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

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

Heart of Conservation Podcast Episode 15 Show Notes (Edited)

Introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aditi Mukherji: Thanks so much.

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

Photo courtesy Aditi Mukherji.

Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

Batman and MothLady

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

EP#12 Show notes (Edited).

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

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


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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Seriously.

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


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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow. Nice.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a bit.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and save energy, I guess.

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s an idea.

Pritha Dey: It’s an idea.

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

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

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

Rohit Chakravarty: I’ll let Pritha answer.

Pritha Dey: Yes.

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

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

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

Pritha Dey: Yes.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Bravo.

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

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

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

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


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

Also, check out “A beginners guide to bat watching

Mammals of Indian Subcontinent

Moths Of India

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

Earthy Matters: 46th in Feedspot List of Top 75 Wildlife Blogs on the Web. Pretty Stoked.

Top 75 Wildlife Blogs, Websites And Newsletters To Follow in 2019 Last Updated Sep 19, 2019, via Feedspot

‘Heart of Conservation Podcast’ also on the Feedspot list of wildlife -podcasts.

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46. Earthy Matters

Earthy Matters

About Blog I live in the foothills of the Himalaya and welcome you to a glimpse of my world. The landscape is never the same on any two days and I’d like to share its uniqueness: all the quirks & surprises the mountains dole out. Bird & animal behavior, flowers & bugs, sky & earth, people & their stories. You’ll find them all here. Come. Grab your favourite cuppa and join me as I document wildlife through writing, podcasting and photography.
Frequency about 1 post per month.
Blog earthymatters.blog

18. Heart of Conservation

Heart of Conservation

About Podcast I want to reconnect my fellow Indians to nature through storytelling and to share everything I learn by entertaining, creating awareness, and bringing back the ‘awe’ of our natural world seamlessly.
Frequency about 1 post per month.
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Dritiman Mukherjee: The Philosophy of Photography. EP#11

Photo: Courtesy Dhritiman Mukherjee

Show Notes: Episode #11 Dhritiman Mukherjee. [Edited]


You’re listening to Heart of Conservation, your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host, Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world.
My guest today is Dhitriman Mukerjee one of India’s most reputed & sought out, nature photographers. Chances are you’ve seen Dhritiman’s photographs more than once. His work has been featured and associated with Saveus, Sanctuary Asia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times. It’s a long and enviable top-notch list that every photographer would love on their portfolio.

But what most people don’t know about him is that he is also a self-taught photographer, a mountaineer, climber, and advanced Scuba diver. Dhritiman is also of the founding members of ‘Saevus’, one of India’s leading natural history and conservation magazines. Dhritiman’s work is extraordinary but here is a photographer with a conscience. His work impacts you as it creates awareness and evokes a sense of pride and, belonging in this beautiful world of ours. This interview was recorded over Skype.

(All photos courtesy/copyrighted: Dhritiman Mukherjee)

Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman, Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have you as a guest on my show.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you and I am honoured.

Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman, you’ve been known to jump off cliffs to photographs vultures and get into dry suits and immerse yourself into the sub-zero waters to shoot penguins and seals. Could you describe what attracts you to wildlife in places like this and also explain the process of your photography in inhospitable places? It can’t be easy.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: The way I work; when I discovered people were started working with different subjects. Most people work on easily available subjects; of course, you go to Corbett, or Kahna or Kenya. You can actually drive into the park with a vehicle and see wildlife and shoot them. This is fantastic. Many people are doing this. If I am doing this then it will be a repetition. My point of view was whenever I planned my work, I try to do something which is different- less done or never done- which is actually not readily available to the mass(es). So, what is my goal? Initially, when I started photography, the most interesting part was that there was no better work like this. In wildlife photography life is always beautiful-what more can you want? You get a chance to be in the forest always or the ocean or any interesting landscape. It’s amazing. So that part was initially there. I loved to be in the field because it is away from normal life, which is, of course, good but sometimes….my main point is that I was liking it, I was enjoying it but with addition I realised that I can also contribute to science and you know, social reasons like creating awareness for conservation. For that, I mean, it becomes meaningful. So slowly, along with my enjoyment, I always tried to think about what should I do? Which work can actually contribute to science or create awareness? From that point of view, I always thought of those works that which are not done by many people. That way it becomes exclusive. Exclusive in the sense, whatever I will do, when I share it with people, it will be interesting or contributory. That way I always selected rare subjects, difficult habitats, difficult places, difficult subjects to work with. Because not many people are doing this. Also, my background is I was into outdoors. I was into mountaineering and climbing. I always loved adventure. So that was an added tool for me. So, I thought that I could actually use that tool for my photography, because, that will help in a different way. And, from that point of view actually, I started looking for difficult and challenging places and subjects.


If you talk about jumping into the frozen Baikal or Antarctica or climbing a volcano, or diving with a crocodile or Anaconda, these things I did later. Maybe, in the last three-four years. But there is another reason also. I was mostly working in India, in all landscapes, in all habitats, in different subjects. I worked in most of the landscapes of India—all the states actually— all the states of India. You saw that book I have done, The Magical Biodiversity of India? It was done to show how good our country is from a biodiversity point of view. Because India is amazing.

Lalitha Krishnan: True


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Every time I went out of India, I realised, India is best. It has so much…


Lalitha Krishnan: I agree.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Yes, all kinds of landscapes. It’s kind of a mini-world.


Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: We have deserts, 10000 km of coast, we have the Himalaya, Deccan plateau, rain forests, mangroves, sets of islands. So, you know, everything, like one complete package. So definitely, India was, you know, a most lucrative place for me to work. And the main important point was that when I started not much was done. India has so many life forms but not much was done.

Lalitha Krishnan: Can I interrupt you? When did you start?

Dhritiman Mukherjee: I started photography in 1997 but started wildlife (photography) in 2000; end of 2000 actually. In India, I covered most of the landscape and did that book Magical Biodiversity of India. Then, I thought, OK, I have done a little bit in India, if I want to see the world if I want to do something interesting outside India… with that continuation, I thought what can be the concept? So, I thought, let’s go for a magical arch; that was the kind of concept I was following. The world is so big and has so much, I cannot cover everything. So, what I can go for? I decided to work on interesting things, so that’s why I decided to include an interesting phenomenon on earth. Like you know, I climbed an active volcano, dived in Antarctica’s icebergs, in Greenland, diving with the crocodiles. Basically, from one point of view, these were difficult and challenging subjects but many people have worked with it and secondly, they (subjects) are very interesting and surprising and so I planned from that perspective. My main goal is to work on less done subjects so that I can bring those events, species or places to the masses who somewhere they are disconnected with those things. I mean, in the last 10-15 years there’s a revolution is connecting the masses with different things via the internet and you know, different media. People who have access to TV have seen a lot of things but still, there are some things that haven’ reached the masses. So that is one of the goals.

Dhritiman Mukherjee diving in the waters of Costa Rica


Lalitha Krishnan: That’ amazing and I think it reflects in all your photography. It’s not just a photograph. When you look at it you see so many things. That’s why I think your photographs are so special. And also, you’re talking of different media. The purpose of this podcast is also to reconnect people to nature. That’s great. So, along the same lines, I want to talk about something I just read about and it’s fascinated me. In 2018, you along with 5 scientists went on the iconic Abhor expedition, right? In Arunachal Pradesh. The expedition is one of great significance because of the amazing biodiversity of the area. Abhor was also visited 106 years ago as a punitive mission following the murder of Mr. Noel Williamson who was the assistant political officer of Assam back then. Your expedition almost sounds like a Darwinian kind of exploratory; a once in a lifetime adventure. You travelled into parts unknown, you discovered and recorded multiple new species as well. Can you tell us a little bit about this expedition? Because it’s huge, it’s humongous, and I think everyone should know about it.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is actually super interesting how it started. When I was at WII, I was discussing with my friends. I always thought of this multi-taxa mission because, in India, this kind of thing is not happening in good numbers. At least, I don’t know of any such kind of expeditions where scientists from different subjects participated. So, I always had a dream to go for something like this. I was discussing this there and gave a proposal to all these people, let’s all do something which will be contributory and let’s work in some area which is not explored yet. Actually, Abhijeet gave the idea about the place because he also was thinking about this Abhor expedition which was done 106 years back. So actually, it is a contemplation of the same route and a little more actually. Actually, this area is unexplored so why we called it the Abhor expedition is because that expedition which was done 106 years ago, was the baseline. When we do something in some area, after finishing the expedition, after getting all the data, we can compare the data with the past, available data which was gathered 100s of years back. That helps us see the impact of changes. We can see what is actually not there, if things have improved or what amount of destruction happened; what is the status actually? What are the changes? That gives us some ecological parameters. So, we split this area in where something was done 100+ years back and after that, not much was done. So, we went in one part and travelled along the Siang river then we went to bowling National Park… These scientists are amazing in their own field. So, I was documenting everything. For me, there were two things actually; I could see the entire region which was mostly unexplored and I got a chance to be with five scientists. I got a chance to learn a lot – I always prefer to. And, we got a few new species, new information… But we also got evidence of huge destruction and you know, habitat loss and much more. The final report is about to come but overall it was a very unique expedition for me.


Lalitha Krishnan: it sounds like a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for them and you. You bringing out the beauty of the place combined with the scientific information and discoveries… You said it so casually, “We discovered a few species”. It’s not every day that people discover new species.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: No. The truth is we were expecting more species. We actually failed to give more time in some places. And maybe the timing is very important. We went there in October and if we had gone in May or June, then probably, it might have been much better because for the herpetiform like snakes and other things they are more active during that time. So, I feel if we can do another expedition in the same route in a different time, then, probably we will get more things (species) actually.


Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Dhritiman Mukherjee: That’s the beauty of an expedition. When you go the first time, you will get to know many things you never imagined. After being there you realise OK this can be corrected or we could have done this differently. That’s the best part. So, it will be a good thing if we can repeat the same expedition.


Lalitha Krishnan: I’m going to ask you another question that you’ve been probably asked many times before. The list of cameras, lens, scopes, etc. available in the market these days is endless. How much of photography, do you think, is equipment nowadays? I don’t know if this is a good question. You’re a professional photographer but what would you tell somebody who is sort of mid-way? Is it necessary to buy rather than perfect your art?


Dhritiman Mukherjee: This is a good question actually. A question regarding equipment is a very interesting questioning for others so I would like to share. Equipment is very important for sure but sometimes what happens in wildlife photography is first we buy equipment and then we plan. This should be the reverse. You should plan something and then go for equipment. Equipment is just for your certain need and equipment can’t and shouldn’t restrict your work. Nowadays, everyone can buy equipment, it is all available here. Once upon a time, say 20-30 years back, when very few people had good equipment, the quality was very important for good or bad photography. It defined it. If you had good equipment you could develop good quality photos and people would like it. That was one important parameter. But now everyone has the equipment. People can produce good quality photos. Now what is important is the story in the photo. For me also, quality is OK. If you’re using good equipment or mediocre equipment, there will be a difference in quality but when the story becomes an important factor then, this has no value. If you produce a very interesting story with average equipment then that becomes much more important. The story or the natural history information you are providing – that becomes more important than the quality. At least for me. I take it this way. I have access to most equipment but I am not fussy about equipment these days. Once upon a time, I was very emotional about it. But now, it’s not of much importance for me because the story is the ultimate thing. What I’m showing is very important – what a photo is talking about. That is much more important than how the quality is. People see the quality; it is available actually. You can’t restrict yourself because of the equipment. Sometimes you say, “I don’t have equipment”. Work with whatever equipment you have. Even with a mobile, you can get a great snap.


Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: You can go for different stories that your mobile can take. Wildlife photography is not always about getting some tight shots. I think that time has gone. Now the content is far more important. What you’re talking about and what you’re showing.


Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great advice for anyone who is into any sort of photography I think, especially for wildlife. They just seem to think bigger is better. This is great thanks. So when I see wildlife posts on FB today, especially, if you go to a certain wildlife group or page, it’s mostly full of tiger surrounded by at least 15 jeeps and photographers carrying huge equipment. And they won’t leave that tiger alone till they get that perfect shot. I’m as guilty. I’ve also gone to national parks, gone in a jeep and tried to click a tiger but it is ridiculous. I have seen people change tires, talk on the cell phone if there’s coverage… But the scale of this in our parks today makes me just feel this is not ethical at all. The way the tiger is cornered, the patience of that animal, it’s tolerance for us…tolerating us humans…I feel it’s no different from the old shikar days when the tiger was hunted. Now we just use cameras and jeeps to hassle them. What are your thoughts on this?


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Ah, this is a very complex question.


Lalitha Krishnan: I know.


[Dhritiman Mukherjee: It’s not that easy to explain. Of course, there are issues. I have been to many tiger reserves and I have seen the situation. There are different points of view. I believe tourism is one of the finest conservation tools. If people are not going into the forest, if they are not connected or interested, there will be no lobby for wildlife. We need a huge lobby for all the participants of our ecosystem. Tourism is [word lost in translation] The problem is how we manage it. So, it is not bad if some jeeps are going into the forests. In any case, the tourism zone is not that big. It is a little part of that forest. And in that part, the road is covering 10-20% of that area. In some cases, animals don’t always get stressed. Sometimes, you see photographs of tigers just sitting while many jeeps are standing there. Sometimes it gives way. There is another perspective also. The tiger is a wild animal and it is just sitting in front of the cars. If it wants, it can actually jump 10 feet to be away from everything. But the tiger is not going. It is sitting there. It is not moving. In most of these places or some situations, the tiger can move away from the crowd but they don’t. In tourism zones, these animals are somewhere, comfortable with people. Comfortable in the sense they have accepted the presence of people and are kind of habituated to tourists. Sometimes they just ignore. That is not where you can see the stress level of the animal. But in some cases, there’s a tigress with her cubs, or they’re in a particular area and people are chasing them…sometimes, these things happen. There is no problem with tourism but rather the problem is the way we do it. Some management policies or awareness campaign or something for e.g. when people enter the park and if they can be given some instructions or advise, I think that will be helpful. I feel tourism is always fantastic.

There are some behavioural changes due to tourism that we see in wildlife but I don’t feel it is heavily harmful to animals or for the ecosystem. I feel it is helping rather than it is harming actually. So that way I am in favour of tourism. Of course, it has to be organised and sensitive tourism.


Lalitha Krishnan: : You’re so right. We absolutely need tourism but like you said, the way we do it is more important. Talking about wildlife, nowadays everybody is a photographer. We have our mobile phones and whatever. We all claim we are photographers. What in your opinion is responsible photography? How should or shouldn’t nature be documented? I think coming from you, it will be a lot for people who love wildlife but have no idea on how to be a responsible photographer.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Ok, I always love to talk about the way I work but I would never like to tell you, “you do it like this or you should do this”. I believe everyone is a sensible human being and they can take a call. I cannot suggest to people to somethings but I can tell you what I believe. If that helps then it’s fine.
For me, responsibility is the backbone of anything I do actually. The word ‘responsibility’ is a very important word for me. So, whenever I work there are two things actually: Why am I doing this? Why I am doing this is very important. There is an ethical point of view. The ‘ethical’ thing is a function of time and space and the situation. 20 years back what was ethical is not ethical now because it’s changing. What is the problem now? 20 years back you could hand count the number of wildlife photographers. But now, the wildlife photographers are close to a million in India…if you count the hobbyist or the amateur. These numbers are huge. In a narrow road, if there are one or two vehicles moving, it’s fine but if a hundred are moving then it’s not fine. It changes with time or the situation. In a park, earlier when one or two photographers were working it was not a problem. If a hundred photographers are there at a time, it becomes an issue. I am telling you this so you understand the dynamism of the situation. You have to take the call. What I do… I have some experience in the field, I try to understand in the field what I should go for or what I shouldn’t do… I take the call on the basis of the situation, not by something which is provided by someone else. It is always a call of mine on the basis of my experience, my knowledge and the present scenery of the place. For example, when 20 or 30 years back, if we saw an image of a charging elephant, we used to be very excited to see the image. We used to clap for it. We appreciated those images. Now, for me, it is no longer a good image. Because, if the elephant is charging me, it’s telling me that I was in its personal space. Someway, that animal was disturbed by me. It can be disturbed by anything. The main fundamental thing is when I am working in an ecosystem, the impact of my presence should be as minimum as possible. A charging animal shows the huge impact of my presence. That way, for me, it is no longer a good image.


Lalitha Krishnan: : You’re being invasive.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: I had images of charging animals before but evolution happens. If I am stuck in the old mindset then it is a problem of mine. We need to move on. We have to take the call. You have to understand that whatever you are doing, you are doing it for them. Why are we doing this (Wildlife Photography)? Because we’re enjoying ——-[word lost in translation]. We are lobbying for wildlife. To connect the masses with animals. And not to disturb them; not to create stress for them. So, as a photographer, I always try to take the call in the field to see to what extent I can go. I take a lot of photographs where I go very close to the subject. But it is not like I’m pushing boundaries. It is based on a lot of experiences. I love to study the individual (subject) before doing anything. So, when I photographed an American crocodile in Mexico-you can see I am taking the photo from one foot away-but it is not like I can do it for every individual. First, I try to understand the situation. If that animal is comfortable with me, it allows me…then only can I do that. I can’t push or stress them with my presence.
For sharks also, for all underwater photography, you need to be very careful, or you cannot take good shots. It is more like the animal comes close to me rather than I go close to them. In most cases, you have to be careful how much you can push. Because, after all, they are important. Whatever we are doing is for them. If we are caring about their comfort or wellness it’s not good. For me, it’s always a personal call.
When you talk about responsibility, I want to give a different example which is not directly related. I heard many people say—when they talk about their children’s career—they say, “If you go for IAS, then you’ll have a lot of power”. You’ll do your office work but if you are an IAS officer, you will have a lot of power. This is confusing. In our society, this is one type of schooling which is not right. It should be: when you are an IAS officer, you will have a lot of responsibility, not power.


Lalitha Krishnan: : Correct.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: The higher you go you will not have more “power” you will have responsibility. That is one perspective I feel we confuse with many things. Because, I have been into wildlife photography for a long time and I work a lot with many institutions, many conservation organisations, many people and many forest departments, sometimes, I get a little more access than others. Some people can think this is power. But this is not power. The more I get into into all this, the more my responsibility increases. Because I am taking that responsibility. So, whatever I do, the word ‘responsibility’ is the backbone of everything I do. I am responsible for this because I am doing this. From that point of view, it is very important for me to be sensible and responsible in the field.
I want to add another thing. There is another kind of issue which I think of which not many people will think of. I don’t know if you’re e going to ask this question…

Coral reefs:Andaman Islands, India


Lalitha Krishnan: Tell me.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: What is your favourite place or what is your favourite animal to work on?


Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to ask you… you know your photography is making an impact but if there is one project you are proud of for the change it has created? Not…


Dhritiman Mukherjee: This is a proper question. This question is fine but if you ask me, what is your favourite subject or species, or favourite places? If I name some species or place to answer that then I feel I am very much irresponsible.


Lalitha Krishnan: Okay. Why?

Dhritiman Mukherjee: There are some ethical responsibilities what I was talking about; that is how we work in the field where we have to keep this word (responsibility) in our mind. Where we cannot do anything which will actually do harm or damage the ecosystem. That is one part. Then, there is another part – our thought process. Though the process which I am going to tell you now about favourite species etc. It’s like this. You have 10 children and I ask you, who is your favourite? If you mention one, it’ll be a very illogical and irresponsible answer. Because in the ecosystem, every species and habitat is equally important.


Lalitha Krishnan: : True. True.

Dhritiman Mukherjee: Whether it’s grassland,——-[word lost in translation] or a mountain, they are equally serving their role. They have their own participants. They are all equally important. If you talk about species, from small insects to bug elephants, they all are important in the ecosystem. They have their own roles. So, you cannot be biased. So, if I am biased about a subject, then I think it is an irresponsible thought process. And you have to develop it. It is not as if when I started, I had these thoughts. Because it is a human tendency, we always love predators. That’s why we love tigers, leopards, birds … that hunt or look ferocious attract us more. It was the same with me but I had to develop This is the part of the evolution of my thought process. I developed that thinking that I cannot be biased about any ecosystem or any species. That becomes irresponsibility. So then, with those consequences you can ask me about certain choices I make: why are you working or selecting these (species)? My thought process is like this. You can have 10 children and you cannot be biased on anyone but there is a chance that one child is weaker than the others and you have to take more care of them. That is not bias. What it is when one species is injured, another is in a good state, you can work on the endangered one or give more time to that species so that it can come out of its current bad state. That is the way of selecting my priorities. It’s not being biased. I work on those subjects or place which actually are in need at that time for different reasons. Endangered species or the habitat has some problems or it is scientifically less documented. So that my way of thinking; of selecting species and places. So, if I have favourites, I think it’s irresponsible for me. This is one perspective I always thought of.


Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I’m glad you said it even though I didn’t ask the question because I’m sure a lot of people have asked you that. It’s a completely different perspective you’ve given and it makes so much sense and seriously my respect for you has gone up many, many notches because it’s all about being mindful I suppose…and responsible (while you’re) out there photographing.


Lalitha Krishnan: Cool. Now I know how you choose your subjects to photograph. But which photographer has been your inspiration?


Dhritiman Mukherjee: I want to add something. Let me answer this at the end.


Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: I initiated but forgot to tell you; I have some problems with the words, ‘best’, ‘success’, ‘failure’… Let me explain a little bit because I think it’s required. It’s similar to “favourite” things we were talking about. People sometimes people say, “Dhritiman is the best photographer”. I am surprised how one can be defined as best because it is a qualitative thing. For qualitative things, you cannot use these words: ‘best,’ ‘worst’. You cannot even say ‘good’, or ‘bad’. Think of the first tiger-photo. If you see it now, maybe you will think: Oh, it is an average photo. But when it was taken it was surprising for everyone because there were no other (tiger) photos before. It was the first tiger photo. Imagine the first tiger-photo when there were no photos at the time, then it was the best photo (available).


Lalitha Krishnan: Right.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is all so subjective. All photos are documentation of some moments, some time and some species. Time, which is already gone so somewhere it is very unique. So, all the photos are unique. It cannot be good, bad or best. So, what do we go for? Basically, what happens is people actually want to see new things. When we mistakenly say it is a bad photo, it’s a ‘seen’ photo, that which we have seen already.


Lalitha Krishnan: Hmmm.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: It is not surprising you. So, what do we go for? We go for different things, new things. We don’t go for old things that are done. What is done becomes a “bad photo”. But it is not actually a “bad” photo. It was very much a good photo at that time. At some point in time, it was fantastic but now because people have seen it, it becomes a little bit boring and then people say, Oh it is OK or not good. So, you have to understand that this good, bad, best…these words do not exist in photography or any qualitative thing. It has to be different. I mean if you are a photographer, what are you going for? You’re not going for a “good photo” or “best photo” but a different photo. Not what is done but new stories, new events.
So, what I’m saying is whether you realise this the word, ‘competition’ does not exist. When you’re out of the competition, your mind becomes healthier.


Lalitha Krishnan: Right.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Then, you’ll be out of all unethical practices where competition sometimes pushes you to do something unethical. These words don’t exist for me. I cannot be the “best” photographer. It doesn’t exist. Rather I would for being a contributory photographer where I can contribute to science or conservation.
To answer your question, who inspired me…that way, except for me, all that photographers inspire me. Whatever they are doing, all other photographers inspire me. Even what an amateur is doing is new for me. I am not doing that. That surprises and inspires me. So, what all other photographers, naturalists are doing is equally inspiring. So basically, everyone is inspiring me.


Lalitha Krishnan: That’s such a novel way of thinking. Lovely.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: It’s actually a rational way of thinking. For me, the right way. So, when you think like that it’s not novel.


Lalitha Krishnan: Maybe, not novel for you but for anybody else who is competitive for instance? This is just a different perspective no? Makes sense? Can I get back to the question about one project that you’re proud of because of the change it has created or is creating some change while we speak?


Dhritiman Mukherjee: As I told you, I have a problem with some words that I told you.


Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

The rare Narcunda Horn Bill found only on Narkunda Island, India.


Dhritiman Mukherjee:
I try to solve some issues with these eg. ‘proud’, ‘best’, ’worst’, ‘competition’ or ‘achievement’, success-failure’…These words do not work for me. I can be a little happy not proud. The word ‘proud’ has some sort of unhealthiness. People will have different opinions on that I’m sure. Whatever one does actually, for me, I feel it has not been done to the extent it can be done. I have worked on different subjects, like the Narkundam hornbill…you know about the Narkunda island which is the easternmost island in India. The Narkundam hornbill is only found on this island. They are nowhere else in the world. So me and Dr. Rahmani, Dr. Shirish Manchi, we actually went there, stayed there for 18 days. We worked there and got a lot of information on that hornbill…photographed them. So, that was pretty much a rewarding experience. In later days there were issues with the island. The Indian Navy wanted to put a radar station on the Narkunda island. The scientist and others were not happy to know that because you know, it’s such a tiny island and that kind of activity can actually ruin the ecosystem of the island. Everybody wanted to stop that activity on the island. My photos helped to convey those (conservation) messages. Everyone used my photos, even National Geographic News also used my photos. So somewhere those photos were used for conservation. So, I feel it was a little bit contributory but it’s not like a 100% thing done. It could be better.

Lalitha Krishnan: : Yes. But a start.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: I worked on different subjects. The Bengal Florican which was less documented, then, the snow leopard project was very interesting. I have been working on the brown bear which is very less done. I photographed the Western Trogopan in Himachal Pradesh which is the state bird of Himachal. There weren’t many photos of it in the wild. I did different kinds of interesting things but I never feel I did a great job. I did Okay. Sometimes I was happy about how that work helped conservation but it is not like I am satisfied. I need to be more hardworking or more fruitful with my work. I cannot be satisfied with that or proud even. In any case, I have no relation with the word.


Lalitha Krishnan: I love that. But you set very high standards for yourself and it’s actually very inspiring. So, do you have a conservation-linked term or a photography-linked word or concept that you’d like to share?


Dhritiman Mukherjee: 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. If I speak about some species you have never heard of, you cannot be emotional about it. Only when you know a little bit about it even then you can think of it. So, photos actually do that. It connects people with the natural world.
So what I did as my responsibility is to lobby for the natural world or in other words, I can say I am on a mission to create as many as possible voters for the natural world. They will talk for them (wildlife). I am, one by one, connecting individuals with different species, different landscapes so that they will be in favour of them. Actually, it will create a huge lobby for them. For me, it’s one step to the conservation of the natural world. This is what I tell newcomers to wildlife photography. Connect as many people as you can to the natural world. That will be the best step towards other things. Once the lobby is made, then you can play with it. So that’s why I try to show my images to the policymakers whenever I get a chance. Also, students or collages and schools so they will be inspired by the natural world and they will be in favour of it. If something happens where a mass voice is needed it will be easier to get that voice in favour of the natural world. That’s why I make it my baseline responsibility.


Lalitha Krishnan: : That’s a great word and the way to go forward.


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you for initiating this.


Lalitha Krishnan: Dhritiman thank you so much. It’s been a really wonderful conversation and getting to know the person behind the lens is quite fascinating. I’ve put you there as a photographer with a conscience and clearly, you are. So, thanks a lot.


I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. If you know somebody whose story should be told, don’t hesitate to write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you, I would love feedback. Stay tuned, Heart of Conservation is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Google Podcast, Himalaya app, Android, or where you listen to your podcasts. Bye for now.

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

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited).

Listen through an embedded player (scroll) or read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re observing for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, knowingly taking them out.

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

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. 

Also listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Android

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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