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Rohini Nilekani On The Pleasures Of Being In Nature

Climate & Biodiversity | Apr 25, 2021

“To be able to conserve and protect, you have to observe and love,” says philanthropist Rohini Nilekani. “Being in nature, you get this sense of continuing renewing wonder,” she says. In this episode, Rohini talks about her favourite birds and why conserving nature is an “enlightened self-interest” for humanity as a whole.


0:00:00.0 Speaker 1: Rohini Nilekani is a thoughtful and intuitive philanthropist. She is an author, a journalist, columnist, television anchor, a punster, a funster, and a champion of wildlife. She combines a deep empathy for all species great and small, with a sharp, quick, and curious mind. Her love for nature and the outdoors is infectious, and she’s perhaps most comfortable in her beloved forests and mountains, wearing her trademark cap and carrying her binoculars. For all these, we are very grateful and delighted to have you, Rohini, in this podcast. Welcome to the Bird Podcast. I’m Shoba Narayan. With us today is Rohini Nilekani to talk about nature and birding. Welcome, Rohini.

0:00:51.7 Speaker 2: Thank you so much, Shoba, for having me on the podcast. Very much looking forward to our conversation.

0:01:00.3 S1: Us too. Rohini, my first question is that I know you love wildlife, and you’ve… In our show notes section we have a link to the recent video documentaries you have done about Blackie, aka Kariya, both parts, one and two, but tell us about your experience and engagement with birds.

0:01:20.1 S2: Yeah, thank you, Shoba, so… Actually, since I was born and brought up in Mumbai, I think around me the only birds we saw were crows and sparrows mainly, and parakeets. [chuckle] So, in that experience, I didn’t have too many birds around me, but I did spend all my vacations in Dahanu, at my grandparents’ home, north of Bombay, very close, in the forests of the Western Ghats, and there, of course, there were just birds, the minute you woke up ’til you slept at night, the nightjars. So a little bit of the introduction to birds happened then in my childhood vacations, and when we went to the Karnala Bird Sanctuary near Bombay for picnics. But even then, I really began to take it seriously only when my children were very small. And once, we had gone out for a picnic near Bangalore, and I wasn’t at all knowledgeable about bird species, and I just pointed out a bird to interest my children, and the name that it was a cattle egret and not just an egret was pointed out to me by my guest, and I said, “Oh, there’s much more to know.”

0:02:31.4 S2: And then from that day on I got hooked. I bought my first bird book, and I started telling my children about it. And when the children were very small, Shoba, you may recall perhaps, sometimes it gets very lonely. You’re looking for something to turn to, and my birding experience, which started then, really transported me to a special place, and I’ve not looked back since.

0:02:58.3 S1: You’ve gone to many of my dream birding spots, including Valparai. In fact, you told me if I want to see hornbills, I should go to Valparai. Can you pick some spots off the… So for foreign listeners who don’t know India, which are some of your favorite spots that you would point to?

0:03:15.5 S2: Yeah, well, all the forests. You know, India is so rich in birdlife. I mean, wherever you go… Right in my garden, I have recorded 55 species, and I bet there are more that I haven’t found. So wherever you go in India, Shoba, the birds are with you all the time. But yeah, some of my more memorable trips were to Sikkim, and to the whole… To Uttarakhand, and we went… Of course, even Goa, strangely, and many places in Tamil Nadu, including Valparai. Of course, in Kabini, where I spent a lot of time looking at birds, the forests of Karnataka… In the Andamans, in Kerala, of course. I mean, honestly, in the Western Ghats, almost anywhere in the Western Ghats. [chuckle] And along our coastline. I mean, the water birds along all our coastlines, so… Actually, I don’t know where to stop, so I’ll just stop here.


0:04:17.3 S1: Rohini, you’re not only a bird lover and a bird watcher and encompassing all wildlife, but you also are a philanthropist in that area. So recently, you have given, specifically for a bird project, to the Nature Conservation Foundation, NCF. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what it is, and why you did it?

0:04:37.1 S2: Right. Having observed how… You know, having birds all around us, birds are the easiest way to start connecting with nature and the wild, right from little children to older people, because birds are ubiquitous. And birds are always fascinating to human beings because they fly, right? They fly all around you. And the first thing a child wants to do is fly like a bird. And so because I’m so interested in getting more people connected to the wild, because I really think the future of humanity almost depends on many of us getting engaged with nature and the wild, birds seem to be a really good segue into that. So, I wanted to see how I can support the efforts of many NGOs, but especially Nature Conservation Foundation, to create an India-wide interest in birds, and do it strategically and systematically over many years. So it’s a multi-year grant to increase interest and build the capacity of people to appreciate birds, to understand birds, to observe them, to protect them, to get involved in bird conservation. And for that also build the capacity of citizen scientists, maybe build the capacity of people to do courses in bird watching, ornithology, so that in every tourist destination in India, because there are birds everywhere, you can hire local experts to take you birding.

0:06:07.8 S2: It’s also going to create so many livelihoods. Birding has taken off so well in India. And so find a way to get people involved in simple ways in bird conservation, because birds are literally like the canaries in the mine, literally and figuratively, right? So when we know what’s happening to birds, we also know what’s going to happen to ourselves. So that was the intent, and it’s been… A lot of work has already begun, the pandemic set us back a bit, but it will pick up speed, and I really hope we can create a network of organizations across the country supporting this effort, and I hope more philanthropists will join in.

0:06:51.3 S1: Thank you. In the show notes section of the episode we are going to link to a very lyrical column you wrote about the black panther for Mint, but in that you talk about nature as a way of finding yourself. I mean, you’re an nature enthusiast. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? What do you mean by that? Why is it so… And why should people care?

0:07:14.4 S2: Yeah. One is, of course, there’s just more and more data. Shobha, you know that as well as I do, on how just exposure to nature, mindful exposure to nature, they have been literally able to link it with health parameters. And the Japanese, as you know, Shinrin-yoku, the forest bathing, that they have adopted as a whole nation, especially because Japan is so urban. For urban people to be able to go out into the forest, they have found enough correlation between human health, human happiness, human peace of mind, and just soaking in nature, right? And doing it in a mindful way. Not just going there to open a few cans of Coca Cola and chips or something, but to do it as to reconnect with the wild. Because we seem to be quite deracinated. In urban areas, sometimes you don’t see, you don’t get a chance to explore all the wonderful mysteries of nature. So I feel that when I go out into the forest, and especially as I get older perhaps, I feel the possibility of expanding myself and of quieting myself, at the same time.

0:08:34.8 S2: And first you’re just enraptured by all the sounds and the sights, right? Especially, the birds, always making some interesting sound or the other, right around you. And then the sight of their beauty. But after that, you sort of get into a kind of a stillness. It’s almost meditative. And you can’t help but feeling restored. Even the most cynical people and blase people I have lured into the forests, have come back slightly hooked, and wanting to go again. So there is some magic to forests. And it’s been written about for thousands of years, so it’s nothing new. But what needs to be renewed is the urgency by which it becomes a very broad-based project. Especially to introduce urban children to the wild, especially to take them into nature in a mindful way.

0:09:31.6 S1: Yeah. Yeah. My next question was to be, what are the pleasures of nature, but you’ve answered it already. Do you remember, do you have anecdotes about specific locations, and specific birds, that you enjoyed maybe? I mean everybody…

0:09:47.4 S2: Yeah. I’m sure everybody has their favorite moments. But I must say, I was gobsmacked by the sight of the Fire-tailed Sunbird in Sikkim. I had gone with Dr. Kamal Bawa of ATREE, the founder of ATREE. And his beloved Sikkim was being introduced to my husband, Nandan, and me. We were in the Lachung valley, I think more towards Yumthang. And the rhododendrons were out. It was summer, and it was gorgeous. And I knew that there were some really spectacular birds. But when I saw that Fire-tailed Sunbird, I mean, I just… Literally, my jaw dropped. It is a bird of such spectacular beauty. And I spent so many hours just looking out for it and watching it. So it was completely unforgettable. And like that there are so many. I went to Bhutan and found the monal pheasant, which I found very fascinating. And then, of course, I have a long list of favorite birds, and that…

0:10:48.9 S2: You know the Heart-spotted woodpecker. Have you seen the Heart-spotted woodpecker in Kabini? It’s quite… It’s delicate and so beautiful. I mean, all the woodpeckers, frankly, the white-bellied woodpecker. And of course, who cannot say something about the paradise flycatchers with their long white ribbons. And the golden orioles that come and sit in Bangalore, right outside our bedroom windows, right? And the blue-capped rock thrush. I know these migrant birds, they really… I really respect them because they fly, on such little lungs, all the way to come and meet us. And just seeing them… And nobody can forget to mention the hornbills, right? I mean, they’re so magnificent. But I… Honestly, almost all birds. I can’t think of a bird that I don’t like. Sometimes you get a bit irritated with the koels who insist on waking up at 03:00 AM. But otherwise, really, I really like all the birds, even the little brown jobs, because, as they call them, because you have to work so hard to identify them.

0:11:52.0 S1: Yes. Yes. My pet peeve is with the rock pigeons that are all around us in Bangalore.

0:11:58.0 S2: Of course. You know Bombayite, Mumbaikars, they really don’t like them at all because they create so much trouble.

0:12:04.5 S1: Yeah. Rohini, are there some, sort of, destinations that you would like to go to? Is there a bucket list, for example, or bird species that you would like to see? Or a country?

0:12:19.4 S2: Yeah. Definitely. I want to go to Papua New Guinea. We have to see all the birds-of-paradise. I do want… I’ve been so often to North America, but not spent too much time… Even though I was near Otterbourne, I did not spend too much time birding. And I would like to catch up with that, even in North America. And then…

0:12:44.6 S1: You mentioned NCF. They are doing a project with the Narcondam hornbills, that’s been written about.

0:12:49.1 S2: Yes.

0:12:50.7 S1: And that’s sort of an island in the middle of the ocean.

0:12:54.0 S2: Right. And that’s a separate subspecies of hornbill, right?

0:12:58.2 S1: Yeah. That’s…

0:12:58.8 S2: Yeah. It will be lovely to go there. In India, of course, there are many destinations. I haven’t even properly explored Kutch in India itself. So, you know, there are many places…

0:13:11.6 S1: The barren ground lands of Kutch is a great place for certain species, I’m told. Yeah, I’ve also not gone there. Rohini, much of your work is embedded in community. Is there a way you can link community, and birding, and things changing?

0:13:27.7 S2: Yeah. No, I think, obvious… It’s very important for Samaj or society and its institutions to get very involved with conserving our birds. They provide so many ecosystem services that we don’t think about. They’re seed dispersers, they’re scavengers, they clean up stuff for us, they actually help build out our forests, by dispersing seeds. They play a very critical role in the environment, and unless society itself gears itself up locally in their context, to protect birds, our 867 known species of birds in India… 25% of them are already somewhat endangered, as are the global birds. So, obviously, society, Samaj, which I care about a lot, I care about citizen action a lot. And in India we have lots of evidence that local people protect their local birds. You obviously know about Kokkarebellur here in Karnataka, where the migrant painted storks and pelicans that come along, spot-billed pelicans, are vigorously defended by the local people and they make sure that the areas where the birds roost and nest are very much protected even during that agricultural season.

0:14:42.4 S2: So, that’s one great example. And then the other example which has probably gone viral all over the world is that of the Amur falcon that migrates through India and through the work of many conservationists, now in Pangti, the local tribals who used to eat and catch and trap and catch and eat the birds have now signed up to protect them. And that is such a heart-warming story. And you’ll find such stories everywhere, because we have really respected birds throughout our history and mythology, birds as the vahanas and vehicles of all our Gods and Goddesses, described in all our marvelous temples and sculptures around the country. Thousand years ago in the Hampi area, the migratory birds are drawn out in stone. So, that respect, that understanding of birds has always been there. And that’s why today’s digital Samaj, the new citizenry, also needs to reconnect and they can do it in so many more ways now than our ancient people who didn’t have the means of communication that we have today. So, there’s a lot of hope, and that’s the kind of work I love to support.

0:16:01.4 S1: Rohini, you think very strategically, and you also do big picture and micro. In your mind, is shifting education… Is education the problem to solve with respect to wildlife? Is it protecting infrastructure corridors, is it government policy, which one would you attack first, if it were up to you?

0:16:23.9 S2: I think obviously, it needs to be done on all fronts, Shoba, but I think awareness, because I like to start my work from the Samaj side. I think building more awareness. Really good storytelling matters. And so, one of the things I like to do is support… We have such marvelous young film-makers who are now doing a lot of documentation of our birds, our wetland birds and forest birds, and I think they have learned to tell stories very powerfully. And we should never underestimate the power of storytelling, and you can tell lovely stories about birds. In fact, 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. And there are many such stories building up now through excellent documentaries. So, for me, storytelling, awareness. And secondly, creating more and more opportunities to take young people out into the wild. And there is this whole new thing coming up, Shoba, you may be aware of it, of new start-ups are coming up to begin a culture of camping. Like in the West, people go out, in India there are so many places that you could start that. And if you do it with an ecological sensibility and an ecological intelligence, I think you can create a bigger and better community that is much more connected to the wild, and therefore, to our sustainable future.

0:17:50.4 S1: Your husband once mentioned the word aspirational economy to sort of pinpoint the trajectory at which India is in the graph. As an aspirational economy, how are we going to make time for wildlife? And why is it important? How can we do it?

0:18:07.8 S2: See, if we don’t, it is really at our own peril. It is very high risk for us to think, to not understand. How much… Even if our aspirations are economic aspirations, if we don’t understand very clearly that the ecology is the big set, the ecology is a subset… Sorry, the economy is a subset of the ecology. Even the economy derives a lot of services from the ecology, and if we don’t protect that… And climate change is such a huge factor. And our country has stepped up to… With some very aggressive nationally determined contribution goals, and we are very much aware that our future prosperity is linked to our ability to conserve our ecology. Now, there are always going to be traded offs. But I think if we keep the big picture moving towards conservation, towards sort of re-energizing people’s connect with the wild, then I think prosperity itself will become redefined. Today, if we… Everything is defined in monetary terms. We want people from the villages, to come into urban areas. So, what are they leaving behind, good water, clean air, trees, forests. And what are we bringing them into? I think some of those things are going to become more valuable as time goes by, and you will sort of have a refashioned economy as well, that takes into account some of these positive values of nature.

0:19:54.0 S1: I remember you said, after coming from Kabini, that you’re so fed up of the urban jungle and you can’t wait to go back to the real jungle. [chuckle] Rohini, you bring up ecology and economy, so let me ask you about the whole ecology. Tell us about Kariya, tell us… You love mammals too, you love… You love all things great and small. But tell us about this romancing that you have going on with the black panther.

0:20:19.6 S2: It’s very true that, for some reason, I allowed myself to sort of get attracted to this single one animal as a kind of a teacher for myself, because it is only a black cat, okay? Genuinely, it’s only a black cat. But I invested some things in this animal, mostly to allow myself to grow. The poor fellow has no clue that I exist, correctly so, but because it took me years to find him, and so that in that thrill of that chase, I also was able to learn a lot about the forest, about the interdependence of every… The tiniest of those carpenter bees, through the birds, through the bears, through the cats, and everything else, and the trees and the seasons, and it taught to me so much in that chase for this one black animal that I really began to see him as someone who helped me on my own path towards peace and more knowledge and renewed wonder. So, I’m very grateful to this black panther who doesn’t know that I exist. And every time I see him, I really feel something a little indescribable. And I’m not alone, he has many, many, many fans. [laughter] So, there’s something rather special about this particular black panther, also, some of us think.

0:21:50.0 S2: But this romance with this black panther has really allowed me to understand so much and be so humble about how little we understand about the complex connections on which we are all dependent, and especially during this pandemic, right? When… Especially birds, by the way, birds… Zoonotic diseases and birds and us are totally linked, since we are talking about birds. So, I got a chance, while I was sitting there 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 to myself to not just supporting more conservation efforts, but also telling my story more wildly… Widely. I said wildly, but I didn’t mean wildly so much as widely.


0:22:38.2 S2: Yeah, maybe that…

0:22:40.1 S1: Widely and wildly.


0:22:42.2 S2: So that more and more people, hopefully, can begin to sense some of that wonder and joy that I have had the extraordinary privilege to be able to experience.

0:22:55.5 S1: And the beauty, Rohini, is that this is accessible, as you say, it is… You go to villages… This is… Wildlife is ours to find and keep.

0:23:04.6 S2: Yes, just like there are birds absolutely everywhere, right? There are animals everywhere, because we… Again, 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, right? And even though, yes, birds are on the decline, there are many other species that are thriving and being supported by people. And despite having one-third the land of America, probably one-forth that of China, the kind of co-existence that we have practiced, that is under threat now, but even then people are beginning to see, how can we have peaceful co-existence with wildlife? How much can we tolerate? How much will we be able to tolerate? And 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’m not expecting them to leave man-eating cats alive or anything like that, but how can we thread more lightly on this planet? And… Because 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, right?

0:24:32.3 S2: So every… 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.

0:24:50.2 S1: Yeah. In Kashmir, a naturalist pointed to a house that was placed on the water, it was entirely made of wood and connected, and he said, “You can keep taking one piece of wood out, and maybe nothing will happen, but then one piece you pull out and the house will collapse.” And with what we are doing with wildlife, we don’t know when that one piece will collapse. It’s exactly what you just said.

0:25:12.7 S2: Exactly. There is one keystone, one cornerstone, something that is the most important element, but we don’t know what that is. So hence the precautionary principle, and when you tie that just within… As I say, if you go with a humble heart and a scientist’s mind, then you get this sense of continuously renewing wonder and more… As you get to know a little more, so you combine these two things and it makes it worth everyone’s while to keep trying to go out into the wild.

0:25:47.8 S1: Yeah. So, Rohini, your RDM Foundation has taken on water as a principal to conserve and protect, what should we all be doing to conserve birds? If you could wave your magic wand, what would be a few things?

0:26:02.8 S2: Yeah. First of all, I think to be able to conserve and protect, you have to observe and love. So wherever, 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 the birds. If not, keep a bowl of water, just one bowl of water on one ledge outside our kitchen window. Create something for the birds, especially in summer, do that.

0:26:31.6 S2: Here in my little garden, I planted bushes that attract birds for nesting, for hiding, for roosting, for perching. Everyone can do small things like that to help birds just be, and survive, and thrive. And secondly, all over the country, there are good conservation organisations, from very small to very large. Find someone in your local area, find out actually who are these people behind it. Support them. You can start with 10 rupees, okay? And you can build up more. Or you can give your time. But there is something all of us can do to help in the conservation, especially of birds, because we’re talking about birds, but nature in general, which also supports birds. Do something yourself, even if it means putting out a bowl of water, which is very much attuned to our culture. And learn more about the birds, observe them. You will begin to love them. Shoba, on one of your podcasts, I loved that story about the reciprocities that crows can bring. So just…

0:27:39.1 S1: From The Genius of Birds. The podcast episode is called The Genius of Birds.

0:27:44.0 S2: The Genius of Birds. It was so moving. And we respect crows as representing the souls of our ancestors. Do something for the crows around you even. And even the pigeons, who make such a mess. Look at them differently, look at that shining blue and purple neck, and marvel at their beauty. Observe, love, protect, and also support whichever local conservation organisation you can find. See what happens then. Then you build a thriving society that is protecting itself by protecting nature.

0:28:20.4 S1: I think that last sentence is key, is because people think we are doing a daan and protecting nature. But it’s really, we are protecting ourselves. As you said earlier, “You lose it at your peril.”

0:28:33.2 S2: Yes, absolutely. It is enlightened altruism when… Enlightened self-interest. Nothing wrong with self-interest if it is enlightened. So let’s protect ourselves by protecting the soil, the air, the water, on which our future depends. And I’m telling you it is the most joyful of journeys.

0:29:00.0 S1: Rohini, any last words with respect to any favourite birds that you see in your garden? Any call to action? Any last words to our listeners?

0:29:12.0 S2: I think there’s a lot for us to learn from birds. So just to ask your listeners, can you spend… Make a little time every day. Just a very little time to just look around you for a minute a day. And just look for birds. I promise you, within 10 minutes, you’ll see a bird. Maybe not every minute, but within 10 minutes. And just try to connect with that bird and see what happens. And if you can identify that bird… And there are so many apps now, there’s so much science, easy science for us to use, so much technology for us to use. If you can identify that bird and make some connection with it, there’s a lot of joy waiting for you. And then you tend to get personal and make personal stories about birds, right? So I’m firmly a believer, that in my Coonoor garden, there is one particular Pied bush chat that recognises me. Now, this could be completely my ego, but I promise you, it comes and sits on my lawn chair the day after I arrived there, and we have a long conversation. But so, there are many joys like that, and many curiosities and quirks waiting for you. And it’s going to lead you… It’s like a thread. So the birds are like threads that will attach you with invisible… What shall I say? I don’t know, wings, that will lift you up into an adventure with nature. So look for the first bird. If you haven’t got into birding, just try it. A lot of adventure and joy awaits.

0:30:47.4 S1: Wow. With those words, Rohini… You’re a busy woman, I know that. Thank you for taking the time to speak to the Bird Podcast.

0:30:55.9 S2: Thank you. And namaste to all your listeners.

0:31:00.0 S1: Namaste.


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