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

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited).

Listen through an embedded player (scroll) or read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: They’re observing for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, knowingly taking them out.

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

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

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

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

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

Birdsong by hillside residents

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

Sanjay Sondhi: Nature Conservation and Livelihoods Ep #8

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Show notes: (edited)

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

Listen on SoundCloud, Google podcast, iTunes or Spotify.

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

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

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

Sanjay Sondhi: Likewise*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

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

Lalitha Krishnan: That makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Birdsong by hillside residents

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.