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.

Suniti Bhushan: Reconnecting Children to Nature Ep#6

Ep#6 Heart of Conservation Podcast Show notes (edited).

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #6. 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: I’m speaking to Suniti Bhushan Datta a consultant wildlife biologist, mountain/ wilderness-skills instructor, and nature educator, from Dehra Dun. He is my go-to person for identifying birds and bugs of Landour. Suniti is an avid endurance cyclist who gets up at 4:00 am and often rides the 30 k Doon–Landour stretch with school kids in tow. Lest I forget, he has authored a best-selling book on the birding sites around the Doon Valley He is a qualified Wilderness First Responder and has diverse interests ranging from mountaineering, photography astronomy to aviation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Hey Suniti. Welcome to Heart of conservation podcast.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Thank you

Lalitha Krishnan: You have so many skills sets and interests Suniti but I see the threads connecting them to conservation. Let’s first talk about how and why you took to conservation and your passion for Elephants and big cats.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: My interest in wildlife actually started with birds when I was about four or five years old. My mother actually gave me her old copy of Salim Ali- 2nd edition 1944-the book of Indian birds. Until then birds for me were- growing up in a bin Calcutta what basically– sparrows and pigeons. And I remember very very clearly, even now, sitting on the window in my sister’s room with the bird book open in the first really colourful bird I saw was the Coppersmith Barbet. The bird was nothing like I had ever seen even in a zoo. It was green and red and yellow and it was really close, it was about 8 to 9 feet from the window. And that is what probably started getting me interested in birds. My mother and my elder sister were bird watchers even then. I actually got interested in birds that way I think and the bird-interest has persisted since. The thing is from looking at birds it became looking at the trees that the bird was sitting on. I got interested in the trees and then I got Interested in the butterflies that were sitting on the trees and the flowers and other animals along the way. My sister once took me to a fair Where WWF had a few snakes that they were letting people handle. I got to handle a red sand boa– I still remember –I must have been 6 years old–So I got interested in reptiles along the way. That’s how my interest grew. I basically started with bird watching and I still say I am a bird watcher. I never studied bird And I don’t want to study birds… it’s an interest. When I go into a forest even though I am working with elephants Or any other thing birds are something I can fall back on When I really want to switch off and look at something else.

So yes basically I am a bird watcher and wildlife biologist, and a naturalist I guess.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, that’s interesting and of course everything is connected. I know of your interest in elephants and you studied elephant, right? This is something that is close to my heart and it bothers me. When I keep hearing of elephant deaths by speeding trains…the whole picture of injured elephants..the whole heard being traumatized, being dispersed and just bearing the wrath of villagers after that. We see such horrific pictures in the media. And it seems like the whole herd is massively impacted when an elephant dies. Especially if it’s the matriarch.

I want to know why are elephant being killed by trains so frequently In our country? It seems like more and more incidents are reported. I know that In Africa they’re using innovative methods like putting bee-pheromones into a sock to keep elephants away. What are we doing wrong? How can we prevent more elephant disasters?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s a bit of a complex problem. Because in some cases elephant populations are growing or have remained the same. The forests that they occupy are not really growing or in fact, are shrinking in many places. Not only that but the water resources that elephants are very dependent on are becoming fewer and far between. So the elephants actually have to travel between places to get to actually water and food sources. Unfortunately, these railway lines have come up bang in the middle of their migratory paths which have existed for hundreds of years if not for thousands of years. What happens is that earlier, maybe, a hundred years ago, you had very few trains, maybe you had two or three trains day. But as India’s population has grown and people need to travel more the number of trains has actually gone up. You have new locomotives that run at a speed So when the elephants actually track crossing the tracks, they don’t actually have time to get off the track. And therefore they get hit by the train. Usually, what happens you might have a baby that is stuck on the tracks and the rest of the herd will try and help it and several elephants will get killed. So even if the forest department knew there were elephants, getting them off the tracks would be a big job

There are options of mitigation and they have worked in parts of the country. For example in Uttarakhand yes, It’s actually, what I would say is a prime example of how things can actually work. In Uttarakhand, initially the forest department used to patrol the tracks but there was no connect between the forest department and the Railways. So even if the forest department knew there were elephants, getting them off the track would become a big job and ultimately the elephants would die. Somebody actually suddenly got the idea that why not connect the railways with this whole initiative and actually talked to the Railways. There was a lot of public pressure because, along with the track between Dehradun and Haridwar, elephant were dying every month.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no that’s large for large number than I imagined.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: So what happened was the first department and the railways, set up an elephant railway patrolling force. They used to patrol all day and all night. And every time they would see an elephant crossing they would signal the two stations on either side using the Railways wireless network. The station master would stop the train. Once the elephants had crossed over, the guards would give the all clear and the trains would be let through. Which actually worked in a great way in Uttarakhand. The patrolling team got an award for it from the WTI- Wildlife Trust of India so they were very motivated.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sorry but when was this?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I can’t remember exactly when it was started but it was around 2004-2005. Since when we have only had one or two elephant deaths by railway accidents on this track. The thing is if only departments get together, work together and communicate there are workable solutions. It’s a huge challenge. You have to Railways and you have a forest department trying to work together which is amazing…that they actually did this. Elephant deaths dropped by a huge margin on this stretch.

Now what’s happening in north Bengal and other places is that exactly the same thing is happening. You have railway tracks going through elephant ranges and elephants are getting knocked down in Bihar and Assam. Now why the forest departments in those states- in Bengal and Bihar and Assam- are not getting together and replicating this is probably there is no motivation to do it. Here there was actually a lot of public pressure And the forest department, you know, thought ahead about these things whereas in these places they need the political will and motivation to do this. It will work. It worked over here there is there is no reason why reason they can’t mitigate deaths in those stretches.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could we talk about elephants vocalization? Their low-frequency rumbles and roars and why they ‘re so much like us. Quoting from this book ‘Beyond Words, what animals think and feel by Carl Safina, “Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions- and that’s evidence” that they grieve and feel joy just like us. They even see to be able to communicate with whales. At least I think I read that in the book.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Elephants are amazingly vocal. They not only communicate in the audible spectrum – but audible to the human spectrum of noise but they also have low-frequency sounds. This is between 5 to 7 Hertz. Humans hear between 20 to 20000 Hertz. This is an extremely low frequency. How this was actually found was there was this woman called Katy Payne who was actually a musician. She was at Portland zoo in Oregon and she was actually recording sounds of something else. She realized that when the elephants were being fed, she was picking up some sort of a rumble on her microphone. She had a very sensitive microphone. That’s how the story goes at least. She did an experiment where she actually placed the microphone close to the elephant enclosure when they were being fed. She actually found that these elephants were emanating some sort of rumbles. That’s how she got interested and she’s probably the first one and others have studied this since. But she was probably the first person who studied low-frequency communication in elephants.

The thing is low-frequency sounds tend to travel huge distances in the atmosphere. Elephants in Africa especially take to communicate-herds tend to communicate with each other- so they’ll communicate dangers for example. Or sources of food. Males and females will communicate and with herds and vice-versa. Actually, it’s a well-studied phenomenon in Africa, not so much in India, yet. Now there are people who have sort of deciphered a very basic language that elephants use. There are rumble patterns that actually denote danger. Or a source of food. Or happiness or joy. Elephants are very complex creatures and can communicate their emotions to each other. Not only audibly but in low-frequency sounds.

And they are amazingly similar to whales for example who have on their forehead, a hollow organ- which in whales is filled with oil- but in elephants, basically, it’s like the sinus cavity in humans. That actually acts like a sort of amplifier. If you actually stand next to an elephant who is rumbling, sometimes, you can’t actually hear the sound but you can feel it….sometimes in your chest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Have you felt it?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I have felt it a few times.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh you are so lucky.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: But you need to be really close to the elephant to be able to feel this. There are certain frequencies that some humans can feel. But it’s interesting how they communicate this way.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope that we can explore that more in time.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, you are among the lucky few who have worked underJohn Wakefield or Papa John, the famous conservationist and naturalist, who introduced the concept of eco-tourism, I think, in Karnataka. Could you tell me about your time with him? Do you remember anything special? Any special moments?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Col. John Wakefield or as everyone knew him, Papa John…I actually met him in 2003 when I was at a bit loss and (wondering) what to do with myself. And he offered me a lodge in the Kabini River Lodge in Karnataka in Nagarhole National Park. 

Lalitha Krishnan: My favourite place.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, it’s a beautiful area. The whole idea was I go and work there for a year, get some experience and then do my Masters in Wildlife sciences. The thing is that Papa John had this magnetic persona so I actually ended up staying there much longer than I wanted to. But what was special about Papa John was he was, how do I put it, an old style of a naturalist. He liked observing, he had field skills and he had seen wildlife in India, which, unfortunately, generations today have lost. He had actually walked through all the forests in this part of the world – what you call   GoriChila which is basically today Rajaji Tiger Park in Landsdowne division. Even though he did shoot tigers and leopards in that area, his knowledge of wildlife in this area is just amazing. And his field skills… he is actually one of the first people who taught me–little things–like how to suppress a sneeze for example, which is interesting. He had amazing stories. One of the stories he told me is about meeting somebody walking down a path in Corbett or what is today Corbett, and having a conversation with him and later finding out that it was Jim Corbett himself.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re serious.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, He’d met Jim Corbett and later when he joined the army–he was in the jungle warfare school in Chhindwara —Jim Corbett actually taught them jungle warfare and field craft. It’s amazing. I haven’t actually met anybody else who has met Jim Corbett and actually trained under Corbett.

Lalitha Krishnan: What a privilege.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: He had also met people like F W Champion and he described FW Champion as making this amazing camera trap photographs–I’m talking of the late 1920s and early 30s—where he would use bits of magnesium in his camera flash to get photographs. It was such a precision thing. And, because he was using photographic plates, it had to be done at night. Papa had a special relationship with the elephants and I think that’s how I got my interest in elephants. Papa came to Kabini in the early 80s.

Lalitha Krishnan: Where did he come from?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: He actually worked in Tiger Tops in Nepal. The word ecotourism didn’t exist in India. Wildlife tourism was a very fledgling thing in India when he came here. He brought a brand of tourism to India, which did not exist at that time. It was luxury tourism but it was responsible for tourism. He kept it small. He didn’t want more than a certain number of rooms. He resisted. Eventually, Kabini wasn’t doing too well so the government took it over. The government, of course, wanted air conditioners and TVs in the rooms and a swimming pool. Papa John resisted this to a great extent. He didn’t believe in mass tourism. He wanted very, very small areas – when I was working there, we had, I think, six jeeps and one van and two boats that we used. Kabini is now a different ball game. They have lots of people going in.

Lalitha Krishnan: So now do they have a lot more jeeps and boats?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They have more jeeps a greater number of rooms.

Lalitha Krishnan: At least they didn’t build that swimming pool.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, not yet at least. Papa (John) brought a different brand of tourism. It was responsible tourism but it was ecotourism as it should be. He had naturalists who he trained. Many naturalists in India, including me, started their careers with Papa John learning from him, listening to his stories. He introduced me to elephants. He would sort of tell me about the elephants in Kabini. I am very sure some of the elephants, some of the tuskers certainly recognized him because they probably saw him when he first came to India in the early 80s. They must have been young…a year or two old. A lot of the elephants that were around when I was there must have seen him when they were calves. He’s seen them actually grow up. He used to tell us stories about the elephants, about elephant behavior—a lot of anecdotal evidence. He was an amazing man. He could observe things and long before we became scientists. That’s why I say that I had the privilege of being a naturalist first and then becoming a scientist. That’s complete because of Papa (John). I am a naturalist because of Papa John.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lucky. So, who is today’s Papa John for the young wannabe naturalist?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: In India, I don’t really think there is anybody like Papa John in terms of knowledge, field experience because that generation of naturalists is gone. Probably Dr. Johnsingh whom I met a few times…and he’s spoken to us at the Wildlife Institute but I didn’t have the privilege of working under him. But again, Dr. Johnsingh is a naturalist. He is a naturalist. He is a scientist but his field knowledge…his ability to recognize a bird call, to be even able to stifle a sneeze…

Lalitha Krishnan: Are you going to demonstrate that?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: (Laughing)

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a useful skill to have wherever you are not just in a forest.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s a useful skill. Both he and Papa John had a very different technique for doing it. Papa John’s technique was to put your finger on your nose and push your nose up. That’s his. That worked a lot. Dr. Johnsingh used to change it into an animal noise. He used to make it into a sambar alarm call or a monkey or langur calling. But that’s the thing is that Dr. Johnsingh again is that old style of a naturalist who recognized animal calls. He could mimic animals. I don’t know anybody else who could be able to interpret noises, calls of the jungles and track animals like Dr. John Singh and Papa John for that matter. We are losing that breed of people.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re a class apart.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They’re a class apart. Now we’ve got cutting-edge science like genetics and all the various tools and technologies that we use. Those core skills that make up a naturalist—people are losing those natural history skills—to be able to mimic birds, to be able to recognise bird calls, to be able to recognize plants and their interaction with insects and birds and other animals of the forest …and to be able to interpret that to the common man in plain and simple language. We are losing these skills.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nobody seems to have the time to do that anymore.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, In India, apart from Dr. John Singh, I don’t know too many people who can actually do that. One of my heroes is Sir Richard Attenborough. He sort of epitomizes what it is to be a naturalist and to be able to interpret scientific facts and scientific concepts into plain language.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s what’s most required. To bridge that gap or otherwise, who knows what you’re talking about.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah, and to be able to interpret that in such a way that not only do you make it easy to understand but also make it interesting. Because science can be very dry for the common man. So to actually make it interesting and make it relevant in today’s world is a skill that is very, very valuable.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is interesting and clearly, they influenced you. Suniti are there any books you recommend?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, There are many many books actually. Probably what influenced what I am doing today as a nature interpreter and working with children is this book that I happened to come across while I was browsing books on Amazon. It is this book called the Last Child in the Woods by a person called Richard Louv and that actually struck a chord with me because it talks about children losing out on the wilderness. Children growing up in an urban background sometimes don’t know the plants around them. They don’t know birds, they don’t know animals…

Lalitha Krishnan: I have a question here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes?

Lalitha Krishnan: Is it important to know the plant? Isn’t it OK to just enjoy the plant?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s as simple as this. If you love something, you want to know more about it.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: The more you know about it the more you appreciate it and enjoy it.

Lalitha Krishnan: But as a child, when you see something you like, it’s a different world. You sort of lose yourself.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: One part is that. As a child, I liked trees; I liked animals. I grew up with dogs. I didn’t know much about them but I like being around them because I found a certain peace being in nature, which nothing else, even today, matches. But I feel, over the years, my curiosity as a child and now, my curiosity as a naturalist and a scientist transcended into looking up the animal or a plant in a field guide. And, knowing more about it. And, not just knowing more about it in terms of how is it useful to humans? I want to know what butterflies use that plant or what animals feed on that plant. How does that plant help…

Lalitha Krishnan: But that happened as an adult, right?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Not just that. Even as a child. Even growing up, there were very few (guides)—apart from the bird guides— WWF had a very few, sketchy guides on plants and such so that’s how I grew. I have this sort of almost a fetish for collecting field guides because I think that more and more people are able to identify things and be able birds tell apart and tell plants and insects and butterflies apart. I think the more people appreciate nature and appreciate the role that that these things play in nature…and that’s my thing. Children today don’t know how important, and especially in urban environments—they don’t know how important plants are. They have this vague idea that yes, plants produce oxygen and that they are important to us. Plants play such a huge role in sustaining birds, sustaining butterflies, sustaining whole ecosystems.

Very recently, there was an article, I think, in the Huffington post called—I can’t find the name of the article—but they called it ‘Plant blindness’. It’s a very new phenomenon where children and adults for that matter can actually walk around and let alone know the names of the plant but they don’t notice there are plants around. That’s a sad thing. Sad, that we are losing things that we don’t even see and don’t even have any empathy for.

Lalitha Krishnan: They’ll probably notice the Mac Donalds or KFC.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: They’ll notice the Mac Donalds but they won’t notice the peepal tree growing just outside Mac Donalds. Which is sad.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, I have your book, Birding in the Doon Valley right here on my bookshelf. I think I have two copies. It’s a wonderful reference source with lovely photographs. Would you like to tell us how you came about writing this book?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: So, I was actually doing these workshops for the Tibetan schools.

Lalitha Krishnan: Here?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: All over. Here in Dehradun. They were basically nature interpretation and ecological awareness workshops. The person who was running these was this guy from Winterline nature trust. He and I got talking one day and he randomly asked me…he said, “How would you like to write a book about birds in this area – Dehradun? I said, “I don’t know whether I would get enough material for a book” And I did tell him that in my maths class in school I had actually written a chapter about the birds around Doon School. I was bored in math class, I used to sit at the back.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was wondering how it was connected.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I still have that math exercise book somewhere around with the sketchy article at the back. So he said, “OK you have a chapter about (birds of) the Doon school How about writing chapters about the rest of Dehradun?” So I told him, “I don’t know if I have enough material to write a book. I don’t know if there are that many birds in Dehradun.” He asked me, “how many bird species do you think there are off the top of your head?” I said, “I probably got about 350 species”. He said, “Why don’t you start listing them?” So that’s what I started doing. I looked up my own checklist, I looked up papers, I asked my professors at the Wildlife Institute and I compiled this checklist that chalked out around 504 species.

Lalitha Krishnan: What year was this, sorry?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: This was 2010. The numbers have gone up. I think there are 511 species that we know that exist in Dehradun. When I talk about Dehradun, I’m talking about Mussoorie, Landour, Rajaji National Park, Asan Barrage…so greater Dehradun. So, that’s how it started. I said, “OK we have 500 birds, now I need to look at all the places I can talk about. I started doing surveys. I was on a bicycle, I just took a GPS and I visited places.

Lalitha Krishnan: By yourself?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: On my own. I drove around, I cycled around and I had my GPS switched on and I started documenting trails and what birds I saw on the trails down to chaiwallas where one could stop and have a cup of chai. That’s actually how the book came about. I ended up with 15 sites around Dehradun and because we were catering to a larger audience, I also documented the route from Delhi to Dehradun along the canal. What you could see along the canal. That came up to16 sites. I had my co-author, Nikil Devasar who was kind enough to give us photographs of the birds. That’s how we put the book together.

Lalitha Krishnan: So how long did it take you doing all of this?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Oh, the idea came up in 2009 and the book was finished in 2012. So, about three years. But there was a lot of back work that went into the book because I have been bird watching in this area since I was 10 years old and so I looked up my checklists from earlier. I had notes from earlier so that also went into the book. So yeah, it was pretty much a long-term project.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s why you’re my go-to-person for bird identification.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I’m not the best person…

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re better than me and you’re the best I know.

Lalitha Krishnan: Suniti, you cycle alone and you cycle a lot. How do you connect cycling to conservation?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: I have two takes on that. Cycling for me is a way of getting to places. It’s faster than walking but it’s also silent. You can actually go cycling and not make a noise. Motorcycles make a noise. In a car, you’re sort of in an enclosed environment so you’re not connecting. But on a bicycle you’re feeling the wind, you can smell things, you can hear things. I realized this when I initially started cycling around 2012. Cycling for me was a form of exercise. I had no real connection…I didn’t really connect it with conservation or natural history and such. I used to cycle when I was a child going to Rajaji National Park…I have tiger pug marks on my cycle. Initially, when I started cycling, I realized I was hearing a lot of birds…actually seeing a lot of birds. I was visiting places where sometimes my car would not go. I had gone on mountain bike tracks… And I thought this is a fantastic way of getting children to come out of their comfort zone- their classrooms or their homes, get exercise and also be visiting these amazing areas. I recently did a cycling camp for children We went into areas where I have people asking me,-when they saw the photographs-people were asking me “Wow, where is this in India?” This is just 12 k outside of Dehradun. Amazing birdlife, amazing butterflies in all these areas which you can visit by bicycle.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s just a connection between doing some exercise, getting places and accessing these places by bicycle and getting children to use their bicycles to get to these areas. That’s my connection with cycling.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did the kids you took out enjoy the trip?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Oh, very much. They didn’t want to leave.

Lalitha Krishnan: I can imagine. It’s always so good to explore what’s around you first instead of taking a plane to some corner of the country. I always feel we have Jaberkhet and so much here – so much around us that we don’t know enough of.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: During my Masters, I made this decision to continue working in Dehradun and not go back to Nagarhole. In fact, when I joined my Masters, my plan was to do my desiccation in Nagarhole because I know the area, I know the elephants there. But then, I realized that in the valley that I grew up in –in Dehradun—there are elephants here, there is amazing bird life and because Dehradun became the capital, we are losing all of this. I said, “If I can’t save nature around my own backyard what’s the point of me going somewhere else?” These are forests, these are nature trails around the valley which basically made me a naturalist. I think I’m still trying to give back to my home as it were.

Lalitha Krishnan: Well, I’m very glad you’re here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Thanks.

Lalitha Krishnan: The trick is to get outdoors. That being said I do 75% of my bird watching from my porch. But then again, I live in Landour. What do you think are the possibilities of the much talked about Himalayan quail existing?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Well, I’ve been into that area many many times, around Benog (Tibba). The last two places where it was seen was in Nainital.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nainital and here.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: And in Mussoorie. In Benog. The thing is that the Nainital site, the Sher Ka Danda site, has become completely urbanized. There is no habitat worthy of the Himalayan quail left. It’s completely urbanized. Benog? There still is a chance. I haven’t met anybody recently but there are people who say that they have seen it. Seeing it is one thing but getting evidence is another thing.

Lalitha Krishnan: How long back was that?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Even as recently as 7-8 years ago.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yeah. It’s difficult to tell. The thing is nobody has seen the Himalayan quail since 1876. Nobody alive today has actually seen one so we don’t know whether what they saw was a mountain quail or any other quail in that area. Also, the area mountain quails live in are steep grassy slopes which are difficult to access for humans. I spoke to a forest officer who is retired now. He came up with a very good idea of using dogs to flush the area…. Dogs can go into the area and you flush them and then you can actually see them.

Lalitha Krishnan: That seems cruel no?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Not really. If you have gun dogs that are trained not to kill the prey but to just flush them, that’s one way of looking for them. Honestly, if you ask me, given the habitat and the kind of habitat loss we are having, I don’t think they exist anymore.

Lalitha Krishnan: And if they exist, let them be.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, let them be. Also, the thing is that when they did exist in the 1800s they didn’t exist in very large numbers so the likelihood of them surviving unseen by so many birdwatchers until now is unlikely.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like the mystery about them. It’s nice to have a little mystery.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is what I ask all my guests. Could you share a word or a scientific term that you like or you think is significant?

Suniti Bhushan Datta: If I may, there are two words…

Lalitha Krishnan: Please do.

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

But recently, as I mentioned earlier, I became aware of this term ‘Plant Blindness’ and that actually struck a chord with me. Even when I am walking like just now when I was walking from the Hanifl Centre to your house, I was very aware of the fact that there were certain plants that were blooming- which are still blooming after the monsoon.

Lalitha Krishnan: There are a lot of wildflowers now.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: Yes, a lot of wildflowers. The oak trees were getting new set of leaves and the ferns were going brown. The concept of plant blindness seems sad to me. That somebody can walk down a street even a city avenue street and not notice the trees or not know anything about the trees. Yeah, that struck a chord with me. I think it plays into the whole nature deficit disorder, which is also affecting adults. I know certain adults who have no clue. They live in cities…I mean two trees put together for them is a forest. Many of them are not aware of how nature affects us. Or how nature is good for our health. In many ways, a lot of mental illnesses in children are because of this nature deficit disorder because they are not exposed to greenery, they are not exposed to fresh air…the sheer peace of a forest.

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, that’s a new one for me.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It’s totally new. I didn’t realize it existed.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a good word but a sad word.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: It is a very sad word.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you Suniti Bhushan for joining me on Heart of Conservation Podcast and sharing your thoughts with us. It’s been fun, to say the least.

Suniti Bhushan Datta: My pleasure.

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 with details 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.

 

 

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Jackals in the wild

How does one begin to live the dream?

My new wannabe goal lacks the prerequisite academic backing. I don’t know anyone influential enough to open doors for me. Nor am I a donor. Scientific papers are mostly beyond my realm of understanding. I don’t recognize every other bird or ungulate. What I do know is that it’s not too late.

I want to get up close and personal with wildlife. Go out on field trips. Be involved. Inspire. Document. Help a researcher. Assist a vet. Be better informed. Tell the world. Invest in serious skills. Attempt to bridge that gap between scientists and citizens. Do what needs to be done 101%. For the rest of my life!

Goral fawn
Goral fawn

A friend, also a WII alumnus, happened to mention Wildlife Institute of India’s IV course on Wildlife Conservation for Wildlife Enthusiasts. It’s exactly what I was looking for. They hadn’t put in an age limit, so I applied. I was selected and it was everything I hoped it to be. And more. The ten-day course was divided into lecture-style classes and a field trek/trip into a core forest area.

Indispensable. Mules make it all possible.
Indispensable. Mules make it all possible.

A second revelation

I hate stereotyping but in startling contrast to the ‘government babus’ in my head, WII staff were a breath of fresh air. I interacted with charismatic and enterprising individuals from various departments. Their passion is admirable, their involvement, inspiring and their generosity in sharing, genuine.

The path of an environmentalist, as you and I know, is not an easy one. A few of our mentors joined WII as students and chose never to leave. 15-20 years on, these research scientists continue to battle on at great personal cost. Graciously, they make time to motivate ordinary people like myself. It’s humbling.

An eagle keeping watch
An eagle keeping watch

“When someone has spent decades devoted to observing certain creatures, their observations are not to be taken lightly.”-Carl Safina 

I agree. If there’s one way to learn, it’s to walk with the experts. As a trekker, the highlight of the course for me was visiting core forest areas on foot. After a few days in the field with Dr. R Suresh Kumar and Dr. Lakshminarayana—both storehouses of information—my respect for conservationists has risen several-fold.

It’s one thing to learn in the classroom about how elephants communicate. It’s another, to be startled awake by trumpeting a few yards away from where you lie, trapped in a flimsy sleeping bag.

Fresh prints are evidence of high traffic in the forests.
Fresh prints are evidence of high traffic in the forests.

 

Spotted bill ducks at the WII campus.
Spotted bill ducks at the WII campus.

This course is undoubtedly a significant one. The WII campus, tucked away in a green haven, hosts a great number of wild inhabitants. I am honestly astounded by WII’s collective wealth of expertise and by the impact they’re making, unknown to the rest of the world. I’m sure my course mates echo my sentiments. We’re a mixed bunch of adults from diverse professional backgrounds, different states, and varying ages. We were a rather enthusiastic and animated bunch: absorbing, theorizing, questioning and arguing. I can now say with conviction that there are 14 more Indian citizens in this world, who are better informed, convinced, and committed to saving our natural wealth.

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Scope of conservation lectures
Biogeography of India/History of Indian Natural History/Achievements/Challenges and opportunities in wildlife conservation /Wildlife of Himalayas: conservation through science/ Large carnivore conservation in India/Saving Tigers in a human-dominated landscape/Science and management of tiger reintroduction/ Elephant conservation challenges/ Wetland conservation in India/Saving our sea turtles/ turtle trade/ Fish conservation in India/Dealing with wildlife crimes/A need for developing wildlife forensics/ Managing wild animals in distress/ Dealing with snakes, venomous and non-venomous in India/ Introduction to classic natural history books.
And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

If you’d like to read more of my blog posts:

http://bit.ly/reserveclosetohome

http://bit.ly/HimalayanWolves

http://bit.ly/8LifeSkillsFromABird

http://bit.ly/WildernessFirstAidMussoorie

Do visit me on Instagram @lalithainsta