This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s interview on the Bird Podcast hosted by Shoba Narayan. They discuss Rohini’s favourite birds and why conserving nature is an “enlightened self-interest” for humanity as a whole.
Since I was born and brought up in Mumbai, the only birds we saw were crows, sparrows, and sometimes parakeets. However, I used to spend all my vacations in Dahanu, my grandparents’ home north of Bombay and very close to the forests of the Western Ghats. So my introduction to birds began there, in addition to visiting the Karnala Bird Sanctuary for picnics. Even then, my interest in birds only developed later, when I had taken my children for a picnic near Bangalore and a friend pointed out a cattle egret. I realised there’s much more to know and so I bought my first bird book, and started telling my children about it. When children are very small, sometimes it gets very lonely and I was looking for something to turn to. My birding experience really transported me to a special place, and I’ve not looked back since.
Reconnecting With Nature
India is so rich in birdlife. Right in my garden, I have recorded 55 species and I’m sure there are more that I haven’t found. I have also ventured far outside of my garden and spotted birds during memorable trips to Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Tamil Nadu. In Kabini, I spend a lot of time looking at birds, as well as in the forests of Karnataka, the Andamans, Kerala – almost anywhere in the Western Ghats, and along our coastline. I realised that birds are all around us and they are the easiest way to start connecting with nature and the wild because they are ubiquitous. Birds have always been fascinating to human beings because they fly. The first thing a child wants to do is fly like a bird. Since I’m interested in getting more people connected to the wild, because I think the future of humanity depends on us engaging with nature, birds seem to be a really good segue into that. I wanted to see how I could support the efforts of many NGOs, especially Nature Conservation Foundation, to create an India-wide interest in birds, and do it strategically and systematically over many years. So I’ve given them a multi-year grant to increase interest and build the capacity of people to appreciate, understand, observe, and protect birds, and to get involved in bird conservation. The aim is also to build the capacity of citizen scientists to do courses in bird watching and ornithology, so that in every tourist destination in India you can find local experts to take you birding.
Birding has taken off well in India and the hope is that it will create many livelihoods. It’s important for us also, to get people involved in bird conservation because birds are the figurative canary in the mine – if we know what’s happening to birds, we also know what’s going to happen to ourselves. Although the pandemic has set us back a bit, I hope that this work can pick up speed and that we can create a network of organisations across the country supporting this effort, with the help of other philanthropists.
Research is increasingly showing us how important mindful exposure to nature is for humans. It is literally linked with health parameters. The Japanese have adopted Shinrin-yoku i.e. forest bathing, which is important especially since Japan is so urban. They have found enough correlation between human health and happiness and being in nature, in a mindful way. We seem to be quite deracinated in our lives right now, especially if we live in cities. In urban areas, you don’t get a chance to explore all the wonderful mysteries of nature. But it’s important to have that connection with our environment. When I go out into the forest, I feel the possibility of expanding myself and of quieting myself, simultaneously. At first, you’re enraptured by all the sights and sounds. But after that, you feel a kind of stillness, which seems almost meditative, after which you can’t help but feel restored. Even the most cynical people who I have brought to the forests with me have been hooked and want to return again. There is a magic to forests, which has been written about for thousands of years, so it’s nothing new. What needs to be renewed is the urgency by which it becomes a broad-based project to introduce urban children to the wild, and reconnect with nature in a mindful way.
When I had travelled to Sikkim with my husband Nandan and Dr. Kamal Bawa, founder of ATREE, I remember being gobsmacked by the sight of the fire-tailed sunbird. We were in the Lachung valley, in the summer when the rhododendrons were out and it was gorgeous. I knew that there were some really spectacular birds there, but when I saw the fire-tailed sunbird, my jaw dropped. It is a bird of such spectacular beauty. I spent so many hours watching for it so when I finally spotted it, it was completely unforgettable. There are many other instances like this and birds that I have found fascinating, like the monal pheasant in Bhutan and the heart-spotted woodpecker in Kabini. And of course, the paradise flycatchers with their long white ribbons, the blue-capped rock thrush, and the golden orioles that visit our bedroom windows in Bangalore are some of my other favourites. I can’t think of a bird that I don’t like. Sometimes we may get a bit irritated with the koels who insist on waking up at odd hours, but I really like all birds.
Engaging the Samaaj
Going forward, I think it’s very important for Samaaj or society and its institutions to get involved with conserving our birds. They provide so many ecosystem services that we don’t think about. They are seed dispersers and scavengers, they clean up stuff for us and actually help build out our forests. They play a very critical role in the environment and unless society gears itself up locally and in context to protect birds, our 867 known species of birds in India may disappear. 25% of them are already somewhat endangered, as are the global birds. Our Samaaj needs to protect these birds, through citizen action. In India we have lots of evidence that local people protect their local birds. For example, the Kokkarebellur in Karnataka where the migrant painted storks and pelicans that come along are vigorously defended by the local people. They make sure that the areas where the birds roost and nest are protected even during agricultural season.
Another example which went viral is that of the Amur falcon, which migrates through India. In Pangti, the local tribal communities who used to catch, trap, and eat the birds have now signed up to protect them. We can find heart-warming stories like these everywhere because we have a lot of respect for birds throughout our history and mythology. Birds have served as the vahanas and vehicles of all our Gods and Goddesses and portrayed in our marvelous temples and sculptures around the country. In Hampi, migratory birds were illustrated in stone one thousand years ago. Indians have always maintained a deep respect and understanding of birds. This is why today’s digital Samaaj, the new citizenry, also needs to reconnect and there are so many more ways to do so than in ancient times. So there’s a lot of hope and that’s the kind of work I love to support.
I like to start my work from the Samaaj side, and I think there’s a need to build more awareness. One way to do that is through really good storytelling. We have such marvelous young filmmakers who are documenting our wetland and forest birds, and I think they have learned to tell stories very powerfully. We should never underestimate the power of storytelling, and you can tell lovely stories about birds. In fact, one of the earliest stories that we told our children was about the thirsty crow. I don’t know a single mother in India who has not told the story of the thirsty crow. There are many such stories being told through excellent documentaries now. I believe that we also need to start creating more opportunities to take young people out into the wild. There are many new start-ups centered around the culture of camping. If we can encourage this culture and do it with an ecological sensibility and intelligence, we can create a bigger and better community that is much more connected to the wild, and therefore committed to a sustainable future.
If we are not able to do this, to change our relationship with the environment, it is at our own peril. The economy is just a subset of the ecology. Even the economy derives a lot of services from the ecology, and if we don’t protect it we will be economically worse off as well. Climate change is a huge factor in this, and our country has stepped up with some very aggressive nationally determined contribution goals, so we are aware that our future prosperity is linked to our ability to conserve our ecology. Of course, there are always going to be trade- offs, but I think if we keep the big picture moving towards conservation and re-energising people’s connection with the wild, then I think prosperity itself can be redefined. Today, everything is defined in monetary terms. We want people from the villages to come into urban areas, so they are leaving behind good water, clean air, trees, and forests, but what are we bringing them into? I think some of those things are going to become more valuable as time goes by, and we will have a refashioned economy as well, that takes into account some of these positive values of nature.
Protecting Ourselves By Protecting Nature
I have spoken a lot about my trips to Kabini and my search for this single animal, a black panther, which has become a kind of a teacher to me. It’s only a black cat, but I have invested certain qualities in this animal, mostly to allow myself to grow. The poor fellow has no clue that I exist, but because it took me years to find him I was able to learn a lot about the forest and the interdependence of every creature from carpenter bees and the birds to the bears and cats, and the trees and seasons. In the chase for this one black animal, I began to see him as someone who helped me on my own path towards peace, knowledge, and renewed wonder. So I’m very grateful to this black panther who doesn’t know that I exist. Every time I see him, I feel something indescribable. There’s something rather special about this particular black panther. My romance with him has really allowed me to understand so much and become so humble about how little we understand about the complex connections on which we are all dependent. It’s a lesson we need to learn especially in light of this pandemic. I got a chance, while sitting in that forest waiting for hours for this animal to turn up, to think about all these links, marvel at them but also re-commit myself not only to supporting more conservation efforts but also to tell my story more widely so that more people can be inspired to experience the wonder and joy that I have had the privilege of experiencing.
We don’t have to travel far to experience this. Birds are everywhere, animals are everywhere. I feel so proud to belong to a country where, in spite of so much land pressure and population pressure, we have kept our biodiversity of flora and fauna alive. Even though bird populations are on the decline, there are many other species that are thriving and being supported by people despite us having one-third the landmass of America. We have practiced a kind of coexistence all these years that is under threat now, but I hope that people are beginning to see how we can have peaceful coexistence with wildlife. I believe in the precautionary principle. It’s easy for me to say because I live very safely, so I respect those who are in the path of danger and I don’t expect them to leave man-eating cats alive, but we can also ask ourselves how we can tread more lightly on this planet. The precautionary principle means we don’t really understand the connections, we don’t know how many species are needed to keep this whole web together. So apart from the moral right of species to live on their own, there’s also the serious existential question of how much of the biodiversity we really need in order for our next generations to be able to live and thrive. If we can go forward with a humble heart and a scientist’s mind, then we get this sense of the continuously renewing wonder and find out a little more about how our world is interconnected.
In my opinion, the first step in order to conserve and protect, is to observe and love. Wherever you are, even if you have a small balcony with one single pot in it, you will see what happens if you plant the right thing that will attract birds. If not, keep just one bowl of water on a ledge outside your kitchen window. Create something for the birds, especially in summer. In my little garden, I’ve planted bushes that attract birds for nesting, hiding, roosting, and perching. Everyone can do small things like that to help birds survive and thrive. Secondly, all over the country there are good conservation organisations, from very small to very large. Find one in your local area, find out who the people behind it are and support them with however much you can spare. There is something all of us can do to help in the conservation of birds as well as nature, because nature supports birds. So do what you can and learn what you can about birds, and you will begin to love them. In India we respect crows as representatives of the souls of our ancestors. Even if you live in cities, do something for the crows around you, or for the pigeons who make such a mess. Look at them differently, look at their shining blue and purple necks and marvel at their beauty. Observe, love, protect, and also support whichever local conservation organisation you can find. See what happens then. This is how we can build a thriving society that protects itself by protecting nature.