My conservation education experience with children

In 2013, I took up something I never did before. Though journalism is and always be my first love, there was something that was going on in my mind when it comes to conservation. How can we tell the children the importance of forests and its links to the water we get everyday?

In South India, almost 69 rivers originate from the Western Ghats. The mountains absorbs the rains during monsoon and reserves it. Then it slowly releases the water-drops of water form small rivulets, then a stream flows, and finally the river gushes, giving us our daily supply of water.

The film that portrays this in its best is Save our Sholas by Shekar Dattatri

A bit about the film:

Titled ‘SOS – Save Our Sholas’, the 24-minute film, narrated by celebrated conservationist, Valmik Thapar, showcases the rich biodiversity of the southern Western Ghats forests and the problems that beset this fragile landscape. The film lays particular emphasis on the immense water harvesting capacity of these forests, and underlines the fact that all the major rivers of peninsular India originate in the Western Ghats.

“We felt that a crisp film on the subject was sorely needed as an educational aid, particularly in schools and colleges, to introduce young people to the immense importance of shola forests. It is very gratifying that Delhi based Centre for Media Studies has selected the film for its ‘Greening Young Minds’ project, and is distributing the film to ten thousand schools across India”.

I was fortunate that I was screening this film across 19 schools reaching to 11,000 students last year in Chennai. 

The approach to conservation needs to be linked to human lives in today’s world. If we say, we need to protect the forests, why? We don’t care if forests exist or not? We live in urban areas. Some school principals even raised this question to me when I asked for a time slot for screening. I diligently explained the link and things fell in place.

Children come with such amazing questions. The film not just captures the link between forest and water but also explains the natural behavior of creatures that thrive in these sholas-Travancore Tortoise, King Cobra, weaver ants and even termites, which have a huge role to play in the forest. There was no tiger brouhaha here. It was about smaller creatures of the forest. 

Some pictures from my experience with children. 

I took this chance to screen the film in most of the government schools than the usual schools. These children seldom get such opportunities. It was a good opportunity for me to know the species of animals and birds in my mother tongue.

Children watching King Cobra in fear and excitement!


That was one such moment! I watched their curious faces.



At Bentick School where I addressed 1000 students. The screening and interaction session with children was done in Tamil.


After repeated screenings (sometimes even 4-6 in a day) with no meal or rest, talking continuously, I never felt tired! I wanted to know what children felt about water and the need to save forests. 

A girl at Chennai government school answers my question (Class five)


On the other side, children from BVM Global school were so enthusiastic and excited that I had to spend a lot of energy in raising my voice, despite the mike. They knew Cicadas (the insect that makes noise in the forest) and many other creatures!

They also asked many many questions.

BVM Bollineni Hillside





She was petrified watching King Cobra swallow a rat snake (its favourite meal)


Answering inquisitiveness :)



At Chinmaya Vidyalaya, the most obedient and quiet children I have ever addressed


The largest number of students I addressed was in Holy Angels school (1500 students, class 4 to 9). Many of them wanted to do more than water saving in school and home. They wanted to volunteer and that was inspiring. 

The maximum number of questions came from BVM Global (40 questions). I took them all and spent the longest interactive session of almost 90 minutes with them. There were some questions like what is anaconda comes face to face with King cobra, will they fight? 

Why are we humans so bad? We know its not right to destroy forest but why do we do it? I smile at them and say you can start making a difference and talk to others about it and together we change.

There was one unforgettable kid in my experience. Himanshu from LM Dadha School. He was phenomenal. A student of class 6, he knew already that 33% forest cover has to be maintained. He explained so many things to me, ants carrying geckos which are larger than their weight, the critical role of termites in decomposition, forest fires. I have an audio recording of his talk which I will post soon on this blog.

Change can happen in different ways, first, through awareness and when children are already aware, bring them to action, tell them what they can do, let them experience nature and rebuild their connection with the natural world. I am sure many of my students are spreading the word and embarking on a change. The experience of answering children (tougher than answering adults because they are so innocent and genuine and they ask the right questions) was amazing. I learned more than what I gave.

I was running this show alone. But it would not have been possible with the support of the National Green Corps Head, Mr Thangaraj, school teachers, principals, helpers, and the lovely children. Kudos to Shekar for making this film. Honoured to be knowing him and sharing my experiences!


Study documents effects of road noises on migratory birds

Phys.org) —A first-of-its-kind study by Boise State University researchers shows that the negative effects of roads on wildlife are largely because of traffic noise.

Biologists have known that bird populations decline near roads. But pinpointing noise as a cause has been a problem because past studies of the effects of road noise on wildlife were conducted in the presence of the other confounding effects of roads. These include visual disturbances, collisions and chemical pollution, among others.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-11-documents-effects-road-noises-migratory.html#jCp



Originally posted on Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network:

Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, commonly known as SSTCN, has completed its 25th consecutive year as a voluntary organisation. We have been working on the beaches of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India since 1988. Olive ridley turtles nest in this region between January and April. We begin our walks each night around 1am, take a one hour break at 3am if we haven’t found a turtle or nest, and then continue monitoring the beach until at least 5am.
Since 2009, we have covered two stretches of beach, north (6km long) and south (8km long) of the Adyar River. The beaches north and south of the Adyar River have very different dynamics. Nesting on the southern beach begins and ends early in the season, while the opposite pattern is observed on the northern beach as nesting begins later and more slowly but lasts for longer.
In 2013, the southern beach yielded 120…

View original 1,215 more words


The courtship story of Peacocks

Although peacocks are famous for tall tail feathers with colorful eyespots, an expert says peahens look lower when sizing up a male and that dance moves may give a suitor an edge.

Jessica Yorzinski, a researcher at Purdue University, is using  and tiny cameras mounted on a customized cap to get a bird’s-eye view and discover what attracts the most .

“Surprisingly, the peahens are looking at the lowest edge of  and aren’t paying much attention to the rest of the five-foot tall displays,” said Yorzinski, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences. “According to our study, the females’ gaze rarely fell at or above the peacocks’ heads. Of the small portion of time spent looking at the males, females looked longest at the legs and lower portion of the train.”

The peacocks have a tough time keeping a peahen’s attention as she evaluates her surroundings for food and predators, but the peacocks did have one way to turn heads, Yorzinski said.

“What garnered the most attention from the peahens was when the peacocks would turn around and shake their wings and rattle their tails during the courtship dance,” she said. “It seems that mastering certain dance moves is important for peacocks.”

Yorzinski’s study of 12 peahens followed their gaze in the presence of multiple males vying for attention during the mating season. It did not evaluate which males won a mate.

Expert says peacocks' legs, lower feathers and dance attract most attention during courtship

This image shows the tracks of a peahen’s gaze as a peacock makes a courtship display. Purdue researcher Jessica Yorzinski uses eye-tracking technology to study avian behavior. Credit: Jessica Yorzinski

A paper detailing Yorzinski’s study was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. She is currently evaluating the results of an experiment that tracked what  watch and attune to during courtship.

A better understanding of peafowl’s visual perception could help in understanding avian behavior and lead to improvements in the protection of endangered species, she said.

More information: Jessica L. Yorzinski, Gail L. Patricelli, Jason S. Babcock, John M. Pearson and Michael L. Platt “Through their eyes: selective attention in peahens during courtship.” J Exp Biol 2013 216:3035-3046. ; DOI: 10.1242/jeb.087338



Do you know the Jellyfish Tree?


Photo of jellyfish tree flowers

Species: Jellyfish tree (Medusagyne oppositifolia)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The flowers of the jellyfish tree have numerous stamens, and it is thought that these may have given rise to the name of Medusagyne, after the ‘Medusa’ of Greek mythology who had a head of snakes.


More information:

The jellyfish tree was thought to be extinct until the 1970s, when a few trees were found, but the species still teeters on the brink of extinction. Jellyfish trees can reach up to 10 metres tall and have a dense, rounded crown of foliage. The shiny, leathery leaves have a slightly scalloped edge and turn bright red with age. The jellyfish tree is the only species in its family.

Found on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles archipelago, only approximately 50 jellyfish trees are known, surviving within 4 separate populations. Jellyfish tree seeds appear to be unable to germinate in the wild, and it is thought that trees of this species have been lost from more appropriate humid forest habitats as a result of competition and climate change. They have been successfully cultivated in botanic gardens in very humid conditions.

Three of the existing populations of jellyfish tree on the island of Mahé are protected within the Morne Seychellois National Park. Although seedlings have been grown in a number of botanic gardens, many problems remain for this species, and a conservation priority must be further research into its reproductive biology so that an effective action plan for its future can be devised.

Find out more about the jellyfish tree at the Eden Project and Saving Paradise.



My first weekend at Madras Crocodile Bank

I have faint memories of going to croc bank, maybe five years ago.

This time, I went for a reason. I was taking a dozen children for an education programme and trail at the croc bank. I thought it would be better than the usual bird watching or tree walk stuff that happens. Let the children also know about reptiles, not just birds and butterflies. Personally, I also wanted to go and know about reptiles. My knowledge is quite limited here.

My 12 students were so inquisitive, shooting a hundred questions to the educators who were doing this programme for me. The kids were also constantly chattering away, taking pictures, and I loved watching them soak in knowledge, being with them, answering some of their questions.

MCBT is the only place in India where anti venom is extracted from four most poisonous snakes found-King Cobra, Spectacled Cobra, Russels Viper and Saw scaled viper. We saw how the venom was extracted by the Irula tribe, the traditional snake catchers. The snake catchers earlier used to kill these snakes in the forest and sell their skin for money.

With the Wildlife Protection Act which was passed in 1972, there was a ban on killing snakes and many of these tribemen were without livelihood. It was then when Romulus Whitaker, took steps to livelihood for this community. Here, you can see the Irula men handling the snake in the most efficient manner and extracting venom. They also spoke about various myths- snakes do not drink milk or eggs (except the egg eating snake, one species). Also, a snake cannot be handled the way it is shown in Rajnikanth movies, where he puts his hand into a mud pot and pulls out a snake. Of course the snake will bite you! 

We saw and learned so much about natural behaviour of crocodiles. The largest captive croc in Asia is here. It is called Jaws 3. I could see its head. It is 17 feet long and weighs about 700 kilos. 

My students also got to see a croc very closely. The educator Sandeep pulled out a small Siamese croc from a bucket where it was creating noise, not wanting to get out. Its jaws were closed for safety reasons. And of course they do not want to be in close vicinity to unknown humans. When you walk close to see him, you walk slowly so that he doesn’t make a noise and get disturbed. We also touched the baby croc. The underneath of the baby croc was so soft, and it is killed for the skin. Sad! Human greed, there is no end to what we poach and why!

Dina, another educator also spent time explaining the jaws of the croc. A volunteer later explained about Indian Rock Python holding the snake in his hands. The Python was calm, unruffled, trusting in him. That is what they say, snakes do not chase you as they show in films. They do not. They are scared of us more than how much we are scared of them.

After the session, we went for a small trail to see pond ecosystems and various insects. There were lots of snails, millipedes, ferns!

My most interesting part of the day began later. After my students went back home I stayed at the croc bank guest house, thanks to Doc, the COO there, and the director! Doc is the best vet in the country and also bestie of my bestie and I was looking to spend time with her! She had a swelling in her hand as a centipede bit her as she was on her bed. 

The evening I lazed around having coffee with Doc in her house and talking about what I want to do next with education. We brainstormed for a good two hours, had dinner and then she said, come along with me. It was 9pm. Pitch dark. I walked about. Doc pulled out her powerful torch and kept at my eye level. I saw thousands of glittering lights in the water. Croc eyes! I don’t think I ever saw something as beautiful as that! IT felt like someone had lit lights on the pond and they were all floating, and some were even moving! I retired to bed in excitement!

That is how it looks! Imagine this in thousands!

The next morning, I went about to see the how Iguana was fed. I had never seen it before and I tagged along with Aranya who feeds them everyday. Iguana are not native species and are found in South America.

Iguanas are the only reptiles in the world which are vegetarian. They eat leaves. I went into the enclosure of Green Iguana. The Iguana was named shy. I walked in and she stared at me, a couple of feet away, tilting her head right and left, and looking who has entered into her house! I was calm, admiring its green colour and long tail. She was huge and Aranya told me that the tail of the Iguana is sharp to cut your hand. Shy slowly climbed up Aranya’s shoulder and started munching the leaves that she tied on the tree branch in the enclosure. I had never been inside an enclosure this close to an animal in the zoo, but there was nothing like fear. If I don’t mean them harm, they wont harm me. I think I trust animals more than humans, and even love them more than humans. I have lost faith in humanity since long. The cute looking Iguana made my day.

Later I also went to the croc enclosure and saw them munching meat and having fun! They are sure happy! :)

Doc was sweet to me and all the guys there-Vineet, Sandeep, Dina, Aranya, Dhiraj were so so so nice to me! I just loved being there.

This was my first visit and definitely not the last! When I am down, I probably know where to go!






Birds on repeat: Do playbacks hurt fowl?


In the forests of Ecuador, plain-tailed wrens nest in bamboo thickets, singing complex and continuous melodies. Residing nearby are rufous antpittas, small, secretive birds that hop like thrushes and whistle in mossy forests. Together, their songs fill parts of the South American Andes.

Birdwatchers often seek out rare and beautiful  like the wren and antpitta using “playbacks” – or recordings of bird songs – to draw such them out from their hideaways. But does such babbling-on-repeat harm the birds?

Using the emphatic sounds of both bird species, a Princeton University researcher has – for the first time in peer-reviewed research – examined the effects of birdwatchers’ “playbacks” in the wild. In PLOS One, he shows that playbacks do have potentially negative consequences, especially in terms of birds’ energies.

“Playbacks would be harmful if a species becomes stressed, expends energy, or takes time away from other activities to respond to these recordings,” said J. Berton C. Harris, a postdoctoral fellow studying under Professor David Wilcove from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy.

Working in a southern Ecuadorian biological reserve, Harris studied the effects of both single and repeated playbacks on wrens and antpittas. In his first trial, he introduced single playbacks to 24 groups of wrens and 12 groups of antpittas. Along with David Haskell from the University of the South in Tennessee, Harris monitored both  for one hour after playing a five-minute, self-recorded song.

Harris’ results show that, after the single playbacks, both wrens and antpittas sang more often. Both species also tended to repeat these songs more often after listening to the playbacks. This could be harmful to the birds, Harris said, if it zaps them of too much energy.

“Birds could be wasting their time and energy by responding to non-existent intruders. When male birds respond to birdwatchers’ playbacks to defend their territories, they may spend less time caring for their nestlings, experience higher levels of stress hormones or be subject to a romantic coup from other males while away from their mates.”

In the second part of the study, Harris and Haskell monitored the effects of daily playback on groups of plain-tailed wrens. Like the first experiment, he played the birds’ song once for five minutes, recording the birds’ responses for one hour. This was done daily for two-and-a-half weeks.

Although the vocal response was strong for the first 12 days, the wrens eventually habituated and stopped responding – suggesting that playbacks have minimal effects on wrens. One group of wrens, seemingly uninterested, even built a nest near a playback site. Harris says this behavior should nudge scientists to consider birdwatching activity when selecting research sites so that results aren’t biased.

“Birdwatchers are ardent conservationists, and they want to minimize their impact while observing secretive birds,” Harris said. “They promote environmental conservation by funding ecotourism infrastructure, especially in developing countries, where tourism can provide local people alternatives to habitat exploitation. Unfortunately, as evidenced by this research, birdwatchers may also have  on ecosystems.”

Harris suggests that future studies be conducted in order to better understand how playbacks may affect other aspects of a bird’s life.

“Studies of the effects of playback on bird reproductive success have not yet been done. And until such studies are available, it’d be wise for birdwatchers to be cautious of the negative effects. For example, it might make sense to minimize the use of playback with endangered species or in areas that host a lot of .”

Source: http://phys.org/news/2013-10-birds-playbacks-fowl.html#jCp