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

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

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

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


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

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

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

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

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

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lisa Mills: Thank you this is exciting.


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


Lalitha Krishnan: That really sounds encouraging.

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: It happens.


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

Cara Tejpal: Eco Warrior Ep#9

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Ep#9 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. 

My guest today is Sanctuary’s  ‘Young Naturalist of 2012’ winner, Eco-warrior  Cara Tejpal. She describes herself as conservation generalist, who lends her skills to help confront the gamut of conservation challenges in India. She writes, fundraises, works on policy documents and develops campaigns under the umbrella of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, while also heading their unique Mud on Boots Project. As an independent writer, her articles on wildlife have appeared in publications such as Outlook, Sanctuary Asia, Scroll, Conde Nast Traveller and National Herald. I interviewed Cara over Skype. 

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Lalitha Krishnan: Hi Cara. A big welcome to you Cara on Heart of Conservation Podcast. It’s so refreshing to talk to a young, inspiring eco- achiever as yourself. So thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Cara Tejpal: Thanks Lalitha. I am happy to be on with you too.

Lalitha Krishnan: Cara could you first tell us about the Mud on Boots project. How does it work?

Cara Tejpal: OK.  So, the Mud on Boots Project is essentially an empowerment programme for grassroots conservation. Now, historically there continues to be a lot of scope for wildlife researchers, wildlife lawyers, wildlife journalists… But when it comes to grassroots conservationists, those individuals working in the fields, who may not be very well educated or who may not speak English or have access to technology, they are very seldom recognized for their contribution to conservation. So, that’s how the Mud on Boots Project developed. It’s a two-year programme. We select individuals from across the country based on a closed nomination process. Which means we have a number of experts within Sanctuary’s network who nominate people to us. Once they’re selected, over a two-year period, we give them a small grant and depending on their conservation cause/call –it could be a species or a landscape or any other issue, we customize our support to them.

Lalitha Krishnan:  How do you coordinate and monitor these projects?

Cara Tejpal: We absolutely work alongside each of our project leaders through these two years that we are supporting them and giving them the grant. It’s interesting because a lot of these individuals cannot meet the kind of corporate regulations and formats that a lot of conservation organizations demand. We have a much more flexible system. So, our project leaders can talk to us over Facetime, they can WhatsApp us information, they can send us a voice note, those who have emails will email us. Some of them don’t speak Hindi, or English or Marathi, which are the languages me and my team speak, so they have a contact person who acts as a go between. Through the two-year period, we are constantly in touch with them are finding out what’s happening on the ground. We go on field visits and they continue to update us and ask for support as and when they need it.

Lalitha Krishnan:  You’re been visiting people in remote areas.  Does anything stand out for you from that experience?

Cara Tejpal: What really strikes me every time I go on a field visit especially to locations is that conservation is impossible in a vacuum. Conservation exists alongside a million and one other social issues in this country. And therefore, you need to take a holistic approach to any issue. And by that I mean, in December, my project coordinator and I, we travelled to two wildlife parks, one in Rajasthan and the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary in U.P. In both states, the levels of illiteracy are very high, they are very patriarchal, and only when you are in these settings you can understand how these factors affect conservation implementations and solutions. I really think that is my big takeaway from my travels over the past decade across this country – that conservation cannot exist without community.

Lalitha Krishnan: Seeing that do you think the Mud On Boots project is too short and should be longer than two years?

Cara Tejpal: Oh, I hear you. Actually, this is a question, I get asked quite often. Most of these issues are long-term issues of course. I think there are two ways in which I look at this. One is that we are a booster-programme. We are giving someone—who would anyway be doing this work—an opportunity to expand their work, an opportunity to build capacity, the expertise and network that an organization like Sanctuary has – which otherwise would be unattainable. And towards the last six months of each project term we kind of start finding ways for our project leaders to embed themselves further into the conservation community that may not have been accessible to them.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds encouraging and promising, and probably gives them a lot of confidence.

Cara Tejpal: I want to talk a little about capacity building. You know, of course. the monetary aspect of the project is very important. It gives our project leaders a kind of breather…they can breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to be struggling for funds and pursuing jobs that have nothing to do with their passions… But at the same time, another aspect we’ve realized is so crucial is capacity building. For a long of our project leaders, they’ve never left their hometowns or their home districts or villages. And so, they do not have a broader idea of the conservation scape of India. So to be able to either bring an expert from outside to them or take them for a field experience in another state say, but on a similar issue, is really important and it has proved and is proving to be quite exceptional in their growth.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m sure it is. Now let’s talk about the campaign to protect the Great Indian Bustard, Rajasthan’s state bird. The GIB is going extinct right before our very eyes. From what I’ve read there are less than 150 birds in India. Its decline has been attributed to the loss of grasslands, a low genetic diversity, and its narrow field of vision, which is why they keep crashing into power lines and wind turbines. So, tell us about this collaborative campaign to save this poor bird? We really need some positive stories now.

Cara Tejpal: You know, the funny thing is we, collectively as a nation, have known that the GIB is going extinct over the past 40 years. It’s not something new. The alarm bells have been ringing for a long time. Scientists and conservationists have been calling for help. The problem is that the GIB is not a sexy animal. It’s not a tiger; it’s not an elephant. It doesn’t have the charisma of a lot of our megafauna and subsequently, there is very little public support and political will to save it. So, this campaign is simply being projected out into the larger world, by us, at Sanctuary, but it is based on the work of dozens of scientists and conservationists, who have been protecting this species; and because of whom, the species is still alive today.

The most immediate threat to the Great Indian Bustard is the overhead power lines, which are crisscrossing their grassland habitats. The birds are flying into these overhead power lines and dying. Now, these power lines stretch across very large areas so you can’t have an actual count of the number of (bird) deaths. But the Wildlife Institute of India has extrapolated a number from the surveys that they’ve been conducting. And they’re saying up to 15 Great Indian Bustards are dying by power line collision every year. When you are looking at a species that has a global population of fewer than 150 individuals, losing 15 a year to such an unnatural cause is devastating. And at this rate, we are looking at extinction in the very, very near future.

Lalitha Krishnan: So could you elaborate some more on your campaign?

Cara Tejpal: So, we’ve launched this campaign in collaboration with the Corbett Foundation which is doing fantastic work with the Great Indian Bustard habitat in Gujarat, in the Kutch region and with Conservation India which is a Bangalore based conservation portal with very …effective campaigns. The thrust of the campaign right now is to get enough publicity and put enough pressure on the powers that be to enact solutions for the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard.

I think what is very important to highlight is that solutions to save the species exist. What is missing entirely in all these years has been political will and cooperation. So, we have a Wildlife Institute of Indian scientist telling us that the riskiest power lines in the Great Indian Bustard habitat need to be put underground, and the rest should be fitted with bird diverters. And that this first step can give the species a few more years during which you can do habitat protection, habitat…you know…I don’t want to say upliftment but enhancement. You can give the GIB better protection. The other thing that has been pending for years now is the development of a captive breeding centre for the GIB. The middle east has been very successful in breeding a similar Bustard species and repopulating them in the wild. There’s no reason why India cannot do this too. Especially when you’re looking at a bird whose numbers are so, so critically low.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sorry, I didn’t get you. Which country (in the Middle East) has started a breeding programme?

Cara Tejpal: Talks have been on for ages, in India, to set up this captive breeding programme. I think it’s the U.A.E. that has set up the Houbara bustard, breeding programme. It’s been very successful and they ’ve released dozens and dozens, 1000s even, back into the wild.

Lalitha Krishnan: Having worked on these campaigns, what social media tools do you think are best employed to capture an audience or prompt an immediate response?

Cara Tejpal: It’s such a tragedy that India is such an ecologically illiterate nation. We have such stunning biodiversity but the truth is most people know anything about it. And what social media has done is made stories and images and news from wild spaces, accessible to the larger public.

So Sanctuary itself has a huge social media presence with over a million followers on Facebook, 50,000 on Instagram, above 25,000 on twitter. I’m personally on Instagram. That’s definitely a channel I use for both fundraising and awareness.

Lalitha Krishnan: O.K. Now with social media, do you think the younger generation is more aware or do they not care?

Cara Tejpal: I definitely think that those who do care or are inclined towards nature and wildlife are able to find conservation much more accessible through social media. But that being said, social media is so noisy you know? For every one person talking about wildlife, there are 2000 fashion bloggers who are getting much more attention. I think it definitely falls upon conservationists to communicate much better. I think that something we have been failing for a long time. And, I am seeing now with my own generation, a lot of researchers and conservationists, and project managers kind of using social media to talk about wildlife issues.

I’d like to add that social media has also made citizens science so much easier. I know there’s something like the ‘Wild Canids’ project where individuals from across India are encouraged to record their wild canine sightings on a website so that one can look at this data and see vulnerable spots etcetera And to be able to get this out to a much larger audience and group of people, social media has been undeniably helpful.

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright. You’ve been a busy eco-warrior. Carawhere do you see yourself, say five to ten years from now?

Cara Tejpal: Oh wow, I have no idea. Hopefully in five–ten years the Mud on Boots project has enabled and connected a massive, massive group of grassroots conservationists at the table alongside policy makers, researchers, journalists, and lawyers so that when we’re making decisions about wildlife conservation we have representatives from the community involved.

Lalitha Krishnan: I definitely hope all of that happens. I wish you all the best. Now could you tell me about Sanctuary’s Community based rewilding project?

Cara Tejpal: This is, you know, kind of the brainchild of Bittu Saighal who is the founders of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and the editor of Sanctuary Asia. It’s a project called COCOON, which stands for Community Owned Community Operated Nature Conservancy. The idea is for rewilding to be beneficial to people. There’s a pilot project underway in Maharashtra where farm owners of failing farmlands have come together. pooled in their farmlands and stopped cultivating. These collective farmlands are now being re-wilded. They are being left alone for a three year period during which time the farmers are receiving a crop guarantee – that’s money to compensate them for not farming. They have formed a cooperative and in the future, we are looking at very low-impact ecotourism in these areas with the benefits going towards the farm owners and the community. We are looking at protected areas outside of government designated protected areas but which are owned by the community. So land ownership never changes.

Lalitha Krishnan:  So they were actually willing to do this? Or is a portion of the land retained for farming?

Cara Tejpal: Farm owners have completely pooled their lands together and allowed it to rewild. It has also involved years of incredible community outreach by conservationists on the ground, such as my colleague Rohit _________. It has involved co-operation and collaboration from village leaders and elders and the gram panchayat. Of course, it hasn’t been easy. But at this point, I think, everyone is seeing the long-term benefits of such a project.

Lalitha Krishnan: I think getting farmers involved in conservation is wonderful. So, have you had any poignant moments? Is there something else you’d like to share with us?

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Conservation optimism is the need of the hour. So I couldn’t agree more. I am going to end by asking you what I ask all my guests; that is to share a conservation-related word or concept that’s inspiring for you or significant for you. So, do you have one that you’d like to share with us?

Cara Tejpal: I have so many. I’m trying to think which one I should talk about. I think ‘rewilding’ is a word I love because it’s a word that is full of hope. It’s a word that can be used not just for land and habitat but animals. I think it’s people who really, really need to be rewilded. In an urban context collectively we have lost so much of our empathy and compassion, and understanding that as humans we are not apart from nature but we are a part of nature… It’s a sense of awe and returning home. That’s why rewilding really resonates with me.

Lalitha Krishnan:Rewilding’ really is a lovely word but you also gave me ‘conservation optimism’. So thank you so much, Cara. It’s been wonderful talking to you.

Cara Tejpal: Thank you Lalitha. This has been great.

Lalitha Krishnan: 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.

Photo used on cover courtesy, Cara Tejpal

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

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

Ajay Rastogi #HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Podcast . Also on iTunes and Spotify

Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi, you’re listening to Episode #7 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 the natural world.

My guest today is Ajay Rastogi, He is the Co-founder & Director of the Vrikshalaya Himalayan Centre in the Majkhali a village fringing Ranikhet in the Kumaon part of Uttarakhand, India. Ajay is the one responsible for introducing the term nature contemplation to me. He is an applied ethics practitioner, philosopher and a yoga instructor I can vouch for.

Ajay studied agriculture and environmental science at Pantnagar University. He’s a recipient of the South Asia Youth Leaders Award, European Union Erasmus Mundus Fellowship in Applied Ethics, and the Nehru-Fulbright Environmental Leadership Award for Contemplative Education.

He has been invited to conduct workshops world over and has spoken at several forums including Fortune 500 events. His work has been also been translated and published in Spanish. (La Contemplacion De La Naturaleza).

Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast.

Ajay Rastogi: Thank you so much Lalitha. It’s indeed a delight to meet you. I’ve known you as a friend for so many years. I’m happy to join your podcast.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re so welcome. Ajay, you so do so many wonderful things but what do you call yourself professionally these days.

Ajay Rastogi: What I call myself is just a teacher now…and a mentor because I am working with a lot of young people and I find that young people are only motivated if they see (you) leading by example. So I think from a conservationist to an ethicist to yoga teacher, I think now, I don’t want any prefixes or suffixes. I just want to be a simple mentor or a teacher.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay I remember you were into nature contemplation. That was a long time back. Are you still doing that?

Ajay Rastogi: Very much. In fact, we are getting a little deeper as time goes by and learning many more things.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is nature contemplation? Is it the same as soaking in nature? How is it different from just enjoying nature or forest bathing? What is it specifically? Could you define it for us please?


Ajay Rastogi: I think you have, right in the beginning of the conversation asked the question, which is important. See, the thing is, that we are driven by the rational mind. And, even if the rational mind calms down to a level of tranquility, through forest bathing or anything else, it is still the rational mind. Now the fact is that now, the whole science is kind of talking that this can relax you. Because, it can put your internal physiology in order. There’s something called the deeper trigger of physiological relaxation which can happen when the mind calms down. And all these things are excellent. Nature is definitely very healing on that account.

Where the mindfulness…the contemplative bit comes into the picture is that we are trying to say this is where we are trying to mix the east with the latest neuroscience, is that somehow we need to somehow transcend the the mind. And then you connect very deeply with yourself. That’s where the contemplative aspects are. While forest bathing if you get lost, and you forget this whole sense of mind, then, that is the contemplative way of being in the forest or connecting with nature. But if you are still trying to observe, or still making your checklist or you’re still trying to imbibe—which is all very beautiful, all very healing—but it is not transcending. I’ll be happy to explain more.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what I understand is that if you’re very conscious of what you’re doing while you’re observing nature or making your checklist then you’re not actually transcending. Am I right?

Ajay Rastogi: The conscious is the universal consciousness. The tree has a consciousness. The bird also has a consciousness. The rock also has a consciousness. I also have a consciousness and I am part of that universal consciousness. The rational mind is not willing to accept. The thing is, I still view that I am a subject (and that) I am viewing some object. The rock, the bird, the tree, the bark. I am observing, I am interacting of course, but then I am different. This is a subject, I am the object and I am viewing it…whether I am viewing it with my ears, nose…mean all senses…eyes, but I cannot feel that I am part of the same consciousness with the rational mind. It’s only when I go beyond, that I feel that I am part of the universal consciousness. That’s what important. It’s important because it connects us with the very root of our being on earth. You know this thing about five elements of panch thatva… Kabir and everybody has said it but how do you actually feel it? Watch your third eye or watch your breath? It’s sometimes very abstract. With nature, nature automatically does it. It’s our mother. We have been born in nature. If you look at our evolutionary pathway we are definitely a product of nature. We are biological organisms. We tend to forget (that) because of our intellect. As Joana Macy , one of the very famous mindfulness teacher in nature—She says that, “Often we feel, that we are a brain at the end of a stick.” We often fail to feel our somatic awareness, our emotional awareness…most often get into our intellect stuff. It happens in our daily lives you know. You’re in an office situation, you’re dealing with an issue, you’re only applying the intellect. But I’m not just that. I’m a biological organism. My emotions are equally important. My somatic awareness is equally important. So we are talking of the critical awareness. Critical awareness can only happen if we somehow not be under the influence of the brain all the time. I have to give myself, my body, my feelings, my internal depth a time to connect with my own self.

Lalitha Krishnan: Tell me Ajay, how much time do you need to connect with your whole self? After all you don’t exist by yourself. You exist in an office or a queue. You exist in community. So to deal with other “intellects” of the world, who don’t meditate or contemplate nature, how much time do you need to do what you’re doing without being an isolated person or alien who can actually look within but practically does not know how to deal with the real..the rest of the world.

Ajay Rastogi: Beautiful. If I say that you need maybe 25 minutes a day…just like every other practice. You know that something may have happened 20 years ago between you and me. And I suddenly meet you on the roadside. Do you remember what happened 20 years ago? Often you will. And that will colour the way we will meet. Whereas you may have forgiven me in 20 years. While I may have realized in 20 years. We may both be different individuals at the moment but when we meet, we are still carrying that intellectual baggage. That’s the idea of transcending. The idea of transcending is not , kind of, get in your cocoon. It’s the idea of universal consciousness. That’s the idea -that I am meeting you, I am meeting you now, I’m meeting you now, afresh.

Let’s say a colleague of mine had not responded to an email and I am his supervisor. In the morning, I am furious because there’s another reminder. I still have to point it out to my colleague. But if I don’t have any baggage, we talk and we talk now. And maybe that’s more motivating. That’s what we call ‘Authentic leadership’. Authentic leadership is about now. Because, most disputes in the workplace take place either because of egos.. relationships are spoilt because of peripheral things. We all work in offices with people. 90% of issues have to do with peripheral things not the content we are working with. We question how you talk, or we question, “Did you actually mean that?” We are trying to keep a little distance from that judgmental mind. I would once again, come back to the evolutionary pathway. The reason Lalitha, why we are suffering so much…see, we have never had a better time in this world, at least for 5% of the population. We have all the gadgets, we have all the comforts, we have all the money, we have all the resources. But still we are suffering with a lot of anxiety issues, we are suffering in our relationships. It has come because of all our fearfulness. Where is this fear coming from -inside? When everything is going good where is the fear (coming from)? The root of the fear is in our biology. What is happening is because of our flight and fight that we have evolved now there are so many things to judge—we were never so judgmental. I would recommend a beautiful book by the University of Stanford, Why Zebras have no ulcers?

Lalitha Krishnan:: Don’t they get ulcers?

Ajay Rastogi: Maybe a few, but not like us. The hospitals are full of patients and patients of that class who have everything going for them. If you go a hospital for a visit, you spend 5000 rupees. That means you’re already in that class and you’re paying for your illnesses instead of enjoying a more beautiful life. What I’m talking about is prevention. How do we prevent that level of insecurity, that level of fearfulness? I was talking of zebras. Let’s say a herd of zebras is going and a lion attacks. It’s a matter of moments. The rest of the day the zebras are peaceful. One zebra is gone. The rest are moving. It’s not a big deal of worrying all the time. Now imagine ourselves in an office situation going from home. You meet the traffic all the time, you meet the gateman, then you meet the boss, your colleagues. Every time you have to take a judgment call. All the time, you’re worked up. This working up is not coping up with our evolutionary pathway. You are not designed as a biological organism to be able to do that 24×7. That’s why we say we need to get away from this whole judgment thing. That can only happen by transcending the mind. Because if the mind is involved it is already taking some decisions for you. That’s why we are talking about 25 min. of going beyond.

Lalitha Krishnan:: Ajay are you saying this can only happen in nature?

Ajay Rastogi: I am not saying this can only happen in nature. This is ancient technology yaar. 5000-10000 years of wisdom (from) Buddha, and everybody else. I was in Sarajevo and we (visited) a shrine of a saint. They were doing it (contemplation) with a waterfall…and many people from Nanak…. everybody does it…all the prophets, you know, have done it I think.

The reason I’m talking about nature is that nature creates a multi sensuous experience in a particular direction. In the 8 fold path of yoga—I’m once again coming back to east because I’m trying to mix it with neuroscience—you know they’re coming together. They’re coming together very, very quickly. We’re putting, you know the 8 fold path -yama, niyama, asana, pranayam,dharana & Samadhi. The step of the dharana is when you can, over a longer period, focus on one particular aspect, one particular thing. That’s what nature does by itself. All the senses are involved in the same direction. My feeling is that we have tried to recreate it in our religious places of worship. We light incense. We have a big statue, which is larger than life. We are ringing a bell. We are lighting a lamp. We are trying to put all the senses in that particular direction. Nature automatically does it so it is very helpful. It is in our internal nature to feel safe. But it cannot happen deep in a forest. It cannot happen in a tiger or elephant territory or core areas. It can happen where you feel secure. There has been a lot of work done by psychologists and neurologists that I can point out. On our website: foundnature.org you’ll find a lot of references. Last year’s Noble prize (2017) in medical physiology is related to biological rhythm, connect with internal and external nature. So, contemplation is very state of the art now.

Why I feel very fortunate in India, we have a big tradition of this knowledge: of wisdom from the traditions and yoga, and other things and I feel fortunate enough as a Fulbright to interact with the best in the world on the scientific aspect. That’s why life is so beautiful in the sense I am very deeply into nature contemplation. A university in the US is offering a three-credit course on various aspects of nature contemplation, which we ran last year. I was there again and part of the course we are doing there, a part of the course over here.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay you’re teaching in the east as well as the west. What is the response you’re getting?

Ajay Rastogi: You used the word ‘practical’ which I really love as to, “what is the use to me?” Practically, how does it help me? See, how do we learn? We learn either the cognitive ways, which means we read and write or you learn by experience. We join mother in the kitchen or join Lalitha in her beautiful kitchen and learn how to cook…huh? Or you learn intuitively as well. As a woman, you will not undermine the value of intuition?Lalitha Krishnan: Certainly not.

Ajay Rastogi: OK? So what is the biggest force? Once you get a feeling from inside it’s almost like a truth. You don’t question that. So, the reason why we are unable to transform the world into a more sustainable society is because we are only influenced through reading and writing. Reading and writing can make me aware. Reading and writing can perhaps also make me more knowledgeable but the chances of influencing my decisions and actions, and changing my behaviour so that the elephant also can have the required level of habitat mean that I compromise a little on my food consumption. Am I willing to do that? Or am I just willing to just talk about it and write about it?

The elephant is my brother. That’s what all traditional cultures did. The tiger was the brother of the Mishi people in Arunachal Pradesh. And that will only come from inside.

How much will you explain or teach me? OK, you buy this Fair Trade chocolate so the farmer will get a better price. OK, don’t wear this Tee shirt; it is made in a sweatshop. Don’t wear this shoe. There was cruelty on this buffalo. How much will you teach me Lalitha? Every now and then? If it only comes internally, from me, then you don’t have to teach me. I will be motivated to act.

Lalitha Krishnan: Just listening to Ajay, I feel we have lost it completely in India. We’re ruining our oceans. We’re dumping it with all our garbage, all our industrial waste, even our religious festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi. You’ve seen the number of dead fish that float up the next day. We’re killing all marine life. We have completely lost it, I think.

Ajay Rastogi:: Exactly. We have completely lost it in a big way. We need a huge transformation. We need an almost 180 degree turnabout in society if we need to have beautiful nature and beautiful relationships, and equity in society you know? Everybody needs to drink clean water, have healthy food and breathe healthy air. But do we really care when we put an extra air-conditioner in our home? Do we really care? We only just think we are saving some electricity bill with the 5-star rating and I can say thank you to my consciousness that I’m an energy efficient consumer. You think this will change the world? This will not change the world. It will not save our tiger. This will not save our oceans. This will not save our rivers. This will not save us.

For that, the science of happiness is coming around in a huge, huge way…as to what actually makes us happy. I already told you that all the hospitals are running because of rich people. We are all falling sick all the time despite having everything good going for us. 


Highest number of cases of depression present in the world are in North America where there is no dearth of infrastructure, no dearth of economic incentives, where there is no dearth of security. So now the science of happiness is coming up in a huge way as to what makes us happy because we thought that in the pursuit of all that consumerism we will be happy. We in India, are still following that. 2% of us have gotten there at the cost of 98% and the rest of us will also go there. But, is that making us happier? So the science of happiness is really coming back and that is also part of our workshop.

So what is it that I am doing? I feel that my job is done as a mentor if a student starts to question only two things at the end of it. One is, “Oh ho, what is it that I should do?” Taking individual responsibility, I think, is the call of the hour. You cannot change the family without changing yourself. Without changing the family, I cannot change the neighbour. I cannot change society without changing my neigbhour. OK? So I have to begin with myself.

The second thing I feel, our job is done, when the students ask, “what is it that can give me a larger purpose? A larger than life purpose that will drive (me) passionately? Passion combined with simplicity leads to happiness on a lot of occasions. You can have the most expensive brand of canvas, the most expensive brush and the most expensive Fine Arts education in the world. But that will not make you a happy painter. You can be a happy painter by just painting on mud…if you feel happy about it. What we are saying is that it is simplicity (Keep it simple), have less clutter and have time for yourself. Otherwise, we are time-poverty people. What are you doing? We’re just managing our stuff. Where is the time to meet friends, chit-chat, sunbathe, go and swim in the river and do what we feel like? That doesn’t cost money. You don’t need a diving suit to sit next to a river and swim in it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay, you mentioned a methodology to nature contemplation. I’m curious to know whom you’re teaching it to or as part of what course you’re teaching it.

Ajay Rastogi: You see, I think it all began with (Krishnan) Kutty when he was the Director of NOLS* because he wanted to start with this Nature and Culture Section based in homestays. We were approached in Machkali to set up a women’s collective. A self-help group so that students can learn. I was just back from the US after doing my nature contemplation course, as a Fulbright. So I said, “We’ll start to work with the contemplation of nature as well”. So, it is students and we have been offering it as a side event in conferences. For e.g., in 2012, there was a conference on the Convention of Biological Diversity. This is called Conference of Parties, so 160 countries were participating in Hyderabad. I did a side event there. As a result, some Chilean delegate who really loved this idea  invited me to Chile in 2014. Then we offered workshops there. Of course, in Santiago, you do it in a church. It was dark, we rearranged the seating in the church, (put up) flower arrangements for people to contemplate… It was very beautiful. And they translated the whole thing in Spanish. Then in 2016, they got a book out in Spanish, La Contemplacion De La Naturaleza, which is available on Amazon. In 2014, I think we did it (workshop) as part of the International Parks Congress in the Olympic Park in Sydney. So, that was big. A couple of years’ back one of the participants from the National Parks service in Australia wrote (to say) how much it has helped them. She actually wrote an email, a year later, after attending this, to say how beautiful it was for her through the years and now she’s talking to others in the National Park Service. At the same time, I also feel—see I used to work for the United Nations—how detached one can be. I’m writing, let’s say, “small farmers,” “poor people”, “marginal environments”, “impacts of climate change…” I am just using these words. Do they really hit me in the heart? Do I really feel for that small farmer when I’m actually typing my tour report? I feel like unless I feel it in my heart, when I put that word down “marginal environment”, “poor and vulnerable communities,” “women and children,” “undernourishment,” then I should feel it. If I doing it without feeling then I am not attaching my full being into it. I am just trying to say things for others to read. Therefore, I also tried to do it with the FAO headquarters in Rome. We suggested that before people meet in a workshop; let them contemplate before they take important decisions. So we had these little flower arrangement in the room; everybody contemplated nature for 20 min. then we started the meeting.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay, I know you work at the grassroots level, you personally know people in the villages here, you speak to the farmers, you know what the issues are. But, all these people who write these great sounding reports–who attend these meets and contemplate on nature—do they know the ground realities of the people they’re basing their findings on? How much do they really know?

Ajay Rastogi:You are right Lalitha. Many of them actually don’t. Many of them do also. They go on trips and they come back and learn from the situation –rural appraisals, appreciative inquiry, indigenous knowledge systems —these kinds of the methodology are quite mainstream. But the fact is do we attach that much of value or importance to it or not? In my own selfish or wasted way—ok I am already concerned about my colleagues; whether I am getting my due promotion or not? Whether my accounts were settled or not by the accounts officers rightly? Whether my supervisor will send me to the next conference or not? If I am worried about those, instead of the fact I am getting paid—because some taxpayer is paying to serve that small farmer—that’s the paradigm shift we need in these bureaucrats. So work with a conscience you know? And it should prick your heart. If I am wasting the amount of money in one flight from say, Rome-Papua New Guinea, and back, the amount of money that one trip of mine will cost may perhaps be good enough for a whole village yaar—to do a drinking water project. Just if that thought can be in your mind. I’m not saying I should not make that trip but that will make a huge difference in how I view the project. And, how I put my foot forward in the next meeting, next trip.

So we are trying to work with diverse people as I told you. We have worked with the Wildlife Institute of India you were there. The Director told us it was very useful. The Director and the Dean were there at the contemplation of nature session. He said for the first seven minutes, he was making a checklist of the tasks to do – which is fine- but later on, he could feel the tranquility of the contemplative practice. We have done this (workshops) in Bhutan, in the US in different cities and different settings; including in the University of Washington Medical School because they are teaching mindfulness for the past 18 years. It’s happening in India of course. I was a speaker at the Fortune 500 event three years ago. I spoke about it (nature contemplation) and people were very enamoured. It so happened that the CEO of Nestle Mr. Narayanan was the speaker before me. So we shared the dais.

My only worry is that we do all the beautiful conference about poverty in five-star hotels. We are known for that. For the environment also, we have gone, almost the same route. Now in India, the first Mindfulness Summit is taking place in the hotel West Inn in Mumbai. So, my worry is if we are going that route then my worry is that we are not reaching where we want to reach…Even with this kind of technology of mindfulness, it will go the same way and will continue to destroy the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay what you’re doing is wonderful but could you tell us the impact it’s creating here in the hills? All these people interacting during homestays and stuff…do you see any change in them? In the locals who are the hosts and the university students who are coming from abroad? Could you tell us something about that?

Ajay Rastogi: There’s been a lot of learning for us. When we set up the village homestay in the traditional homes of the agrarian people, we made a self-help group of women. They call themselves Jagriti Sayam Sahayata Group. They have a common bank account; they have these responsibilities to decide where the students will stay and what will be the code of conduct in the house. Hygiene issues– all the food– because we have to be careful of the nutritional side of it at the same time, the food should be culturally compatible. We don’t want different foods to be cooked in the home or served. They have a rotation system so everybody gets their turn. A lot has happened on its own, organically. This model works very well because the hosts are not just the women. In our case, everybody has to address it as part of the family. Say, if I am a young person and I have siblings of my age group, I will address the host mom as Eja – ‘mom’ in the local language. You have to. Grandfather is Bubu. If there is a sister, who is elder to you, then ‘Didi,’ etc. So, it’s like being in a family. There is a lot of language issues in the beginning because the women don’t even read proper Hindi you know? Even for their bank accounts they only put their thumb impressions. Language has been (an issue) but some younger children go to schools and have started learning preliminary English-3th, 4th, 5th standards and they can help translate. Kids pick up very fast.

In terms of cultural exchange, our kids have learned a lot of beautiful things from the kids who have come. For e.g., Planning ahead. Now arranging your school bag on the previous night you know? Or our kids will shout at 7 in the morning. If you can organize your socks the previous evening, then the mother can peacefully do other things. You don’t have to shout at her. Those kinds of things.

Ajay Rastogi: Then the gender equity had been huge for us.

Lalitha Krishnan:: Really?

Ajay Rastogi: In the western situation, there is no disparity with the girl child. In our society, it’s big. When they see this in their own peer group, they question it. When Abhishek comes, he throws the bag away and goes out to play. When Geeta comes, she has to help with the cowshed work. Or fetch water. Why is that? “She should also come and play with us because she is our sister.” Now you know it’s a family. That had gone a big way. Now we have a standard – in the cricket pitch in the evening, all the girls are also there.

The third thing is the cleanliness of the toilets. In our own house, neither the father will clean the toilet neither will the male child clean the toilet. Usually, the toilet will be cleaned by the mom or sister. But with these people (visitors) it is not a task. They have to. So, this is also a big thing – that the children have started helping with cleaning toilets. When I say “toilets,” it is the last thing they would have done.

So, we have gained a lot culturally from the visitors. Visitors also gained as they have learned to handle hand tools. Grow small patches of vegetables. Then they begin to comprehend that nothing much goes to waste because whatever is generated mostly comes locally. For e.g. a student did a project from an urban area as to when they get a litre of milk what all goes into it vs. getting a litre of milk here. You can see the whole economic enterprise of that whole litre of milk in the urban area. And the plastic and the waste, the human resources and the transportation, the energy involved and the quality. That opens up their mind to what small things you can do. Not everybody can rear a cow but grow a patch of vegetables. Consume fresh.

But to come to the brass-tacks of nature conservation, I think we rest it on three pillars. I am not talking about the steps of contemplation of nature. I am talking of the three pillars of this whole initiative we have.

One is what we call The Dignity of Physical Work. The reason why we are suffering so much and so dependent on fossil fuels and why (costs) of fossil fuels have gone up is because we don’t value the dignity of physical work. Because we believe machines do this or that and we also look down sometimes on men who do manual work. We feel they are inferior in some way as compared to somebody who is doing something white collared. We want to divide that whole thing because if we have to move forward for a sustainable society we have to remove the barriers. If I don’t have a pump, I can still get two buckets of water. And I will only care for that water source if I don’t have a water filter at home. If I have a water filter at home and there is some distant pipeline coming to my home, how does it matter? When I start to see this then it starts to influence me. And that’s part of the dignity of physical work.

The second pillar, which I already spoke about is interdependence. To see, the interdependence of communities! Otherwise, in our current economic ways, somehow we have become very transactional. I feel if I have enough money in my pocket, I can buy the services, I can buy the goods, I can buy a holiday in a nice place. But it’s not like that. That’s where it becomes unsustainable.
You see, the communitarian ways of life of helping each other, going out, doing things together… in the villages, we still have this huge tradition that is still continuing. If you don’t have a cow that is not currently giving milk, it’s not like your child will not get enough milk. All the neighbours, whose cows are giving milk will come with at least one glass of milk.

Lalitha Krishnan: It literally takes a village to raise a child over here. What is especially true of the villages in the hills is that if you need help in any way, it could be a death, or it could be changing your slate roof, the whole community will come together and help you do it.

Ajay Rastogi: That is so beautiful and that is the interdependence thing we are losing as a culture.

The third is interconnectedness. You see that your cow is going to graze in the forest so you should take care of that forest. If you put litter in that forest, it will go into the stomach of that cow, it will come to you. You see the interconnectedness. You see how some sacred tree in the catchment is rejuvenating the springs. Maybe, that’s why the trees are sacred because you think they are so important. You see culturally how traditions are interwoven into nature conservation. So it’s a big deal to comprehend all that – elements that are integral to the whole programme that we run with the village homestays.

Then there are other aspects. The women self-help groups get a lot of financial benefits out of it by hosting these guests. What is better is that this financial incentive of accommodating them, serving them food is all based on local affairs. They don’t have to move out in search of jobs. Out-migration is such a big issue. Now if somebody is coming to your home and accepting your cultural ways, helping you physically to do things you are supposed to do like fetching water, taking care of the cowshed or a younger sibling, you know? It’s so very beautiful. It works for everybody in a very beautiful way including the guest.

Lalitha Krishnan:: It’s so wonderful to hear because one doesn’t connect all these things you’re talking about to home-stays.

Would you care to share one word or term or concept that you think is significant to you?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so true. We can’t seem to have enough of anything. We always want more.

Ajay Rastogi: Whatever it is. This is it. I think we have to start sharing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast today.

Ajay Rastogi: Lovely talking to you Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was talking to Ajay Rastogi. Do check him out on foundnature.org I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Do subscribe for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation. 
If you do know somebody who is doing interesting work or whose story should be shared do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Suniti Bhushan: Reconnecting Children to Nature Ep#6

Ep#6 Heart of Conservation Podcast Show notes (edited).

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #6. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m speaking to Suniti Bhushan Datta a consultant wildlife biologist, mountain/ wilderness-skills instructor, and nature educator, from Dehra Dun. He is my go-to person for identifying birds and bugs of Landour. Suniti is an avid endurance cyclist who gets up at 4:00 am and often rides the 30 k Doon–Landour stretch with school kids in tow. Lest I forget, he has authored a best-selling book on the birding sites around the Doon Valley He is a qualified Wilderness First Responder and has diverse interests ranging from mountaineering, photography astronomy to aviation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Hey Suniti. Welcome to Heart of conservation podcast.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: You have so many skills sets and interests Suniti but I see the threads connecting them to conservation. Let’s first talk about how and why you took to conservation and your passion for Elephants and big cats.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: My interest in wildlife actually started with birds when I was about four or five years old. My mother actually gave me her old copy of Salim Ali- 2nd edition 1944-the book of Indian birds. Until then birds for me were- growing up in a bin Calcutta what basically– sparrows and pigeons. And I remember very very clearly, even now, sitting on the window in my sister’s room with the bird book open in the first really colourful bird I saw was the Coppersmith Barbet. The bird was nothing like I had ever seen even in a zoo. It was green and red and yellow and it was really close, it was about 8 to 9 feet from the window. And that is what probably started getting me interested in birds. My mother and my elder sister were bird watchers even then. I actually got interested in birds that way I think and the bird-interest has persisted since. The thing is from looking at birds it became looking at the trees that the bird was sitting on. I got interested in the trees and then I got Interested in the butterflies that were sitting on the trees and the flowers and other animals along the way. My sister once took me to a fair Where WWF had a few snakes that they were letting people handle. I got to handle a red sand boa– I still remember –I must have been 6 years old–So I got interested in reptiles along the way. That’s how my interest grew. I basically started with bird watching and I still say I am a bird watcher. I never studied bird And I don’t want to study birds… it’s an interest. When I go into a forest even though I am working with elephants Or any other thing birds are something I can fall back on When I really want to switch off and look at something else.

So yes basically I am a bird watcher and wildlife biologist, and a naturalist I guess.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, that’s interesting and of course everything is connected. I know of your interest in elephants and you studied elephant, right? This is something that is close to my heart and it bothers me. When I keep hearing of elephant deaths by speeding trains…the whole picture of injured elephants..the whole heard being traumatized, being dispersed and just bearing the wrath of villagers after that. We see such horrific pictures in the media. And it seems like the whole herd is massively impacted when an elephant dies. Especially if it’s the matriarch.

I want to know why are elephant being killed by trains so frequently In our country? It seems like more and more incidents are reported. I know that In Africa they’re using innovative methods like putting bee-pheromones into a sock to keep elephants away. What are we doing wrong? How can we prevent more elephant disasters?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s a bit of a complex problem. Because in some cases elephant populations are growing or have remained the same. The forests that they occupy are not really growing or in fact, are shrinking in many places. Not only that but the water resources that elephants are very dependent on are becoming fewer and far between. So the elephants actually have to travel between places to get to actually water and food sources. Unfortunately, these railway lines have come up bang in the middle of their migratory paths which have existed for hundreds of years if not for thousands of years. What happens is that earlier, maybe, a hundred years ago, you had very few trains, maybe you had two or three trains day. But as India’s population has grown and people need to travel more the number of trains has actually gone up. You have new locomotives that run at a speed So when the elephants actually track crossing the tracks, they don’t actually have time to get off the track. And therefore they get hit by the train. Usually, what happens you might have a baby that is stuck on the tracks and the rest of the herd will try and help it and several elephants will get killed. So even if the forest department knew there were elephants, getting them off the tracks would be a big job

There are options of mitigation and they have worked in parts of the country. For example in Uttarakhand yes, It’s actually, what I would say is a prime example of how things can actually work. In Uttarakhand, initially the forest department used to patrol the tracks but there was no connect between the forest department and the Railways. So even if the forest department knew there were elephants, getting them off the track would become a big job and ultimately the elephants would die. Somebody actually suddenly got the idea that why not connect the railways with this whole initiative and actually talked to the Railways. There was a lot of public pressure because, along with the track between Dehradun and Haridwar, elephant were dying every month.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no that’s large for large number than I imagined.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: So what happened was the first department and the railways, set up an elephant railway patrolling force. They used to patrol all day and all night. And every time they would see an elephant crossing they would signal the two stations on either side using the Railways wireless network. The station master would stop the train. Once the elephants had crossed over, the guards would give the all clear and the trains would be let through. Which actually worked in a great way in Uttarakhand. The patrolling team got an award for it from the WTI- Wildlife Trust of India so they were very motivated.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sorry but when was this?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I can’t remember exactly when it was started but it was around 2004-2005. Since when we have only had one or two elephant deaths by railway accidents on this track. The thing is if only departments get together, work together and communicate there are workable solutions. It’s a huge challenge. You have to Railways and you have a forest department trying to work together which is amazing…that they actually did this. Elephant deaths dropped by a huge margin on this stretch.

Now what’s happening in north Bengal and other places is that exactly the same thing is happening. You have railway tracks going through elephant ranges and elephants are getting knocked down in Bihar and Assam. Now why the forest departments in those states- in Bengal and Bihar and Assam- are not getting together and replicating this is probably there is no motivation to do it. Here there was actually a lot of public pressure And the forest department, you know, thought ahead about these things whereas in these places they need the political will and motivation to do this. It will work. It worked over here there is there is no reason why reason they can’t mitigate deaths in those stretches.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could we talk about elephants vocalization? Their low-frequency rumbles and roars and why they ‘re so much like us. Quoting from this book ‘Beyond Words, what animals think and feel by Carl Safina, “Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions- and that’s evidence” that they grieve and feel joy just like us. They even see to be able to communicate with whales. At least I think I read that in the book.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Elephants are amazingly vocal. They not only communicate in the audible spectrum – but audible to the human spectrum of noise but they also have low-frequency sounds. This is between 5 to 7 Hertz. Humans hear between 20 to 20000 Hertz. This is an extremely low frequency. How this was actually found was there was this woman called Katy Payne who was actually a musician. She was at Portland zoo in Oregon and she was actually recording sounds of something else. She realized that when the elephants were being fed, she was picking up some sort of a rumble on her microphone. She had a very sensitive microphone. That’s how the story goes at least. She did an experiment where she actually placed the microphone close to the elephant enclosure when they were being fed. She actually found that these elephants were emanating some sort of rumbles. That’s how she got interested and she’s probably the first one and others have studied this since. But she was probably the first person who studied low-frequency communication in elephants.

The thing is low-frequency sounds tend to travel huge distances in the atmosphere. Elephants in Africa especially take to communicate-herds tend to communicate with each other- so they’ll communicate dangers for example. Or sources of food. Males and females will communicate and with herds and vice-versa. Actually, it’s a well-studied phenomenon in Africa, not so much in India, yet. Now there are people who have sort of deciphered a very basic language that elephants use. There are rumble patterns that actually denote danger. Or a source of food. Or happiness or joy. Elephants are very complex creatures and can communicate their emotions to each other. Not only audibly but in low-frequency sounds.

And they are amazingly similar to whales for example who have on their forehead, a hollow organ- which in whales is filled with oil- but in elephants, basically, it’s like the sinus cavity in humans. That actually acts like a sort of amplifier. If you actually stand next to an elephant who is rumbling, sometimes, you can’t actually hear the sound but you can feel it….sometimes in your chest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Have you felt it?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I have felt it a few times.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh you are so lucky.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: But you need to be really close to the elephant to be able to feel this. There are certain frequencies that some humans can feel. But it’s interesting how they communicate this way.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope that we can explore that more in time.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, you are among the lucky few who have worked underJohn Wakefield or Papa John, the famous conservationist and naturalist, who introduced the concept of eco-tourism, I think, in Karnataka. Could you tell me about your time with him? Do you remember anything special? Any special moments?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Col. John Wakefield or as everyone knew him, Papa John…I actually met him in 2003 when I was at a bit loss and (wondering) what to do with myself. And he offered me a lodge in the Kabini River Lodge in Karnataka in Nagarhole National Park. 

Lalitha Krishnan: My favourite place.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, it’s a beautiful area. The whole idea was I go and work there for a year, get some experience and then do my Masters in Wildlife sciences. The thing is that Papa John had this magnetic persona so I actually ended up staying there much longer than I wanted to. But what was special about Papa John was he was, how do I put it, an old style of a naturalist. He liked observing, he had field skills and he had seen wildlife in India, which, unfortunately, generations today have lost. He had actually walked through all the forests in this part of the world – what you call   GoriChila which is basically today Rajaji Tiger Park in Landsdowne division. Even though he did shoot tigers and leopards in that area, his knowledge of wildlife in this area is just amazing. And his field skills… he is actually one of the first people who taught me–little things–like how to suppress a sneeze for example, which is interesting. He had amazing stories. One of the stories he told me is about meeting somebody walking down a path in Corbett or what is today Corbett, and having a conversation with him and later finding out that it was Jim Corbett himself.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re serious.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, He’d met Jim Corbett and later when he joined the army–he was in the jungle warfare school in Chhindwara —Jim Corbett actually taught them jungle warfare and field craft. It’s amazing. I haven’t actually met anybody else who has met Jim Corbett and actually trained under Corbett.

Lalitha Krishnan: What a privilege.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: He had also met people like F W Champion and he described FW Champion as making this amazing camera trap photographs–I’m talking of the late 1920s and early 30s—where he would use bits of magnesium in his camera flash to get photographs. It was such a precision thing. And, because he was using photographic plates, it had to be done at night. Papa had a special relationship with the elephants and I think that’s how I got my interest in elephants. Papa came to Kabini in the early 80s.

Lalitha Krishnan: Where did he come from?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: He actually worked in Tiger Tops in Nepal. The word ecotourism didn’t exist in India. Wildlife tourism was a very fledgling thing in India when he came here. He brought a brand of tourism to India, which did not exist at that time. It was luxury tourism but it was responsible for tourism. He kept it small. He didn’t want more than a certain number of rooms. He resisted. Eventually, Kabini wasn’t doing too well so the government took it over. The government, of course, wanted air conditioners and TVs in the rooms and a swimming pool. Papa John resisted this to a great extent. He didn’t believe in mass tourism. He wanted very, very small areas – when I was working there, we had, I think, six jeeps and one van and two boats that we used. Kabini is now a different ball game. They have lots of people going in.

Lalitha Krishnan: So now do they have a lot more jeeps and boats?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They have more jeeps a greater number of rooms.

Lalitha Krishnan: At least they didn’t build that swimming pool.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, not yet at least. Papa (John) brought a different brand of tourism. It was responsible tourism but it was ecotourism as it should be. He had naturalists who he trained. Many naturalists in India, including me, started their careers with Papa John learning from him, listening to his stories. He introduced me to elephants. He would sort of tell me about the elephants in Kabini. I am very sure some of the elephants, some of the tuskers certainly recognized him because they probably saw him when he first came to India in the early 80s. They must have been young…a year or two old. A lot of the elephants that were around when I was there must have seen him when they were calves. He’s seen them actually grow up. He used to tell us stories about the elephants, about elephant behavior—a lot of anecdotal evidence. He was an amazing man. He could observe things and long before we became scientists. That’s why I say that I had the privilege of being a naturalist first and then becoming a scientist. That’s complete because of Papa (John). I am a naturalist because of Papa John.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lucky. So, who is today’s Papa John for the young wannabe naturalist?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: In India, I don’t really think there is anybody like Papa John in terms of knowledge, field experience because that generation of naturalists is gone. Probably Dr. Johnsingh whom I met a few times…and he’s spoken to us at the Wildlife Institute but I didn’t have the privilege of working under him. But again, Dr. Johnsingh is a naturalist. He is a naturalist. He is a scientist but his field knowledge…his ability to recognize a bird call, to be even able to stifle a sneeze…

Lalitha Krishnan: Are you going to demonstrate that?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: (Laughing)

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a useful skill to have wherever you are not just in a forest.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s a useful skill. Both he and Papa John had a very different technique for doing it. Papa John’s technique was to put your finger on your nose and push your nose up. That’s his. That worked a lot. Dr. Johnsingh used to change it into an animal noise. He used to make it into a sambar alarm call or a monkey or langur calling. But that’s the thing is that Dr. Johnsingh again is that old style of a naturalist who recognized animal calls. He could mimic animals. I don’t know anybody else who could be able to interpret noises, calls of the jungles and track animals like Dr. John Singh and Papa John for that matter. We are losing that breed of people.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re a class apart.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They’re a class apart. Now we’ve got cutting-edge science like genetics and all the various tools and technologies that we use. Those core skills that make up a naturalist—people are losing those natural history skills—to be able to mimic birds, to be able to recognise bird calls, to be able to recognize plants and their interaction with insects and birds and other animals of the forest …and to be able to interpret that to the common man in plain and simple language. We are losing these skills.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nobody seems to have the time to do that anymore.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, In India, apart from Dr. John Singh, I don’t know too many people who can actually do that. One of my heroes is Sir Richard Attenborough. He sort of epitomizes what it is to be a naturalist and to be able to interpret scientific facts and scientific concepts into plain language.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s what’s most required. To bridge that gap or otherwise, who knows what you’re talking about.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, and to be able to interpret that in such a way that not only do you make it easy to understand but also make it interesting. Because science can be very dry for the common man. So to actually make it interesting and make it relevant in today’s world is a skill that is very, very valuable.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is interesting and clearly, they influenced you. Suniti are there any books you recommend?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, There are many many books actually. Probably what influenced what I am doing today as a nature interpreter and working with children is this book that I happened to come across while I was browsing books on Amazon. It is this book called the Last Child in the Woods by a person called Richard Louv and that actually struck a chord with me because it talks about children losing out on the wilderness. Children growing up in an urban background sometimes don’t know the plants around them. They don’t know birds, they don’t know animals…

Lalitha Krishnan: I have a question here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes?

Lalitha Krishnan: Is it important to know the plant? Isn’t it OK to just enjoy the plant?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s as simple as this. If you love something, you want to know more about it.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: The more you know about it the more you appreciate it and enjoy it.

Lalitha Krishnan: But as a child, when you see something you like, it’s a different world. You sort of lose yourself.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: One part is that. As a child, I liked trees; I liked animals. I grew up with dogs. I didn’t know much about them but I like being around them because I found a certain peace being in nature, which nothing else, even today, matches. But I feel, over the years, my curiosity as a child and now, my curiosity as a naturalist and a scientist transcended into looking up the animal or a plant in a field guide. And, knowing more about it. And, not just knowing more about it in terms of how is it useful to humans? I want to know what butterflies use that plant or what animals feed on that plant. How does that plant help…

Lalitha Krishnan: But that happened as an adult, right?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Not just that. Even as a child. Even growing up, there were very few (guides)—apart from the bird guides— WWF had a very few, sketchy guides on plants and such so that’s how I grew. I have this sort of almost a fetish for collecting field guides because I think that more and more people are able to identify things and be able birds tell apart and tell plants and insects and butterflies apart. I think the more people appreciate nature and appreciate the role that that these things play in nature…and that’s my thing. Children today don’t know how important, and especially in urban environments—they don’t know how important plants are. They have this vague idea that yes, plants produce oxygen and that they are important to us. Plants play such a huge role in sustaining birds, sustaining butterflies, sustaining whole ecosystems.

Very recently, there was an article, I think, in the Huffington post called—I can’t find the name of the article—but they called it ‘Plant blindness’. It’s a very new phenomenon where children and adults for that matter can actually walk around and let alone know the names of the plant but they don’t notice there are plants around. That’s a sad thing. Sad, that we are losing things that we don’t even see and don’t even have any empathy for.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’ll probably notice the Mac Donalds or KFC.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They’ll notice the Mac Donalds but they won’t notice the peepal tree growing just outside Mac Donalds. Which is sad.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, I have your book, Birding in the Doon Valley right here on my bookshelf. I think I have two copies. It’s a wonderful reference source with lovely photographs. Would you like to tell us how you came about writing this book?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: So, I was actually doing these workshops for the Tibetan schools.

Lalitha Krishnan: Here?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: All over. Here in Dehradun. They were basically nature interpretation and ecological awareness workshops. The person who was running these was this guy from Winterline nature trust. He and I got talking one day and he randomly asked me…he said, “How would you like to write a book about birds in this area – Dehradun? I said, “I don’t know whether I would get enough material for a book” And I did tell him that in my maths class in school I had actually written a chapter about the birds around Doon School. I was bored in math class, I used to sit at the back.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was wondering how it was connected.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I still have that math exercise book somewhere around with the sketchy article at the back. So he said, “OK you have a chapter about (birds of) the Doon school How about writing chapters about the rest of Dehradun?” So I told him, “I don’t know if I have enough material to write a book. I don’t know if there are that many birds in Dehradun.” He asked me, “how many bird species do you think there are off the top of your head?” I said, “I probably got about 350 species”. He said, “Why don’t you start listing them?” So that’s what I started doing. I looked up my own checklist, I looked up papers, I asked my professors at the Wildlife Institute and I compiled this checklist that chalked out around 504 species.

Lalitha Krishnan: What year was this, sorry?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: This was 2010. The numbers have gone up. I think there are 511 species that we know that exist in Dehradun. When I talk about Dehradun, I’m talking about Mussoorie, Landour, Rajaji National Park, Asan Barrage…so greater Dehradun. So, that’s how it started. I said, “OK we have 500 birds, now I need to look at all the places I can talk about. I started doing surveys. I was on a bicycle, I just took a GPS and I visited places.

Lalitha Krishnan: By yourself?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: On my own. I drove around, I cycled around and I had my GPS switched on and I started documenting trails and what birds I saw on the trails down to chaiwallas where one could stop and have a cup of chai. That’s actually how the book came about. I ended up with 15 sites around Dehradun and because we were catering to a larger audience, I also documented the route from Delhi to Dehradun along the canal. What you could see along the canal. That came up to16 sites. I had my co-author, Nikil Devasar who was kind enough to give us photographs of the birds. That’s how we put the book together.

Lalitha Krishnan: So how long did it take you doing all of this?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Oh, the idea came up in 2009 and the book was finished in 2012. So, about three years. But there was a lot of back work that went into the book because I have been bird watching in this area since I was 10 years old and so I looked up my checklists from earlier. I had notes from earlier so that also went into the book. So yeah, it was pretty much a long-term project.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s why you’re my go-to-person for bird identification.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I’m not the best person…

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re better than me and you’re the best I know.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, you cycle alone and you cycle a lot. How do you connect cycling to conservation?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I have two takes on that. Cycling for me is a way of getting to places. It’s faster than walking but it’s also silent. You can actually go cycling and not make a noise. Motorcycles make a noise. In a car, you’re sort of in an enclosed environment so you’re not connecting. But on a bicycle you’re feeling the wind, you can smell things, you can hear things. I realized this when I initially started cycling around 2012. Cycling for me was a form of exercise. I had no real connection…I didn’t really connect it with conservation or natural history and such. I used to cycle when I was a child going to Rajaji National Park…I have tiger pug marks on my cycle. Initially, when I started cycling, I realized I was hearing a lot of birds…actually seeing a lot of birds. I was visiting places where sometimes my car would not go. I had gone on mountain bike tracks… And I thought this is a fantastic way of getting children to come out of their comfort zone- their classrooms or their homes, get exercise and also be visiting these amazing areas. I recently did a cycling camp for children We went into areas where I have people asking me,-when they saw the photographs-people were asking me “Wow, where is this in India?” This is just 12 k outside of Dehradun. Amazing birdlife, amazing butterflies in all these areas which you can visit by bicycle.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s just a connection between doing some exercise, getting places and accessing these places by bicycle and getting children to use their bicycles to get to these areas. That’s my connection with cycling.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did the kids you took out enjoy the trip?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Oh, very much. They didn’t want to leave.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can imagine. It’s always so good to explore what’s around you first instead of taking a plane to some corner of the country. I always feel we have Jaberkhet and so much here – so much around us that we don’t know enough of.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: During my Masters, I made this decision to continue working in Dehradun and not go back to Nagarhole. In fact, when I joined my Masters, my plan was to do my desiccation in Nagarhole because I know the area, I know the elephants there. But then, I realized that in the valley that I grew up in –in Dehradun—there are elephants here, there is amazing bird life and because Dehradun became the capital, we are losing all of this. I said, “If I can’t save nature around my own backyard what’s the point of me going somewhere else?” These are forests, these are nature trails around the valley which basically made me a naturalist. I think I’m still trying to give back to my home as it were.

Lalitha Krishnan: Well, I’m very glad you’re here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Thanks.

Lalitha Krishnan: The trick is to get outdoors. That being said I do 75% of my bird watching from my porch. But then again, I live in Landour. What do you think are the possibilities of the much talked about Himalayan quail existing?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Well, I’ve been into that area many many times, around Benog (Tibba). The last two places where it was seen was in Nainital.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nainital and here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: And in Mussoorie. In Benog. The thing is that the Nainital site, the Sher Ka Danda site, has become completely urbanized. There is no habitat worthy of the Himalayan quail left. It’s completely urbanized. Benog? There still is a chance. I haven’t met anybody recently but there are people who say that they have seen it. Seeing it is one thing but getting evidence is another thing.

Lalitha Krishnan: How long back was that?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Even as recently as 7-8 years ago.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah. It’s difficult to tell. The thing is nobody has seen the Himalayan quail since 1876. Nobody alive today has actually seen one so we don’t know whether what they saw was a mountain quail or any other quail in that area. Also, the area mountain quails live in are steep grassy slopes which are difficult to access for humans. I spoke to a forest officer who is retired now. He came up with a very good idea of using dogs to flush the area…. Dogs can go into the area and you flush them and then you can actually see them.

Lalitha Krishnan: That seems cruel no?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Not really. If you have gun dogs that are trained not to kill the prey but to just flush them, that’s one way of looking for them. Honestly, if you ask me, given the habitat and the kind of habitat loss we are having, I don’t think they exist anymore.

Lalitha Krishnan: And if they exist, let them be.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, let them be. Also, the thing is that when they did exist in the 1800s they didn’t exist in very large numbers so the likelihood of them surviving unseen by so many birdwatchers until now is unlikely.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like the mystery about them. It’s nice to have a little mystery.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is what I ask all my guests. Could you share a word or a scientific term that you like or you think is significant?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: If I may, there are two words…

Lalitha Krishnan: Please do.

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

But recently, as I mentioned earlier, I became aware of this term ‘Plant Blindness’ and that actually struck a chord with me. Even when I am walking like just now when I was walking from the Hanifl Centre to your house, I was very aware of the fact that there were certain plants that were blooming- which are still blooming after the monsoon.

Lalitha Krishnan: There are a lot of wildflowers now.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, a lot of wildflowers. The oak trees were getting new set of leaves and the ferns were going brown. The concept of plant blindness seems sad to me. That somebody can walk down a street even a city avenue street and not notice the trees or not know anything about the trees. Yeah, that struck a chord with me. I think it plays into the whole nature deficit disorder, which is also affecting adults. I know certain adults who have no clue. They live in cities…I mean two trees put together for them is a forest. Many of them are not aware of how nature affects us. Or how nature is good for our health. In many ways, a lot of mental illnesses in children are because of this nature deficit disorder because they are not exposed to greenery, they are not exposed to fresh air…the sheer peace of a forest.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, that’s a new one for me.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s totally new. I didn’t realize it existed.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a good word but a sad word.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It is a very sad word.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you Suniti Bhushan for joining me on Heart of Conservation Podcast and sharing your thoughts with us. It’s been fun, to say the least.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: My pleasure.

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents

 


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

 

 

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Intrepid Woman Leader Ep#5

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

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Ep#5 Show notes (edited)

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

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Thank you

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: You think?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, Yes.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: In low light?

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh…Ok

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Still isn’t, is it?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like a dream.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Really? Wow.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Haha, you are experienced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: And that’s hard for them.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Why?

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: How long back was this?

Dr. SejalWohra: About 20 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: With the people.

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: The most commonly used word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s hard to get there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I know.

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: And toilet paper everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That is so true.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: One wild herd.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh my goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

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

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: I heard that.

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Sure.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Still is.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, you can’t.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: What a breakthrough.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: A two-person team?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I didn’t know that part.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I would think.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Let’s hope so.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, please do write a book.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess with time you will remember.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: I look forward to that.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Jottings… memories

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: It’s not necessarily a scientific term but I think the term of great importance in the conservational and environmental movement, which is ‘consumption’. To me, the future of this planet lies in us individually and collectively as human beings, to really question whether we need so much. I am as guilty as anybody else on that.

Lalitha Krishnan: We all are.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: When I look around and see just stuff— I think do we really need all this? If all of us humans lived with what we need this would be a very different planet. Unfortunately, the model of development that we have today is geared entirely towards consumption. It’s about getting people to consume more.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Economies and countries thrive and build their economies on consumption rather than on sustainability. My dream is that we actually start questioning the whole concept of: “ Do we need to consume so much?” And we’ll have a different planet.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you.

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents

 


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

 

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

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Ep#4 Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #4. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Around a 100 km from Bombay lies a sleepy coastal town called Dahanu, famous for chikoos (sapotas). I braved a three-hour train ride Dahanu to visit the NGO where Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar treats injured turtles before releasing them back into the Arabian sea. I met Dr. Vinherkar in Dehradun in 2016 when we had both joined a short course at the Wildlife Institute of India. Ever since I heard what he does, I have been wanting to visit the turtle rescue center where he is treating injured turtles in partnership with the Dahanu Forest Dept, an NGO and a bunch of dedicated volunteers.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar practices in Mumbai but for the past several years, he has been visiting Dahnau every Friday to treat the turtles. I was surprised by the number of turtles being treated, the dedication of the volunteer and the awareness that has been created in the neighbourhood under the quiet and effective leadership of Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar. I asked him to share his story. This interview was conducted outdoors by the sea.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: It all started in 2010 when this particular centre wasn’t there. There was one forest official, the Deputy Conservator of Dahanu Division, Mr. Narawne, who was also very enthusiastic overall about wildlife. This particular NGO, which is right now WCAWA, used to do snake rescues and small wildlife rescues only nearby. After getting them to the forest office and doing proper documentation, they would release the snakes back into the wild. Suddenly one fine day they found a dead turtle on the beach. And then they kept getting calls related to wildlife and again got dead turtles on the beach. Then they realized that there is something wrong and they started patrolling. One day they got a turtle which was in a very bad condition, and they got it to the centre. They did not know to treat the turtle. At that time I was doing practice in Mumbai…I was also having, you could say,  an inclination towards reptiles. I used to do treatment in other NGOs who kept reptiles.  Somehow they got connected with me and the DCF of Dahanu, asked me to come for this turtle’s treatment. When I came here, at that time, there was no facility available here. I suggested a few things and we made our first plastic pool. When we made this plastic pool we used to take seawater in buckets and fill up that pool. It was a very small pool of 3ft by 3ft. We created it by digging a hole in the floor (ground), then we put the plastic and we then poured sea water into it and kept this sea turtle alive. Our volunteers and others used to keep this turtle alive by feeding it Bombay duck (kind of fish) and other fish. In the meanwhile, I used to do the treatment. It started this way. Looking at our efforts, the Dahanu Forest Division also took an interest. Then they started supporting us by keeping the turtles on their own premises because all sea turtles are Schedule I species and are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of India. So, nobody can keep them at home. So they gave us a place where we made a bigger pool of 10ftx10 ft with tarpaulin and we kept the turtles there. That year passed the same way with that one turtle. This was 2010-11 By, the time this whole procedure started we already started creating awareness about sea turtles. We started talking to school kids; we started talking to fishermen to tell them about the scenario and tell them how they can help. Slowly the network was building. We started getting more calls and started getting more injured sea turtles. I also have got totally involved in this. I started coming every week to give treatment to these turtles. For the last 10 years, I have been coming here to give treatment to the turtle. The turtles starting coming in and the plastic pool also started overflowing. Then, Mr. Narawne took a good stand and created this place. Right now, we have two big swimming pools, which can accommodate around 15 turtles in each tank which gives them a place to move around and exercise. There are two more cement tanks which we’ve kept for turtles which are aggressive or the ones that are very critical and can get damaged(harmed) by the other turtles. We keep these turtles in a small tank which is called an Isolation tank.

 Lalitha Krishnan: Do turtles come to you more injured or ill?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: In the wild, there are only two things. Either you should be fit to survive or you should not survive only. Any animal which is having any disease doesn’t come to us because they die there and then. Unless and until they are thrown away by high tide or some physical conditions where they come or they are taken in by us or some other NGO. Only then, they will come to us. Otherwise, mostly 99% of turtles come to us when either there is some physical disability because of which they cannot survive in the wild and are thrown out of the sea by (sea) waves. Or mostly they come out because they are badly injured. The flippers are injured and they can’t swim well…they can’t find their food and are thrown out of the sea. So, by the time they come to us, they are already very weak. They loose a lot of blood before coming to us…so they are mostly anemic. They mostly have some injuries which have got septicemic and toxic. Sometimes, they even have parasites on their body. Many fishermen also get freshly caught turtles to us which have fewer injuries but they have some or the other physical factors or other developing after being trapped because each turtle needs to come to the surface to breathe. When these turtles get caught in the net, they don’t get time to come up and breathe. So, they aspirate water. This water creates lung infections. Sometimes, they even develop some other lung injuries or conditions where they can’t dive back into the water, which is called floating syndrome, a condition, which we see very commonly. This way, the turtles started coming to our centre. By 2013-14, we had our own two swimming pools and two small tanks for turtles. Then we realized in 2014-15, that we needed to upgrade our centre furthermore. In between, I got an opportunity to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center in the USA and I was there for around one month and 15 days or so. There, I have taken their training and learned how they are taking care of their turtles and what things need to be done. So I realized, that we are doing nothing.

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The WCAWA team with Dr. Dinesh Vineherkar doing the rounds at the turtle tanks.

We don’t have that kind of infrastructure, we don’t have that kind of instruments, and we don’t have that kind of people who are involved in taking care. So when I came back from the USA, I started building up the centre in that way. So, we don’t funds and we have very few but very dedicated volunteers on (whom) we are totally dependent on. We all came together and started doing betterment of the centre. In the first lot, we got three fiber plastic tanks which are holding tanks for these turtles and you can see these three tanks which are given to us by Vasant J Sheth (Memorial) Foundation and we started using these tanks for the turtles. We also realized that we don’t have any filtration units for sea water. Seawater of Mumbai and Maharashtra coast is highly polluted. Most of the turtles are getting polluted water to stay in. We also thought of doing something to get clear water. We used two ways to get this water. One is to prepare a filtration unit by which we filter water and use and secondly, we are using natural filtration by creating a small pond kind of a thing, on the beach itself, where the river water gets accumulated. We syphon out that water with the help of a pump. We are using that here; it is very clear and carries less sand in it. Abroad, they use artificial marine salt water, which I feel we don’t need because we have a very beautiful beach right next to us. This artificial marine salt water is very costly and expensive, so compared to that our natural seawater is doing good.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you tell me the kinds of species of turtles that are in your centre or are getting washed ashore?

 Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: In Palghar district and nearby areas, we predominately have four species which we get every year. Out of these, the most common species is Olive Ridley. Olive Riddle turtles, as the name suggests, are olive green in colour. They are the most abundantly found turtles here. The second one is called the Green Sea Turtle, which is a very beautiful sea turtle, you can say. They predominantly eat sea grass and greenery available at the base of the sea. The third category is the Hawksbill Turtle. The Hawksbill Turtle is also a very unique kind of sea turtle, which has a beak like a bird. That’s why the name is Hawksbill. They normally eat all crustacean species like crabs. They also eat corals and even shells. The beak is provided to crush these types of food—crustaceans—and eat. The last one (species) we normally get but very rarely we get is the Loggerhead Turtle. The Loggerhead Turtle is named because of their head. Their head size is very big like a wooden log. Compared to their body size, the head is very big and they are yellow in colour. So they are also one of the beautiful sea turtles I can say. All these four species we regularly see here.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was very lucky to meet the RFO (Forest Range Officer), Mr. Rahul Marathe, who is very interested and supportive of all the work done at the rescue centre.

RFO, Mr. Rahul Marathe: There are 10-15 members of WCAWA—actively participating NGO— working in the Dahanu jurisdiction in collaboration with the Forest Dept., If they receive any call, regarding various types of snakes or leopards, from a single call they go to the rescue. Similarly, they are participating in turtle rescue activities. In the last 60 days, in the months of July and August, they have rescued at least 40-50- turtles. One major aspect is that, in collaboration with the Forest dept., WCAWA members and our eminent veterinary consultant, Dr. Dinesh Vineharkar Sir, has done microchipping 10-15 days back. This will give good results and that the project has been appreciated all over India. All forest officers are majorly appreciating this (effort of) of microchipping. It is probable that in future, the Forest Dept. will think of microchipping each, and every wildlife.

Lalitha Krishnan: (to Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Do you think there is enough natural resources in our sea for the turtles right now or is pollution affecting their food source?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: I always get amazed to see these sea turtles still surviving in our sea and I don’t know in what condition they are surviving but nature is great. And we are still having such a huge population of sea turtles in our sea. But on the other side, we are not taking care of this wealth—whatever natural wealth we are having here. We are creating problems for all sea creatures by dumping unnecessarily into the sea and I think there is no responsible waste management available here. We really need to do something to reduce waste dumping into the sea. And we have to make sure that whatever goes into the sea should be well treated to reduce the impact on the lives which is there under the sea. Right now whatever cases are coming to us, they are coming because of irresponsible behavior of fishermen. They are coming because of the irresponsible behavior of normal public, you know? When they are thinking of disposal waste products, I always try to convince people that they should understand that they should leave a green footprint on the earth instead of all the artificial things we are creating and dumping on this earth. That is going to create a lot of problems and this will continue and get all of us to the end where they not a be a way back.

Lalitha Krishnan: Dr. Dinesh, you are the only person in India to give a turtle an artificial flipper. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Actually an artificial flipper is just  appendages I thought of making it for a turtle because whenever I see these turtle with the loss of flippers I always feel like it must be very difficult for them to survive in the wild -though, there are papers where even a two flippered turtle can survive very well in nature without any help. But, the only thing is how we get depressed if we lose our limps; most of the animals get so depressed, that they stop eating and slowly they die.

So, my intention for creating this flipper was to give them an aid so they can get their confidence back. This flipper is definitely not going to be a permanent flipper. You cannot release a turtle with an artificial flipper back to the sea. It is just an aid for a turtle to gain his confidence back. Whichever turtle we’ve used this flipper on, we’ve observed that when they just have had an accident and lost a flipper they get confused. They don’t know how to survive or turn to the left or turn to the right. It takes some time to come out of that shock. Most of the time, this is when mortality happens –during this period. So, when we attach this flipper to them—of course, this flipper is attached to the particular turtles only who have some stump where this flipper can be attached. So we make sure that if any, that kind of a turtle comes to us, we put this flipper on him. This flipper is like a shoe you can say —how your leg goes into the shoe—the same way the stump goes into the flipper and gets locked. As the stump moves, the complete flipper moves and it gives a little bit of support to the turtle while swimming. When the turtle get adapted to the flipper, then it moves faster and which I think is very important for their survival. Then intermittently, we remove the flipper so that when the turtles start moving on their own with the three flippers. And it makes them exercise more which helps to develop muscles of the other three flippers which otherwise goes into, you know, goes into emaciation. The other three flippers become stronger and the emaciation process tops, muscle development starts and the other three flippers become stronger. Once they become stronger enough, we release them back into the sea.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is incredible. You’re the only one that’s done this right? Or do you know if it’s been done before?

When we used this flipper, there was a news item in the newspaper but that’s it. After that, nothing happened. But I went to Venice for a conference on reptiles, where one Dr. Douglas Mader was there. He is one of them, you can say, the God person in Reptile Medicine. He was preparing a flipper and wrote a paper on that. In his presentation, he mentioned our turtle’s name. I was there in the same conference and I was so happy to know that our turtle; we had named him ‘Namo’. That Namo turtle’s Dahanu Flipper he mentioned in his presentation. He also mentioned that he had gone through four different flippers that were already made, including, he mentioned, the Dahanu flipper from Mumbai, prepared by me. Taking history and some notes from these flippers, he made his flipper. He mentioned and also clearly said that some others, had already made these efforts, also. So, I was very happy to know that if not in India but at least, abroad, it got pointed out.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you get to meet him?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Yes, yes. I met him and he was very happy to meet me also. We are very good friends now. If there is any difficulty I face, I always send that case to him and take his advise also. It was a nice experience.

Lalitha Krishnan: (I took this opportunity to talk to some of the volunteers.)

Volunteer Raymond D’souza: (Translation) I work with Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association. You asked me about the artificial flipper. We had given our ‘Namo’ turtle the artificial flipper. It was the first use of an artificial flipper in India. It was also successful.

The other first in Maharashtra is that we put microchips for sea turtles and released them into the sea. The idea of microchipping is that if and when the turtle returns after 2-3 years, we can identify that the turtle, by taking a reading and know it has come to us before.

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Following WCAWA staff (on the bike ahead) on a suspected snake rescue call

 Lalitha Krishnan: I asked Dr. Vinherkar about the other wildlife that they rescue.

Your facility also rescues other wildlife over here, isn’t it? And because you do it so often, there is also a lot of awareness. So, what all do you rescue and what has changed in the locality…in this community?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: That is also interesting. When we started, at that time, people used to kill snakes. Here, whatever used to move, the first response was to kill. When we received calls earlier, before we reached, the animal used to die. So, we started doing a lot of awareness programmes and mostly in schools. I believe that so many children come to school and each represents one home. In each home, there is a student who comes to school. Through the students, we reach the parents. We gave them the message that they can make a difference…”You can be a part of a system where you can save wildlife and where you can coexist with wildlife.” That message these small children have taken home….they started arguing with their parents: “ No, we will not kill. We will contact this NGO. We’ll call them.” Slowly that movement started. As you have seen today… we went for a small rescue—actually it was a small lizard—but still people did not kill it, they tried to save it.

This is the difference where previously people used to run after the animal to kill it now they run after the animal to save it. I think that is the biggest difference I can see. -Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar

 Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Really. Is this the only (turtle) rescue centre on this coastline?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: This is only one in India.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re kidding.

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Releasing recovered turtles back into their natural habitat – Courtesy WCAWA

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Everywhere else there are nesting sites and release takes place. Nobody bothers about the adult ones. Why I am worried about this adult one is… when a turtle nests, it gives around 100 babies. Out of 100 babies, 5-10 get killed there and then itself just before reaching the sea. Another 20-30% get killed while going through their lifespan of one year. Remaining 10-15 only get up to adulthood, and of these, maybe 6-7 may get actual opportunity to get mated, come back to the beach, lay eggs and go back. So, from being a baby coming out of an egg to being a productive adult male or female (turtle) takes 15 -18 years. And, after that, you see this precious animal that you are seeing right now. Maximum, adults are getting affected. Our aim is to save these adults because along with these nesting sites and small hatchlings, these are your future producers. If you will not save them the100 turtles go to waste.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a point.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Because out of these 100s, these few have come to their adulthood and are ready to lay eggs next year. That’s why we are trying to save these ones so there will be an immediate effect. There are papers (which state) that even three flipper turtles lay eggs. So, that is our aim…that even a physically unfit turtle which would have died by now, if we make them a little better to survive back strongly and lay eggs. That will add up to the whole population. So why not use their reproductive ability by supporting a little bit? That is our main aim to create awareness. Secondly, see to it that they reproduce. Whether, a four flipper turtle or three flipper turtle, when they are fit enough to go back into the sea, we are of the hope that one day they will lay eggs and add up to the community. That’s our aim.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re giving them a fighting chance to survive. I don’t think anybody has actually thought of it that far. (On the other hand), hatchings are such a photo op…

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Yes, people are actually neglecting the ones that are the producing the hatchlings.

Volunteer Prakit Agarwal. (Translated): My name is Prakit Agarwal. In this last year, in 43 days, we rescued five leopards. Three leopards were rescued in Dahanu and two on the border between Dahanu and Gujarat. One of the leopards had attacked people then we trapped it in a cage and rescued it.

Lalitha Krishnan: I have never seen such a bunch of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. They’re basically a group of college students or businessmen who drop everything they are doing to rescue wildlife….and if they got a call at night, they’d still turn up..m as enthusiastically.

Volunteer Sagar Patel. (Translated): I’m Sagar Patel. I am a committee member of WCAWA. I have been working here for the past 7-8 years. Our main problem is to rescue injured turtles that are caught in nets. Once they are out, we treat them and once again return them into their natural habitat.

Our area falls in the green zone. There are a lot of snakes here. Why should we rescue snakes? Snakes actually eat rats. They help farmers. Where do snakes come? Snakes come where there are rats. Snakes follow rats into homes. Earlier, people here used to kill a lot of snakes. When we started an awareness programme, the mortality rate of snakes came down. They call us when they see a snake and ask us to rescue it. We get 15-20 calls per day..we rescue that many snakes per day.

Sometimes, when people go into the jungles with their animals, ie goats or cows and suppose the python catches them, then people injure it. So we also treat it then in the wild. What is possible for us, we do. We don’t have proper facilities, we do the best we can with what we have.

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They get 15-20 snake rescue calls a day. Pix courtesy WCAWA.

Our senior members are working for 17 years. I joined 7 years ago. WCWA has been registered for five years in 2013. We are going forward and forward. Our motto is: Go forward, don’t see backward.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: They were saying you get snake rescue calls ..how many times a day?

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: 15-20 times minimum. They are always on call.

Lalitha Krishnan: Today I saw the rescue and they didn’t have any protection. I think you really need some equipment.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: We have already suggested and demanded all these things. It will take time definitely. We have all our kits with us…but not every time. We make sure on every rescue that we go that we carry relevant equipment. Sometimes when we are in a rush we forget but we make sure in the final rescue will be proper. Now you saw it was only a lizard—for a lizard I don’t we need any equipment–but

 Lalitha Krishnan: if it was something else…

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Then, we would have waited, arranged for equipment and then left. We take the utmost care of our own safety. In the last 17 years, you can say that there is no causality in our rescue operations. But, a few scratches here and there happens. You can’t help it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. You even deal with leopards.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Yes

Lalitha Krishnan: That is incredible. Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. You’ve taught us so much more about turtles than we ever knew before.

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents

 


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