Champions of Earth

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Champions of Earth

Sunday, 17 November 2019 | Shalini Saksena

Champions of Earth

SHALINI SAKSENA met up with saviours of Nature at the recent Earth Hero Awards held in Delhi, to bring you stories of inspiration and good work that they are doing to leave a better world for future generations

Jalal-Ud-Din Baba, J&K, Award Category: Inspire

He was in Class VI and would watch as his parents exploited the Wular Lake in Bandipora district in J&K for whatever that the lake was able to give — fish and water chestnuts. It was then that Baba decided that when he was old enough, he would do everything that was possible to give back what his parents had taken from the lake that is the lifeline for the people living in the area.

Baba, who has been awarded the Inspire award by RBS Earth Heroes Awards for his commitment to filmmaking in environment, water, climate change, livelihood, forests and glaciers tells you that he is from a village Bandipora which standard on the banks of the Wular Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Asia with an area of 272 sq km.

“I was born on the banks of this river with bounties of this lake like water chestnuts, nadru (lotus root), fish and sometimes even sand extraction. The Wular water run in my blood. It was always in my mind to give it back to the mother which nurtured me. This pulled me towards Nature. I started small. I would go on my own to collect trash that would collect on the banks. Sometimes, I would pull my friends as well. My activism was a reaction to what I had seen my parents do to the lake,” Baba explains.

He tells you that the lake feeds eight lakh people. “Yet, they don’t understand the importance of what it means to have clean fresh water,” Baba says who is also a guest faculty and trainer at media departments, schools, colleges and universities across the country.

He conducts science and green filmmaking workshops, lectures, hands-on training and screenings. He has won more than 19 national and international awards from India, the US, China, Australia, France, Spain and Bangladesh, besides official acknowledgements, nominations and citations across the country. His flair for storytelling has empaneled him as a science communicator and resource person with Vigyan Prasar, Department of Science and Technology.

“To begin with, I would tell stories, tell the fishermen how necessary the lake is for the people of the region. I would write articles and hold debates on how we were poisoning the waters. I told people what to and what not to do. There are 42 other water bodies around this lake that feed the locals. I would tell people not throw waste and faecal matter into the lake because this water is then recycled, cleaned and finds its way into our taps for us to drink. Then there is the fish, nadru and even water chestnut. The fish eat what we throw in the waters and we in turn eat that fish. We eat nadru and water chestnuts too. We are not only damaging the environment, what we are eating is damaging our bodies as well. But I found that the impact that I was hoping for never came. That is when I decided to turn towards digital medium and armed myself with a camera to tell my story,” Baba recalls.

His film on what the Wular means to the locals is as dramatic as it can get. It is told from the eyes of a 13-year-old rag picker, Bilal Ahmad Dar who lives on its banks and what the lake means to him. The reason he has to eke out a livelihood is because he lost his father to cancer when he was six. And the reason for cancer? The toxic Wular lake. I made a hero of this boy. I targeted school children, I find that they are most open to ideas, yet our environment is at its worst today. This means that we are doing something wrong in our education system,” the 47-year-old tells you.

He has been conferred with the Inspire Award for his work as an individual (journalist/filmmaker/artist) or institution who has influenced thought or inspired action on wildlife conservation, natural resource management, and environmental protection through their creative expression.

“We are not teaching the importance of what the ecology and environment means to us. I show my films. I sometimes scare them by telling them the story of Dar. They understand the importance of Wular today,” Baba says.

The reason why Wular is dying? The lake is at the large part of the Valley — North. “Even the affluence from South Kashmir is emptied into the lake. The lake starts from Shehnag travels to Lider which meets Jhelum. This water carrying silt as well. Through Jhelum, the affluence and silt empties into Wular which is like a river and a lake. The lake becomes a reservoir. All the more reason why there is need to protect it and not throw trash into it. The lake attracts thousands of migratory birds. The area can become an eco-tourism spot besides what is already being done. It can provide an alternative means to earning for the locals. But the exploitation over the years has had a devastating effect on the biodiversity. Some of it is still left. There is time. Kashmir is dependent on Nature. We don’t have industries; we don’t have railways. We only have waters and lakes. If we lose Wular, we will lose everything including the Dal Lake in Srinagar,” Baba says.

S Sathish,  Tamil Nadu, Award Category: Save The Species

S Sathish is a forest range officer at Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, Tamil Nadu. This is the first Marine National Park in South-east Asia. After completing his BSc in Forestry and then doing Environmental Science, Sathish is now pursuing his doctorate in Marine Biology. His interest in Nature and preserving the species took root after he had completed his one-and-a-half years of training in Hyderabad, Telangana. He tells you that his posting in Gulf of Munnar was more like a punishment.

“Most forest rangers consider a posting here as a punishment because the working style in Marine National Park is very different from what one would do or find in a Tiger reserve. Nobody wants to work in a marine environment. People who come in this job have a different view of what the job entails. Working with marine animals is different as the nature and style of working here is different. One has to love the sea in order to love the work that comes with the territory. Once you fall in love with marine life, there is no walking away from this,” Sathish says.

The lack of awareness when it comes to dealing with marine life is what deters young forest rangers to work in this area. “We don’t have much information about marine animals. I studied Forestry for four years in BSc, two years of Environmental Science and one-and-a-half years of training and yet before I joined the National Park at Gulf of Munnar, I too didn’t have much knowledge. This field is kind of nightmare since it is new for everyone. Then there is the fact that the park borders Sri Lanka. Working here was an eye-opener for me,” Sathish tells you.

Even though the National Park has a rich wildlife, what is an unexplored world is marine life and there is so much that the sea has to offer. “There are sea cucumbers, sharks, whales, sea horses and beautiful corals. Since the park is at the border, sea cucumber and sea horses are tradable items. People eat them but luckily not in India. The challenge was to stop trade in these marine animals. Over 100 people were apprehended. I even targeted kingpins,” Sathish says.

Going after such people meant that Sathish and his wife’s life is always under threat. He tells you that since he has been posted there, not a single day has gone by when the two of them roamed the area freely. His wife doesn’t allow him to go alone anywhere. Recalling a recent incident, he tells you how his driver was beaten black and blue just because he drives Sathish around. They wanted Sathish to slow down in his work. Fake cases of Human Rights violation are filed against him regularly. But this has not slowed him down.

Once Sathish joined, his first priority was to think of things that could be taken up on a priority basis. “What we have under the sea is just as important for the eco-system. Sea cow or dugong and sea turtles are endangered here. Dugong was being hunted for its meat. Its meat is a delicacy and sells for `1,000 per kg. When I took over, there were only 150 dugongs left in Gulf of Munnar,” Sathish says.

He tells you that there 56 marine animals in the Gulf his primary work in with sea cucumbers. For this, the Forest Department bought scuba equipment after he and his team members learnt how to scuba dive. In fact, he and his eight-team are the only team in the Department who know how to scuba dive.

“There was a reason why we learnt how to scuba dive. There are 10,000 boats that ply in this region. There is so much plastic that is thrown in the sea. These settle at the bottom and cover the coral reef they would suffocate and die. This in turn would affect other marine animals living in the coral reefs. One a week we dive and collect all the plastic settled at the bottom,” Sathish explains.

This is no the only work that Sathish is known for in the area when he took over the National Park back in 2016. He regularly gives talks to school children telling them about the importance of marine life in general and sea turtles, dugong and sea cucumber in particular. And it was his commitment to the conservation of sea cucumber, in the coastal stretch of Mandapam and Ramnad Wildlife Range, that Sathish was awarded the Save the Species award by RBS Earth Heroes Awards.

“I tell the fishermen that their livelihood is dependent on what the sea gives them. If they abuse the sea, soon there won’t be anything left for them to sell and eat. I tell them that these endangered species are important for the other fish to survive. If sea cucumber disappears, their income will also disappear. Sea cucumber cleans the sea bed. This is something that the fishermen understand since the area has seen a drop in the amount of the fish coming in. The impact is that today, even if a dugong gets caught in the nets, it is set free. This has led to an increase in their number. As for sea turtles, if they would get caught in the net, their flippers would be cut off and turtle would be thrown back. But today, people protect them after they have understood the role each marine animal plays,” Sathish says.

His work related to dugong is just as innovative. An app has been created — Save the Dugong. “The fisherman, with the help of this app needs to click the picture; it will give us the GPS sighting and help us track the movement. In return we pay `10,000. While the money is nowhere near the money they would earn if they killed the animal, the idea of seeing a dugong has caught on and the species number is on the rise. We are now in the process of trying to bring this area as dugong conservation area,” Sathish says.

Bholu Abrar Khan,  Bharatpur, Award Category: Green Warrior

He was all of 12 when he would spend his days chasing birds at Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur. His father was a chef at one of the resort’s where ornithologists and birdwatcher would come and visit from time to time. One such person who piqued Bhola’s interest was Dr Salim Ali who used to frequent the park to ring the birds. Bholu attributes much of his love and knowledge of birds to this man.

“Dr Ali used to come to the park often. Once I met him. He asked me if I would be interested in helping me. I was 12, had lot of energy and free time since I wasn’t going to school. I would spend hours chasing birds and looking for them. He was the one who taught me the names and how to identify them. Those which I couldn’t identify, I would look at it with care and comeback and describe the bird in detail. Dr Ali would then tell me the name. I would go patrolling with the staff even as a kid. I would go to count nests and help ring the birds,” the 65-year-old who retired as forest ranger with the park, recalls.

However, Dr Ali had a strict rule. The only way that Bholu could help was that he had to compulsorily go to school. The young Bholu had no option but to comply. Unfortunately, he could not complete his graduation. In 1976, family pressure forced him to get married. “Those days one simply followed what the family said. I was in second year and sitting in the exam hall when I had to leave. The baarat was at the doorstep. I got caught up with married life and never had the opportunity to go back to complete it,” Bholu recounts who had joined the park as a forester.

But it didn’t deter him from working with the birds. He got a job with the park, learnt how to conduct bird census camps and to handle birds’ safely. He monitored the park daily and reported issues around encroachment, poaching, animal diseases and unruly visitors who would disturb the birds. His thorough knowledge meant that guides would come to him to takes lessons on how to identify a particular bird – whether it was migratory, a resident bird or a resident migratory. He has taught MSc student who came to learn about the birds. He has taught young forest officers who would be posted at the park. He has taught school students who would visit the park by showing them a presentation, the peculiarities of a bird and how to spot them in the wild.

He regales you with stories. He tells you how he was the one who had spotted a hissing cat. Something that was unheard of in the park. “Once, as a kid I spotted a cat. But I didn’t know its name. But I studied the way it looked. I ran back and informed the office. When they saw the animal, they were surprised to see a hissing cat. Nobody knew that it was in the park,” Bholu tells you.

He tells you how back in the 80s and 90s people would throng the park to see the Siberian crane. Unfortunately, the fighting in Afghanistan in the 90s proved to be fatal to this majestic bird that would rest in Afghanistan. He tells you how rampant killing of this exotic looking bird meant that Keoladeo lost one of its prized possessions. But he tells you that back in 1985, a Russian had ringed a baby Siberian bird. The bird was spotted in the park in 1986 with its parents after flying for 8,000 km.

“The then park director called the person who had tagged the bird. It was then that there are three kinds of population an each has a different destination. The central population that comes to Bharatpur, the western population that goes to Iran and eastern population that goes to China where their numbers are large.

There were other challenges as well. Water is a big issue. The Gambhir river that used to feed the Bharatpur wetland, no longer is an option since the construction of the dam. “There was a time when thousands of birds used to come to the park. There was plenty of food back then. But after the dam was built, the part lost its supply of water. The option was to feed the park from the Chambal river. The water from this river that feeds the city is collected some 17 km away in a flood control drain. But this water lacks natural food. There is bound to be a decline in the bird population. But during good monsoons, there is plenty of food and the bird population thrives,” Bholu tells you.

He opines that there is need to ensure that Bhartpur remain a wetland to attract birds. “The town has no other industry. The entire population is depended on tourist who come here. If the water disappears, the birds disappear, the tourists will as well. At present, the park in a world heritage site. But the park can lose its status. What will we do then? The Government is doing its best and park officials are doing their best to deal with the situation since there is so much more awareness about wildlife today,” Bholu says.

He tells you his life started with the bird and will end among the birds. His children too are wildlife photographers. “I too am a photographer. Many of my photos have found way into many magazines,” Bholu tells you.

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