Collective Wisdom:The Best From My Guests Ep#20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dritiman Mukherjee: The Philosophy of Photography. EP#11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

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

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

Dr. Sejal Wohra: Intrepid Woman Leader Ep#5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cara Tejpal: Eco Warrior Ep#9

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

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

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

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

Suniti Bhushan: Reconnecting Children to Nature Ep#6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

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

Nina Sengupta: Your Guide to Urban Foraging Ep#18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.


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

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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Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Listen on iTunes or SoundCloud or 

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.

turtle release
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

 


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.

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Show notes (edited)

 

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #3. 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: When my daughter went to college in Haryana a few years ago, she was dismayed. “Amma, there are no trees here,” she said. Things changed subsequently; but it makes me especially thrilled today to have as my guest, a rewilder who specializes in rewilding landscapes.

I’m speaking to Vijay Dhasmana, a well-known rewilder of ‘IAmGurgaon’ fame, who has been hugely instrumental and successful in rewilding around 400 acres of wasteland (that’s approx. 300 times the size of a football field). This site is part of the Aravalli range on the edge of a millennium city, Gurgaon, near New Delhi.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation podcast Vijay. It’s so very inspiring to read about your work and hear a positive conservation story in India’s urban landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: Thank you Lalitha. Thank you for inviting me to your podcast.

Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely my pleasure. Just the scale of the ‘IAmGurgaon’ (IAG) project sounds monumental. It’s been a long and I’m sure a very interesting journey for you but not devoid of some rocky roadblocks. Could you first draw us a geological picture of the Aravalli landscape and tell us how you started on the project?

Very interesting that you use the word rocky roadblocks. Well, this place that we have been rewilding or working on for the past nine years is a rocky, hilly outcrop of the Aravallis. Aravallis, as you know, are the oldest fold mountains in the world, perhaps; much older than the Himalayas. And, they extend from Delhi all the way to Gujarat. Some geologists believe that when the Indian plate met the Tibetan plate, the Aravallis are/were under the Tibetan plate. That makes them really long range.

This 400 acres that you’re talking about which is the Aravalli Biodiversity Park where we’ve been working on to create a forest is sitting on the northern edge of the Aravallis. The Aravalli is quite diverse in its flora and fauna. It has a great value in terms of, checking the desertification that is happening on the western side. You can see the pile-up of sand on the south-western side of the Aravallis and the plant community is also rich and diverse. As you go to the south of the Aravallis, the forests become richer, the moisture regime is higher, rainfall is higher… the hills are higher. Just imagine Mt Abu, which is quite a remarkable forest. In Udaipur and beyond or Mt Abu, you get much more rain than you do in Jaipur or Delhi or Gurgaon, Haryana, where the northern Aravallis sit. So, the landscape in the southern Aravallis is much richer compared to what it is in the northern Aravallis. What you’re sitting on is a hilly outcrop. The rocks that you see is mostly quartzite rock which is formed after sandstone is metamorphosed. The top layer is that, mostly in the northern Aravalli. The park is sitting on quartzite rock, which is perhaps 1.2 billion or 700 million years old. That is the age of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. It must have gone through huge changes in this large geological timescale. When we look into rewilding, it’s important what timescale we look into. When we approached this land for rewilding, we had to negotiate in terms of what we are doing. I hope I helped create that geological picture?

Lalitha Krishnan: This is way more than I knew. Thank you. You were going to talk about how you were approached you to do the project.

Vijay Dhasmana: I have worked very closely with someone called Pradip Krishen— the man who wrote Trees of Delhi and then Jungle Trees of Central India—who was in his previous avatar, a filmmaker. He has been a mentor and a friend on this journey and has influenced me a lot. We used to work together in Sunder nursery, which was an Aga Khan Trust project. After that project was over for us, Pradip called me one day and said, “There’s a citizen’s group which is very keen on working on some landscape. Would you be interested?” So, that’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’. They contacted me and invited me to visit the site.

And when I reached there, the site was in a really, really, sad state. It was a barren landscape, mostly a barren landscape with no soil; gravel all around and few patches of Prosopis juliflora, the alien invasive species brought in around the late 19th century and propagated all over India in the 21st century. So there were few patches of that. When I got to know more about the land, read about it and saw the site more intensely, I got to know it was a mining site. There were eight stone crushers. The rocks were quarried and brought to these stone crushers where they were crushed and then sold to Gurgaon. You can imagine a picture where all these mines were being dug and Gurgaon was raising its towers. In my head, that was the visual picture for me.

That’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’ and I tried to understand their vision. Their vision, at that time, was to just plant. They had a campaign called ‘Million Trees Gurgaon’. I questioned them further, “What do you mean a million trees?” I am not a great fan of this number game you know…Million, trillion trees. It might be good for catching attention but I believe in substantial change in smaller habitats rather than just this number game of millions and billions. So I dissuaded them to not talk about a million trees. The landscape is not going to take a million trees anyway. It’s a super group of people with the right intent. They were all ready to question, understand, discuss…all of that.

Lalitha Krishnan: When people talk of rewilding” or restoring or beautifying the community—which seems to be the common parlance but may not necessarily mean the same thing— what do they mean? Can you explain what rewilding is?

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

It means that you make a list of plants…list.., there might be microhabitats, microclimates that can create a little larger landscapes of plant communities. In the case of northern Aravalli, for instance, the hill slopes are dominated by a tree called Anogeisus pendula that is called Dhau. In the valleys, you won’t see much of Dhau where there is high moisture. It is taken over by Kaim or Mitragyna parvifolia. So, every plant has a niche where they grow and their association where they grow. To understand all of that, then imitate and recreate it in a fissured landscape is what I’d say is rewilding.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re an advocate for native species. That’s what you’re talking about. What’s wrong with planting ornamental tree species in your neighbourhood?

Vijay Dhasmana: I don’t see any reason why ornamental plants shouldn’t be planted. ‘Ornamental’ is a feature-oriented approach where a native tree can be ornamental. Of course like for instance Amaltas is a forest tree of the Aravallis. In the large Indian landscape, it is a forest tree but used ornamentally now. So ornamental is not worrying for our neighbourhoods… as long as they are native. As long as they are from our landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is truly native?

Nativity is a very debated topic because they are many advocates for defining nativity and there are many advocates who don’t believe in nativity. Largely, nativity is that millions of years of evolution happened since flowering plants came to be. The plant kingdom has a kind of a symbiotic relationship with the animal kingdom, …you see that from what Darwin has studied. In this millions of years of evolution or togetherness, there is huge interdependence. Species have evolved with time. When we bring in a plant from a different landscape firstly, where are we bringing it from? For e.g., a plant, which belongs in the Himalaya or from the higher reaches of the Himalaya is native to India. But it may not work in if you plant it in Delhi; therefore it is not native to the Delhi landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about a plant from Delhi in Haryana or Gujarat or…?

Vijay Dhasmana: If it’s from Haryana, it’s part of the Aravallis but it’s about the needs of the plant. What kind of climate it needs, what moisture regime it needs. With the whole intervention of the landscape community and the horticulture community, there has been a movement of plants all over the world. People have moved plants for food, for ornamental purposes and even for rewilding.

Delhi Ridge which was planted up in the 20th century was one of the earliest, leading rewilding projects in India. So, Prosopis juliflora and many other species were brought in by the British to rewild the ridge. They didn’t want to see a barren hill behind their might built landscape. They wanted greenery and so they planted this alien invasive species called Prosopis juliflora. This plant is called Bavalia in Rajasthan which means ‘mad one’ because it just does not allow other things to grow. Very few things grow under it and it propagates itself profusely. It is a very successful species so everyone was in awe of this species. What it did it did was at the cost of the local biodiversity. Nothing was eating it. No pest was attacking it. When you say, a pest is attacking, it’s a relationship with an insect and a plant. If no bugs are eating its leaves, it means something is wrong…food is being taken away yeah?

So ornamental is not a problem, exotic is a problem, alien invasives are big problems like our Lantana camara which is a big nuisance in all our national parks and sanctuaries. In terms of planting our landscapes with exotic species or species that don’t belong to that landscape is like keeping a Himalayan bear confined in a Delhi zoo and try and provide the climate there. That’s exactly what we do when we bring in exotics from different landscapes. We put excess water in them; we nurture them and make them grow. So, they are heavy in terms of maintenance. Many species are not so heavy on maintenance if you bring them from the right climate. But if you bring them from exotic climates—like water-loving plants or plants that need more moisture planted onto a rocky ridge, they are going to suffer. Or you have to provide alternatives like keep feeding water to the plant.

Also, the relationship is not there- when you plant trees for only one species ie humans. It is pleasing to the eyes but is it doing that ecological function? Are the birds pollinating it? Or are the insects pollinating it? Is it part of the whole cycle? That has to be understood. That has to be appreciated and used in the landscape. I can go on and on…

Lalitha Krishnan: I know and that’s lovely but I’ll come back to your million trees. You did say that’s what they (IAG) had in mind initially and that’s changed but what was the purpose in your mind? What did you think when you started with the project?

Interesting. When the groups IAmGurgaon approached me, they were very keen on native plants. Because they had met Pradip and Pradip had advocated native plants. They held on to it and said, “We want to plant native plants”. In the journey after that, we all went to forests. We went to Mangarbani, we went to other landscapes in the Aravalli and understood the forests.

What was I thinking? I was initially playing along. After understanding what was in their minds, I realized what was sustainable and not sustainable. What is the vision we should lend to this place? Gurgaon, which creates the impression of a great city, has come up at a great cost. It has been spreading its wings all over the Aravallis. The whole urbanization has kind of eaten up our natural landscapes. Somehow, it felt that the vision for this place should be that we bring in—in order to celebrate the forests of Aravalli—we bring in the forest of Aravalli into the city. That was what excited the team and me: to work toward bringing the rich Aravalli forests into the city.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s amazing that you compiled a list of 200 missing native species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, and grasses. How did you go about that? Missing species? And then you managed to source seeds for a landscape that was ripped bare by mining and stone crushing and what have you. It all sounds so challenging.

Vijay Dhasmana:: It was a challenge but let me tell you, it’s not rocket science. I haven’t got any academic training in rewilding or even in plants for that matter. It is simply common sense. It’s not rocket science. What it definitely needs is understanding where to look. In the case of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, we had records of forest-kinds recorded during British times. After that, in the 60s, there is someone called Maheshwari, who came out with the Flora of Delhi. So, there are books that talk about flora that exist in different landscapes. You pick up from there and do the groundwork and say, these are the species Parker is talking about or Maheswari is talking about or somebody else is talking about. Then you go around the landscape and see the species you can make out. Then you compile your list…the candidate lists for the landscape.

The bigger challenge is to source them. When IAmGurgaon was starting the first public planting, the plants were from Punjab. It was a big learning for us. The plants which came were not the plants that were committed by the person providing them to us. There was a complete lack of understanding. Most of the trade happens in local names. Local names are quite deceptive many a time. So the plants that came were not exactly the plants we wanted. I gave a proposal to IAmGurgaon to create a nursery. We will get 20-25 maximum species from forest nurseries. As far as going to Ahmedabad, Udaipur, and Jodhpur, we would get only 20-30 species. But if we have to fulfill this vision of creating the forest we will have to create our own nursery. That’s where we began our journey of creating our own nursery.

Lalitha Krishnan: You started this project in 2011. When did you start planting?

Vijay Dhasmana: In 2011 we did a little bit of planting. We could source a little bit at the end of the monsoon season. We were able to source some plants from Jodhpur and some plants from Udaipur. I made trips to Jodhpur and Udaipur to pick up some plants. So, we were able to plant in 2011. The nursery was also started in 2011. We were lucky we got some support on a yearly basis. The first year we were only able to grow close to 35 species. In the second year, we went on to 58 odd species, then 85, then 130, and then, 160. It’s an interesting journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like raising a family.

Vijay Dhasmana: Absolutely.

Lalitha Krishnan: What was your strategy for landscaping with these species from different landscapes? I know you’re experienced but was it easy? Did you have to do a lot of research? How did you fund or manage irrigation on such a large scale?

Vijay Dhasmana: I’ll tell you the details. Firstly, when we made the list, we also bounced it with people, like Pradip for instance. He reviewed the list and said, “Oh perfect. This species should be there not here…” He gave his comments on it. Once we had made our species list, it was important… As I told you, I took my team to different forests in the Aravallis. That was the time to look at the landscape and learn from it. Where is the plant growing? How is it growing? What is the nature of its association? And that is essential, where the gardening element of rewilding comes in. You have to imitate the best that is available you know, in terms of succession….the best of the forests even if you travel in the northern Aravalli. Like in Sariska, for instance. The top canopy would be of Boswellia serrata and its companion species. That is called Salai or local Frankincense. At the top of the hills, on the brow or steepest slope of the hill, you will find this Indian Frankincense. Then there would be some associates. In some of the Aravalli hills, you’ll get Lannea coromandelica or Sterculia urens, the Ghost tree, you know, which is quite common in the Indian peninsula? And there are many other species. On the steep slopes where the runoff is very high, you will find Anogeissus pendula or Dhau tree. In the valley, the composition is different which is dominated by plants that love more moisture and has a thicker canopy. So, there are these niches where different plants grow. There are generalists also…there are specialists also. Like Dhau is a specialist. There are generalists, which grow on the slopes but also grow in the valleys.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like that term.

Vijay Dhasmana:Then there are plants that are colonizers, plants that don’t like competition…

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re talking about plants right? Not people?

Vijay Dhasmana: (laughing) Not people. Plants. And it’s so fascinating to look into the plant world from this lens you know…how plants behave. Basically, making these notes/observations and imitating them in the landscape, was what we did in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So wherever we got the opportunity of planting a Frankincense forest, we created that. The obvious choice…it’s too small a landscape to create very many pockets of diversity but we did plan it out so, on a few hills we’ll plant Boswellia or Indian Frankincense forests. A few hills we’d leave it as a Dhau forest. These rocky cliffs we want to showcase certain plants that are otherwise not seen. Like Ghost tree coming out of cut rock faces (cut) by mining and they became fabulously successful. We got a Rock-loving fig is also covering some of the rocky cliffs that you see in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So, it was imagination, it was imitation, it was a little bit of playing around with the species and the diversity but never going beyond the niches that we had observed.

Valleys have different characters but valleys have a set of species, you know. You never planted a species, which loves valleys in the hilltops. That’s how we got it done and it was fairly successful, I would say. Let me tell you: no one is growing Anogeissus pendula or even Indian Frankincense. When we planted them in 2012, they were 6-8 inches. The first thing we noticed was that they were eaten up within a couple of days because Nilgai loved all the native plants that we planted. With the exception of Adusa, every other plant was eaten by the Nilgai and cattle that used to graze in the park.

We had to build up strategies on how to protect what we were planting. Today we know we can plant a six-foot tall plant. It was a big challenge then. The landscape does not transform if you plant six inch or eight inch or a foot long plants on a rocky outcrop. It will take some time. The plant will invest all its energy into its root system-to find the right cracks where there is moisture and sustain itself to survive. That’s the strategy of plants in a rocky habitat. It won’t throw its energy into growing big until its root zones are secures and anchored well. From 2011-12 to 2015, people used to question us. “What are you doing? We don’t see anything at all.” But from 2015 onwards suddenly there was a jump in the plants and their response to monsoon. You saw a huge growth in the plants. In 2015, we got a sense of forests. All we had planted during those years began to show. It was a great moment of delight.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you very briefly tell me how you funded the project?

Vijay Dhasmana: The two founders, Latika Thukral, Swanzal Kak are from Gurgaon—all the people were from Gurgaon—Latika, is an ex-banker, Swanzal, is a practicing architect. They have a big network in Gurgaon. They had a model plan where you plant a tree and pay us for the tree. You can come and pant a tree and they were charging money for that. They convinced their family members, familiar corporates to come and plant. Individuals and groups supported the first year. When word went around that IAmGurgaon is planting and you could pay and plant—you could also plant without paying, as there were many days, which were kept for public planting which were not ‘paid’ planting. So, it caught on with the corporate world of Gurgaon. There was a commissioner called Sudhir Rajpal who gave the idea of involving corporates in rewilding this place. IAmGurgaon took that idea very seriously and took that idea in a different direction. In an innovative direction. As of today, we got an amazing 50+ corporates coming and planting at the park.

One of the benefits was that we were between Gurgaon and Delhi. We were in a prime spot. Visibility was very high. IAmGurgaon is very good at engaging the volunteers. When the corporate employees would come and plant IAmGurgaon would engage with them and tell them what we’re doing. Everybody who came to plant was affected by this. They would realize they were making a difference. Next year onwards, it became very, very easy for funding.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess people and corporates too perhaps, took pride in what they were doing together and could see what was happening to their community. That’s positive.

Vijay Dhasmana: That’s right. Very positive.

Lalitha Krishnan: But that wasn’t always the case right? When you started the IAG project proposal started as a Biodiversity Park, water conservation zone and recreational area in 2011. In 2012, a plan was officially put in place to convert the park into City forest. Am I right? They have until 2020 to implement these plans. But then in 2013, there was the talk of creating a wellness centre and spa inside the park. How did you keep the project from derailing? More importantly, how did you keep your sanity?

Vijay Dhasmana: I think this is a very important question and it’s very important your audience listens to this.

I’ve had the experience of working with conservation organizations before. For us, MoU s or Memorandum of Understanding with a government agency or whomever you were working with was very, very important. But when I came and joined the initiative of IAmGurgaon, I learnt very soon that they don’t have a MoU. They were all in kindness and good intent that they were planting without having a MoU with the government. I pushed IAmGurgaon to have a MoU in place.

It was very interesting and sweet also. They believed that they are not doing anything wrong and therefore there should be no issue… they are doing something important for the city and why the need for a MoU? As I said before, it’s a very vibrant and open group; they looked in it, pushed for a MoU. We finally got a MoU in 2012 that we should create a forest showcasing the flora of the Aravallis and make it into a water recharging zone and educational place.

That got ratified by the municipal corporation of Gurgaon but you know the municipal corporation of Gurgaon is an interesting place. It’s run by the Commissioner. Of course, it has a council but the main person who leads it is a Commissioner who is mostly an IAS officer. And, it depends on how he is perceiving that place? A lot of energy went into educating the Commissioners who came in. Their buying-in was very important for the vision of the park. So yeah, while it was envisioned as an Aravalli forest, showcasing the flora of the Aravallis, there would be…the mayor at one point went to Singapore and was very fascinated by the night safari there and came back and said, Why can’t we start a night safari here?” Another time, one Commissioner suggested, “Oh this is such a barren landscape… Why not create a crocodile park here?” Another time, another person suggested, “why not create a health spa?” All that was happening because the plants were not showing up. As I told you before, they were very young when they were planted and the landscape was a very harsh rocky landscape. Things changed from2015 onwards. In the last three years, we have been getting a good response from the municipal corporation where they now see this place is getting good visibility and is doing well. In fact, the forest Dept. got a study done through IUCN and they applauded the work done in the park.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is my next question. What has the transformation been like ecologically speaking? Would you speak about that?

Vijay Dhasmana: Sure, let me you tell you, the difficult things were not just these you know: What is the head of the organization thinking or what are the influential people talking about? It was also about the locals around. Traditionally, or in the past, this was the common land of a Nathurpur village. While the village had sold its land and people were getting richer—I often say this you know, people who were grazing in the park are now bringing their dogs for a walk—that was a huge transformation for not all of them of course but many of them getting richer by selling the land in Nathupur village. There was a huge grazing pressure in the park but not from the Nathupur village. People were coming from Rajasthan or sending cattle from various other villages. It was a big track of land, which was open for all. So cattle grazing was one big issue. We had to negotiate with the villagers and say, “OK, let’s divide the park into two halves. One half we want to strictly protect. The second half is open to grazing. We had different strategies but it came about after a lot of negotiations, a lot of questioning, and a lot of interactions with the villagers. When we divided the park into two halves, the first half started showing improvement and the second half was of course not doing so well. With time, things have changed. People have started appreciating it and we were able to convince them that cattle grazing is not condusive. Delhi built a wall. Cattle coming from Delhi were stopped.

Then, grass cutting. There were three villages that used to come and cut grass here. Again, we had to negotiate with them to cut from on half and not from the other half. They would often ask, “What is wrong with us cutting grass? The grass is not a desirable thing. We’re not cutting your trees.” So you had to go through the path of educating them that grasses are important and it’s not easy to convince someone who has been doing it for many many, years how grasses can be important for a park. Those were important challenges.

 There was a challenge of perception. There was a media campaign which was against the work we had done, consistently reporting, “nothing is happening, nothing is happening”. No one would come to you and say, “show us what you’ve done.” They would just report that nothing is happening. That was a big challenge for us. I think the physical act of rewilding was the easiest..in retrospect. All these human problems were much bigger. This huge real estate stake on the land… Haryana govt., as you know, has been very reluctant in declaring or protecting the Aravallis. There is huge real estate pressure. All that was playing around in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park and in the larger Aravalli landscape. I think I highlighted the problems broadly.

Irrigation was a challenge but the good thing about irrigation is that when you plant native species in the right niches, then, you don’t have to irrigate them too much. We irrigate only when it is extremely necessary and we don’t irrigate them after the third year. Lately, we realized that certain species don’t need irrigation for more than one year. It’s self-sustaining then. The growth will be reduced but that’s better for the plant. As I told you before, the plants are investing all their energy into the root zone. When they are comfortable, they will become big.

We also tried many other strategies. Seed ball was one. It’s now a very popular methodology for rewilding. For us, seed balls were not so successful because we get 600mm rains and most of this rain comes in three showers. Therefore the moisture regime never builds for seeds to germinate on their own. We experimented in various places with seed balls. We got some germination. We also figured out some species that were doing well compared to other species. Lately what we tried was scratching the surface. Most of the surface here is gravelly. You scratch the surface, put in the seed and cover it up. Like tilling. We got a huge response from that. Trees, shrubs; all of them responded very well to this. The challenge was you’re not going to irrigate it so how was it going to take the harsh winter, how was it going to take the harsh summer? To my surprise, I am very delighted to share with you that all the little saplings that germinated in the last monsoon went through the phase of severe winter and severe summer without any irrigation and survived. There must have been many, which died, but there is a huge percentage, which is surviving also. So, it could be there is a learning there. If you put the right seeds in the landscape, you will get more desirable results.

Lalitha Krishnan: Very briefly, again could you tell me about the transformation of the park now and, also, who are the stakeholders of the Biodiversity Park now? From being a barren land it’s now used by so many people. So, I want to know what’s happening.

Vijay Dhasmana: We have managed to add 200 species. But as we explore the Aravallis further, we see more species and we get more greedy and a little more ambitious. What rewilding has done is … I think, in 2016 a few birders came to the park. They were quite impressed with the bird population in the park. Many of them had been visiting this place but in 2016, there was a surge of bird diversity and populations. If you know about ebird- the portal where you record bird sightings in a particular site, close to 176 species were reported in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. So let me tell you there is no perennial water body. It’s a very dry landscape. It has grasses—We have more than 40 species of grasses there—and it is an open forest. This kind of forest and the number of species ie 176 is very good… amongst the best in this kind of habitat.

 We are conducting a study. JNU researchers are conducting a study and they are reporting back about bird populations and diversity. They are doing a comparative study with an unrestored site and their reports are showing how restoration work in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park has been immensely useful for the bird diversity and population.

Lalitha Krishnan; This shows that it is a healthy park now.

Vijay Dhasmana: Yes, it’s a healthy habitat now. We’ve also created vegetation plots and are trying to observe the growth of plants in those plots and making notes of them. This may culminate in a study where we can say rewilding Aravalli landscape should be done in this particular or that particular way. This big undergoing study will hopefully in five years time show us what we did right or what should be the protocol or module.

Our education programmes are underway. That’s another area of intervention that we’re going to work on more seriously and actively.

In terms of animal biodiversity, we have nilgai, jackals, porcupine, jungle cats, and mongooses, monitor lizards, many kinds of reptiles-snakes of many kinds… It’s a thriving place for insect populations. People point to me, “this leaf is eaten.” I smile back and tell them, “someone’s stomach got full.” It’s just the attitude you have to shift: insects are not pests. This is an inclusive system, not an exclusive system. In terms of biodiversity, we are hoping more species will be recorded. We will conduct more surveys in the coming years.

I have to tell you an anecdotal story. I got a call from the DFO last year. He said, “There is a leopard reported in the park and we are sending a rescue team.” They send the rescue team that was stationed there for a whole day. We have gardeners or mallis who are out on the landscape the whole day and they have found so sign of any leopard. Now, this perception is created that it is becoming a forest. So, that’s a nice story for us

Lalitha Krishnan: True. There’s nothing like a “leopard” (story) to keep bad elements away.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s a very safe park. MCG has been very supportive of this place and its vision. They have provided guards for this place and they visit themselves. Municipal Cooperation of Gurgaon is the main stakeholders of the park. The land belongs to the MCG. The neutral stakeholders are the corporates who have funded it in very many ways. There are 1000+ employees who have come and planted. We have planted one lakh plants in this landscape. Many people and children have come. Close to 60 schools have come and planted in the park on a year-year basis. All these are stakeholders. There are regular walkers in the park who swear by its wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: How wonderful for you to hear that they swear by the wilderness.

Vijay Dhasmana: There are some people who report, “There is nothing there. It’s just a jungle”. It’s also attitude. But even calling it a jungle is a compliment. Then we had various ministers to forest officials come to this place to see the work we have done. That has worked.

Lalitha Krishnan: I don’t know if you’ve partly answered this question but in your article, ‘Creating Aravalli biodiversity park, Gurgaon’ you begin by saying, “There’s’ a lot to take away from well-intended mistakes we made” So can you share your takeaway from that experience?

Vijay Dhasmana: To start with, planting right. For instance, planting. There is a big momentum at this stage in the country from the Satguru rally. There are several organizations that are swearing of planting trees everywhere. So, the intention is right which is to overcome the pressure we have created. It’s very intentioned. But it’s a mistake because you shouldn’t just plant. You should plant right. It’s not the number game. It’s the creating of habitats. If you are planting all the trees on the riverbed, it is a mistake. If you are planting trees or shrubs that are not suitable for Ladakh, then it’s a mistake.

For instance, there is the whole movement to convert the desert into woodland. You can argue about which is better but what is has to be understood and appreciated is that there is rich diversity in the desert. There is a huge movement to cover all our grasslands—the remaining of our grasslands—into woodlands. One often forgets that if you want to protect the tiger, the prey base is from the grasslands, not the woodland. In a nutshell, what I am trying to say is, intentions may be right but if the whole understanding is not there, it’s a mistake.

Our mistakes were some of these such as just planting to creating habitats which were a transformation for us. Then, appreciating the involvement of citizens. You don’t want to alienate the local community. They should be participants in the whole venture and you cannot ignore that. It will fight back.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re done with IAG right? What projects are you currently working on now?

Vijay Dhasmana: Aravalli Biodiversity park is not done yet. In terms of rewilding, yes, we have to conduct many more studies in the park. We are working on citizen’s interactions which means programmes with the citizens and children. That’s another area. Interpretation is another big area we want to work on. So we’re not done, done yet.

I am also part of another project of IAG, which is to rewild a 5k bund which was created by the British to protect the villages from flash floods. With urbanization, it has been all encroached upon and lost their meaning. Everything on the upstream side or high on the slopes has been urbanized. The Forest Dept. gave this project to IAG to create a corridor forest at a stretch of 5.2 k. We are working on rewilding that stretch and we’re almost done.

One of the very important projects for me to learn on is in Jaipur. Here we are not creating woodland, we are not creating a jungle but we are creating a jungle of sand dunes. So, this is not a woodland. We are creating grasslands and scrublands close to 300 acres in Jaipur. This land is sanctuary abutting Nahargarh sanctuary and the idea is to celebrate the plant community that you find on a dune. These are old dunes that are very settled sand dunes and are not shifting sand dunes. But their flower community is very different. So, we are rewilding with a different intent, which is to create a scrubland and grassland depicting the flora of those sand dunes. I am working on those projects.

Lalitha Krishnan: It all sounds huge and amazing and very promising. I am so grateful. My next question was if you had to do it all over again would you? But you are doing it again in a new landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s very interesting. Every time you take up a project like this, it’s a new journey. Of course, you have learned a lot like nursery creation and plants…there is a new movement now. More and more people are asking for native plants. You can see that forest nurseries have also increased and are growing native plants. So sourcing plants have become easier. At least, some species have become easier than others. So yes, every project is new and I think one has to appreciate and get excited about it. I get very iffy at the start of the project. It’s a sweet combination of the ability to do it and the nervousness of doing it. Yeah, it is exciting.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you mind sharing a conservation term or scientific word that you think is significant? Or something you like or you think is significant for you?

Vijay Dhasmana: Haven’t we done this? Rewilding?

Lalitha Krishnan: Actually, it is.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: It is a sweet word and it’s a nice word for everyone to know. Especially, in an urban landscape. It’s been such an interesting and educational talk. Thank you so much. I wish there were more people like you inspiring more people like us.

Vijay Dhasmana: If we can rewild all the gardens we have, it will give a different meaning to city life and spaces.

Thank you so much for inviting me. I feel privileged to share the small story of Aravalli Biodiversity Park and the people there doing incredible work in terms of protecting and saving the forests and forest species. We are doing a little bit in the urban landscapes.

Lalitha Krishnan:. It’s huge. It’s not little.

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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

Read articles by Vijay Dhasmana:

Aravallis – Land Art BDP article (1)

LA-48 V-Dhasmana Arvali-Biodiversity-Park

Vijay can be contacted at:vijay.dhasmana@gmail.com

 


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