My Decades' Old Journey in Nature Conservation, Travel & Writing
Earlier this week I got a set of questions from Vyas Sivanand, a Bangalore based senior journo of The New Indian Express, a leading national daily. This was for a feature story on my journey in the field of conservation and travel. It made me walk down my thought lane and pen down the beautiful memories I have lived over the decades with family, friends and fellow conservationists from our Tumkur-based nature club, Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC) as well as other NGOs. I’m sharing the unedited answers with you. For the published feature story, please see the link towards the end of this post.
1) How and when did your passion towards nature begin?
I grew up in Tumkur in late 70s and early 80s, when it was a very small town with the expansive Tumkur Amanikere lying in its heart. Our ancestral home is located a couple of minutes from this lake. After-school hours and weekends, particularly in monsoons, meant sprinting to this wetland and its surroundings. This beautiful lake and the hills of Devarayanadurga state forest behind, were my magnets. These, coupled with the trips made with family to Bandipur and Dharwad-Uttara Kannada at a very young age, I have not been able to get off my passion for wilderness ever since.
2) Travelling to wilderness seem to be your main passion...and what I know of, sometimes it requires tonnes of patience, especially when bird watching. How did you develop this patient hobby? How has it reflected on your life?
Into my high school in 1987, my passion for wilderness received a big boost in the form of our beloved High School Principal Late Mr. K.S.Shankar. For hours he would delve on a single poem on nature by William Wordsworth. In between he would exalt us to explore the wilderness, which inspired us no end. On weekends, small groups of boys from the school’s Bharat Scouts and Guides unit would pick our bicycles and ride up the Devarayanadurga hills where we would off-road into the forest, cross streams and climb trees. We would climb rocks in the hills surrounding Tumkur or cycle up to the wetlands and observe the surroundings for hours. I think this is when I got my dose of patience to watch birds. This made a big impact on my later years. Personally it has taught me to place my spiritual needs above materialism. And professionally I get a good night’s sleep even on days when I am under extreme work stress.
3) Tell us a bit about your journey from the beginning?
What started as off-school hours’ observation turned into a serious hobby in 1989. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India) had just launched its Nature Club of India (NCI) movement and TVN Murthy, a former student of Late K.S.Shankar took the lead and formed Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC) as part of this initiative of WWF. I joined the club; one activity led to another and I never got the time to look back.
In early 1990s, through the club, we started written documentation of the biodiversity of Tumkur District. We made checklists of every wild creature that we could identify – birds, reptiles, plants, insects and mammals, of almost every major forest and wetland around us. We started to document the threats as well. It proved decisive in our efforts to conserve these wildernesses. For example, in 1997 the checklist of wildlife of Maidenahalli grasslands and threats faced by it were used by me and Dr. Uday Veer Singh,IFS along with another of our club member Dr. Manjunath.K.R, to prepare a report to propose this area as a wildlife sanctuary. In the Government of Karnataka’s budget in February 2007, this report of ours formed a basis to declare the area as Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve, the first ever protected area in Tumkur District. There are many such examples, including Tumkur Amanikere, where our documentation efforts of early 1990s helped prevent them from being lost forever.
Towards late 1990s, we started to look beyond Tumkur district and got engaged with NGOs and agencies working to conserve western ghats. In 1997-98, we held nature camps for school kids in the wildernesses of Bhadra and Nagarahole during the annual wildlife weeks. In 1998-99, I got an opportunity to carry out a small study on the birds and butterflies of Bandipur National Park, thanks to Mr. Yekanthappa.K, IFS, Field Director, Project Tiger. During the period, I was a frequent face in wildlife counts organised in sanctuaries and national parks of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the neighbouring states. I also helped NGOs in those states, like Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWEA), with their outreach and education efforts. In 2000-01, we associated with IISc to complete two case studies as part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan – one on Bhadra Tiger Reserve and the other on Tumkur Amanikere. But all this happened as a volunteer.
In 2007, I took up my first paid job in a conservation NGO when I got a chance to work with Greenpeace India at Bangalore. From 2009-2012, thanks to Dr. Sejal Worah of WWF, I got an opportunity to work for WWF-India as Senior Communication Manager with their Species and Landscapes Programme. This stint helped me explore many well known as well as remote wilderness areas of India which I normally would not have been able to do on my own.
4) Your inspiration?
Smell of the rain soaked trees and mud, thought of the free birds, feel of the wild rivers and sight of the distant mountains inspire me. This may sound spiritual, but I don’t remember anything else recharging my soul, ever.
5) Tell us about some of your significant achievements and works...books, journals, photos, etc
A couple of days ago, after a labour of nearly 3 years, I self-published my e-book ‘How to Say Your Story - A manual for South Asia’s NGOs, CSR teams & Government agencies on communicating through written stories’. This book, probably the first of its kind in South Asia, aims to help the region’s development sector create and use stories. Anyone interested in educating their stakeholders about their work can use it to tell their story. I have not retained full copyright on the book and have released its text under ‘Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC’ meaning it can be remixed, tweaked, and built upon non-commercially provided the new work is non-commercial and acknowledges this document. I believe this small effort of mine will contribute in the fight against many of the health, environmental and social evils plaguing our nation.
In February 2012, WWF-India’s field biologist Aishwarya Maheshwari captured the first ever camera trap images of a snow leopard from the erstwhile war zone of Kargil, Jammu and Kashmir along the line of control. My strategic media work on it resulted in WWF-India receiving exceptional visibility globally including stories in four of USA's top ten circulating news papers - Washington Post, LA Times, San Jose Mercury News and Wall Street Journal as well as well-known international dailies like The Guardian and Toronto Star, apart from major Indian media outlets.
I was one of the winners of Greenpeace Canada’s 'Your vision of Canada' photography contest in 2004 from among the hundreds of entries received from across Canada. My winning picture was used in Greenpeace Canada's 2004 desktop calendar.
In 2001-02, I contributed my knowledge on the birds and ecology of Bhadra wildlife sanctuary, Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary, Sharavathy valley wildlife sanctuary, Talakaveri wildlife sanctuary, Kempuhole reserve forest and Shettihalli wildlife sanctuary to help nominate these sites as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) by Birdlife International.
In 1999, along with Dr. UV Singh, IFS, I launched a website on birds of Karnataka, the first for any state then. It was also the first ever checklist of birds for modern day Karnataka state, which sparked the interest of many youngsters to take up bird watching as a hobby.
I have over a hundred popular print and web stories, survey reports and other publications in mainstream media and travel publications around the globe to my credit.
6) How worried are you with the constant depletion of natural resources and even the birds disappearing? What are you trying from your side to address these issues?
Earlier one would read in newspapers about environment destruction happening in some remote corner of western ghats due to a hydro electric dam or forest encroachment. Now the problem is at your doorstep. The tree in front of your house, the park at the corner of your street, the lake in your area, the forest on your city outskirts, the nearby hillock...overnight everything seems to be simply disappearing. The story of over-exploitation of our natural resources makes a sad read. There is an urgent need to balance the nation’s development with ecological sustainability. We need to realise that the tree, the park, the lake and the forest and the hill that we are losing around us is being lost forever.
7) In Bangalore or its outskirts, tell us about the still preserved areas where one can really find nature and natural habitat at its best? And in India?
Unfortunately such places are getting rarer. Some reserve forests, although threatened, still throw up surprises thanks to efforts of the Karnataka Forest Department to safeguard them. A few years ago, a city-based wildlife photographer photographed wild dogs and gaur in wild in Bannerghatta national park, only handful kilometres away as a bird flies from the urban sprawl of south Bangalore. The forests of Savanadurga as well as the forests near the border of Bangalore-Tumkur districts like Devarayanadurga, Nijagal near Dobbespet and Ujjini near Huliyurdurga are surviving despite the threats by development forces like quarrying and sand mining. The grasslands of Hessarghatta and the vultures in the hills around Ramnagar continue to survive thanks to the vigilance of conservationists and the support by forest department.
When we speak of India, the focus of conservationists is on landscapes rather than individual parks as the former offer greater chances of survival of wildlife in the long run, say the next hundred years, particularly the big cats. In south-western India, such areas of importance are the protected forests of Western Ghats along Tamil Nadu – Kerala borders starting from Mukurthi National Park near Ooty running south till Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary near Nagercoil; Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that houses some of the finest forests and big mammal populations in Asia; the Pushpagiri-Kumaradhara-Netravathi valley rain forests, which I call the Amazon basin of south India; Kudremukh, Agumbe & Someshwara forests, as well as the contiguous forests in and around Dandeli.
8) Tell us about your campaigns. According to you, what should each and every Bangalorean should ensure so that nature is left untouched and birds return back?
Although we occasionally do take the help of judiciary and the Lok Ayukta, I believe conservation will have to happen through a change in attitude of the common man. ‘Reduce’ should be the mantra along with ‘Recyle’ and ‘Reuse’. Our increasing affluence and buying power is unfortunately resulting in us consuming and wasting too much of everything- from paper, fuel and water to plastic and electricity. We don’t respect nature any more. But, when nature strikes back we are helpless. If we don’t act fast, many of us will be perish in masses, irrespective of our social standing or status. One doesn't need to think beyond the recent floods in Uttarakhand or the Tsunami of Christmas 2004 to strengthen such an argument.
9) In certain parts of the world, people have led the preservation of nature...do you think, that is possible in Bangalore or India considering the growth in development as well as population that we are witnessing?
Of course it is possible. Karnataka particularly Bangalore is still considered the Mecca of conservationists and birdwatchers. The breeding grounds of the now critically endangered longbilled vultures of Ramnagar, the roosting grounds of migratory raptors at Hessarghatta grasslands and many of the wetlands that we still see in Bangalore are clinging on due to the support forest department received from conservationists.
If we can have development using the right growth model which recognises in actions, not just words, the importance of sustainable use of resources and works towards it, many of the wilderness areas can be saved. For example, if we can provide practical alternatives to sand to the construction industry, many of the lakes and river beds which are our fresh water sources can be saved from permanent destruction. Similarly, instead of shutting down highways through national parks and sanctuaries, which causes great inconvenience to the poor who don’t have the financial resources to fly over such areas, it would be prudent to look at building elevated expressways and allow for wildlife to traverse freely below. It has worked in many wilderness areas in the West, I don’t see a reason why it should not work here.
10) What is your outlook for the future of Bangalore in terms of greens, birds, and other natural habitats?
Despite the devastation of green cover of Bangalore city since 2000-01, there is still a chance for the city to get back its greenery. One of the biggest culprits has been the uncontrolled vehicle population which has led to alarming levels of pollution as well as expanding roads that have eliminated hundreds of trees. The Government should incentivise public transport to make it attractive to the middle class and make travel by personal vehicles a luxury. Following the Delhi example of using more clean fuel, like CNG, will help. The new state Government seems to have the right intention and the Union Minister for Petroleum has recently announced the setting up of 65 CNG stations for public transport buses in the state. If such fuel can be provided to public transport vehicles like auto rickshaws apart from private vehicles initially at a more competitive rate than petrol, it may make many to switch over and help the air quality turn better. This and the reclaiming of walking space and green cover from roads or at least the stopping of their further destruction, will aid the comeback of many birds and other wildlife.
11) Which was the most unforgettable journey you undertook and why? Any connect with Karnataka will be great?
From the perspective of raw, untamed nature, I would rate my trek with my fellow club member Guru Prasad TV to the peaks of Kumara Parvata and Pushpagiri from Somvarpete side in 2001 as the most unforgettable. For three days we were ourselves, battling nature’s elements and leeches all over our bodies, before getting back to civilisation. But that experience also made me fall deeper in love with my country’s wilderness and its forests. From the point of witnessing serene and vast expanses of wildlife habitats, my 6,000 km solo drive to Canada’s east coast from Toronto through some of North America’s finest and most picturesque wilderness areas will remain fresh in my mind.
12) What are you currently pursuing?
For my bread, I work in the corporate communication team of a major real estate developer based in Bangalore. On the conservation side, I am currently writing a communication manual for field staff of non-profits which I believe will help their non-profit organisations around the world.
13) Tell us a bit about your family.
I have a 7 month old son whose first love is his plastic toy duck. Though all of us are married, I continue to take guidance almost on a daily basis from my elder brother and younger sister, not to mention my parents, particularly my dad who is my spiritual guide.
Here are the details of my publications and other work as of June 2013
Here is the feature story on me, published in the the City Express supplement of The New Indian Express on 27 July 2013