Safaris in a Box

Having worked with a number of animal advocacy and wildlife conservation organisations, most of my friends assume that I know everything there is to know about animals. Especially birds. So, when we hear a bird call on a nature trail, they look at me expectantly. They are waiting for me to name the species, and that too without the help of Google or a Rememberall. Of course, I can name a few– a flash of blue means kingfisher, a flutter of a black and white tail and I can wisely whisper, “tree pie”, or declare with some swagger that the birds circling in the air above are raptors. Try it sometime. It sounds clever and everyone believes you if you say it confidently enough.

Fortunately, help has come to me in the form of wildlife games, which have now become a staple at gatherings and a trusted travel companion. Of course these are actually meant for children, and are fantastic tools that teachers can use in the classroom as well.

Last Wilderness Bingo and Dominoes: When going away on a vacation, card games are an easy travel companion. They are light and easy to slip into any bag. Which is why I was thrilled when I came across the Last Wilderness Foundation’s Wildlife Bingo. The bilingual game’s simple – you have to collect nine stones to begin the game. Each player is given one bingo card which has different trees, animals, birds, and reptiles drawn on them. The stack of individual animal cards go into a bag. To play, you pick out a card from the bag and call out the name of the animal, which is written in English and Hindi. Show the card to players and put it aside. The players that have the particular animal on their bingo cards place a stone on it. The first player to have stones on all nine species yells “Bingo!” and wins.

Of course, I have put a new spin on the game and call it Story Bingo. Each player makes up a story with the bingo card they get; and all the species on the card need to be in their tale. We have come up with tall tales of a Chow-Singha that loves eating and a Barn Owl that has insomnia. The cards are beautifully illustrated and promise hours of fun.

Then there’s the Dominoes game – there are 30 cards divided in half, forming two squares. One square has the name of an animal, and the other a different animal’s name. Players have to find the matching animal and place it next to its correct name. There are lots of possible combinations and it gets harder to place the cards correctly as the game progresses. Available at

Nature Conservation Foundation Bird Flash Cards: These set of 40 flashcards introduce children (and me) to 40 common birds of India. One side has photos of the bird and the other details about its natural history, habitat and food. There’s also a quiz, which I tanked the first time around, but I promise you I am getting better at it.

The cards double up for a memory game, just like the playing cards memory game. And from their website, you can even download a free instruction PDF on how to use the flashcards for different games such as drawing and quizzing.

I also use the cards as writing prompts when conducting workshops with children. The free e-kit comes with a common birds’ sound folder – and you can listen and identify the sounds of the Asian koel, black kite, and white-throated kingfisher, among others. All birds that I can now identify. Mission accomplished! Available at

Kaadoo: Kaadoo is a board game, and the makers call “a safari in a box”. What I love about this game is that the pawns are crafted by Channapatna toy makers and the animal sighting cards hand-painted by wildlife artists. The games are available in different versions including the Nilgiri Biosphere, African Savannah, Western India, and Central India editions.

Playing is simple – you roll the dice to move around the “forest” board, and get to collect animal sighting cards. It involved math and natural history both. What is amazing is that the game instructions are available in 17 languages! Their newest game, Jungle Patrol, requires the player to assist forest rangers to outwit notorious brigands from entering the core of the jungle and wreaking havoc. If only real life could be this awesome. Available at

P.S. If I encounter a bird or insect that I can’t identify despite these games, I promptly message my wildlife friend, Radha Rangarajan, and she answers all my queries. But unfortunately not everyone has their own phone-a-friend option, which is why, game on.

The last straw

A few weeks ago, a video of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica went viral. It wasn’t because the turtle was doing something cute or gif-worthy. It was because a plastic straw had got embedded into one of its nostrils and the turtle looked like it was having trouble breathing. It’s a hard video to watch – the scientists hover around the turtle to try and wiggle the straw out for ten whole minutes. At one point, blood starts to stream from the nostril, while the turtle looks miserable. There’s palpable relief as the ten-centimetre long wedged straw is finally pried out by the scientists. It’s one of the most horrible things to see, and most people I know couldn’t bear to watch the video. Even the mere mention of it makes everyone shudder.

A piece of straw is an innocuous thing. It’s itty-bitty and almost invisible. And the straw is just kind of there, bobbing about in your drink. Say, you are at a restaurant and your child wants fresh lime soda or watermelon juice (oh surely, you don’t mean cola), while you order cocktails, straws it seems, have become a must-have. In fact, it’s almost like that annoying practice, where the staff asks you – bottled water or filter water. The correct answer, as anyone with an iota of brain cell, knows is filter water. Yet, it’s a question that is responsible for tons of plastic being added to landfills and oceans.

And when it comes to straws, there’s an array to choose from – in fact, the fancier the better. There are the plain plastic straws, then the L-shaped ones, and then the bendy ones in all sorts of fun colours and shapes. Suck a bit, and it’s exciting to see your beverage of choice go up and down like a roller coaster. Wheeee! And for a child, it can seem like the coolest thing ever. Plus, the gurgling sound they can make at the end of a drink. Bonus points for that!

But what happens after you are done chugging the beverage? That piece of plastic goes into the bin. If you are at the beach and having coconut water, the chain is even more clear. The straw goes into the water. To bob along with marine life.

One of the saddest pictures I saw on Instagram was of a Yellow Goby fish who was living in a makeshift home inside an abandoned soda can. The photo was taken by Brian Skerry. The caption by National Geographic further explained that one estimate cites “5.25 trillion pieces of plastic [are] currently circulating with the ocean”. I don’t even know how to quantify this figure in my head.

There are ways to be less of a sucker though. And they are less difficult than having a turtle gag on a piece of straw and try to regurgitate the plastic through its nose. It’s simply explaining the restaurant staff, for instance, that you want a drink without a straw. Nine out of ten times they will still bring the drink with a straw. Like the other day, when we were at a restaurant and ordered lassi. The drink came in solid steel tumblers, but with straws! Who drinks lassi with straw? Why? How? It’s supposed to be thick enough to eat with a spoon. But no, straw we must. If your building recycles, then take the offending plastic piece home and put it in the right bin.

Most importantly, explain to your children why a straw is really a useless accessory. Kids are sensitive, and they care about animals and pollution. They will end up taking the lead in this drive.

Once you get started, it’s kind of hard to stop. Refuse disposable cutlery and accessories when ordering food. Most delivery services have horrendous amounts of Styrofoam, plastic, and foil in their packaging. I have a colleague who managed to convince her food delivery service to switch to steel dabbas. It didn’t even take time.

Of course, it would be great if restaurants make the use of straws optional. I am sure there are tricky customers who demand a straw. But perhaps it’s easier to explain why you are not offering a straw. Or like the bottled water versus filtered water question, this too can become part of your staff’s vocabulary. Feel free to rephrase the question but here’s an example – “Would you like that juice without straw? Or would you prefer a straw and cause permanent damage to our oceans and marine life with your choice.”

Ten ways to observe World Earth Day

Happy Earth Day everyone! April 22 is celebrated across the world to remember the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Over time, it has become one of the many green days, on which we are besieged with pleas to save the planet and sharing breathtakingly beautiful photos of flora and fauna and talking about how there’s only one planet, yada yada yada. In keeping with the spirit of things, I just wanted to start off the celebrations with a checklist for our children. Here’s a list of things that our kids can definitely use for Earth Day.

1. Long walks in the park, when we can find them. Stopping frequently – not to check our mobile phones – but to examine a seed pod or a fascinating bug.

2. Stories that inspire and tales that remind us about the gorgeous planet we live in. And storytellers to write and draw them.

3. Clean-up drives, but ones attended by grown-ups as well. Why do children keep having to pick up their trash?

4. Broadcasts from Slooh, the online astronomy service, where NASA astronauts Stanley Love and Tracy Caldwell Dyson will share “what they missed most about Earth when they went into space, and how they felt to be looking down on our “pale blue dot.”

5. Clean, fresh air, water, food, soil, and you know, essential stuff like that.

6. A nature journal, and access to nature to observe and record it.

7. Logging on to NASA’s Adopt the Planet website and virtually adopting a piece of Earth as seen from space. They will even get an adoption certificate and get to mine Earth science data. More exciting, inclusive science.

8. Introduce them to a tree – let them befriend it, adopt it, even write a thank you card to it.

9. David Attenborough, Arati Kumar-Rao, Bittu Sahgal, Rachel Carson, Claude and Norma Alvares, Prerna Singh Bindra, Jane Goodall, Vidya Athreya, Ullas Karanth, Rohan Chakravarty, and many more inspiring people. Media outlets that give them space to be heard.

10. Climate-literate parents and peers.

And then, here’s a list of things our kids don’t need for Earth Day.

1. Policies that greenlight forest clearances and then speeches on going green, along with coffee table book launches on the many splendours of the planet.

2. Realms of newsprint dedicated to the colour green. Everything green – from the font to the masthead. But little coverage on environmental matters.

3. Advertisements that jump up and down and clamour to be heard because, well, their agency gave them a green makeover for the day. Especially for that day. You know, to win awards later in the day as well.

4. Brown paper packages and plastic bags (from all that shopping) that clog up our landfills. And all their contents, which scientists believe, may become technofossils (technology that will fossilize), and add a distinct geological layer upon the Earth.

5. RJ/ Broadcaster/Listicle-writer speak on how green is the new black.

6. Bleached coral reefs and species extinction.

7. Boring environmental education text books.

8. ‘Meri Desh ki Dharti’ on loop. No thanks.

9. Hyper-processed foods concocted in labs or ingredients flown half-way across the planet, racking up food miles. Local produce does very nicely.

10. Never-ending talks to children, as to how it’s their responsibility to save the planet. No, it’s not. They have lots of homework to do. It’s the grown-ups’ responsibility, and we are failing miserably. In fact, if we were in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we’d get a T for Troll.

Make way for an equal turf

Here are three beloved literary characters from children’s books. Give yourself a cookie if you can figure out the two things they have in common.

“On Tuesday, he ate through two pears. But he was still hungry!” – The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path…” – The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think.” – Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.

Well, for one, they are all animals. And two, they are all male!

It’s really not a coincidence that many of our cherished literary animals are male. Let’s see now, there’s The Jungle Book motley crew of Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, and Shere Khan the tiger; then there’s Clifford the big red dog, gentle Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, Pete the Cat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar — it’s a really, really long list, when you think about it.

This was one of the topics of conversation a couple of weeks ago on Genderlog India, a Twitter-based crowdsourced hub that invites guest curators to talk about gender. As tweets flew across the virtual universe, we talked about the accepted fact that while girls will read books with either girl or boy protagonists, boys will mostly choose those with boy heroes. That aside, gender biases creep up in innocuous ways in storytelling, often manifesting in the form of a predominant male voice in children’s literature.

You’d think that adding anthropomorphised animals in a storyline would contribute to defying gender stereotypes, but it turns out, they often reinforce them. These social constructs run deep, and it’s not surprising then that they crop up in storybooks as well.

In an analysis of the Caldecott award-winning books, a 2011 study titled Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books, found: “Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals.” In fact, from the North American books, only Have You Seen My Duckling? had a distinct female lead. “Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages. The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery,” wrote the authors.

Of course, there are distinct female voices in the literary animal kingdom. The most evocative among them being the eponymous spider from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. During the Genderlog India Twitter chat, writer Nilanjana Roy also recommended Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, in which a female wolf cub lives alongside other baby animals including a fox-cub, a baby donkey, and humans. Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m A Girl has a little girl-donkey who keeps getting mistaken for a boy because she is messy, loves to win, and is fast as the wind. The picture book is a celebration of childhood and being who you want to be.

The popularity of the Olivia book series by Ian Falconer shows that many of the gender biases don’t hold for younger children. An anthropomorphic piglet, Olivia is a feisty bundle of energy; she is constantly up to something or the other. In a 1996 paper titled Children’s assignment of gender to animal characters in pictures, the researchers found that the younger children — aged four to five years — “assigned their own gender to the characters”, but the older ones — seven to eight and 10 to 11 — were impacted by gender stereotypes, with boys in the oldest age groups most influenced by them.

Closer home, there’s Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, which has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Prabha Mallya’s illustrations conjure up the majestic Beraal, “the most fierce of the queens” among cats in Nizamuddin. Then there’s Mahasweta Devi’s Our Incredible Cow and Our Non-Veg Cow and Other Stories, featuring Nyadosh the cow with an insatiable appetite, who will not turn up her nose at any food, be it books or clothes or inanimate objects. Padmaparna Ghosh’s Up World, Down World features Gopa the dormouse who takes young readers on a tour of canopy forests.

There may be more feminine voices in the animal kingdom, but they are still very much in the minority. And this not for a dearth of inspiration. While we hear real-life stories of Tilikum the SeaWorld Orca, and Suraj the one-eared elephant who was rescued by Wildlife SOS, we are equally fascinated by Elsa the lion cub raised by Joy and George Adamson in Kenya or Tara the tigress that Billy Arjan Singh attempted to reintroduce into the wild, or even Tardar Sauce, who’s better known virtually as Grumpy Cat.

More recently, The Washington Post reported that Wikipedia had placed the Garfield page on lockdown, after an argument broke out over the character’s gender. Garfield’s creator Jim Davis later stepped in to clarify that Garfield is male, but added, “I’ve always said that I wanted to work with animals because they’re not perceived as being any particular gender, race, age or ethnicity.”

The bottom line is that literary animals are memorable. Even as adults, we remember many of them with fondness. It’s imperative then to bridge the gap for more gender-neutral and female representations in the animal kingdom in books.

Tigers are people too

All T-Cub wants to do is grow up to be a tiger. And really, it shouldn’t be this hard — he is a tiger cub already. And that’s when we meet him, in When I Grow Up I Want to be a Tiger, a picture book by Prerna Singh Bindra and Maya Ramaswamy, where he is splashing about in water, jumping at his copy-cat tiger reflection, learning to hunt through play. Life’s good for T-Cub, until one day, his mother vanishes, and the cub and his sibling are left to fend for themselves. Which makes you wonder, with all the threats that the species faces, will T-Cub grow up to be a tiger?

Joys of childhood

Published by Speaking Tiger, the picture book brings together the wonders of the forest and the magnificence of the tiger, along with the many threats this animal faces today. At the same time, it’s a book about the joys of childhood, and the wonderful bond between parents and their children. Beautifully produced, When I Grow Up is designed by Pranav Capila, editor of Second Skin Media, an editorial and design agency focused on wildlife conservation.

As a journalist, Bindra has written over 1,500 articles on nature and wildlife, and authored The King and I: Travels in Tigerland and Voices in the Wilderness for adults. When I Grow Up is her first book for children. “I ran a nature column for children for maybe a year. I did it for The Asian Age,” said Bindra, who has also worked with Sanctuary Asia. “See, the world of conservation is a grim one. Full of ‘bad’ stories of forests being destroyed, elephants being crushed by trains, tigers and pangolins being poached, leopards being beaten to death, rivers being dammed and polluted… you get the drift? It’s a constant battle, and the despair hits you. So, I sat back, and thought, why do I do this? And the answer is: Because I care! Because nature is magical, mysterious, it inspires wonder, and awe. I decided to pen this book… to revive that little bit of magic.”

And the book inspires wonder, more so because of Ramaswamy’s illustrations — they are lush and awe-inspiring. A hornbill flies out of one page, and on another, a tiger’s tail disappears around a verdant corner. Ramaswamy, who is known for her wildlife art, conjures up a forest with her brush, the animals and birds rendered with painstaking detail. “Maya got the pulse of the story,” said Bindra, “and she has made T-Cub and his ma, and his sister come alive… the illustrations are gorgeous, and I fell in love with T-Cub all over again.”

T-Cub is the amalgamation of the many tiger cubs that Bindra has met over time, during her trips to the forests of India. Snippets from fellow conservationist and forest staff have gone into the book, making it a veritable trove of information about tigers. “I remember when I went to Bandhavgarh, I saw a tigress sleeping with her three cubs. One of them, the forest guard told me, was a male and a curious kid. And bold. The cub got up to take a closer look. As her got a little too close, the mamma got up in a second, snarled, and gave him a sound whack which had him scurrying back to her! She was disciplining him, just like our mothers do!

Wildlife faces a crisis

There’s a sense of beauty, followed by a feeling of urgency in the story. Bindra’s work — she has been a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife and its Standing Committee from 2010 to 2013 — has always fuelled the discussion around wildlife conservation. “There is a sense of urgency in the wildlife scenario today,” said Bindra. “Wildlife is facing its worst crisis ever; we are in the age of the sixth extinction. How can one ignore that, or not care? It’s intrinsic to the work I do, it is why I do what I do. And yes, the sense of urgency, or the conservation message does weave in my writing, whether it be travelogues or for children. The sense of beauty moves you to care for the tiger, the forest and what you care for, you fight for.”

But mostly for Bindra, this book is important because she feels the need to share the tiger’s story with children. “It is also because I find children increasingly very removed from nature, the outdoors, these days,” she said. “I hope it will bring tigers alive for them, show them that tigers are people too (only better!), that animals, even tigers have personalities.”

Good Fellas

A wolf, a shark, a snake, and a piranha don suits and begin The Good Guys Club. No, that’s not the start of a joke, but the premise of Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series published by Scholastic. The books are about a quartet who really really look like Bad Guys, in fact, everyone thinks they are terribly Bad Guys, scary and dangerous. But what they really really want is to be heroes, especially Mr. Wolf. Unfortunately, everyone keeps judging the Samaritans on how frightening they look, even the dapper suits don’t seem to help their image.


“I wanted to make something that my overly-sophisticated eight and 10-year-olds would think was cool,” said Blabey over email. “It was also a reaction to seeing a lot of deeply boring Early Reader books being brought home from school. Some books seem to have been designed to discourage children from ever wanting to read again. It was my hope to provide an antidote to that.”

Written and illustrated by Blabey, the comic chapter books are fully fun. Each page elicits a few chuckles, and some are simply laugh out loud. No surprise then that The Bad Guys has been extremely successful in Australia and is now available in India as well. “Kids really seem to love it,” said Blabey. “And kids who don’t like to read books are loving it too. THAT is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I’m immensely proud of that: kids who consider books to be Kryptonite are queuing up for the next instalment.”

But they are more than just funny stories. In Episode 1, The Good Guys Club sets off to rescue 200 puppies locked up in a maximum security city dog pound (their hopes and dreams are trapped behind walls of stone and bars of steel) and in Episode 2 – Mission Unpluckable, their daring plan is to rescue 10,000 chickens from a high-security cage farm (never mind that one of their members is a notorious chicken swallower). These are narratives that will be loved by animal advocacy champions. “It’s more about characters who’ve simply been judged their whole lives because of the way they look,” said the Australia-based Blabey. “The fact that they’re animals is inconsequential. One of them — Wolf — wants to transcend his situation. His counterpart — Snake — is resigned to it. Their polar approaches to handling this dilemma is the engine of the series.”

The Bad Guys explores attitudes and discrimination at the same time, using humour deftly to present the issues. “I find Wolf heart breaking,” said the bestselling author. “He can’t understand why no one can see how nice he is. The world’s preconceived notions of what the boys are is a rich and satisfying seam of material to mine and for the record, I love making this series more than I can say.”

Blabey effortlessly switches between writing and illustrating comic chapter books and picture books, including the adorable Pig the Pug series and Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas. Blabey said that his approach to the books is completely different. “I walk when I write picture books. The rhythm of walking helps me write in verse. I walk until I have a book,” he said. “The Bad Guys, on the other hand, is written like a screenplay, sitting at a desk, on a Mac. The process of switching between them is like crop rotation (Joni Mitchell famously referred to moving between song writing and painting in the same way. I’ve stolen that from her.)”

As he walks about the Blue Mountains thinking up his stories, Blabey pens them down on phones and other such entities. “I like mediums of impermanence, like phones, white-boards and napkins, because they encourage naughtiness,” he said. “Handsome notebooks demand reverence. Every mark seems to diminish their beauty. My notes app, on the other hand, feels utterly transient, so I tend to be more relaxed and playful when I write on it. I love white-board too. Nothing is at stake, so I feel free to play.”

Why did the leopard cross the road?

Here’s a riddle.

Why did the leopard cross the road?

Because she was hungry, and she saw a zebra crossing.

Actually, that’s not true. Unlike us, leopards don’t understand that you need to look first left, then right, then left again, before crossing the road. They don’t know the rules behind the zebra crossing stripes on the road either (honestly, who can blame them, motorists also don’t seem to know that they shouldn’t stand on the zebra crossing; pedestrians have the right of way there). All these rules are made by humans, and it is silly of us to pave a road in the middle of a forest, and then expect leopards or elephants or other animals to know road crossing rules.

Nor do animals get boundaries. Your house or apartment block must have a wall and a gate to mark its perimeter. You know that you can’t just jump into another person’s house (unless you know them) because one, it’s not polite, and two, it’s not safe, and hello, it’s trespassing. But these are man-made boundaries. We don’t ask for permission from forest animals before mowing their trees down to build houses, grow crops, or mine for minerals. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2016, the Global Forest Resources Assessment reports that since 1990, on a gross basis, we have lost a total of 239 million hectares of natural forest!

This means that there is lesser forest cover for animals to call their home, and it’s not that surprising when you hear news of a leopard coming into a school on a Sunday. After all, we can’t expect them to know these man-made boundary walls.

Further, our roads are becoming a point for human-animal conflict. Roadkill — that is wildlife killed on the road by motor accidents — has become a major threat to conservation. A study conducted by Panthera showed that 23 leopards were killed in Karnataka between July 2009 and June 2014 because of road accidents.

In a research paper titled Roadkill Animals on National Highways of Karnataka, by Selvan et. al, the authors conducted a survey to understand how many animals were killed on National Highways NH212 and NH67, which pass through Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka in 2007. They found that 423 animals of 29 species were killed between January and June. Isn’t that awful?

According to the Wildlife Conservation Foundation (WCF), at least three large animals are killed in accidents on these highways. And these include tigers, elephants, leopards, deer, sloth bears, snakes and birds. The good news is that in 2010, the group, with the help of the Wildlife Trust of India and the High Court, was able to ban night traffic in Bandipur. A good thing because 65 per cent of wildlife roadkills until that time were being documented at night.

This is, of course, only Karnataka. But there are so many instances of leopards and other animals becoming victims of accidents — either road or rail — across the country. What can be done about this? Plenty. For instance, not allowing roads or rail networks to be built inside forests or corridors, which animals use to pass from one jungle to another. Many forest departments now have installed neon boards and speed breakers to slow those hurtling vehicles going at top speed in the night. Or like the WCF managed to do — restricting vehicular traffic at night.

The good folks at the Nature Conservation Foundation – India have come up with a fabulous strategy in Tamil Nadu. They have installed seven canopy bridges in the rainforests of the Valparai region — aerial bridges (high up above the ground) that connect tree canopies that were otherwise too far apart across the roads. And it’s already showing results — lion-tailed macaques can cross the road without having to look left, right, and left again, and they don’t have to get down from their trees and dodge passing traffic.

What else do you think can be done? We’d love to hear from you with your ideas. Write to us at

Leopard in Gurugram: How The Media Made A Mess Of A Tragedy

Did you know leopards actually prefer to stay away from human settlements rather than prey on them? The recent killing of a leopard in Gurugram shows how damaging sensationalist reporting on the wildlife can be.

On November 25, horrific photographs and videos of a leopard in Mandawar village in Gurugram made headlines across India. Many, including The Times of India, showed a particularly disturbing image of the villagers dragging the leopard by its tail, its head bludgeoned to bloody pulp. Some blurred out the head. Others, such asIndia Today, chose to carry a video of people posing for photos with the dead leopard, and a disclaimer of “disturbing content, viewer’s discretion advised”.

There’s something almost obscene about the show of human triumph in those photographs and an unspoken reiteration of the idea that wildlife and humanity must have a relationship of animosity. Leopards, incidentally, are solitary animals and humans are actually not their traditional prey. So despite the fact that we call them “predators”, as far as we humans are concerned, leopards are not actually bloodthirsty. This is probably why many local legends in different parts of the country see leopards and tigers as protectors rather than predators. Yet, look at the press reports, the story of progress is one of clashes like this one, between man and animal – it’s a war, and humans won this battle.

Sensationalising human-animal conflict in the media serves no purpose, except to make matters worse. If we’re being shown these images for higher ratings or more views and shares, it is a poor excuse. The Ministry of Environment and Forests’ Guidelines for Human-Leopard Conflict Management 2011 edition clearly state, “Media should contribute to diffusing the tense situation surrounding conflict with objective reporting aimed at highlighting the measures to mitigate conflict. Reporting mainly aggressive encounters with leopards can erode local people’s tolerance and worsen the situation by forcing the Forest Department to unnecessarily trap the wild animal due to public pressure.”

Many headlines played a blame game – “Gurgaon villagers beat leopard to death: How the forest department failed to save the animal’s life”, “Leopard enters Gurugram village, attacks 8, beaten to death”. The Hindustan Times headline read, “Leopard killed: As villagers discuss tales of courage, fear of police action looms large” and then went on to say in the body copy, “In the two days since the incident, the event has been embellished with ‘snippets of valour’.” So was encountering the leopard really an act of courage or was it “embellished”? Your guess is as good as mine.

As writers, our lexicon is everything. Bandying about phrases like “leopard on loose” or “beastly attacks” alter perceptions, often dubbing the animal as dangerous and fearsome. “The media has to stop imagining that the mere sighting of a leopard is like a terrorist in the neighbourhood,” said wildlife conservationist Prerna Bindra, who is also a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. “It does not represent conflict, in all probability the cat was living in peace for years, before it was unfortunately spotted. The cat lived in peace, home sapiens couldn’t. What’s appalling is not just beating the creature to death, but posing-in-glee for pictures as though it were some kind of trophy.”

The Indian Express was one of the few outlets to offer restrained reporting, including this story by Jay Mazoomdaar, titled “Spotted a leopard? Back off, stay calm, let it slip away”. Mazoomdaar elaborated that “leopards traditionally live close to people and just because one is sighted does not mean the animal means harm.” As did The Wire, taking an in-depth look at policy decisions when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. “Leopards tend to live near people,” wrote Neha Sinha for the The Wire. “In modern times, on the other hand, they have vanished from more than 60 per cent of their historic range worldwide. Thus, of all man-animal conflicts, leopards have borne the worst brunt, and the story is no different in India.”

This is not the first instance of man-animal conflict that has been reported in the media. It will also not be the last, in fact climate change will possibly exacerbate it. As will policies such as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change declaring certain wildlife species as vermin if they are “damaging human life or property”, and translocating leopards (which stresses them further) or projects that mow down forests to make way for roads and highways.

As India moves rapidly towards an economic growth that is bolstered by unchecked development paradigms that shrink forests, it also unravels the fragile bond that humans and wildlife share. What was once a relatively peaceful existence is now marred with violent conflict. In a story, Learning to live with leopards, ecologist Vidya Athreya who has done substantial research on the subject, said “…we are finding that we can share our space with leopards when we know how they behave and we understand how we should behave. In rural India, wildlife is a fact of life; by learning to live with it, we can minimise trouble.”

Efforts are being made to inculcate better understanding in the media. In 2015, the Wildlife Conservation Society India held collaborative workshops with the media on reporting human-wildlife interactions accurately and responsibly. There are numerous documents and publications available online about standard operating procedures as well as guidelines. That can propel nuanced journalism which takes into account multiple perspectives, facts, and relies on wildlife experts and scientists to report on incidents such as this.

Unfortunately, there’s an ingrained sense of fear towards the creatures of the wild that gets exploited in sensational reporting of the kind we saw in the Gurugram leopard case. But this fear mongering doesn’t actually help us come to an understanding of how we’re going to share space with wildlife. And as we bludgeon our way to progress, we’re going to have to figure out a better way to achieve an equilibrium.

Fantastic Beasts shows muggles there’s no magic in a world without the wild

Newt Artemis Fido Scamander reminds us that without animals, Earth isn’t a place called home.

Newton (“Newt”) Artemis Fido Scamander went down in wizarding history for many of his achievements, including writing the seminal Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and bringing about the ban on experimental breeding. But after the biopic on him, I think Scamander will, perhaps, be best remembered in the muggle and No-Maj world for his wildlife conservation beliefs.

In the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, magizoologist Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) comes to New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of magical creatures. Things begin to unravel when some of these fantastic creatures escape into the city, plus there’s an inexplicable force wreaking havoc at the same time. Fantastic Beasts is a charming film, full of wondrous bits. It’s set in the familiar world of magic, but with a new narrative that also makes a strong case for conservation.

A suitcase packed with wild things

In the eponymous book that JK Rowling published as a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry textbook in aid of Comic Relief UK in 2001, we first learned about Scamander who, at the age of seven, “spent hours in his bedroom dismembering Horklumps” and then went on to travel across dark jungles, marshy bogs, and bright desserts to learn more about the “curious habits of beasts”. I couldn’t help but imagine Scamander as a cross between David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. More so, when we got to examine the contents of his suitcase in the movie.The suitcase (spoiler alert) is a world unto itself for magical creatures, and it’s reminiscent of the many animal rescue and rehabilitation centres around the world. Such as the Wild Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Pune, managed by The Indian Herpetological Society (IHS) that offers specialised care for injured and orphaned animals, and helps rehabilitate wild animals back into their natural homes. Or Wildlife SOS’s Agra Bear Rescue Facility, a centre for rescued sloth bears. Like Frank – the thunderbird, many of these animals have been trafficked or chained up and some will be returned to their homes in the wild.

Unpacking speciesism in the Anthropocene

In his book, Scamander questions the wizarding world’s earlier attempts at designating non-human magical creatures as “beasts”, as compared to “beings”. “Being”, he says, is a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world. A stark contrast to the idea of speciesism, an idea that humans have greater moral rights than animals.

These are concepts we should reflect upon – as the planet hurtles towards a warmer period that is hastening the loss of biodiversity, as the green light is given for forests (home to the muggle fantastic animals) to be cleared for “development” projects, and as we enter the Age of Extinction for many species. The destruction is apparent, as are its consequences. The year 2016 is set to be the warmest in temperature records since 1880; climate change may be the reason behind the extinction of the small mammal Bramble Cay melomys in the Great Barrier Reef; and in India, we are already looking at horrific pollution levels and unprecedented weather patterns.

In a paper titled “The New Noah’s Ark”, research scientist Ernie Small pointed out that “Most of the world’s species at risk of extinction are neither particularly attractive nor obviously useful, and consequently lack conservation support. In contrast, the public, politicians, scientists, the media and conservation organisations are extremely sympathetic to a select number of well-known and admired species, variously called flagship, charismatic, iconic, emblematic, marquee and poster species.” Another thing that we can take away from Fantastic Beasts.

A friend pointed out that she loved that not all that animals in the movie were cute or even attractive. “Because it sort of drove the point home that you don’t preserve animals just because they’re photogenic,” she said. Whether it’s the enormous erumpent, the luminescent ashwinder, or the fragile bowtruckle, they are all as important for Scamander, like the tree frog, the grey hornbill, and the royal Bengal tiger are for wildlife conservationists.

A case for conservation in the muggle world

In fact, as Scamander writes, “Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance”, and that’s often what determines our interactions with nature. Superstitions about unlucky owls, myths of the potency of the rhino’s horn or the fallacy of speciesism has led to owls being injured by stones, birds being imprisoned in tiny cages, and rhinos being poached to near-extinction. When it comes to his fantastic creatures, Scamander says that he hopes to, “rescue, nurture and protect them”, and gently attempt to educate his fellow wizards about them. And let us hope, some Muggles along the way.

Which is what Fantastic Beasts really manages to do – remind us that without these animals, the world would be a much drearier place to live in. Scamander writes that magizoology matters because it ensures that “future generation of witches and wizards enjoy their [fantastic beings] strange beauty and powers as we have been privileged to do”.

Kind of like what Attenborough once said, “It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”

Our planet would be a poorer place without house sparrows taking a dust bath, a funnel web spider spinning her web with a funnel at its centre, or a mother elephant protecting her calf by gently pushing him behind her trunk. Without them, Earth isn’t a place called home.


The Loneliest Animals in the World

More than a decade ago, I got into an argument with a cousin-in-law because she was incredulous that I had issues with Rani Bagh (the old name for our city zoo now known as Jijamata Udyaan). I argued back, talking about the dingy cages, the lack of stimulation for the animals, and the general despair I felt every time I went there. All that’s fine, she said, brushing my complaints aside by asking how she would show her children what animals look like without the zoo.

That was a statement I was completely gobsmacked by. And it’s one that I have been returning to over the last few weeks as the Jijamata Udyan gears up to display eight Humboldt penguins by November. While these penguins have been bred in captivity and come from South Korea, that doesn’t take away from the fact that these birds have a rich natural history.

According to the Centre for Biological Diversity, Humboldt penguins in the wild live along the coasts of Chile and Peru and are “known to travel long distances at sea to find food”. Their “habitat is highly influenced by the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current flowing northward from Antarctica, which is vital to the productivity of plankton and krill and fosters fish abundance”. And they live for almost 20 years.

Twenty years! That is a long time to stay in a glass air-controlled enclosure. With people knocking at your enclosure, pulling faces at you, and the barrier, a final difference between freedom and captivity.

As John Berger wrote in About Looking , “The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunised to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention. Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalisation… This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.” We, as a species, have always been fascinated by our fellow animals, constantly attempting to observe, tame, cage in a bid to understand our sameness and our difference. And reducing animals to a commodity.

British naturalist Gerald Durrell once said that “Zoos should concentrate more on the preservation side of things”. Zoos, when managed well, could potentially have a role to play in species conservation. But Mumbai’s zoo doesn’t serve that purpose. It has a history rife with problems, but that hasn’t stopped it from drawing up plans of grandeur, of being a “world class” zoo with polar bears and penguins.

A petition on the Sanctuary Asia website expands, “While Jijamata Udyan (Rani Bagh) has immense architectural and botanical heritage value, the zoo serves no meaningful conservation or scientific purpose. The death and unspeakable suffering of scores of incarcerated animals has brought great ill-repute to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Yet it is considering spending over Rs. 20 crore on yet another misadventure while the city claims to have no funds to properly maintain the existing animal facilities in their current situation.” You can log on to their website to support their Unhappy Feet campaign.

One of the things that children take away from zoos is that it’s okay to confine animals for purported educational and entertainment reasons. It also tells them that it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a colossal amount of money on imprisoning animals that are not even suited to this climate. All this, when we should be looking at fortifying Mumbai with some serious climate adaptation methods.

I don’t know why anyone has to see animals in captivity to understand what they “look” like. In the forest, you are not likely to see an elephant swaying its trunk incessantly or a fox pacing its cage up and down because of zoochosis, a form of abnormal and stereotypical behaviour displayed by animals in captivity. Nor are you going to understand animal behaviour if they are languishing in constricted spaces with little environmental enrichment, when in the wild they are accustomed to realms of land or water.

Mumbai, for instance, has no excuse with Sanjay Gandhi National Park in its backyard. The city forest is teeming with a glorious abundance of trees and plants, expansive moths, elusive leopards, spiders spinning silken webs, shrieking parakeets. They are all there, we just need to look. Rani Bagh itself is a botanical garden, with some truly spectacular trees which are home to birds and bats. Why then import misery into its grounds? Definitely not in the name of children, who are way more sensitive to cruelty and have a natural affinity towards animals.

The excruciating misery and tedium of captivity is not hard to understand. And children get it. Take a look at The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. In the book, a silverback gorilla, Ivan, lives in a glass cage in a mall. He describes his life in an unforgettable manner: “Not long ago, a little boy stood before my glass, tears streaming down his smooth red cheeks. ‘He must be the loneliest gorilla in the world,’ he said, clutching his mother’s hand. At times like that, I wish humans could understand me the way I can understand them. It’s not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything.”