Take the Time to Look at the Squirrels

I had the good fortune to work for two decades at Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. Apart from the work and the work environment, the campus itself was a boon. 14 acres of both ‘groomed’ and ‘wild’ spaces. A variety of trees, undergrowth, lawns, water-body and the attendant birds, snakes, small mammals, rodents, butterflies, etc. etc.
IMG_20181217_114832We were an earnest and idealistic bunch. We had the benefit of mentoring by some of the wisest of people. One of them was Dr.PR Pisharoty, Father of Indian Meteorology and Remote Sensing. On one of his visits in the early days, he listened to all of us presenting our work and holding forth. With a gentle twinkle in his eyes, he told us: ‘You are all doing wonderful work. But I hope you don’t forget to take time off to look at the squirrels.’

We took that lesson to heart. Being immersed in nature at the workplace is a luxury few have today. But I think, looking back, that this made a difference to our work, our interactions and us as people and an organization. Being ‘distracted’ by a bird call in the middle of a meeting and the whole group rushing to look through the window or refer to ‘the Book’ (Salim Ali of course), broke up many a tension. Waiting for a monitor lizard to amble across the path as one rushed from one dept. to another was a good way to get a sense of ‘Nothing is that urgent. They have survived without rushing for millennia’. When ideas dried up, gazing out of the window at the squirrels chasing each other usually did the trick and the brain got unclogged. Feeding the fish at lunch brought people from unconnected work spaces together.

Did the campus make us more creative? More strongly bonded as teams? More lateral-thinking? More empathetic as people? I like to think so!

Business case for green campuses made! After all, today nothing can get approved without a business case! And by green campus, I don’t mean manicured lawns and potted plants. But a bit of wildness and a bit of wildlife!


Illustration credit: CEE


The word of the year is Toxic! Crowned by the Oxford Dictionary this word was selected as the one “judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The claim to fame was gained by the word not only on the basis of the number of times it was searched, but more for the sheer variety of contexts in which it is being used today.  “Toxic” has been used to describe workplaces, schools, relationships, cultures, and most recently has become a keyword in the #MeToo movement.

My own association with the word dates back over 30 years when I started as an Environmental Educator. We used the word mainly in the context of something that poisoned the natural environment—air, water, flora and fauna. This was based on its dictionary definition as meaning ‘poisonous’, with its roots derived from the medieval Latin term toxicus, meaning poisoned or imbued with poison. Environmental Educators worldwide tried to create awareness about what makes things toxic and how this affects the environment—through ‘gloom and doom’ scenarios, through motivation and action, and even through humour!

An interesting example of the last one was a limerick competition run by the English newspaper The Observer in association with the Friends of the Earth inviting limericks that reflected the (then) toxic state of the environment. The competition was open to all, from ages 5 years and up!

Although this was almost 30 years ago, on revisiting these limericks, I felt that they are as relevant today (if not more, than ever before!) Here is a taste…

Said the seal to the salmon and otters,

Did God really design us as blotters,

To mop up the oil

From the sea and the soil

Spewed out by those corporate rotters?


When politicians say they are green

One wonders what they really mean,

For all their hot air

Only rises to share

In the Greenhouse Effect it would seem!


An ostrich from a tropical land

Once buried his head in the sand.

The move was a riot,

They all had to try it—

Evading the issue was grand!

Fast forward to 2018. Has anything changed? At least not for the better, alas! The word has simply exploded in scope and toxicity. As Oxford University Press’s president of dictionaries, said: “Reviewing this year in language, we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing. Qualifying everything from the entrenched patriarchy to the constant blare of polarising political rhetoric, ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become.”

To sum up, cannot resist this one…

A girl with a problem was faced

Rushed off to her doctor in haste.

He said with a laugh

As she broke into half,

‘My dear, you’ve got toxic waist!’



Festival of Farming

20181117_120113_resizedThe annual Krishi Mela is an event Bangaloreans look forward to. Organized in November every year, the 3-day Mela showcases the latest in agriculture and livestock related developments—from technologies, to equipment and tools, to new varieties of seeds, to green farming.

First a word about the Gandhi Krishi Vignana Kendra (GKVK), the venue of the mela. This amazing 1300+ acre campus has a hoary history. More than a century ago in 1899, Her Excellency Maharani Vani Vilasa, Regent of Mysore donated 30 acres of land for an Experimental Agricultural Station at Hebbal, which initiated research projects related to agriculture. In 1963, the Government of Mysore decided to establish University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) along the lines of Land Grant College system of USA and passed the University of Agricultural Sciences Bill. It granted 1300 acres to the GKVK Campus.

UAS was inaugurated by Dr Zakir Hussain, then Vice President of India, on 21st Aug 1964. Speaking at the event, he set the institute a lofty mandate: “By bringing about significant improvement in every phase of rural life, by much needed change in methods of production, by influencing the whole outlook of the rural community and rural home, by giving them a new vision and new hope, this university will be able to make great contribution to national welfare”.

The Krishi Mela sees visitation in the lakhs—from farmers to students to urbanites interested in agriculture, it is a joyous (though somewhat hot and tiring) occasion.

For farmers, it is an opportunity to see the latest advancements in the field of agriculture; to interact with agro-business companies and see demonstrations of agricultural implements; to get advice from university researchers on best methods of farming for a particular crop; and be exposed to practices like biological control of insects, organic farming in polyhouses, setting up biogas plants and extracting biodiesel.

For a layperson like me, it is an occasion to buy seeds and gardening implements; get some advice on how to look after plants; get to know something about the complexities of farming; marvel at things like a 70 kg bunch of bananas and a magnificent Gir bull; and gawk at sights like a drone which can be used for spraying pesticides. Also to partake of a traditional lunch (Menu: ragi muddu, palya, rice-rasam, curd-rice and a sweet) at Rs.50!

For me, the best thing about bringing such a mela into the heart of a city like Bangalore is the value it has as a reminder to us of who feeds us, and the challenges they face to do so!

Waste not…..

RecycleEarth_mediumNot many years ago, people returning from the US or England would relate shocking stories of how people there threw away everything—from TVs to beautiful containers to cars to old clothes. And we used to pride ourselves that in India, we re-cycled and re-used everything. Horlicks bottles were used to store pickles or dals. Bournvita tins became containers for masala powders. Bed sheets became pillow covers, which became shopping bags.

But now, ‘we’ are ‘them’!

Have you looked into your garbage bin recently? Have you noted how quickly it fills up? With changing lifestyles, we are buying more and more, and throwing away more and more. Today, In metro cities in India, an individual produces an average of 0.8 kg/ waste/ person daily.

India produces about 65 m tonnes of urban waste annually, out of which 5.6m tonnes consist of plastic waste, 0.17m constitute of biomedical waste, 7.90m tonnes constitute hazardous waste while 15 lakh ton is e-waste.

You may not want to do the exercise of researching the contents of your dustbin, so here are some facts. On the average, garbage is made up of 35% organic material, 30% paper, 12% construction related wastes, 9% plastics, 6% glass, 3% metal, and then miscellaneous.

The problem with garbage is that though you may throw it ‘away’, there is really no ‘away’! It is out of your house, but on the street. It is off the street but in a dumper. It is out of the dumper, but in a landfill. And at each stage, there are problems.

Just to understand what the problem is, just looks at the facts and figures below.

  • Banana peel – 3 to 4 weeks
  • Paper bag — 1 month
  • Cotton rag — 5 months
  • Wool sock — 1 year
  • Cigarette butt — 2 to 5 years
  • Leather shoe — 40 to 50 years
  • Rubber sole (of the shoe) — 50 to 80 years
  • Aluminum can (soft drink can) — 200 to 500 years
  • Plastic jug — 1 million years
  • Styrofoam cup – unknown–forever?
  • glass bottle – unknown–forever?

So what can we do as individuals? The mantra is ‘Reduce, re-use, recycle’.


Don’t create waste in the first place! Buy only what you need. Use all that you buy. Avoid heavily packaged products. Avoid disposable items like paper plates and plastic spoons. Buy the largest size package for those items that you use often.


Reuse items – use them over and over until they are completely worn out. Borrow or share items you don’t use very often. Donate unwanted items. Repair items, instead of throwing away and buying new. Refill bottles. Plastic bags can be used for many times over. Use your imagination, not the trash can!


Recycle means taking something old and making it into something new. Old newspapers, plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, aluminum and steel cans can all be recycled. Sell these to the ‘kabadi wallah’.  Not only does it keep items out of the landfill, recycling conserves natural resources. For example, making newspaper out of old newspaper saves a valuable natural resource – trees.

And compost, compost, compost!

Think about it and see if you want to make these your New Year Resolutions!


And The Butterfly Flapped its Wings…

Edward Lorenz articulated this metaphor to imply that a small, inconsequential-seeming event can have huge unforeseen effects. He in fact drew the metaphor from weather phenomena, specifically, the details of a tornado (the exact time of formation, the exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Ironically, the cyclone that just struck Orissa and part of Andhra Pradesh coast, and caused heavy damage, is called TITLI—butterfly. Was the agency which names cyclones aware of this?

Anyway, the name is not the point. The damage is. As in the after-math of every disaster, lives and livelihoods have to be restored. And we have to learn from each disaster how to proof ourselves better against future disasters, and how we can handle the relief and rehab phases better.

These lessons are important for us. 87 per cent of India’s land is prone to one or the other kind of disaster—floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes etc. India is second among all countries affected by disasters every year. Over 50 million people are affected by disasters every year, and on an average, over 1 million houses damaged.

Cyclone is a natural disaster of meteorological or climatic origin. It is classified as an ‘immediate onset disaster’ (it manifests its complete effects in 1-7 days). The Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea experience about 6-7 per cent of the world’s annual cyclones. The majority occur from October to December, and a smaller number in April-May. Though the percentage of cyclones hitting the Indian Ocean region is low, the wind speeds are moderate and the cyclones are relatively short lived and smaller in size, they cause heavy damage when they strike the coastal areas of Bay of Bengal. This is because the conditions of the region favour huge storm surges. The combination of high astronomical tide, shallow water and the special coastal configuration of north Bay of Bengal result in the generation of devastating storm tides.

These are the natural reasons. But humans have contributed hugely too. The destruction of coastal forests is a major issue. Mangrove tidal forests are natural cyclone barriers and invaluable protectors. But alas, these are disappearing. Rice paddies and prawn farming are cited as some of the reasons for this.

So Titli came and caused destruction. The preparedness and timely actions of the State and Disaster relief agencies have ensured that the destruction was less devastating that it could have been. But still, nine lives were lost.

Today is International Day for Disaster Reduction. A day to pledge that we will commit ourselves to at least halt the human exacerbation of destruction due to disasters, and to stand by those impacted by them.


Acknowledgement: ‘Dealing with Disasters: Awareness, Preparedness, Response.’ Meena Raghunathan, Avanish Kumar. Centre for Environment Education. Ahmedabad. 2004.

A Tribute to Wildlife Researchers

Ravi Chellam, as a student and then faculty of Wildlife Research Institute of India, did his research on Gir lions. His work on understanding the lions, their threats, and the work he did for recommending an alternative habitat, were a huge contribution. This piece is a tribute at a time when his recommendations should be taken very seriously. Equally it is a tribute to so many other wildlife researchers from WII and other institutions, whose courage and commitment have helped preserve our biodiversity.

The following pieces are excerpts from Ravi’s piece ‘A Roaring Career’ in a publication titled ‘Walking The Wild Path’.

On the excitement of wildlife research:

‘A radio-collar is a piece of wildlife research equipment, which consists of a radio transmitter that is mounted on a collar made of some tough material.  The transmitter constantly emits signals, which enables the researcher to track and locate the animal that is carrying it.  The collar is for fixing the transmitter on the animal.  A very wide variety of organisms have been studies by this method of radio-telemetry, ranging from whales, elephants, lions, tigers, snakes, to even very small birds like the hummingbird.

Shortly, we heard the regular rustling of the leaf litter, a clear indication that a large animal was approaching us.  A large male lion emerged out of the shadows of the forest and it immediately saw the tethered buffalo.  It looked around, as if to check that there were no human being around and then rushed to kill the buffalo bait.  As the lion locked its jaws around the neck of the buffalo, it presented a clear and close enough target for Dr. Johnsingh.  The dart went into the rump of the lion.  Startled by the loud report of rifle, the lion left the bait and walked away into the forest.

We waited for about ten minutes, to allow time for the drug to take effect.  Then I cautiously led the search team to locate the darted lion.  It had not gone very far.  It was lying on the ground, barely one hundred meters from the bait.  I threw a level of immobilisation.  The lion responded by slowly lifting its head, and it was evident that the drug had taken its effect; but to safely work with the animal, we needed to give it an additional top up dose.  I crept up to the lion with two of my assistants and we soon physically restrained the drugged animal by sitting on its head and rump.  This enabled the delivery of the additional dose of drug by means of an injection.

Once the lion was completely immobilised, we fixed the radio-collar around its neck, took the required measurements of the lion’s body, treated the minor external injuries, weighed it and then left it in a cool place to recover.  I sat at the safe distance to monitor its recovery.’

And, on the vulnerability of the Gir lions:

‘Based on the results of my doctoral research I surveyed potential lion habitats to locate a suitable site for the translocation.  In January 1995, I submitted my report to the Government of India and since then efforts are underway to manage the forests of Kuno-Palpur in Madhya Pradesh for making them suitable for lions.

If this translocation effort is undertaken and succeeds, it will be a majof step in ensuring the log-term conservation of the lions and a major personal achievement for me.  Translocating large carnivores and ensuring their successful establishment in a new habitat is not an easy task.  People resident in the forest and the adjoining areas will always be worried about their personal safety and that of their livestock when a population of large carnivores is established.

Additionally, great care needs to be taken to ensure that the animals are captured and transported without causing any physical injury to them.  There are also many political angles to be considered.  This is in a way part of the challenge of doing wildlife conservation.’

From ‘Walking the Wild Path’. Mamata Pandya, Meena Raghunathan (eds). Center for Environment Education. Ahmedabad. 1999.



Will I Hear the Lion Roar?

Reports of the deaths, within a few weeks, of 23 lions of a pride in Gir Forest, the only home of the Asiatic Lion, have deeply disturbed us all.

Historically, the range of the Asiatic lion included South-eastern Europe, Black Sea basin, Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia, Baluchistan, and the Indian subcontinent from Sind in the west to Bengal in the east. (IUCN). Today Panthera leo persica is confined to the Gir Forest and its environs, in Saurashtra, Gujarat.

As per a 2015 census, there were only 523 lions and they were all in the Gir area. Nowhere else in the world!

‘The lions face the usual threats of poaching and habitat fragmentation. Three major roads and a railway track pass through the Gir Protected Area (PA). Also, there are three big temples inside the PA that attract large number of pilgrims, particularly during certain times of the year. There has been an increase in lion population, and more than 200 lions stay outside the PA. Though the conflict is not high now, with changing lifestyles and values these may increase in the future. There are also cases of lions dying by falling into the unguarded wells around the Gir PA.’ says WWF.

But the single most serious threat could be the fact that the population is confined only to one place. It is well established scientifically that any such population is vulnerable to threats of various types.

One obvious danger is the risk of genetic inbreeding arising from a single population in one place.

But the other, even more serious risk, as IUCN puts it, is: ‘The small pocket of distribution of the Asiatic lions has led IUCN to consider them an endangered species, in fears that if an epidemic or forest fire were to break out, the whole population of Asian lions would be wiped out from the wild.’

The worst fears are coming true. A single episode has brought a whole pride to the brink in a few days. What is the guarantee that the epidemic will not spread? We can only pray.

For decades, biodiversity and conservation experts have been advocating that some lions from Gir be re-located to another suitable habitat, after proper research and preparation, so as to create another viable population. It is not that efforts have not been made. Palpur Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh has been identified, numerous studies undertaken and a lot of preparation done.

But Gujarat has refused to let the lions be re-located, claiming that these lions are the Pride of Gujarat.

No doubt they are! But they are also the universal heritage of humankind. The loss of a species is irretrievable and irreversible. When we lose a species, we lose something of ourselves. In such a situation, is there a ‘mine’ and a ‘yours’? Or is there only an ‘ours’?

Vasudhaiva kudumbakam.







A Register of Opportunity

BDB307A0-742C-4A7E-B7E0-18323D154F33As botanic gardens go, the Sir Seewoosagu Ramgoolam Botanic Gardens in Mauritius are not large. 92 acres to Bangalore’s Lal Bagh of 240 acres to put it in perspective (but of course we need to factor in the size of the two countries!).  We don’t need to dwell on the variety of flora, both endemic and exotic, on display there. Nor the few but interesting animals—specifically some deer and some huge tortoises. The only endemic Mauritian mammal, a bat, the Peropus niger, may also be spotted on the trees, it is said.

But it was not all this that really fascinated me. Let me tell you what did.

Little shelters dot the gardens. At the shelter overlooking the beautiful lily pond was2C9A861B-73C8-4075-9652-6A6A1E1591B9 a table. And on the table was a register. I sneaked a peak into the register. And this is what I saw: Several entries each day on the condition of the pond, the leaves, the flowers; the birds and insects seen. And a sketch of the pond, done at the same time every day, showing where flowers had bloomed and where there were buds. And it was not only the lily pond. There was a similar register at the lotus pond, and some other spots in the garden. As I flipped the pages, I could see that no day was missed, no entry casual

What seriousness of purpose and systematic application, to a job that may seem not to have any particular outcome. But the person behind the system and the people implementing it obviously know the importance.  After all, scientific method consists of : ‘systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

The Botanic Garden in Mauritius is definitely doing its part! It is obvious that they know the value of keeping systematic notes and data. It may seem trivial, but who knows what it may lead to? After all, research is one of the stated objectives of Botanic Gardens, Zoos, Aquaria and all such facilities do. And keeping such meticulous notes may be the single most important contribution they can make.

Are we in India at all using such opportunities? I am not sure!

An excerpt from Darwin’s Beagle Notebooks. He observed and noted down everything around him—flora, fauna, geology, weather conditions, animal behaviour. And at the end of the day, changed human understanding of the world! Without his notes, he may not have reached his conclusions!

Extraordinary numbers of Turpin —

 drinking bury head above eyes — Will drink when a person is within 2 yards of them about 10 gulps in minute.

Noise during cohabitation.

Eggs covered by sand soil from 4 to 5 in number — require a long time before they are hatched.

Eat Cacti in the dry Islands

Yellow Iguana1 intestine full of Guyavitas & some large leaves

All morning descended highest Crater — Glassy Feldspar — red glossy scoriæ:

Iguana1 — shakes head vertically;, hind legs stretched out walks very slowly — sleeps — closes eyes — Eats much Cactus:

run walking from two other carrying it in mouth — Eats very deliberately, without chewing — Small Finc[h] picking from same piece after alights on back —

In the Tent generally 85-80˚ —

Trade wind & sun 77˚ or 78 —

On Rock out of wind 108˚ — —


The Dodo and The Myna

The Dodo is the textbook example of man’s role in driving other species to extinction. This defenceless bird was hunted and harried to disappearance through the appearance of humans on the uninhabited island of what is now called Mauritius. Sailors on the high seas—the Arabs, the Portuguese and then the Dutch, discovered and re-discovered the pristine isle. For dodos, the beginning of the end was in 1598 when the Dutch discovered them on the island. Dodos were flightless birds, and also fearless because they had never encountered predators. So when humans appeared with their guns and weapons, they had no clue how to protect themselves. Moreover, humans brought along dogs, cats, pigs, rats—all which hunted the birds and raided their nests. Till there were none left.


But if this is a story of man’s role in the loss of a species, what follows is an equally sorry tale of havoc cause by man’s deliberate introduction of a species into an alien eco-system. And on the very same island of Mauritius!

Sugarcane did and continues to play a key role in the economy of Mauritius. The sugarcane crop in Mauritius was beset by grasshoppers, which ate the leaves. In the 1780s, the French deliberately introduced mynas to the island to help control these. To a certain extent they did, but soon enough the mynas figured out the local lizards were easier to catch than the grasshoppers, and so made the lizards the mainstay of their diet. One consequence of this was that the insects that the lizards fed on multiplied, as they now had no predators! And even more seriously perhaps, the mynas themselves became pests to native species. Mynas are by nature aggressive and raid nests for eggs and newly hatched chicks. They compete with native birds for nesting sites. In Mauritius, they have been known to compete with an endemic species, the endangered Echo Parakeet, for nesting spaces.

Island ecosystems are very special. Human interventions can have disastrous results. To quote the IUCN Island Ecosystem Specialist Group:

‘Earth is home to over 100,000 islands, which support 20% of global biodiversity. The characteristics of size, shape and degree of isolation make many of these islands ecologically and culturally unique.

However, these same characteristics also make islands fragile and vulnerable ecosystems. Islands have the highest proportion of recorded species extinctions. Eighty percent of known species extinctions have occurred on islands and currently 45 percent of IUCN Red List endangered species occur on islands.’

Mauritius and all islands are beautiful and special! Let’s hope that we humans can preserve what makes them special, and leave the generations to follow this precious legacy.

An interesting aside:  A Mughal-time painting found in St. Petersburg  shows a dodo along with several Indian birds. The painting is believed to be from the 17th century and is attributed to the artist Ustad Mansur. The bird depicted probably lived in Emperor Jahangir’s zoo in Surat!


Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. While studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!