Dritiman Mukherjee: The Philosophy of Photography. EP#11

Photo: Courtesy Dhritiman Mukherjee

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


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

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

(All photos courtesy/copyrighted: Dhritiman Mukherjee)

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

Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you and I am honoured.

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

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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: True


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


Lalitha Krishnan: I agree.


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah.


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

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

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

Dhritiman Mukherjee diving in the waters of Costa Rica


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


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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: True.

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: I know.


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

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: : You’re being invasive.

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


Lalitha Krishnan: : Correct.


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

Coral reefs:Andaman Islands, India


Lalitha Krishnan: Tell me.

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Okay. Why?

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


Lalitha Krishnan: : True. True.

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


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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Right.


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Hmmm.


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Right.


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


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


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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: : Yes. But a start.


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


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


Dhritiman Mukherjee: There’s a disconnect between the natural world and the masses and mostly I found, many policymakers are also disconnected with the natural world. So, what I am doing right now, what I am very much concerned about or what is very relevant for this time to me, is about ‘inclusion’. Inclusion of our ecosystem, in regular policy, social structure, everything. Because there is a disconnection, it is not included in our social system. So, whenever we see things, it looks like it’s separate. When we talk about development, we feel like nature, ecosystem, the natural world, forests…is a separate world from the word ‘development’. Actually, it is all included or inbuilt. When we talk about development…if someone is doing some deforestation, and we ask, why are you doing this? They say it’s a need for development.
Development is about keeping the ecosystem inside. Do everything but keep the ecosystem intact. It is about inclusion. It is inbuilt. So, I feel we have to understand that we have to all of this into our regular system. For that, we have to connect the entire masses with nature. I do photography for this purpose. Photos are the strongest tool to connect to people emotionally. If I speak about some species you have never heard of, you cannot be emotional about it. Only when you know a little bit about it even then you can think of it. So, photos actually do that. It connects people with the natural world.
So what I did as my responsibility is to lobby for the natural world or in other words, I can say I am on a mission to create as many as possible voters for the natural world. They will talk for them (wildlife). I am, one by one, connecting individuals with different species, different landscapes so that they will be in favour of them. Actually, it will create a huge lobby for them. For me, it’s one step to the conservation of the natural world. This is what I tell newcomers to wildlife photography. Connect as many people as you can to the natural world. That will be the best step towards other things. Once the lobby is made, then you can play with it. So that’s why I try to show my images to the policymakers whenever I get a chance. Also, students or collages and schools so they will be inspired by the natural world and they will be in favour of it. If something happens where a mass voice is needed it will be easier to get that voice in favour of the natural world. That’s why I make it my baseline responsibility.


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


Dhritiman Mukherjee: Thank you for initiating this.


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


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

Cara Tejpal: Eco Warrior Ep#9

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Ep#9 of Heart of Conservation. Your podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan, bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for interesting interviews and exciting stories that keep you connected to our natural world. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo used on cover courtesy, Cara Tejpal

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

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Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited)

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

Listen on SoundCloud, Google podcast, iTunes or Spotify.

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

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

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

Sanjay Sondhi: Likewise*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Birdsong by hillside residents


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