Seena Narayanan Tells us About the Secret Life of Dung Beetles in Less than 20 Minutes.

Beetle (Terracotta) by Lalitha Krishnan

Heart of Conservation podcast. EP#28 Show notes (Edited)

Hi there, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season 4, Episode 28 of Heart of Conservation. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us all connected to our natural world.

We hear of people following the butterfly trail,  or kids chasing frogs and catching worms, but beetle watching isn’t a thing as far as I know. But my guest on this episode is passionate about the real dung beetles so much so it was the topic of her PhD research. Three new species of dung beetles have been discovered and named by her. I’m speaking to  Seena Narayanan, a Senior Research Associate & Assistant Museum Curator at ATREE. She has prepared species pages for the Scarabaeine dung beetles of the Indian subcontinent and manages a growing insect collection at the ATREE Insect Museum in Bangalore. Seena thank you so much for joining me on Heart of Conservation.

0:59

Seena Narayanan: It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: Now, according to Wikipedia, there are 400,000 beetle species which constitute 40% of all described insects and except for the sea and polar regions they can be found anywhere on earth. And yet, we know so little about them.  Seena could you start with defining a dung beetle? So, what makes it different from other beetle species?

1:27

Seena Narayanan: The beetles are the largest order among all insects. They belong to the order Coleoptera. ‘Coleos’ means sheath-like and ‘tera’ defines wings. It’s Greek. So, for most of the insect orders, you’ll find ‘tera’ in their names. Why beetles are successful, why they are in such huge numbers is because of elytra which are the forewings which protect their transparent underwing or their body as a whole. Around the world, we find 6000 species of dung beetles. They’re different from other beetle species because they mostly feed on dung. We’re talking about Scarabaeinae today which are True dung beetles. Scarabaeinae is a subfamily of beetles and they belong to the family Scarabaeidae. This Scarabaeidae family has many subfamilies. Scarabaeinae is one among many subfamilies.  

2:48

Lalitha Krishnan: How many species of dung beetles can we find in India?

2:53

Seena Narayanan: In India, we’ll find around 500 species of the 6000 species of beetles worldwide. When I say 500 species, I am particularly talking about Scarabaeinae, the True dung beetles. So, in North-east India, we recently published a paper and we have recorded around 206 species. All over India, there are around 500 species.

3:24

Lalitha Krishnan: You discovered three species and named them. So, tell us about those.

3:30

Seena Narayanan: As the name indicates, these were mostly found in dung. They will provision their young ones also with dung but some beetles were found on other resources. I was studying these dung beetles which were found on millipedes and some mushrooms. Most of the species I discovered were from these millipedes. We got two species from the Western Ghats and one from Northeast India which was found feeding on a dead snail. These were from Onthophagus which is the most specio genus—‘Specio’ means most of the species are found under this genus. So one is called Onthophagus jwalae and the other, Onthophagus pithankithae. These two were found on millipedes and Onthophagus tharalithae which were found on snails.

4:34

Lalitha Krishnan: When you say, they are feeding on millipedes, are they feeding on dead insects or latching themselves to live ones?

4:41

Seena Narayanan: There was this particular species that was found running behind a live millipede which we found in the forest of Southern India. So, it need not only be dead millipedes that dung beetles feed on. It can even feed on the tissue of a live one. So when we got that millipede to the lab we saw that one adult was inside the body of a millipede which was alive. There are many predatory dung beetle species. Even though these millipedes produce defensive chemicals, it’s found that these dung beetles are attracted to these defensive chemicals because of the smell. The smell attracts them from far away and they come to the site.

5:35

Lalitha Krishnan: What is the dung beetle dance? I’ve read about it…

5:39

Seena Narayanan: Prof Marcus Byrne and Dr Mary Dacke were doing a series of experiments on Roller beetles. They saw these beetles rolling away from the dung balls. Let me explain. These dung beetles have different functional groups. Some of them will roll away the dung balls. These are the Roller beetles. Some will tunnel under the dung pat; these are the Tunnelers and some will just dwell in the dung pat. So, in this process, they will take away the resources to avoid competition from other beetles. Among the dung rollers, (Prof Marcus Byrne and Dr Mary Dacke) did some experiments in Africa and they saw that the Dung beetle, each time they roll a dung ball, it will climb on top of this dung ball and they will turn around and orient itself. What they’re doing in this dance is they are looking for the sun. According to that, they will orient themselves and push the ball in a straight line. They also saw that there is some kind of thermoregulation. They will rub their face in between while on top of the dung ball. This is to keep themselves cool on that hot sand. The way they orient themselves on the dung ball is called the dung beetle dance.

7:30

Lalitha Krishnan:  Lalitha Krishnan: You did mention how they nest? But could you elaborate a little more?

7:36

Seena Narayanan: As I said, this nesting is different for different functional groups. There are these tunnelers; among the tunnelers themselves, the sizes will vary. There are large tunnelers and small tunnelers. The smallest one might take the dung into the soil just under the dung pat, just some centimetres down. The largest ones like the Heliocopris dominus, the Elephant dung beetle can take the dung a meter deep. In the case of tunnelers, they take the dung under the dung pat and they tunnel under the soil. So, there can be different branches in that tunnel and what they do is they nest at the end of these branches-the tunnels. So, they will make many brood balls inside and the male and female will mate inside this tunnel and lay eggs inside these brood balls. That’s how they provide for the young ones.

8:43

And in the case of the rollers, they will just roll the dung ball some metres or feet away from the main resource and again, they will tunnel under the soil and bury these dung balls.

9:02

In the case of dwellers, what they do is, lay brood balls in the dung pat itself and lay eggs in these dungballs.

And young ones are called grubs.

Lalitha Krishnan: Grubs. Of course. Birds love them.

Seena Narayanan: They feed and change instars and pupate.

Lalitha Krishnan: What are instars?

9:28

Seena Narayanan: Instars are the different stages. So, in the end, they will produce a pupa and the adult will emerge from that. After the summer showers, once the soil gets a little wet, they will emerge. This is the time, starting of June when they start to emerge.

9:53

Lalitha Krishnan: This is also the season when birds are still feeding their young with grub for instance. You know you mentioned dung beetles feed on millipede apart from the dung of course but what else constitutes a dung beetle’s diet?

10:13

Seena Narayanan: True Dung beetles;  because they provide their brood also with dung and also they feed on dung, they’re called ‘True dung beetles’- Scarabaeinae subfamily. The adults can take in the liquid form of dung; their mouthparts are modified for even tiny particles of dung. And grubs can feed on solid dung material also. Other than that they also feed on—as I said before—the tissues of millipedes, snails, dead decaying substances and also on decaying fruits.

11:12

Lalitha Krishnan: Interesting. Earlier you had spoken about the beetle dance but I just want the audience to know that even in Egyptian mythology, the dung rolling beetle was associated with the god of the rising sun who was believed to roll the disk of the morning sun at daybreak. Scientifically, it has been proven that migratory birds, seals and other creatures too navigate by the stars. But that’s also been said of the dung beetles. Is it true?

11:44

Seena Narayanan: Yes. The experiments which Prof. Marcus Byrne and Dr Mary Dacke had done–were awarded the Noble Prize for this work. There are diurnal beetles and nocturnal beetles also, so, it’s not just in the daytime you find beetles, they’re active during the night also. You’ll find some species rolling the dungballs at night. When there is no sun, what they do is, follow the stars. That’s what the experiment results prove. They will follow the light of the milky way/stars.

12:31

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s amazing. And, like birds, do you think they get disoriented by street/building lights?

12: 39

Seena Narayanan: So, even on cloudy nights, they get disoriented according to the experiment results. When they spot the polarised lights they will get attracted to the light and keep moving. They can be some effect of street lighting etc which is very bright.

13:08

Lalitha Krishnan: What threats do dung beetles face?

13:11

Seena Narayanan: So, most of the threats are anthropogenic. There is deforestation and habitat loss. There are species-specific dung beetles like the elephant dung beetle I was talking about earlier. These specifically feed on elephant dung. As mammals reduce in number, it affects the population of dung beetles also. They have to find the resources. So, when there are lots of trees cut down,  deforestation happening, and lots of buildings coming up, there is no pasture lands for cattle to graze. All these things affect dung beetles.

14:08

Lalitha Krishnan: True. We see birds care for their young and other animals do the same of course but when it comes to insects, we don’t know much about their parental care. Perhaps, because we don’t see them too much or we don’t observe them too much.   How do beetles care for their young?  

14:30

Seena Narayanan: In the insect world there are many insects which give parental care like the Giant water bug which carries its eggs on its body to protect them. The Spittlebug produce spittle which protects the eggs kept inside. Similarly, the dung beetle provides their young ones with dung. In some species, like the largest species which lay eggs only once a year, the female will protect the young ones for a while. They stay around the nest, near their brood balls. So, in the case of larger species like the dung beetles, you’ll find some parental care.

15:24 Alright. Now Seena, would you like to tell us something about your current role at the Insect museum?

15:29

Seena Narayanan: The collections at ATREE Insect Museum are curated according to the projects and according to the insect groups the PhD students are working on. Whatever we collect from these projects and their fieldwork are part of the collections at the ATREE Insect Museum. Insects are named, labelled according to which place they are collected from, and curated. We create a database. Right now, we have two projects that are DBT funded projects for monitoring the diversity of ants and dung beetles of Northeast India and another is for edible insects of Northeast India. We have collections from most states. The second phase of the project will be coming in a couple of months. The recent collections we have are of ants, dung beetles and edible insects of North East India.

We also have parasitic wasps i.e. these wasps which belong to the Hymenoptera order. We have many new species being described.

16:52

Lalitha Krishnan: Are these from the Northeast?

16:55

Seena Narayanan: All over India. We have collections from the Western ghats. The person who recently joined our lab is working on those collections from the Western Ghats and from Northeast India.

Lalitha Krishnan: How many of you work at the Insect lab?

Seena Narayanan: Currently we have two Research Associates and four JRFs.

17:18

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you share a word or concept that will improve our understanding of dung beetles?

17:32

Seena Narayanan: As beetles are very important to the ecosystem, and they help in many services, I would say it is ‘Eco-system Services’. Through the process of relocating dung and burying them, they help in nutrient cycling and bioturbation which means the porosity of the soil increases. Then there is this secondary seed dispersal—whatever seeds are present in the dung are dispersed. And, there are some parasites which get suppressed and beetles also help increase nutrients in the soil. So, many ecosystem services are provided by dung beetles even reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

18:25

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much, Seena. What you do is so important and so interesting. And I love all the stories about dung beetles.

18:35

Seena Narayanan: Thank you Lalitha. Each insect has its own story.

18:40

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed listening to Seena and hearing all about dung beetles. Do check out the ATREE website. Heart of Conservation is available on several platforms. Do subscribe and watch out for more episodes and please spread the word. Bye for now.

https://www.atree.res.in/users/seena-narayanan

https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/insect-play

Behind the Scenes, Wildlife Rehabilitation: Jayanthi Kallam (ARRC).

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Ep #27 Part 2 Show notes (Edited)

Listen to Episode 27, Part 2 on many platforms or read on this blog.

Introduction:

Hi there, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season 4, part 2 of Episode 27 of Heart of Conservation. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us all connected to our natural world. Today, I continue my conversation with Jayanthi Kallam, Executive Director of Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Centre in Bangalore and part of her amazing team including Subeksha, Ranjana, Samiiha and Veerababu to find out what it takes to make a wildlife rehabilitation centre an efficient and successful one.

0:36

Subeksha: Hi, my name is Subeksha. I am the Rescue Coordinator here; I am also an Animal Rehabilitator and I have been working here for a year and a half now. My role involves coordinating rescues, managing the place a little bit as well. I do work with the animals directly.

Lalitha Krishnan: I understand ‘co-ordinator’ but how exactly does it work?

1:04

Subeksha: The first step to that is dealing with outside people when they call you, answering calls, giving them basic instructions on how to handle the situation till the rescue team arrives and then planning out how to go about the rescue. Which person to send, what equipment will be needed for the rescue, figuring all of that out… How to optimize so that…on some days we do get a whole lot of rescues.

-Subeksha (Animal coordinator at ARRC)

1:30

Lalitha Krishnan: What is a whole lot?

1:32

Subeksha: Depends on the season. Right now we are getting into the season where we are getting a lot of baby animals coming in. We also have a lot of Manja (kite string with glued-on glass) cases coming in so some days rescues may go up from 15-20 rescues a day. So I’m making sure it’s all done efficiently and animals get rescued on time. So I’m coordinating that.

1:54

Lalitha Krishnan: And when you speak about making a plan, how long does that take to make a plan when you get a rescue call?

2:01

Subeksha: It is very dynamic. So, a rescuer may be assigned for something else but if a situation comes up which needs more immediate attention, they will be redirected there and another person will be sent for this. So, it (the plan) has to be immediate so that it’s based on the situation. Which one gets more priority? So, yes, it’s instantaneous. It’s very dynamic.

2:22

Ranjana: My name is Ranjana. I’ve also been here for about a year and a half. I’m under training for rescue coordination and currently, I’m mainly working with animals, the rehabilitation and caretaking part with respect to feeds. One of the things we are prioritizing right now are nestlings-like you saw over there. It’s the season for kite nestlings that are coming in. So, we are prioritizing that at the moment and I also handle the social media part of it for our centre.

2:58

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. What is a typical day like for you?

3:01

Ranjana: A typical day as a rehabilitator…we mainly start about 6:00 am. We do a check on all the animals that are currently at the centre. Any critical animal will get immediate care/intervention. Post that, we get on to feeds. Each animal has to be reviewed with respect to what feeds they are on. If they’re weak, they’re put on fluids and things like that. So, that has to be taken care of. So once the feeds are done, we get on to two different things at the moment. One is the ICU where we have animals like kites and crows and the other section is the neonatal part where we have younger, smaller birds and squirrels and animals like that.

3:43

Ranjana: The schedule varies a lot with respect to both sections. So, then we have our ICU where the critical animals are attended to. Animals with wounds and medications are checked about twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the evening. Dressings, if they have to be done. If animals are eating properly. Things like that are taken care of. Post that, we also have feeds. Again, to ensure the young ones are growing well, they’re eating, if they need any intervention in case they’re not eating. And also. being able to monitor their health if they’re not looking as great, we have to intervene asap. So, this happens throughout the day and in the evening it’s more focused on the nocturnal animals. We also have a lot of owls and bats and animals like that. So, they get a little more priority.

4:40

Sameha: Hi, I’m Samiha Zele. So my daily schedule is feedings when I come in; weighing the meat that needs to be fed. So, most neonatal birds, don’t eat meats. It’s mostly fruits and seeds and the kites and crows get meat. The crows also get papaya. And then, we also have bats. They devour fruit plates. So I chop up fruits in the evening for them and then I work on filling up fluids, medicine, helping with other small duties at the same time in-between.

5:23

Lalitha Krishnan: What backgrounds are you’ll coming from? What did you do before this? Or is this your first job?

5:33

Ranjana: No, I actually studied architecture. Midway through that is when I realized that this is kind of what I wanted to do. There was a period when I was trying to combine both passions because I wasn’t ready to let go of either. So, I was working on habitat design and enclosure designs for a while at my last job and then during the beginning of Corona is when I heard about the opening and I applied for this job.

6:02

Subeksha: I actually did my Masters’s in Wildlife Science from Amity University, Noida. So, for a while, I kind of had my eyes on a rehabilitation kind of setting for a long time since that’s where I feel I fit in, in a way because that’s what I want to contribute to.

There’s a lot more to rehab than what most people think. It’s not just about rescuing animals and putting them out there. There’s a whole lot that goes into it. You have to take things like ecology and disease management…there’s so much to the field.

So, yes, I felt like this was something where I could contribute. My main focus before that was on research and I said, “Hey this would be nice to do”. At some point during my Masters, I really wanted to pursue this. That’s when I reached out and started working here. Yes, this is my first job.

7:01

Samiha: I completed high school in California and during that time, I worked in a parrot shelter. I’ve been working at a lot of different things related to conservation like little different fields in that which also include…I did a little bit of customer service and retail during certain periods. When I moved back to India in 2019, I started working as a Wildlife Education Assistant. Then, I was working in elephant research; then I was working on an independent project with another advisor in entrepreneurship during 2021. And, I just started working here in 2022 in February.

7:46

Lalitha Krishnan: Jayanthi, it’s been a tough two years for everyone with the pandemic. I want to know if the number of rescues decreased with everyone at home.

7:57:

Jayanthi Kallam: Actually no. Quite unexpectedly, post-Covid, after the lockdowns, the numbers of certain rescues cases have skyrocketed. Two things have happened that have increased our rescues. One, which applies to Bangalore particularly, is Manja (kite string) cases. A lot of people during lockdown…their contact sports were limited. Children could not go out. They didn’t have school and people were looking at ways to engage the kids as they stayed together as a family so kite flying as a sport got picked up unexpectedly because people could do that from their terraces and things like that. And suddenly, we have seen these Manja cases skyrocket post the first lockdown. And it continued to increase. And, in the second lockdown last year, it became quite worse. Just to give you an example, in July of last year, 2021, we did 910 rescues out of which close to 600 were Manjarescues. All these birds hang to these kite flying threads that get left out after people fly them. So that in fact has increased the load. On one side there was this lockdown and we had quarantine protocols you know. People’s movements were restricted and we didn’t have all of our staff available to us. On the other side, there is an increasing number of rescues that were coming our way. We could not hire new staff during that time. So, that was a challenge to go through.

9:34

The second type of challenge we faced is a lot of people in the beginning part of the pandemic assumed that bats were the reason for Corona and suddenly we started getting so many calls to remove bats from neighbourhoods. People who were tolerant of bats before—and we have worked with them-but post-pandemic they were like, “No, we don’t want bats, please remove them”. That became a lot of work… trying to convince them. In some cases, provide alternatives in some other cases. Of course, we would never get involved in the removal of a wild animal because that goes against our objective in the first place. But we had to counsel all these people who are calling and do our best to convince them to try and coexist with bats and tell them that’s not the reason… and make them understand about Covid and the bats in general and try and disassociate that connection from bats and covid. In these ways, and many other ways actually, the lockdown has brought us increasing rescue calls. And, a lot of wildlife because the roads were all free and there was no movement from people. One spotted peacocks everywhere in Bangalore; on the roads, on the terraces and things like that. So even those rescue calls have increased. Lockdown had been a double whammy for us during covid because we had to make sure we, our animals and our employees are safe with all disrupted supply chains, a disrupted workforce and at the same time, we had to attend to increasing rescue calls. But we had a great team, we got through sound and safe on the other side. So we’re very glad about that.

11:26

Lalitha Krishnan: Hats off to you and your team. It’s so strange. One doesn’t think of all these things. One is so self-occupied. Most of the time, we only care about our next meal, our this and our that.

11:41

Jayanthi Kallam: That is the purpose of a wildlife rehabilitation centre according to me. See, if there is no wildlife rehabilitation centre, all these connections that we have with the animals around us, how we impact them, how they impact us, these connections get missed and we don’t think about it unless we see an animal. So, what happens if a community has a wildlife rescue centre? They are connecting with people… they get all these different calls or encounters with wildlife. There are different things, these stories go on and on and we don’t have time to go through 10% of it now. Now, as a rescue centre, we are specializing in looking at conflict in an urban environment between wild animals and humans. We gain a lot of understanding in how to mitigate these, figure out what the real issues are, how to go forward and things like that. So, that is the purpose of a rehabilitation centre. It’s not just the animals that benefit but in a way, the community gets the benefit because now the community has a place to go to if they have any questions, issues or they want to do something for wildlife/animals around them. You know, they have a place to go to now. That’s in some ways a service to the community also I feel and not just for the animals that come through our door.

13:09

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s true. I wouldn’t have put it that way but it’s something to think about. Thank you so much, Jayanthi. Once an animal comes to you, it’s treated and has recovered, what do you do next?

13:28

Jayanthi Kallam:

Every wildlife rehabilitation centre’s primary goal or only goal is to return the wild animal back to nature. Back to its function in the wild. With that in mind, we emphasise so much on the right rescue and the right treatment which will enable us to put that animal back. Because these animals and birds have families too. They survive well in the wild where they belong.

Black kite in rehab at ARRC photographed with permission by author.

13:59

There are two types of releases that we do. If it is an adult animal or if it is a juvenile animal, we try to put them back where they’re found. If we rescued it from your neighbourhood, I’ll try to release it about 50 metres from your house, something like that. But if it’s not an adult, if it is a young animal, which came as a baby to us, it also needs to learn critical life skills to survive. So, ‘hard releasing’ is not a good solution for the animal. We do what is called a ‘soft release’. We’re not just pushing them out there to survive. They have been in our care, in a rehabilitation-controlled setting and suddenly if you release them, they will not be able to survive in the wild. So, we go through what is called a ‘soft release’ process which is we acclimatize them in a safe environment like a cage or something like that. We acclimatize them first where we are going to release them so they get used to the sights, smell and sounds of that place and after a few days of that we try to give them access to the outside and it is up to them whether they leave. If we are doing this with five birds, two of them will leave and two of them may need a little more care so they might stay back. They will go as and when they will feel comfortable with the outside world. And, if they encounter anything they are not sure of, they will actually come back. Recently we released three tailor birds, these tiny little things and in post three days of release, in the evening, they come back to this cage that we have where they feel safe. They will be allowed to come back. Slowly, once they find themselves comfortable outside, they will release themselves. This process is called the soft release process which is important to do when these baby birds and animals grow up with us.

16:04

Lalitha Krishnan: Very interesting. Jayanthi, could you share or hold a concept that you hold dear that will improve our vocabulary or perception of the wild or wildlife rescues.

16:16

Jayanthi Kallam: The whole concept behind what we do with wildlife rescues and rehabilitation and the philosophy behind it is—at least for me –is the concept of eco-centric development. We all want to develop for sure as humans but we have a choice in which way we want to develop.

Is our development going to be egocentric or ecocentric? What is eco-centric development? Eco centric development looks at humans as a subset or a part of the environment and nature as a whole. It is based on this concept that there is value and importance of nature and every life form in it and we are also part of it. Whereas, eco-centric development focuses on the parts of nature that are useful to humans. So, our effort in doing this is to foster the connection we have with animals around us and encourage people to shift more toward this eco-centric approach by making them aware of the fact that these wild animals are also part of our neighbourhoods, nature and that our actions will have an impact on them. So, let us choose our future carefully and focus on eco-centric development realizing that that development is in what our development lies and which would be more sustainable and feasible in the long run.

18:14

Lalitha Krishnan: That is so enlightening. Thank you, Jayanthi.

18:31

Lalitha Krishnan: Veerababu, how many rescue calls do you get in a day?

18:20

Veerababu (edited): There are a lot of Manja cases coming in. Summer is the start of the Manja season. December to June. This is the big season but last year this time, we did so many rescues every day, around 20-25, 30. But now awareness is more widespread amongst children also. I always tell them not to use glass-glued kite stings. Wherever I go, I tell the children, “Hey guys don’t leave these kite strings behind, they’re very dangerous.” But now, I think things are changing a little bit. Not 100% but at least 50% change in mindset is happening I feel.

19:11

Lalitha Krishnan:

On that positive note, I’ll end this episode. I hope you enjoyed listening to Jayanthi Kallam and part of her team. Do check out the ARRC website. Heart of Conservation is available on several platforms. Do subscribe and spread the word, guys. Stay safe. Bye

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

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

O:06

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

0:46

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

1:20

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

4:15

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

4:48

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright.

6:47

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice.

8:25

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

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

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

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

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

10:25

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

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

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

12:27

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

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

13:22

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

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

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

17:46

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

18:04

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

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

22:41

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

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

23:31

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

23:52

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

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

“Would you hew me to the heartwood cutter?

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

28:55

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

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

29:27

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

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

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

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

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

31:51

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

Lalitha Krishnan: What is it called?

33:35

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

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

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

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

35:40

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

35:54

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

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

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

37:31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

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

41:47

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

Yuvan Aves:

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

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

43:20

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

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

46:01

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

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

-Yuvan Aves

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

46:51

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

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

“To be curved like a river”

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

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

Yuvan Aves: Thank you Lalitha

48:26

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy Yuvan Aves. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

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

Links to Yuvan’s writings and educational material etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For MCBT volunteer program info: education@madrascrocodilebank.org

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

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

SHOW NOTES (EDITED)

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Thank you for having me.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Such a lovely childhood!

Ambika Yelankha: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambika Yelankha: Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

Women for Nature: Vena Kapoor Ep #22 Part II. Heart of Conservation Podcast

Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi! I am Lalitha Krishnan and I’m back with part 2 of episode #22 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. This is season 3. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. I’m speaking to Vena Kapoor one of the leading members of the Education and Public Engagement Programme at Nature Conservation Foundation. As an ecologist conservation researcher, she has had interesting experiences which include exploring spiders as a natural pest control agent in the rainforests of Valparai, to working in finance for NCF in Mysore. She is a recipient of the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS scholarship and holds an M.Phil in Conservation & Leadership from the University of Cambridge. She also writes conservation-related stories for children. You can read more about her on the NCF website ncf-india.org but for now, let’s hear it in her words. This interview was conducted over Skype.

Lalitha Krishnan: Vena, thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation and it really means a great deal to me.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for inviting me here, Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure! So at some point in your career you were studying spiders and snakes also I think and helping restore forests in the Western ghats and then apart from, you know, you write about urban wildlife on pavements and walls, etc…  So could you tell us about the transition from your earlier work to now?

Vena Kapoor: Sure Lalitha, I’m happy to do that. So just to set the context, I do not have a science degree I actually did my under graduation in B.Com and I think like a lot of people just went to a regular convent school which really had absolutely no kind of career guidance thing and I really didn’t have a family who, you know, where there was anybody who’s working in this, in the field that I was really interested in and my only exposure to conservation and wildlife as such were through, you know, the documentaries that they would show on Doordarshan once in a while and whatever books I could get hold of either in the school library or something that my grandfather would bring from his friends. They used to be the BBC wildlife books and things like that. So, I used to kind of pore over them and look at these pictures of exotic wildlife all over the world and really didn’t think that you know, a career in this line would be possible. Soon after my B.Com, I kind of spoke to one of my teachers who put me in touch with a couple who was running an organization in Chennai called Center for Indian Knowledge Systems. They were working on traditional agriculture and healthcare and they needed someone to help him do some research on the effects of pesticides, you know, on agricultural plants and I was very excited about kind of, you know, trying this out. And, it was quite amazing that they took on someone like me with zero work experience to kind of help them with this work. Over there, Dr Vijayalaxmi, who was one of the people who founded the organization, she for her PhD did work on spiders especially one species of spider which specializes in catching cockroaches and so the office was full of books and photographs of spiders and it just, it was completely by both accident as well as a little bit of encouragement from them that I started just looking at this group and it just got very very kind of excited about, you know, reading about the amazing diversity of spiders around us and, you know, and they were interested specifically on seeing if spiders can be used as natural pest control agents in agricultural fields, especially in paddy and so I started kind of looking into that and my first field kind of research work in fact was in the Guindy National Park in the heart of Chennai city and I started documenting the spiders there for the organization as well as for the Forest Department and that’s where my interest in spider started kind of growing and, you know, I started doing workshops and giving talks to people because I had this huge kind of collection of pictures with me and so when I finished my Masters, sorry after I worked in this organization in Chennai, I decided to kind of look at getting a degree in ecology and wildlife sciences but the only place that would accept me as a non science student was the Pondicherry University because all the other places which had a Masters programme, the requirement was that you had a kind of undergrad degree in science. So I was disappointed but, as I said Ok, you know, let me join the Pondicherry University programme and so I did my 2 years Masters there. As part of my Masters’ thesis I looked at particular species of spider-the Green Lynx spider had a relationship with a kind of plant–the jatropha plant–and the kind of foraging techniques that they were using with the plant… it seemed to have a mutualistic kind of relationship. So soon after that there was an offer up that I heard about that the Nature Conservation Foundation was looking for someone to help them with their rainforest restoration programme that they had just started a couple of years before. So in 2004, sorry in 2003 I went to Valparai, very excited because I had you know, experienced working and living in the forest just once before that for a few days and so the prospect of doing actual fieldwork and field research in a rainforest area thriving with wildlife and these really cool kind of wildlife biologist was very exciting and so… What was supposed to be a six-month stint turned out to be a 4 year kind of engagement with the work and the programme. And so, while I was in Valparai, I ended up doing a lot of things which really helped I think, me think about you know the kind of multi-disciplinarity that feel like conservation has potential for. And so in Valparai while we were doing the rainforest restoration kind of work with the tea and coffee estate companies over there, there were studies which were being done on birds in certain rain forest fragments, small mammals and fragments and but there was really a dearth of information about spider and insect life in a lot of these forest patches. So, you know, we started discussing whether I should look at documenting spiders in this particular landscape and see if the community composition, you know, changed between each of these forest fragments and what did this mean for rainforest restoration work that we were doing. Were certain groups of spiders or a certain species of spiders was it completely absent in a rain forest fragment for example that was extremely disturbed? Right? And so, there were studies to show that birds get affected by extreme fragmentation or a lot of disturbance. Some groups seem to thrive, some completely disappear, so was this the case for spiders as well? And so, I did this year-long kind of field research work in that landscape and that turned out to be not only just fun and interesting but it also became very useful to add to the documentation work that was going on in that landscape and, so you, know the species that we found were not only used to see certain, you know, some of these rainforests fragments that we were trying to restore were also bringing back the wildlife or not. It was also used a lot in public engagement programmes where specially in exhibition setups in places like that and also for writing a lot of articles and, you know, research papers and things like that. After four years in Valparai, I felt that I needed to take a break, you feel being in a kind of a place like Valparai can also kind of completely cut you off from quote-unquote normal the normal world. I felt like I was living in a bubble for too long.  So I decided to come back and I relocated to Mysore and over there I wanted to kind of assess what I wanted to do further, you know, moving forward and so I kind of went into a part-time position to start with helping the organization with a lot of the admin and accounts kind of work, hoping that that kind of work would give me the flexibility to dabble with other kinds of things that I wanted including writing and, you know, assessing whether I wanted to get into a research field or not. There was also this brief flirtation with doing, whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. or not, and then I quickly realized that a PhD wasn’t for me at that point in time at least and so while I was helping, the organization it was also going through an interesting transition at that point of time. We were having to raise funds for the institution but we were also growing slowly and so systems had to be put in place and so I headed the admin and accounts team for about 2 1/2 years and but at the same time I was also, you know, I co-wrote a book for children with Aparajita Datta on the rain forests of the North East and the animals and the plant life for the children in the schools over there. Yeah, so it’s called the Secrets of the Rainforest, again a book which is available for download for free, I can also send you a copy later on too.

But so again yeah so then after that is when I found out in 2010, early 2010, I found out that there was this kind of a new course being set up in the Cambridge University called the M.Phil in Conservation Leadership Programme and it was meant for people who had at least three to five years of experience in the conservation field and it was meant to be a programme to engage with conservation with a very multi-disciplinary kind of a lens and so, you know, there were different departments that were going to be involved – the Management Department at Cambridge, the Economics Department in Cambridge, the Geography Department in Cambridge and so it was very exciting to kind of look at, you know, the prospect of having to engage with conservation in a very disciplinary, interdisciplinary lens?

And also the kind of step back and allow me to get back in to touch with recent research which was going on. And so I was fortunate to get a scholarship from the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS fellowship programme that was again set up that year and so I got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge and it was a one year course and it was an excellent course in terms of also giving us the ability to critique conservation in the way it was being done. You know, it was also the first time I had to write essays, that was a bit challenging for me, you know, our education system is so different in terms of examination, you know, very unidirectional kind of teaching. This is the first time I was exposed to, you know, a space where we could question our teachers and have discussions and group discussions and critique and, you know, you had to do a lot of self-learning, there was library access with any book or journal that you wanted access to, so it was intense but it was extremely useful for me I think at that point in my career to get into that course.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds so interesting starting with your work. I had no idea spiders eat cockroaches but the only problem is, who if you ask somebody, which one would you prefer I’m not sure what they would say.

Vena Kapoor: Well the good thing about this particular species which loves to eat cockroaches is it’s nocturnal. You may have seen it, it comes quite often to bathroom spaces at night.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah we have large ones in our bathrooms always, they just live there so we just let them be, but we don’t have cockroaches, I don’t know what they are living on.

Lalitha Krishnan: On a more serious note, how do you persuade teachers to incorporate your nature learning curriculum and use your outreach material into their existing programme or plan?

Vena Kapoor: You know, it works sometimes, it also doesn’t work sometimes because we find that we have to keep going back to the teacher and reminding him or her that, you know, “Are you including the nature learning element in it? What do you think should be the nature learning element in it?”

Lalitha Krishnan: And not everybody is so receptive.

Vena Kapoor: At that point, they see the value in it but often because you are rushing to have to finish the portion and, you know, then you go back to your traditional kind of learning methods, right, because there’s comfort in that, there’s familiarity in that.

Lalitha Krishnan: So then do you want to talk about what resources you’ll are working on and what you’ll use?

Vena Kapoor: Sure, so we are actually now in that phase in our work where we are kind of designing our modules and our curriculum and thinking of all the different kinds of tools that we can use and one of our main goals is to make it age-appropriate and this is where we are engaging with a lot of kind of theory and practice around the education field. What other people in the education sector have been using, right?  So we kind of try and read research papers to see what kind of tools work for which age group, what are they more receptive to, right? And again, as the conservation community, we tend to rely heavily on things like posters and books, you know, and flashcards which are good but sometimes it may not be appropriate for a particular age group, so we’re also trying to bring in elements like storytelling, poems, theater, language. You know, it can just be stick doodles, you know, it could be building blocks. So those are the kind of tools that we are trying to see what might work with different age groups, also keeping in mind that again each school will have access to a certain amount of outdoor space, right. One of the Govt. schools that we work with has absolutely no outdoor space, right? So what can we do in a situation like that? How do we make use of the fact that they may have one Singapore cherry tree outside the campus school campus?

So Lalitha, the other thing we do is again as part of our engagement with the teachers, are we also try and take them for a short walk around their schools, you know, because we have also realized often teachers think nature is out there. It is far away, you have to take children to a park or the zoo, you know, so often teachers would tell us you know we need a day off or two days then will take the children to Cubbon Park or to Lal Bagh which is in Bangalore and you know then we can show them the trees and the shrubs and the creepers over there because they’re learning that in the textbook. And then we have to tell them, you know, come with us for a short walk, just a 10 minute walk around the school and we see all the examples that you want to show your children are all here actually. So you just have to kind of look around and explore your area a little bit and you will find all sorts of examples in nature that you can use. So we find that’s also sometimes very kind of powerful for a teacher to kind of come to that kind of understanding that, oh you know, “I really don’t need to take too much time off to get my children to experience nature outside the school or even within the school campus”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah exactly. I’m a big believer and, you know, just knowing your backyard and just discovering what’s there, so I think that’s great.

Vena Kapoor: Often they say, oh there is nothing, you know, what can we, how can we, what will we show children? Then we start taking them and pointing out its ‘X’, pointing out spiders, pointing out the birds and you can start seeing, you know, they really get excited about this. They say, “We have been here for 10 years in this school and we’ve never seen this”.

“Oh, I didn’t know that this was here”.

 “Oh, I didn’t realize”.

You know, that itself is again for us also it’s a form of trust-building and getting to know the teachers better. A lot of them also, you know, have become good friends of ours that also helps I think, a little bit when you have engagement with them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. You also partner with larger organizations like WIPRO so how does that work?

Vena Kapoor: Again WIPRO has a huge network of organizations and educators that they work with and support and so we try and work with some of them because they have access to schools in different parts of India and they are embedded within that school system.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of organizations are we talking about?

Vena Kapoor: So there’s this organization in Madhya Pradesh called Samavesh, they’ve been around for quite a while and they work with schools and teachers in and around Panna, the Panna Tiger Reserve. So we’ve been kind of working with them and training their trainers, so it’s like training the trainers’ programme, right? And then they take a lot of our ideas, and our kind of processes and some of the tools that we’ve designed to the teachers over there and then they end up training teachers over there based on, of course, on their local requirements. So we kind of encourage them to use their, you know, local natural history stories, you know, what is it that, what are the myths that some of the people in those areas have, right?  And so to kind of deconstruct that and to talk about that. Can that be included as part of the nature learning that they discussed with the teachers?  And then, in turn, translate to the children and to keep stressing it has to be localized, right, to their situation. So those are the kind of training programmes that we’ve also been doing and for the last one year because of COVID we’ve hardly had any, we have had almost no physical contact with the school kids, all the teachers that we work with and so most of it has gone online. So the training that we’ve been doing online, unfortunately, we have not had a chance to connect with any of the government schools that we were working with earlier because they don’t have access to the internet

Lalitha Krishnan: And they also shutting and opening so randomly one never knows there’s no stability at all right now.

Vena Kapoor: Exactly, exactly, so we are also trying to figure out, you know, how we have to approach and restructure some work. A lot of the training that we’ve been doing online has been received very well thankfully so far. People are now going back to their field areas, you know, having the discussions within their own teams as well and we’re hoping that maybe in about 5-6 months we also open this out to anybody who’s interested. So far we have been only working with groups of teachers or organizations that we, have either approached us or you know, we know and then we said OK we can offer this training to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of ….open to who? Give me an example?

Vena Kapoor: Open to any teacher educator who is interested in the space. It can be you also, we will be very happy for you to kind of participate in our workshops. And again all these workshops are open source, we are conducting them free of cost, you know, and we kind of showcase the kind of materials and the other approach that we take in the nature-learning work that we’re doing. So in a few months, we are hoping that we’d be able to conduct, you know, do workshops for anyone who’s interested in. It can be even parents who are kind of homeschooling their children, right, for example, because we think we have enough content, and also very specific examples people can use along with their school curriculum and textbooks that they use in the class.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about, you know, like village schools that don’t have Internet and very few resources and… would it be possible?

Vena Kapoor: Yes! So there again, extremely kind of cognizant of this and in fact, one of the schools, two of the schools, government schools that we worked with earlier, like I said, we didn’t have any access to them and many of them are also first-generation learners, right?  And many of them are also migrant workers’ children. So, for example in Bangalore the kids are familiar with Kannada, they can speak Kannada fluently but they still can’t read because they’ll come typically from, you know, Bihar, Rajasthan, UP, and other places. There is one Urdu medium school where Kannada again is understood and spoken but the medium of instruction for them is in Urdu, right? So they can’t read and many of them are first-generation learners, so what we did is we put together a few physical learning kits which had to be very, very kind, of which didn’t have too much text in it but relied on things like very simple poems, riddles, games put together some of these physical learning kits which we are calling. Some books from Pratham as well, storybooks from Pratham as well, and we kind of distributed them to their kits so that, with the hope that their learning is not just completely cut off or shut down. There it had some pages in which they could colour and engage and you know they had to narrate stories to us and they didn’t have to do it in Kannada, they could write it in any other language or they could record it on their phones and bring it back to us if they wanted. So we gave them that flexibility.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, nice!

Vena Kapoor: It really helped that, especially in one of the schools we are working with another partner organization in that space and so two of the teachers are in that particular village.  So they would also, you know, occasionally try and connect with the children at a social distance, asked if they had any problems with some of the work that was given, you know, so there’s also some kind of dialogue which is happening occasionally. What the 2nd wave means we don’t know as yet, we are all a little worried, lots of kids have gone back to their hometowns, so we don’t even know if we meet them again, when we meet them again, what this means for their learning. So yeah, it is very painful and heartbreaking in these spaces.

Lalitha Krishnan: True, these are trying times as it is but you seem to have challenging situations, to begin with, so how do you cope?

Vena Kapoor: So within the programme and across NCF also we’re trying to kind of collaborate much more and try and do joint training sessions, now that each of us has our own little experience in our own little silos, we are now starting to talk to each other to see how we can, you know, not work… I mean yes it’s important to work you know separately as well teams because we each have our own experiences and training and, you know, on-ground experiences that we have but can we think of a more holistic kind of training programme that we can do not something that we start talking to people.

I want to maybe add that you know a lot of the work that the nature classrooms project does, a lot of it is to do with the people who are part of it as well, right?  So I have two extremely motivated wonderful colleagues, you know, who are part of this work and each of them come in with their own kind of skill sets and experiences to this work and that’s really strengthened it. So for example, early on in the work when I was thinking of this project I wanted and a person with a background in education to join, right, because we are really, because the idea was to work with schools and teachers and I thought that’s a very important kind of skill set to have or a person to kind of, you know, head that part of the work. So Roshni came on board, she doesn’t have any kind of formal training in education but she has been a teacher for 6-7 years in a school set up and she comes with a psychology background as well and she has kind of really given shape to the work in terms of understanding what teachers would, you know, react to work. How teachers would respond to certain kinds of things. The empathy factor with the teacher is also there, right, because she was a teacher herself in the space and so that became very important. Last year I had my colleague Laboni joined the project where she comes in with some experience in education and teaching and outreach but she also comes to training in design and illustration, right? So that becomes very important for us for designing our material and tools because she thinks with that hat on and she comes with that skill set and so you know. What is the kind of material and what are the shape of the material and these tools need to take in order to get someone like a teacher excited about and a child excited about as well, right? And those could take very different forms and so and so really the strength of the work right now and the way moving forward will, is the fact that all three of us come with such different skill sets and experiences and yeah and it’s exciting to work with such a diverse set of people.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, could you share a word with us that’s significant for you …related to conservation.

Vena Kapoor: For me, I think it would be ‘Natural History’ and I think that’s really what’s missing in our very well-intentioned reason for, you know, making environmental sciences compulsory in schools, there seems to be this missing element of, you know, the fascinating aspects of nature, the inter-connectedness of nature, the ability to explore and discover and connect and sensorial experiences that you can get in nature. A lot of this is part of also learning about the Natural History of different organisms and there are so many fascinating stories waiting to be told to be shared with so many people and I think they’re really missing out on the crucial element. I mean, the little bit of Twitter engagement that I have and I would think that OK people should know this, but so many people in fact say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this, thank you for sharing”.  I keep thinking, you know,  we really need to push for more natural history stories and I think that’s what is a key to get people excited and interested in nature and without that excitement and love and a feeling of wonder and connection for nature as a starting point why would people want to protect it, right, later on in life?

So, you know, we kind of push people with the narrative of climate change, climate destruction, deforestation, yes it’s important to talk about these issues which are happening maybe to adults and maybe to slightly older children but to put that emotional burden on young children I think is extremely unfair and we really need to start with getting children specially excited with nature and to feel a sense of love for nature and then to start introducing them to, you know, the connections and the inter-connectedness and then issues which are going on, the problems which we need to kind of solve.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice, yeah, it’s the right way to think. Thank you so much.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share our story and journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode, stay tuned. I’m Lalitha Krishna and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthy Matters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation podcast is available on several platforms so do check it out. Until next time, stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

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

Photos courtesy: Vena Kapoor. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Sengupta: Yes, gladly but I will start with that I will take again a little step before I go to ecotonal, that much of our lives are now locked up in the screens, you know, be it, you know, in our mobile phone or computer screen and that bit hasn’t probably changed in our lockdown period either but, you know, life happens in the periphery. So it is that peripheral vision individuals have started losing more urbanities than not but there are you know it’s becoming our character like you know we are all if you’re going in the bus or train or plane you’re still looking at a screen, we’re looking at a screen, many are watching… The screen is our lives yet our lives are happening around so this is kind of in ecologically speaking ecotone is the region which is a transition between the two 2 biological communities two ecological areas. For example, an estuary is an ecotonal area because the river meets the ocean and the land is there in that area… that confluence is the ecotonal area and naturally, the ecotone between which is the confluence between the two habitats is always richer in species than either of the two. So, you know, given the area, you know, per unit area, there usually ecotones hold more species. Now the edge effect. You can have both, a positive and negative tilt to that. Edge is something that you create, it’s not always the ecotone, not always the natural boundary. Suppose I have a boundary of the forest, the natural boundary of the forest and grassland, that is an equal ecotonal area, that area will have more species but say I have cut a forest, I have cut a road in the forest and have created an edge, that edge is the boundary between the two communities, like nothing and forest would also have quite a bit of different, you know, different creatures but usually they tend to have the more generalist species. So suddenly you are favoring the generalist species rather than the forest dweller one, so it has, it can have negative impacts also and therefore, you know, as an ecologist always say that if you were actually… have a forest is better not to have it fragmented, better not to have a cut a road or cut a railway through it because you are creating more edge and that will actually affect the forest interior species or the overall health of the forests.

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents.

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