are automatically communicating.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re observing for themselves.

Katrina Fernandes: Exactly. They now know the movements. “They’re not here. They’ve not been here for weeks. Come back next month. They’ll come back.” Some of them even want to tell you why they think they’re not here. “ Oh, the fish are too young over here. They are waiting for them to get bigger.” Stuff like that. I believe in a sense if you want to get involved with the community you can’t just come into that community and try and change their minds. It’s a very slow process. For it to be a 100% workable, it needs to be very slow infiltration.

Lalitha Krishnan: Kshitij, looks like you’ll have your hands full. You’ll do incredible stuff but what next?

Kshitij Garg: ‘Experiential learning’ is a big sort of key phrase these days. One thing I would be very interested in knowing is that can we develop programmes wherein individuals don’t just come to educate themselves but are directly involved from wherever they are, in solving some wildlife-related issue. In some ways, they are actually involved in more than just seeing it on TV channels or news media about things that are happening related to wildlife. And the reason I say this is because a lot of people I meet or who write to me or write to us, want to be involved but sadly the avenues are somewhat limited. They have this sense in their heads that they have to come to a very pristine, wildlife sanctuary-type environment to even start looking at wildlife. That is in itself is so wrong because there’s such a serious dearth of even the most basic knowledge of research techniques that people don’t have. Using which, they could do a bunch of things in their own backyards and cities for that matter. We now have started to get people from across the world over here, essentially for long term internship programmes.

Shiri Lev: Hi Lalitha, My name is Sirilev, I’m from Israel. I came to India because I wanted to basically help otters live. A few months back, I went online to search my next step in life and naturally, it was going to be about animals and my favourite animal is (the) otter. So I went online and I found a lot of information about the otter pet trade that has been going on around here; around south-east Asia, especially in Japan and I started sending emails to whomsoever could shed some light on this subject.  Eventually, I contacted Kshitij and Katrina from Wild Otters. I got a few of the studies that were done by Katrina and some of her colleagues. Reading them back home, I was crying the whole time. I was very upset about this. And I decided to come here and try and learn more about otters…to learn how they live.

Kshitij Garg: Even in India, for instance, people just didn’t know about otters. Still, most of them don’t know about otters. But there is this slow and steady pace at which this knowledge is expanding. And there are a ton of other such interesting species that people just don’t know about. We run a wide variety of workshops on mammalian studies for instance. Camera trapping, using a GPS, mapping techniques to invertebrate studies. We might teach them about butterfly trapping, moth analysis, pitfall trapping. We also run a couple of workshops on jungle survival. You might want to learn about building a raft or cooking your own food. Choosing what is edible or inedible berries or filtering water. There are a plethora of things that we do. Of course, we do a lot of custom programmes based on the requirements of the university or the organisation; it could vary between say ½ a day to as much as 10 days. We are also trying to work with a couple of local schools addressing waste management solutions over here and we are also trying to see if there are ways of expanding our reach to the community. We are working with a few more organisations on and off the island doing some programmes for them in terms of sensitising the individuals that visit them towards nature.

Lalitha Krishan: So when you do your surveys on the island, what exactly are you looking for?

Katherine Bradshaw: So when we survey the island we are looking for otter activity which is typically defecation areas and spraints. So defecation-areas are where otters repeatedly visit. They spraint there so that shows that they are active within the environment and we also look for pug marks, obviously denning sites. Marks, if they have come in and out of the water, because you can see how the way the tail has dragged. It’s typically defecation areas that we spot.

Lalitha Krishnan: Katrina, I believe we have a hybrid otter since the two species of otters, the smooth-coated otter has been breeding with the small-clawed otter. Can you tell us about that?

Katrina Fernandes: That’s not happened in India that we know of as yet but hybridisation has happened in Singapore. So the entire otter population in Singapore is hybrids between the smooth-coated and the small-clawed. So it’s a genetic mixture. And yes, they’re successfully continuing the population in that fashion.

Lalitha Krishnan: (to Shiri Lev): You’re taking on Otter trade. That’s very brave of you. But what’s your plan of action. How are you going to do this alone?

Shiri Lev: Well, I mean, I can’t do anything alone. No one can. We need people around us; we need to form friendships based on either basic interests or goals or you know, some kind of drive to try and help what’s going on around us on earth today. I figured I’ll get a college degree in university. Fine. Ok, It’s great to study. But to do stuff in life we need to learn first. So I figured volunteering was a  great way to start. Just to go somewhere, to learn first hand what’s going on. From people who have dedicated their lives to that. And from that getting inspired and developing my ideas and try and help.

Lalitha Krishnan: There’s so much going on here with the otters, the research, the interns, the volunteers, the biodiversity, the community, tourists, feral dogs, garbage. There are no easy answers.

Katrina Fernandez: Even if you look at us, it’s very easy to monetise in terms of…Ok, I’ll just do a walk every morning and take six people and show them otters. But that’s contraindicative of what we’re trying to do in the first place. Because in one sentence we’re saying there is human pressure – humans are putting pressure on the habitat etc. etc…then you can’t take those numbers of people out every day causing more disturbance. That’s contradictory.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, knowingly taking them out.

Katrina Fernandes: It’s very easy to justify and say you do have to make that sacrifice to get money to actually work with the animal but we’re trying to somehow, figure out an alternative model to that which doesn’t involve taking people out there, showing them otters.

Kshitij Garg: Where we’ll go from here, I’m not exactly certain. We’re expanding into other species. We’ve already started some studies on civets and porcupines in the Mandovi ecosystem. And we are essentially now starting to look or are starting to look at the ecosystem more holistically. Most of our previous studies have focused more on otters where you do study parts of the ecosystem along with it. And I think that’s a good approach to take when you’re even looking at using all of this data …whether feeding into the local government or the forest department or anywhere where you want to make a policy level change. It’s good to look at the whole ecosystem more holistically. There’s also a thin line between being educational in a research place and then sort of venturing more into tourism space. We are consciously making an effort not to venture too much on the tourism side because that just takes away a lot of mind space and effort on our side. And that does not contribute as much to the end result as much as we would like to. We definitely hope to expand to more species, more projects, and definitely more field bases beginning with a few more spots in India. But all that is of course just wishful thinking for now and hopefully, it will happen in the future sometime.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK then, I hope you enjoyed this episode. I’m going to leave you with a new word in the usual tradition. It’s ‘spraint’. I’m going to let Katrine explain it to you as she explained it to me.

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.

Lalitha Krishnan: So bye guys, if you know somebody whose story should be told, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay tuned. FYI Heart of Conservation Podcast is available on Spotify,  Apple podcast, SoundCloud, Google podcast, Himalaya App, Android…so do tune in.

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.

Two videos several birds.

Enjoy two of my latest bird videos.

The Collared Owlet – Asia’s smallest owl is a hillside resident. You see the collar when it hoots. I think it’s looking for a mate even though it’s being hassled by the rufous sibia and smaller birds of the foraging flock. if you listen carefully you can hear another owlet in the background just before the featured owlet flies off to investigate.
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More about me.I live in the Indian Himalaya, in a small town called Landour which is a sort of paradise for birding and wildlife photography. Most of my videos are short and local.
You can also follow me on https://www.instagram.com/lalithainsta
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The collared owlet.


Birds of northeast India

The exotic states of Northeast India are yet to be explored completely; several species of wildlife are yet to be discovered. Here are some the few birds I was lucky to spot in wintery environs of Arunachal and the tropical heat of Assam a few Decembers ago. If you recognize some of the birds do add in the comments. I will update my own list soon. All photos are taken by me. Subscribe/follow me on YouTube, lalithainsta(Instagram), HeartofConservation Podcast, and https://earthymatters.blog/
Music: ‘Natural’ via YouTube https://r5—sn-qxa7snel.googlevideo.com/videoplayback?

Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Ep#8 of Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan, bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for interesting interviews and exciting stories that keep you connected to our natural world. 

Listen on SoundCloud, Google podcast, iTunes or Spotify.

My guest today Sanjay Sondhi, is a man responsible for discovering a new species – the Bompu Litter Frog. This frog discovered by Sanjay was previously unknown to science. Sanjay is well known for his expertise on moths and butterflies and conducts workshops for the same. His nature column, Doon watch, in Hindustan Times and a column called Urban Nature Watch published in TERI’s monthly magazine are both very popular reads. He has researched and authored an impressive number of field guides on butterflies, lizards, and amphibians,  and is involved in conservation and livelihood projects in the western and eastern Himalaya.

Sanjay is a trustee with the Titli Trust. He is an IIT grad with 20 + years in the corporate world. Now, he’s dedicating his time to the natural world as a full time practicing conservationist. I spoke to him over Skype.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast Sanjay. I’m so thrilled to be talking to you today.

Sanjay Sondhi: Likewise*

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay when did you decide you’ve had enough of the corporate world and decided to take the road less travelled?

Sanjay Sondhi: Lalitha, in my case, actually, I had taken this decision quite some time ago. In fact, while I was doing my engineering from IIT, Kanpur, midway through my engineering I decided that I wanted to look at a different career and not necessarily engineering. But I finished my engineering; I got my degree, then I spend two years evaluating options for a full-time career in wildlife. At that point in time, virtually the only option that seemed to be viable was getting into the Indian forest service—there were very few active NGOs at that point in time—or doing research in places like Wildlife Institute of India. I spent two years trying to figure out if I wanted to do that, you know. I came to the conclusion, that I would not lie to be in government service and I wanted to be “a free bird” while I was doing what I was passionate about. Then I took the decision that I am going to continue to work… that I enjoyed my work – it’s not that I did not enjoy my work— early 40s I am going to quit and spend half my life in the corporate world and the second half doing conservation. That’s effectively what I did. Early 40s I called it a day and now I’m doing this full time

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re very brave, I must say. This decision – have you been happy with it?

Sanjay Sondhi: Yeah, it’s now been 10 years. I quit in 2008.  Absolutely no regrets. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. Absolutely.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay you were in Pune earlier. What brought you to Doon?

Sanjay Sondhi: In my last job, I was based in Pune but my wife, Anchal, who is an environmentalist and is also very passionate about nature… both of us felt we didn’t want to live in the big cities. We said, “let’s get out of these “urban landscapes.” Both our parents’ live in Delhi and surrounding areas. Obviously, both of us had a very strong link and passion with the Himalayas and Dehradun seemed like a good place because my son was still in school so I had to educate him. So from a point of view of proximity to the hills, great wildlife, compared to the big urban cities, we choose Dehradun. But we have no links otherwise to Dehradun. We just said, “OK, let’s go to Dehradun.”

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s true. It’s close enough to escape and close enough to go back to the bigger cities if you want to. OK, Sanjay. You conduct workshops on butterflies and moths regularly. I love the fact that you’re doing this locally. Especially, for all of us who are here. It’s a great opportunity to learn about our natural wealth. When did you start this?

Sanjay Sondhi: I am not a trained scientist. My love affair with nature began when I was a young child. My grandparents had a home in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and I think from the age of three or four, I used to spend every summer-spend 21/2 months in Dalhousie. Basically,  wandering the wild. Wander all over the forest and stuff like that. But my formal introduction into wildlife, creatures, species…actually happened in a nature club in IIT Kanpur.

I started off with an interest in birds. I did bird watching for a period of time. Then I got into butterflies, snakes, lizards, frogs…everything that moved, effectively. So butterflies and moths were somewhere along this journey. Butterflies started earlier and moths came later. But I also like studying things that aren’t well studied. Lesser know fauna is of greater interest to me than mammals and large wildlife. That’s why I pursued this line.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. What’s the best season in the Doon valley or Uttarakhand to go butterflies watching?

Sanjay Sondhi: If you talk of the Doon valley, if you talk of lower altitudes— and when I say lower altitudes I mean less than a 1000mtrs—then, there are two peaks of activity. One is the summers or the pre-monsoon: April-June and the other is post- monsoon which is Sept-November. This is the Doon valley. If you come higher up…if you come to Mussoorie for e.g., the peak activity season is April, May, and June. Post monsoon, it becomes too cold and the number of species decreases significantly.

Lalitha Krishnan: Does Uttarakhand have any signature species that we should be looking out for? Or were they there and not there anymore?

Sanjay Sondhi: You know, I wrote this book on Butterflies of Uttarakhand. The book has exactly 500 species. Interestingly, out of those 500 species, about 62 species have not been recorded in Uttarakhand for 50 years or more.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s unbelievable. I mean, that’s a large number of species…

Sanjay Sondhi: You know, almost, I would say, 15% of those species were seen at some point in time in the last century and a half but aren’t seen now. The reasons are obvious you know: habit degradation, unbridled development, climate change…

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to ask you about that. We keep learning people saying that butterflies are indicators of climate change or the state of their habitats? Yeah, tell us?

Sanjay Sondhi: You’re right. In fact, butterflies are a really good, bio-indicator- indicator of the health of the ecosystem. The reason it is so is that like most other insects, butterflies are first, cold-blooded. They are very sensitive to ambient conditions, which is temperature and humidity. And the butterfly life cycle which is from egg to larva, to pupae to the adult butterfly—the early stages which are the caterpillars—they are also very selective. You have butterfly species where the caterpillars can be either monophagous or oligophagous or polyphagous. Which means that there are some species which will only feed on a single plant species. That’s called monophagous. There are some that will feed on a small selection, which is oligophagous. And then, there are some that are generalists and can feed on a variety of plants. Effectively, if you are cutting down a forest and plant species are disappearing and plant diversity is reducing, it’s going to have a very, very direct impact on butterfly diversity. So if you have habitat destruction and if you have climate change impacting plants, then it has a very direct link and impacts both the diversity as well as the density of butterflies.

Lalitha Krishnan: We need to spread the word about that.

Sanjay Sondhi: In fact, one of the things I often get very upset about is…we hear of deforestation happening in the name of development everywhere and the solutions that the powers-to-be propose is that we’ll plant trees elsewhere to compensate for biodiversity…

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes…

Sanjay Sondhi: Which is ridiculous right? If you plant trees all you will have is monoculture plantations. And monoculture plantations do nothing for biodiversity. Monoculture plantations from a biodiversity point are detrimental to the health of an ecosystem.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess, one thing you could do locally is to encourage people to grow plants…at least have butterfly gardens.

Sanjay Sondhi: Not only grow plants…I do this all the time…not only grow plants, I tell them to grow plants that are native.

Lalitha Krishnan: Native, that’s what I mean. OK. Everyone in the conservation field in the northeast states knows you? Tell us about your work over there?

Sanjay Sondhi: So, basically if you look at India, there are two biodiversity hotspots. One is the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats. In the Himalayan region, people also look at, what is called the Indo-Malayan region which is the hills of north-east India. That part of the country has got the most number of birds, the most number of butterflies, the most number of virtually, every faunal group.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I went to Arunachal and I was blown away, I have never seen forests like that.

Sanjay Sondhi: So I decided very early, I wanted to spend some time there. Over the last decade or so, I have been making four-five trips a year to Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland primarily. In most of the places, what I do is I select or prioritize a habitat or landscape that I want to work in. I do biodiversity assessments in that area and using the information from these biodiversity assessments, we work with local communities on a conservation and livelihood programmes where we tell the locals, “You should be conserving your natural resources. You conserve your natural resources and we’ll help you earn an alternate livelihood that is sustainable. Which is, largely, nature-linked tourism”. So I’ve been doing this in the Garo Hills, in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and few other locations in Nagaland, as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: You must be at home there now and know every natural habitat.

Sanjay Sondhi: I have many city folks asking me, “Is it safe?” I tell them, “Look I made 60 visits in the last decade and nothing ever happened to me. So, it’s really quite safe.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do they think is unsafe? I don’t get it. The air in Delhi is not safe…

Sanjay Sondhi: It’s incredible. The questions I get asked! I don’t know how to respond.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s funny. Sanjay you’ve made such a huge discovery. Tell us about it. Were you looking for frogs in particular when you discovered the Bombu Litter frog?

Sanjay Sondhi:  Oh no. Absolutely not. I did a five-year assessment of butterflies and moths. It was a project that I was doing across, what is called,  the Kameng Protected Area Complex. This is basically a 4000sq k.m. area which was from Pakke Tiger Reserve all the way to Eaglenest including Sessa Orchid Wildlife Sanctuary. So during one of these visits, while I was studying butterflies and moths, I was in a place called Bombu and for 4 days in a row, it just rained. It used to rain day and night. So if it’s raining you know, there’s no activity of butterflies and there are very limited moths as well. So the only other thing, I could do is look for frogs. So, that’s what I did. I went out at night looking for frogs to photograph and I found this particular frog which had blue-eyes. I had never heard of a blue-eyed frog from India before. I photographed it and I wondered if it is something new. Fortunately, we had collected permits so I collected just one specimen but I took readings and records of numerous other individuals that I found there. And when I came back to Dehradun and started investigating, I found out that the frog genus was called Leptobrachium and there are just two species of that genus known from India. The, I had to look at all the other species that are known from the rest of the oriental region, viz China, Philippines, Vietnam and stuff like that. And sure enough, it turned out to be a new species. So I collaborated with a French-scientist called Ann Mary Oler and together we published this paper describing it as a new species in India and of the world of course.

Lalitha Krishnan: Such an incredible thing. Amazing, really. I don’t know anyone else who has discovered something new. So tell me, were they vocal? The frogs? You said you went out…did you hear them, did you know where to look? How does one go out looking for frogs in the night?  I have never done that before. Sorry if I sound ignorant.

Sanjay Sondhi: Actually, there are two ways to search for frogs. One is, obviously, if you’re there and they’re breeding the males will be calling. In this particular case, this male was calling. But, it was hidden in the leaf litter. It took me almost 20 minutes to find it. I could hear the call but I could see the frog. Then, of course, I had to hunt for it and I did eventually find it. And of course, the second way to look for frogs is through eyeshine. So, if you actually shine a torch at a frog, their eyes shine and hence you can locate them. But this frog was located because of its call.

Lalitha Krishnan: It was calling to be discovered. Sanjay is it true that if you discover a new species you have the right to name it or have I got it wrong?

Sanjay Sondhi: Yes, it’s correct. If you find a new species, you do get to name it but you can’t name it after yourself. OK? That’s part of the rules. There’s an international body, which is called ICZN, which International Convention for Zoological Nomenclature and they have their rules in terms of what you can do and can’t do.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Sanjay Sondhi: You can’t name it after yourself and what I decided is that I wanted to name it after the locality that it was found in.

Lalitha Krishnan: That makes sense.

Sanjay Sondhi:  Yeah, so the locals take pride…saying, “wow” you know? Bompu is the location where it was found and I named it after that locality. And hence, it’s called the Bompu Litter Frog.

Lalitha Krishnan: What does your discovery mean for science?S

Sanjay Sondhi: Well, the fact is that it just continues to showcase and indicate that there are so many species, we are still to discover.  And instead of going out and finding out what else is out there, you know with habitat loss, we are losing species at a rate that is incredible. You keep hearing numbers being touted by (I)UCN about the fact that 30% – in the case of amphibians, they believe 30% of global species will be extinct in the next decade. It just reinforces the fact that………………(lost in Skype transmission).  We can only do that if we protect our habitats and ecosystems.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. How were your efforts recognized? Do you think this has helped you further your conservation efforts?

Sanjay Sondhi: I think so. I think that the Eaglenest landscape per se, you know–a friend of mine, Ramana Athreya had discovered a new bird species called Bugun liocichla. Subsequent to that,t I discovered this frog. And, subsequent to that, we have not discovered new species, but we’ve had numerous records of butterflies and moths which were extremely rare and new records for India. And all of this has helped in multiple ways. Number one, it has highlighted the conservation importance of that landscape. Number two, it has made the local folks realize that this is a landscape that needs to be protected. Number three; it has given a boost to tourism. I mean there are two tribes in Eaglenest. The Sherdukpen tribe and the  Bugun tribe who are running community-based and eco-tourism based projects and are earning a livelihood from it. Now, the livelihood has become so important that the Bugun tribe has actually donated a large tract of community land to make a community conservation reserve, where some of these species reside. It has helped even the locals realize the importance of their own lands.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK Sanjay, do you mind sharing a conservation word/term that’s significant for you. It could be anything.

Sanjay Sondhi: OK. 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.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Thank you very much, Sanjay. Count me in for your next workshop which is in May, right?.

Sanjay Sondhi:  Thanks Lalitha. The Devalsari Titli Utsav- (we) just announced the dates. 9-12 May. Thanks.

Lalitha Krishnan: You can read more about Sanjay Sondhi on the http://www.titlitrust.org. Hope you’re enjoying the conservations about conservation. I would love some feedback. If you know someone who’s doing some interesting work or whose work should be showcased, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. And stay tuned for news view and updates from the world of conservation by subscribing to Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya.

*Apologies to Sanjay for not hearing the response during the recording.

Photos: courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Birdsong by hillside residents


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