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

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

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

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

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

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


Lisa Mills: Thank you this is exciting.


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


Lalitha Krishnan: That really sounds encouraging.

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


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: It happens.


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

Batman and MothLady

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

EP#12 Show notes (Edited).

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

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


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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


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


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


Lalitha Krishnan: Seriously.

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


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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course.

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow. Nice.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a bit.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and save energy, I guess.

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s an idea.

Pritha Dey: It’s an idea.

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

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

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

Rohit Chakravarty: I’ll let Pritha answer.

Pritha Dey: Yes.

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

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

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

Pritha Dey: Yes.

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Bravo.

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

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

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

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


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

Also, check out “A beginners guide to bat watching

Mammals of Indian Subcontinent

Moths Of India

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents


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

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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Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: The Turtle Healer Ep#4

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

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Ep#4 Show notes (edited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you get to meet him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re kidding.

turtle release
Releasing recovered turtles back into their natural habitat – Courtesy WCAWA

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Lalitha Krishnan: if it was something else…

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. You even deal with leopards.

Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar: Yes

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents

 


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

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: the only Sherpa Person with a Ph.D. in Anthropology Studying the Sherpa People and Climate Change #1

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast

Show Notes (edited):                                                                                                                          Dr. Pasang Sherpa:                                                                                                                      Episode #1

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I am speaking to Dr. Pasang Sherpa, a young and passionate cultural anthropologist, from Nepal. She is the only Sherpa with Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas. We are at the Hanifl Centre for Outdoor Education and Environmental Study, in Landour, Uttarakhand, India. Dr. Sherpa is here in the capacity of Professor for Pitt in the Himalaya study abroad programme.

 Her research areas include human dimensions of climate change, indigenous people, and development in the Himalaya. She has worked as a lecturer in the department of anthropology at Penn State University from 2013 till 2015and is currently serving as co-director of Nepal Studies Initiative (NSI) at the University of Washington.

I’ll start with the basic question: What made you pursue cultural anthropology?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I was born and raised in Kathmandu. Growing up I was always fascinated by the differences in my grandmother’ s lifetime, then my mother’s lifetime then mine. I was always interested in learning more about the Sherpa culture and wanted to know how my grandmother lived in village herding cows, farming potatoes and my mother as a young bride came to Kathmandu. Then looking at my own life how I was attending English medium schools and speaking Nepali and not having not having any Sherpa friends actually. So, all of that fuelled my interest in the Sherpa culture and I felt that cultural anthropology would be the right academic discipline for me to learn more.

The Sherpa people are often misunderstood or misrepresented? As a Sherpa would you, agree?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: Yes absolutely. Many people think when they use the word Sherpa, they think it means a trusted guide… and that is how a lot of people use it. Including the assistants to policymakers at important policy meetings like the G8 summit. There’s actually a meeting called Sherpa Meeting for the G8 Summit. The word is also used to mean porters and high altitude guides which is how these occupations are being referred to. But the word ‘Sherpa’ actually comes from the Sherpa language ‘Sherwa’ which means ‘People from the east’ and it is a word that describes our ethnic group.

In your website, you mention being based out of Kathmandu during your Masters and completing a thesis on the Indigenous people of Nepal. Thereon your study progressed to the climate change in the Himalaya. Could you tell us what fuelled your interest in the environment and about that progression?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: In 2008 when I was working on my Masters’ thesis–this was the time when Nepal was becoming a new Nepal as in abolishing the royal Hindu kingdom– people were very excited about rights and equality and freedom of everyone in the country. That led me to look more into social inclusion and indigenous movements.

But then for my Ph.D. what I quickly realized was instead of taking a more national broad view and trying to understand it in that way it was more important for me as an anthropologist to be more specific to a location, a site, and an issue. And, because at that time I was the only Sherpa person studying Sherpa culture–and I think I still am the only Sherpa Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas–it was very important for me to understand what the Sherpas were facing. I come from the Mt. Everest region.

By 2009 when I was starting my Ph.D. programme, in the Everest region, we were hearing a lot about the potential glacial lake outburst flood. This was quite scary actually because if the glacial lake—which was what the scientists and researchers were talking about—if it would flood and if it had flooded my mother’s village would be wiped out. So, this was something very personal to me also. As the first anthropologist from the region but also as somebody who is concerned about my homeland, it was very important for me to look at the climate change aspect of the Sherpa people.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The most challenging part of my research has just been who I am actually. Surprisingly. When I began my work, I thought as a Sherpa person, as a Nepali woman it would be easy for me to meet people, collect information and data and all of that but what I quickly found out again as I was doing my fieldwork as a Nepali woman – and I do look young–if I look young now imagine 10 years ago– many people would just dismiss me as a young woman or not find me as important of a person to talk to. I think those things affected my research but in a different way, opened new ways to be creative about my fieldwork approaches. For example, most of the Sherpa research on Sherpa people previously were focused on men; also men who are very powerful. But most of my work, looking at Sherpa perceptions of climate change in the Everest region and also how various institutions have responded to climate change effects, I ended up looking at people who were previously ignored. Villages, that were not very popular and not very easy to reach for researchers and scientists-which is why they were being ignored.

I also was able to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my aunt, helping her cook meals for tourists and clean. I was not a good cleaner nor a good cook but I tried my best but I think it did open more opportunities for me to listen to actual farmers who go to the fields and who work day and night with potatoes, cabbage and whatever they were growing at that time. And also, I was able to meet with herders–who are very few now–in the Everest region. So in a way, me being a native Sherpa woman in Nepal opened new doors and helped advance Sherpa studies in that sense but on the other hand, it was also extremely difficult for me to work as a female researcher. Not just in the Everest region but more so when I was in Kathmandu, trying to meet with high-level officials. So that was my experience.

You partly answered my next question…which is how difficult is it to be a woman researcher? I understand your point about people not take you seriously or thinking that you’re too young. I wonder if this is typical across Asia or it’s the same story the world over. Also, are there a lot of women researchers out there? 

Dr. Pesang Sherpa: It’s very interesting, to me – everything is interesting because I love learning and knowing. Being a researcher here in South Asia and a young professional in the US has been very interesting. I think India is different because I am only beginning here and I have been meeting people in different capacities as professionals. So not speaking of my India experience but focusing on my Nepal experience, I definitely experienced what a lot of women researchers do – being dismissed and that just comes with the territory. Also, cases of sexual harassment while in the field, it’s a given. You just have to deal with it as a woman researcher.

 That being said, there are quite a few women researchers in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’. In fact, most of my mentors in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’ are females. But, looking at native Himalayan people, there are extremely few women researchers. I wish more people would become professional researchers. There are very inspiring young, youth leaders in the field of environment and conservation so I think in the next ten years we will see more females leading conservation and environmental work in the Himalayas.

You work must have taken to you to exotic and lesser know regions. Is there one experience that stands outs for you?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The thing that comes to mind happened a few years ago. The Everest region is very popular. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Now, in 2018, I think it’s a well-established tourist destination so it’s very easy to have a comfortable time in the Everest region. I want to talk about my experience in west (Nepal), which a lot of people consider remote and rural. Again, ‘remote’ is just a perception. What do you consider rural?

That being said, I remember this one time when we had walked for 16 hours. Some of my colleagues and I wanted to look at old trading routes of northwestern Nepali people going to Tibet. We wanted to see what the route was like…how they travelled and all of that. At around 6:00 pm our vehicle broke down in a flat area with no trees, no shelter or house or anything for kilometers. We had to cross two rivers with no bridge. We’re talking of crossing glacial rivers and icy cold water coming at high speed. We tried to fix the vehicle but it wasn’t happening. Eventually, we gave up and as a group decided to walk. I don’t remember the actual distance but our camp was 17 k away. I do remember—and this is the only time, I’ve done something like this—because there was no bridge, the water was cold and coming at high speed, we had to form a human chain to cross the river. Firstly, we took our clothes off as we didn’t want to get wet and cold. It would be impossible to walk in the night with wet clothes on. We would get sick. So the best idea for us was to take our clothes off, form a human chain and cross the river. And we did that twice. Mind you, we had no food. We were hungry, it was cold, it was windy so I started collecting horse and yak dung to burn in case we needed to start a fire. That was my brilliant idea. We kept on walking. I think some of my friends may have gotten altitude sickness. Another colleague and I were the first to reach the first herder’s hut at 10:00 pm. Luckily it didn’t rain that night and also there was a full moon. We were very lucky with that. Everyone at the herder’s hut was asleep so we had to wake them. I was so grateful to them for giving me butter tea that warmed my body. That experience always stands out for me. We reached the camp at 2:00 am. We got good food and I really enjoyed that dal bath.

Why is what you do you important? In the sense, how does it or will it translate it for ordinary citizens?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: One thing I have always been very conscious about is making sure of the way I speak, the way I use my professional experience and to present myself in a very relatable and accessible way. What I mean by this is that I try to stay away from theoretical jargons and big academic ideas—not because I think they aren’t important but because I want to be more relatable to the everyday ordinary person outside academia.

I am an academic person and I do continue to pursue academic work and I do continue to write literature but on the other hand, I also actively and consciously, in my day to day life, try to be relatable.

Earlier we were talking about my Master’s research, which was looking at indigenous issues and indigenous concerns in Nepal. Secondly, for my Ph.D. work and postdoctoral work I was looking at climate change and just environmental changes and how it was affecting the people in the mountains. All of these research questions actually come from the experiences of everyday Himalayan people. I am not going after the big, new, theoretical perspective or idea. I am not pursuing those theoretical ideas from within anthropology, the discipline, but rather I find my research questions from the local people or from local experiences. This is why I was led to looking at climate change–which is not something I started with– but later became very important to me just because that is where I am coming from and those are the issues are matter to me as a person.

Dr. Sherpa, where are you at in terms of your own goals?

Dr. Pesang Sherpa: After I finished my education, I worked as a lecturer for two years at Penn State University. I really wanted to be back in the mountains and do more research and so I joined the new school as a postdoctoral fellow and that is where I was able to visit a lot of places in the India, Nepal and the Chinese area some people know as the Kailash sacred landscapes. That is where I spent my most recent time.

In terms of what’s next for me, I am exploring ways to connect to people in different ways. Not just as an academic person but also as a researcher whose work involves what’s relevant to the Himalayan people. I am trying to think more about sustainability and climate change adaptation from the perspective of local people. This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would like to do next. Some of the things, I think, might be very helpful and useful in bringing my research findings to the local communities would be using a different medium. That is why I am so excited about this podcast experience.

I want to start a blog and share some of my research findings immediately. The first thing I would be sharing would be my research findings and work on the Sherpa diaspora. Along with Jim Fisher–another senior anthropologist who studied the Sherpas in the 1960s and built the school where my mother attended–I spent the last few years looking at the Sherpa communities in New York, Colorado

Seattle, India, Nepal trying to understand what Sherpa culture is actually. What Sherpa is and what do we mean by it? Because we’re no longer just in Nepal. The first blog that will come out next year would be focused on that project.

Dr. Sherpa do you have a favourite conservation word or term with us. help us improve our conservation vocabulary.

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

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

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Sherpa’s work visit: http://www.pasangysherpa.com/If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents


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