Sunday 28 April 2024

If ecology is to be preserved, it is imperative to discuss the significance of biodiversity conservation - Ravindran Natarajan Interview


Ravindran Natarajan is an Ornithologist and field activist whose passion for birds began 25 years ago, evolving into photography and research on avian species. In a bid to expand the reach of ornithology, he is embarking on a journey with a mission to train 1500 teachers and 10,000 students annually.  He maintains an active presence in disseminating his bird observations through publications in magazines and on social media platforms. Furthermore, his research findings are regularly featured in esteemed journals such as ResearchGate and Journal of Threatened Taxa. He has collaborated with numerous social and environmental activist groups to advocate for the designation of some of the state's most biodiverse areas as government-protected zones. This endeavor involves documenting rare species and conducting in-depth studies on the lifecycle of birds, among other initiatives. He has made significant studies that encompass not only birds but also butterflies and various wildlife species. He aids various government organizations such as the Forest Department, and he has also founded and manages the Irgukal Amrita Nature Trust and the Madurai Nature and Culture Centre.

Ravindran Natarajan, born on March 30, 1967, in Madurai, is the son of Natarajan and Shanthakumari. He pursued a Diploma in Electrical and Electronics Engineering (DEEE) before delving into the field of Ornithology and completed his Diploma in Ornithology. His wife, Usha Nandini, is a mathematics teacher, and they have a daughter named Anusha. Currently, they reside in Madurai.

Please share with us about your childhood.

I was born and raised in Madurai, in a family deeply passionate about all living beings. From small fish to horses, my father, mother, grandfather, and uncle nurtured a love for animals within our household. My uncle was a hunter prior to the Forest Act. Often the children of hunters can grow up to be committed conservationists. My cousins (uncle’s sons) are also avid wildlife enthusiasts. Their influence has shaped my brother’s and my enthusiasm for wildlife and conservation efforts.

My father, Natarajan, hailed from an entrepreneurial family, yet he had passion for science. With his keen interest, he ensured that no carpenter or electrician ever stepped foot in our household as he took it upon himself to handle all tasks. He harbored a deep fascination for science and technology, coupled with a keen interest for photography. Utilizing his skills, he meticulously developed those films at home. My own passion for science and technology was undoubtedly kindled by him. My mother displayed wholehearted commitment in everything she undertakes. Whether it's knitting, dressmaking, or crafting kolam designs, her touch exudes elegance and charm, often embellished with a subtle avian motif. My elder brother, Nagendran, is an ardent bibliophile. From a tender age, he also displayed a keen fascination for philately (collecting stamps) and numismatics (collection of coins).


Our father suggested that tending to a fish in a small tank could instill qualities of responsibility akin to good parenting. During one vacation, he gave us a fish tank. Depending on how we could nurture it until the next holiday, a prize awaited us. So, with eager anticipation, both my brother and I dedicated ourselves to the task. 


Despite his strict demeanor, our father served as a role model, constantly introducing us to novel experiences and opportunities. In an era where it was uncommon for boys to watch English films in the 70s, our dad took us to screenings of classics like "Tarzan the Ape Man," "Hatari," "African Safari," "Drums of Disney," "The Beautiful People," and "Jaws Paws Claws." These movies likely sparked our early fascination with wildlife. Even today, the memory of Kannadasan's speech in Tamil about the "King Elephant” movie, remains vivid in my mind. 


During our visits to the library, we were introduced to Ma. Krishnan through his work “Kaatuyirkal Tamil Kalai Kalanjiyam” (Tamil Wildlife Encyclopedia). I hold dear his remarkable collection of wildlife photographs, particularly "Eye in the Jungle," where his illustrations can be found with his insightful articles. This experience greatly inspired my interest in drawing sketches. Additionally, Vandu Mama in magazines like Gokulam provided further inspiration. These readings elevated us to next levels. My brother Nagendran is an avid reader, and we had the culture of sharing experiences and insights. His unwavering support remains pivotal for the enthusiasm for my work in the field.

How did you transition from reading books to a field expert and engage in field work?      


Unfortunately, the field of study that I chose did not align with my interest. Considering my home environment, I had to leave biology and pursue electronics and communication. A hiatus of 20 years since my college days created a significant gap in my connection with nature. During this time, I found myself unable to search for and engage in reading about nature. Immediately following graduation, I secured a job in the consumer electronics industry, where my work demanded my presence from 9 am to 9 pm. Transitioning to a computer-related job provided a bit more flexibility. While traveling for customer service, I began to observe birds along the roadside. During this period, I witnessed an Indian Paradise flycatcher gliding across a road, its long tail captivating my attention. The search to identify this bird eventually led me to the book “Thamizhagathu Paravaigal” (Birds of Tamilnadu), authored by Mr. Rathinam Ayya. This prompted me to identify and catalog each avian species I encountered. 

Nature often selects one at unexpected moments, isn’t it. In Madurai's Avaniyapuram area upon returning from customer service duties, I was greeted by the sight of hundreds of pelicans soaring across the sky. The sight of anything excessively white or brightly colored often registers as foreign in the mind. I was initially shocked. While searching for where they came from, we realized that waterfowls resided in large numbers at Chamanatham and Avaniyapuram sluice areas. 


Following that incident, birdwatching became an irresistible addiction for me. I found myself drawn to the Chamanatham and Avaniyapuram sluice areas regularly, spending my weekends counting the birds that frequented the region. In an era before the advent of cell phone apps for bird surveys, we took detailed notes separately. 

Ka. Rathnam

By the year 2000, when I got my hands on field guides such as "The Book of Indian Birds" by Salim Ali and "Birds of the Indian Subcontinent" by Richard Grimmett, birdwatching transitioned from a hobby to serious pursuit. In 2012, when sharing the pictures I captured on Facebook, I made sure to identify the location as Madurai. However, during that period, most of the sluices in Madurai were encroached upon by government departments and housing boards. The conversation surrounding the protection of water bodies began when those who were involved in advocating for water systems came into contact. In my perspective, “protecting an area necessitates acknowledging the significance of its surrounding biodiversity. We need to conduct a thorough study to determine how many lives depend on that water body.” I explained, only based on this study we can effectively protect and avoid encroachment. It was from this realization Madurai Nature Council was established and began its operations. Over time, this organization transformed into what is now known as the Madurai Nature Cultural Forum. 

When did you first consider introducing ornithology to students?


It is a personal habit for me to engage a small group of children, including my niece Amrita, in nature-related activities during vacations. I devised engaging ways to teach them about nature by taking them outdoors, providing them with books to read, and sharing images downloaded from the internet. This greatly encouraged them. Amrita graduated in veterinary medicine with a dream to establish a general hospital dedicated for all speechless beings (animals). Tragically, Amrita was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. Amrita harbored dreams of creating a hospital for animals, a biodiverse food forest teeming with a variety of trees and lives. 


In 2008, I participated in a government exhibition, where I got the opportunity to engage with the public. At the exhibition, we showcased the photographs of birds that we took in water bodies over the course of two years. Students from twelfth-standard eagerly shared their knowledge about the birds with visitors. But it was shocking that instead of showing curiosity about the birds on display, some visitors chose to make comments like “they have eaten it, and the meat was good”. Such insensitive remarks dampened the spirits of the children. 


Recognizing the enthusiasm of the children, the forest officer who was present there extended an invitation for them to participate in the Forest Week function at Dindigul Gandhigram and showcase their photographs. The collaboration with the Forest Department opened avenues for conducting awareness campaigns. 

with Amritha

Could you please provide background and operations of Iragukal Amritha Nature Trust?

Amritha is a brilliant person and has won the India’s Young Junior Surgeon award in veterinary medicine at the national level. I have quit my job and have commenced my activities with the trust even before Amritha was diagnosed and suffering from cancer. During that period, losses of two or three of our family members to cancer inflicted a heavy emotional toll on us. A question arose as to why do we strive to earn money? After consulting with numerous oncologists in the world, she decided to forgo further treatment, recognizing the stark reality that certain diseases do not have a medical cure. She often says that we should cultivate awareness about striving for a disease-free life. I do not consider Amrita as a child, rather a divine gift from nature. It was only after her passing that I completed the registration of the trust in its entirety.

Amrita is the one who proposed the idea that instead of ourselves reaching out to every corner to enhance awareness about nature among the younger generation, we could train teachers to effectively impart this knowledge. She was worried that everything is procrastinated and requested me to implement this immediately without delay. 


Over time, my perspective on wealth has evolved, realizing that no amount of money will bring back a loved one. I experienced an accident in 2013, that resulted in the loss of vision in my right eye. Nearly twenty minutes passed before anyone came to my aid, as bystanders initially presumed me to be dead. By sheer chance someone called 108 (emergency services), ultimately saving my life. In the aftermath of this harrowing incident, I found myself grappling with numerous existential questions. Why was I spared from death? Why was one of my eyes affected? Why was my vision confined to only one eye? It all seemed to imply something to me.


Our father passed away at a young age and we lost another sister also at a very young age. Above all, Amrita died at a tender age. But I came back alive from multiple accidents which prompted me to think that I am living their life. I resolved that my path forward would be to embark on my journey with their aspirations and purposes they held dear.


A simpler life. I determined that a monthly budget of Rs 7000, would suffice to lead a modest life meeting basic needs. Questioning the pursuit of money beyond the required sum, I realized that I could earn this sum within a week and made a conscious choice to dedicate the reminder of time to travel. My journey led me to colleges, where I imparted and shared knowledge, fostering awareness of nature among students. Just a sponsor for bus fare will enable me to travel continuously. Building connections through schoolteachers and organizations such as the National Green Walk, I was able to travel beyond Madurai district. 

When did you transition to working as a full-time ecologist? Additionally, could you elaborate on how you involve your students in ornithology activities?


When I lost my eyesight, one of my cousins gifted me a DSLR camera, which served as my second eye. The photographs I took during my travels became a significant talking point within our community. For almost eight years, the Irukukal organization has been operating, working closely with the forest department. On one hand, we collect valuable data for them and on the other hand, we actively engage college students by bringing them into the field work. 


Upon approaching the zoology department students at various colleges, we discovered a concerning trend: none of the female students participated in field trips. In response, we signed MoU (Memorandums of Understanding) with nearly 10 colleges. For the past five years, school and college students associated with our initiative have been actively participating in the bird and butterfly surveys conducted by the Forest Department.  While all other districts were struggling with engaging enumerators, we changed the situation significantly in districts around Madurai. Additionally, since 2015, through the Madurai Nature Forum, we have initiated studies at specified intervals.


The continuous field trips for studying birds provided me with invaluable ecological knowledge, igniting a passion to delve deeper into biodiversity conservation. We embarked on a project to explore 17 water bodies surrounding Madurai, dedicating our weekends to understand the local biodiversity and the challenges posed by climate change. During one of these expeditions, a remarkable discovery was made: we identified and cataloged a Laggar Falcon for the first time in Madurai Arittapatti. Subsequent searches yielded even more astounding results, with our team documenting the presence of over 150 bird species, including some rare animals. 

During this period, the residents of Arittapatti were engaged in a fervent battle to protect Aritapatti Hill from the granite mafia. During this period, Sagayam IAS, lent his support for their cause. The discovery of the Laggar Falcon's existence captured the attention of the press, sparking widespread interest in the region. Consequently, photographers flocked to the area to capture glimpses of this rare bird.     Arittapatti Hill is steeped in history with its rock-cut temples and ancient inscriptions dating back to 1600 years. In the wake of the Laggar Falcon's discovery, Aripatti Hill received special attention and was the first in Tamilnadu to be designated as Biodiversity Heritage Protected Area.

We have cataloged nearly 13 species of eagles/vultures thriving on this mountain. In a right environment, interdependent species can flourish in a balanced pyramid like structure.


Similarly, the government proposed Idayapatti forest for the expansion of the Central Prison in Madurai. However, our team's research reports uncovered the presence of rare species of trees, plants, and other living organisms within the forest. In response to the continuous demand from the local community the government ultimately abandoned the scheme. Due to our systematic studies and the unwavering solidarity of the people, the Idayapatti forest has not become a central prison complex. Instead, it serves as a vital source of life for biodiversity in the region. If we understand the value of biodiversity within our environment, by acting cohesively as a system, we can sustain and preserve what nature truly needs.

Based on your experience, what is the level of biodiversity awareness among the people of Tamil Nadu?


In Tamilnadu, I have worked in all the districts. I would have visited at least one college in each of the districts. Following that accident, I made the decision to transition into full-time environmental work, a choice that paid off. Working closely with the forest department, we've conducted biodiversity studies in numerous forests across the Western Ghats, particularly during bird and butterfly survey efforts. Furthermore, I actively participate as a member of a scientific group focused on vulture research. My students and I have also contributed to surveys of elephants and tigers. These efforts have earned us credibility, opening doors to work with the government. 

In 2015, I had a remarkable opportunity to conduct assessments of resident birds and monitor the arrival of migratory birds in the Ramanathapuram and Gulf of Mannar regions. During this time, the Tamil Birder's Meet was convened by senior birders of Tamil Nadu, aiming to unite bird enthusiasts like me across the state. This gathering brought together individuals who were previously isolated within Tamil Nadu's and helped to devise an action plan to raise awareness. We introduced the website eBird, to provide standardized methods to record bird sightings and avoid employing various individual methods. This project united the scattered nature lovers and bird watchers in every state. 


Bird surveys were organized during major festival periods across various states, such as Onam in Kerala, Sankranti in Karnataka, and Holi in Maharashtra. Inspired by this initiative, during the Pongal season in Tamil Nadu, we orchestrated an effort called the Pongal Bird Survey, inviting nature enthusiasts to participate in bird surveys. This collaborative endeavor extended bird observation beyond traditionally rich areas like the Western Ghats and Eastern ghats to urban centers such as Chennai and Coimbatore metropolis. 


Certain regions such as Ramanathapuram were overlooked in previous studies. Prompted by requests to visit Ramanathapuram and Sivagangai, Ravi, a veterinarian and I traveled extensively by motorcycles, almost five days a week to those districts to conduct bird surveys.  Prior to this, only Dr. Rathinam Ayya had paid significant attention in those districts. There was a gap of almost 20 years in research activities between Rathinam Ayya’s contribution and our entry into the field.

Castalius rosimon (Common Pierrot)

Could you please share some significant discoveries or key insights from your fieldwork?


As I used to say, nature has a way to choose someone at the right time. The East coast is where I found my calling. I enrolled in an Ornithology class organized by BHNS in 2012. It was during the course we selected Kodikkarai for our field work, where we learnt the basics of field work. My field research expanded across various locations along the East Coast, including Palaverkadu, Vedaranyam swamps, and the Gulf of Mannar region. We divided our study into three key areas: the marine environment, water bodies and agricultural lands, and the dry bush forests. Seasoned birders provided us with proper guidance.  At some point, we gradually assumed responsibility for the research as senior activists retired from active participation. 

Since COVID-19, we have started studying birds in all four seasons. Unlike many avian enthusiasts who typically focus on studying birds during holidays or during migratory season, we started studying all through the four seasons.  This year-round observation has yielded a wealth of research papers. Our efforts have significantly elevated the profile of Ramanathapuram on the ornithological map of Asia. We observe many avian species from the Arctic. But for the first time, we discovered Light-Mantled Albatross, a bird native to Antarctica. This significant finding was recorded in Rameswaram Antoniyapuram area. 

with Biju

We speculated that this could be the first bird to have migrated to India. Subsequent data verification revealed that it was the first recorded arrival in the Eurasian region. This observation propelled our research efforts to the next level. Dr.Ravi and I archived our findings (statistics and observations) as notes and images as soft copies.  It was through the guidance and friendship of Biju, from the Zoology department, that I gained clarity on conducting research. Biju hails from Kerala, completed his masters from Madurai American College and resides in Coimbatore. Comparing our research with Biju’s was enlightening. Not only during certain periods, but our year-round study enabled us to address many unanswered questions left by Dr. Salim Ali. a

Historically, sightings of the Crab Plover were sporadic along the west coast beyond Gujarat, with Sri Lanka being a significant hotspot for this species. Dr. Salim Ali's extensive research across South Asia shed light on the abundance of Crab Plovers in Sri Lanka, suggesting the possibility of breeding populations in certain regions of the island. Prior to these observations, Crab Plovers were known to breed primarily in Arabian regions such as Oman and Saudi Arabia before migrating to other locations. Dr. Salim Ali's study hinted at the potential breeding sites in Sri Lanka. Today, the migratory routes of Crab Plovers are monitored using satellites in Sri Lanka. We received insights from a research report that a significant population of these birds may reside in Vedaranyam for extended periods. 


According to Biju's thesis, there are two primary reasons why a bird may choose to stay elsewhere during the breeding season. Some birds that are not fit to breed may opt not to return to their native country, since they may have to return for food. Young birds that are not ready for breeding may also not return.

Crab Plover

During our study in northern Tamil Nadu, we observed Crab Plover birds in a swamp near Muthupet. This discovery brought immense joy, as it marked the first recorded sighting of a Crab Plover in the area after a span of 20 to 30 years. Subsequent surveys revealed the presence of juvenile birds prior to the migratory season.


With the information we gathered, we were 100% sure that the Crab Plover was indeed breeding in the area. In the subsequent phase of our research this year, this was confirmed when we discovered the bird with its chicks. Equipped with the necessary gear, we were able to observe them from a distance of 100 meters without causing undue disturbance. The nests of the Crab Plover resemble rat holes, carefully constructed in firm sand where the eggs are incubated, and the chicks are raised. These chicks are only brought out of the nest once they have fully matured into birds. Witnessing this remarkable sight brought us immense joy, knowing that we had successfully completed a task that had been left behind by Dr. Salim Ali. 


Biju and I often discuss the importance of collaboration between ornithology students in academia and field workers to achieve successful outcomes. Most of my observations are through field work. Only in the field can we observe the effects of climate change or the behavior of birds and animals in hunting areas. 


For e.g. we observed a  White Breasted Sea Eagle construct a four by four nest, large enough for a large human to sit inside, on a large power tower. Typically, these birds nest in tall trees. Over a period of five months, my friend and I diligently monitored the nest, and documented its progress until the hatching of two chicks. We published our research paper recently. This year we observed that the vulture couple renovated the old nest in the same location, rearing two chicks once again. Changes in habitat can cause changes in stress levels of birds. As Dr. Salim Ali aptly noted, the fate of birds today may befall humans tomorrow. 

You said Ma.Krishnan is an important personality for you. Could you please share some insights?


I am also interested in philately. I have a collection of 3000 stamps featuring birds from around the globe. Theodore Bhaskaran Sir was delighted when I shared this information with him. He said that he tried to commemorate Ma.Krishnan with a stamp before retiring from the postal department. But he could not do it, as the government was reluctant. This reluctance stemmed from Krishnan’s contradictory stance against certain government policies as early as 1970, where he opposed the construction of railway tracks as it may cause problems in forests and impact elephant migration routes. His dissent found voice in national publications like Illustrated Weekly and Indian Express. Due to his differences with the government he refused to accept prestigious awards given to him by the government. Yet his writings were acknowledged internationally. 


Ma. Krishnan vehemently opposed the hunting practices of the British, condemning their greed for hunting. Indigenous people hunted for sustenance whereas the British hunted solely for recreation. In his critique of hunting literature, Krishnan argued that authors romanticized the sport for Europeans who cannot engage in hunting and could not have traveled to India or Africa. It is true. The irony is that the author of the jungle book had never set foot in the regions he wrote about. The author of Tarzan has never visited Africa, yet he portrayed tigers in his fiction, when there are no tigers in Africa. 


Theodore Sir, having delved into Jim Corbett’s writings, commented on them. I have also read them. Reflecting on Corbett’s vivid descriptions of the firearms used. Discharging such a firearm at a tiger from a certain distance would spatter the tiger into pieces instead of dropping it dead. It could be argued that it is fiction. People unfamiliar with forest environments are fascinated by these writings and may claim literary merit for them. 


What are the key factors that should be taken into consideration when devising strategies for bird conservation?


For any living organism, its habitat plays a crucial role in its survival and well-being. For example, penguins and polar bears thrive in cold and snowy environments. Similarly, when butterflies lay their eggs, they typically choose a host plant that serves as the primary food source for the emerging larvae, as the larvae rely solely on the leaves of their host plant for nourishment. If a butterfly lays its eggs on a plant other than its designated host, the larvae may not survive. 


All species within an ecosystem are interconnected. By protecting birds, we also safeguard the biodiversity of insects and plants that they rely on. If a tree or insect species faces extinction, there's a risk that the bird species dependent on them will suffer a similar fate. Therefore, when formulating recommendations for forest conservation efforts, it's imperative to prioritize tree species that provide suitable nesting habitats for birds.

Peregrine falcon

For instance, consider Mesquite and Babul trees, both of which feature thorns. However, in Babul trees, the thorns are elongated and almost branch-like, providing a secure grip for chicks as they hatch and exit the nest. But Mesquite trees often have dense foliage, leading to a higher risk of young chicks falling out of the nest and perishing as they begin to navigate their surroundings. So, bird sanctuaries should prioritize the tree species that offer optimal nesting conditions for avian inhabitants. This involves the removal of undesirable neighboring trees and the introduction of native tree species best suited to the local ecosystem.

Whenever feasible, our recommendations now lean towards tree species like Arjuna Trees (Neermathi), White-barked Acacia, and Umbrella Thorn. Sedimentation occurs gradually in our sluices and increases the height of the sluices. Sluices are merely separated from the road by a bank, which contributes to tree mortality as their roots become directly submerged in moisture. To address this issue, we've adopted a strategy of creating sandbars and planting trees within them, which also provides opportunities for other plants to thrive. Sandbars also provide ideal nesting sites for cranes and storks, and lapwings. Areas lacking sandbars tend to become dominated by a single species.


The field of genetics provides invaluable insights into avian biology. enabling the identification and classification of numerous bird subspecies. A profound understanding of ecological principles is essential for devising effective conservation for bird populations and their habitats. 


Genetic studies are more prevalent abroad compared to our country. You mentioned that genetic testing is not extensively conducted here. What are the factors contributing to this disparity?


Under the initiative led by Menaka Gandhi, the Central Government's Board of Animal Welfare has imposed restrictions on the direct transportation of animals listed by the Central Animal Welfare Board to laboratories. Consequently, organizations like BNHS, which have long been engaged in bird studies with government approval, face numerous constraints. For instance, activities such as bird ringing to track migration patterns necessitate capturing the birds, a process that inevitably results in some loss of life. It is imperative to regulate the capture of wildlife else it may result in greater harm. As such, the capture of birds or animals for research should only occur following the acquisition of written permission, accompanied by a comprehensive explanation of the research's significance.

Salim Ali

Salim Ali has written about preserving birds for research using Taxidermy. How has the methodology for studying birds evolved since his time, and what modern techniques and technologies are now commonly employed in avian research?

During Salim Ali's era, bird research often relied on manual observation and drawing birds based on visual sightings through binoculars. However, today's advancements in technology offer sophisticated tools and techniques for studying birds, like high-resolution cameras capable of capturing detailed images of birds. Surveillance cameras can be discreetly installed to monitor bird nests without disturbing the birds, allowing for continuous observation and data collection. Today a bird’s genome could be studied from its droppings or feathers to study a bird's enabling of sex, which is an important part of research. A lab in Hyderabad does genetic analysis to determine sex. This is particularly important in zoo settings, where sex determination ensures proper pairing for breeding programs. For instance, in cases like macaws where males and females may appear identical, genetic analysis helps identify the sex of individual birds, preventing mismatches that could inhibit breeding success.


A century ago, the realm of animal and bird research was largely confined to only the United States and England. To study a single bird, often 100 specimens were to be shipped. However, with the advent of modern technology, scientific research has undergone a remarkable transformation. State-of-the-art technologies now enable scientists to track long-distance bird migrations using satellite transmitters implanted on birds' bodies. Leading universities leverage satellite technology to conduct groundbreaking research. Professor Reginald Victor who emigrated from Madurai to Oman, shared with us the continuous satellite tracking data of black-tailed godwit. This advanced tracking technology has unveiled fascinating insights into bird behavior, including their remarkable physical strength, ability to predict weather patterns. For instance, through the monitoring of around seven godwit birds equipped with transmitters, researchers have uncovered instances of bird fatalities, such as two birds shot down while crossing Pakistani territory—an event revealed by the transmission of the last signal from the transmitters. Only one of the bird’s feet was found with the transmitter. Today we have drones designed to mimic a bird and by employing such drones to follow the birds, researchers can track birds like the barred goose as they traverse the Himalayas, observing their altitude, resting spots, and dietary habits. But such cutting-edge research endeavors come with significant financial costs. Only well-funded institutions possess the resources necessary to undertake these ambitious research projects.

A question from your current research topic, the seabirds. What are the key characteristics of the natural habitat and living environment of seabirds?


The quantity and frequency of data collection are fundamental aspects of conducting research. Data collection with repeated observation at specific locations has commenced after a very long time. Although British researchers have contributed to data collection efforts, a consistent, seasonal census has been infrequent. Notably, organizations such as the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) are at the forefront of comprehensive, year-round research endeavors. However, questions remain about the continuity of ongoing studies. Therefore, individuals with a passion for ornithology can find value in contributing to this field. Our research initiatives are based on leveraging past data. From the days of Salim Ali to now, the practice of repeated data collection at specific locations has evolved. 


Since 2008, our focus has been on observing and researching the wetlands in Madurai. These wetlands are vital habitats along the Central Asian migration route for birds. One of our key findings, established since 2008, is that birds typically rest here for a brief period, often around ten days. To substantiate this assertion, we have diligently conducted research over the years. Additionally, we have engaged a student group to assist us in our endeavors. They are encouraged to predict seasonal patterns and actively participate in data collection.

Fishermen, deeply connected with their natural surroundings, assist in our endeavors to explore and understand different environments. By asking fishermen about their observations of birds and presenting them with images for identification, we have obtained remarkably accurate data—up to 50% accuracy in some cases. 

The migratory bird population has undergone significant changes since Salim Ali's era, with many species becoming increasingly rare over time. It is imperative to conduct systematic study to monitor and understand avian population shift, else we may miss them completely. Since 2015, we have been diligently monitoring key locations along the East Coast, spanning from Palaverkadu Lake in the north to Vedaranyam Swamp, Ramanathapuram, Gulf of Mannar, Thoothukudi, Manapad, and Kanyakumari. Through our ongoing observations, we have observed a decline in the arrival of long-distance migratory birds, alongside fluctuations in the abundance of certain species. Notably, some birds which should have left by February now extend their stay, lingering in the region until late May, almost until their breeding plumage is fully developed. This prompts questions regarding their reproductive behaviors, as doubts persist about whether these birds retain the desire to engage in breeding activities. 


In India, our current efforts can be seen as an initial phase study. When a bird is consistently observed in a particular region during the breeding season, we infer the possibility of their nesting and reproduction in that area. This methodology echoes Salim Ali's suspicions regarding the presence of Crab Plover birds in Sri Lanka, supported by sightings recorded in areas such as Kodiakarai. Despite Salim Ali's suspicions, subsequent research efforts in this regard have been scarce. So we embarked on an exploration of the Vedaranyam swamp. The first one to dig gold could have dug extensively, and the person following him may find gold in just a few feet of digging. Similarly, we waded through waist-deep mud, to discover the breeding habitat of the Crab Plover. In a patch secluded from human disturbance, we meticulously recorded their breeding activities. During the first year of observation, the Crab Plovers were already nearing the final stages of breeding. We began our observations earlier in the subsequent year, requiring the use of specialized equipment. Over a span of 40 days, we closely monitored the growth and development of the birds until they were ready to emerge from the sandbar. Despite the lack of precise instruments at our disposal, we conducted our research to the best of our abilities with the tools available to us. Through consistent effort and a stroke of luck, we achieved promising results. 


How conducive in your opinion, is the marine environment to supporting biodiversity, encompassing not only avian species but ecosystems as a whole?


An example of a green desert is the conversion of diverse grassland forests, abundant with various plant species and trees, into monoculture plantations for cash crops, often comprising non-native species. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in mountainous regions, where pine forests are frequently replaced with tea or coffee plantations, while on plains, monoculture plantations of match, pencil, and casuarina trees contribute to the creation of green deserts. This poses a significant ecological challenge that warrants thorough investigation. It is imperative to scrutinize the composition of plant species present prior to clearing the forest for monoculture cultivation. Anticipating potential issues before they escalate, as exemplified by the case of Mesquite trees after 25 years, underscores the importance of proactive research and assessment. In Australia similar land-use practices have been implemented with adverse consequences. Salim Ali's essays offer valuable reflections on such ecological transformations. Australia is completely a different ecosystem, and settlers often alter the landscape extensively without fully integrating into it. 

Even within a desert, an intricate ecosystem exists.   Introducing external elements into such delicate ecosystems can have varied and often unforeseen consequences. Ultimately, it is nature that determines whether a particular area remains a desert or transforms into an oasis. To coexist harmoniously with our surroundings, we must adapt our lifestyles to align with nature. However, a 99% of human activity revolves around attempting to alter the environment to suit our needs - a sentiment echoed in many Native American proverbs. The erosion of soil and degradation of natural habitats would undoubtedly have placed immense pressure on indigenous peoples such as the Native Americans and Australian tribes. Prophetic warnings about the impending demise of these landscapes would have been foretold in their proverbs. 

The biodiversity of a particular area is influenced by numerous factors. For instance, ecosystems thrive in regions with abundant groundwater resources. However, when governments prioritize industrial development, they often target areas with plentiful underground water sources for factory construction. This practice of utilizing underground water for industrial purposes and subsequently discharging waste into rivers can have profound implications for the local ecosystem.

Foresters often prioritize the cultivation of fast-growing tree species in dense thickets, aiming to expedite forest growth. Native trees typically require a minimum of 25 years to establish and thrive in their environment. Introducing non-native plants with rapid growth rates can disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Native trees and plants provide essential habitat and resources for birds and insects, facilitating the propagation of greenery in nature.

An intriguing example is the wrong perception about the presence of flamingos in salt flats. Flamingoes are not attracted to salt harvesting areas but rather congregate in regions where seawater flows into salt flats. These unique habitats provide the optimal conditions for flamingoes, with seawater temperatures ideally ranging between 5 and 8 degrees Celsius, ideal for the organisms they feed on to thrive.  However, increase in seawater levels at salt flats, increase the water temperature, diminishing the food sources for flamingoes. Thus, the notion that flamingoes seek out salt for consumption is inaccurate; rather, it is the temperature and specific environmental conditions that dictate their habitat preferences.

Fishes spawn only in coral reefs. However, rising temperatures lead to calcification and eventual coral degradation. As coral reefs deteriorate, fish populations face the risk of extinction. Moreover, estuaries maintain salinity at equilibrium, creating an environment where only certain species of fish can thrive. Some fish species are adapted to swim against river currents. When water current reduces due to construction of dams the appearance of the fish may alter. When rivers are dammed to create reservoirs or lakes, fish species adapted to deep-water habitats may flourish, while those reliant on shallow, flowing waters may become extinct. 

How did your deep passion for Ornithology inspire the establishment of a sanctuary for Loris conservation?


It happened serendipitously, without significant scientific input. Two researchers from SACON (Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History) had previously gathered data from the area, which was subsequently published in a scientific journal.

Social networking sites present a huge opportunity. I have shared anecdotes from my childhood encounters with Loris, Bears and Pythons on Facebook. Some of my articles went viral. Few advocates from Madurai High Court came across one such article about Loris and filed a public interest litigation (PIL). The prayer is to implement conservation measures to safeguard the endangered Loris population, which is on the brink of extinction. The judge presiding over the case accorded it due importance and mandated action to protect them. The judge also issued an order directing authorities to submit a comprehensive report on the steps taken to safeguard Loris population. It is said that extensive research has been conducted on conserving the Loris population. The forest department continued the research and submitted the report. During that period, we had already trained numerous college students for field studies. We involved our students from Dindigul and Karur district in this research effort, headed by those two scientists. Upon receiving the comprehensive report, the new government swiftly declared the area as a sanctuary. Credit is due to the High Court advocates who recognized the importance of the article and acted on it to take it to the next level.

Given the extensive body of existing research on birds, where should aspiring researchers focus their efforts today, and where is the most pressing need for further research?


Research activities must remain continuous and dynamic. For instance, instances of birds thought to be extinct for a decade have been found to reappear.  Moreover, certain bird species may be considered extinct solely within India, yet birds are not bound by geopolitical boundaries. A species from Nepal, may return to India to breed. So, if a species becomes extinct in India, we should be studying the underlying reasons. 


An intriguing observation suggests a correlation between the presence of blackbucks and Great Indian Bustards. Blackbucks still inhabit various regions, including southern districts, east coast areas, Sathyamangalam, and Tirunelveli Kalakad areas. The last sighting of the Bustard was reported near Sulur Airport. Understanding the factors contributing to the disappearance of a bird species and implementing targeted conservation measures could potentially facilitate their return. The proliferation of wind turbines and high-voltage towers has been identified as a significant threat to the Indian Great Bustard, contributing to its population decline. Despite this knowledge, appropriate measures to implement projects away from crucial bird habitats have not been done. This oversight continues to pose a threat to the remaining population of Indian Great Bustards, particularly in Rajasthan. Now, only 200 bird species capable of breeding remain.


Greater Adjutant

As far as I know, only vultures have been brought back from extinction through intense conservation efforts. When research forecast a staggering 99% decline in eagle populations, the government has responded with urgency, and have announced plans and initiatives, and a shift in prioritizing environmental preservation has emerged. In Tamil Nadu, regions such as the Northern Nilgiris and Sathyamangalam, as well as neighboring areas in Karnataka and Kerala, including Wayanad and Bandipur, have been designated as protected zones.

These are the outcomes of research. Environmental restoration is required to mitigate destruction. To effectively restore the environment, it is imperative to accurately identify and understand the root causes of its degradation.


In North India, the nesting trees of Adjutant Stork are cut down, as they are perceived as unsightly, and their calls are loud and bothersome. In regions like Assam's Kamrup district, the stork population has dwindled and is forced to scavenge for food amidst garbage. Birds are not just representatives of the environment, but also of the health of the human mind. The problems for birds may befall humans too. Those who fail to care for the welfare of birds may neglect the well-being of their fellow humans as well.


As bird watchers increasingly participate in activities such as Pongal bird surveys, what would your suggestion be on the avenues they can explore?


Passion is what all you need. Despite graduating in electronics my keen interest in birds from childhood, empowered me to actively pursue Ornithology. Some individuals may limit their interest to bird watching or photography. 

We must raise awareness about the environment and bird conservation. Only when humans foster a deeper connection with nature, they care for the environment. Influential figures like Ma. Krishnan, Theodore Bhaskaran, Salim Ali, Kovai Sathasivam, Karathinam, and Swami Aiyya have played pivotal roles by sharing their articles and discoveries in Tamil, so that the local community is effectively engaged, haven't they? Even misinformation when shared in mother tongue will spread rapidly in platforms like WhatsApp. There are opportunities for positive messages to spread as well, when communicated effectively in local languages. The first step for newcomers to do is to spread awareness about the environment.

with Writer S. Theodore Baskaran

How would you describe the journey you're currently on, and what are your aspirations for the future?


I'm primarily focused on raising awareness, with a specific initiative to establish at least five new sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu. Currently, we're in the process of laying down the foundational groundwork required for these sanctuaries.       


I have a strong desire to pen a book but I understand now that it is the time for action and progress and once I take a backseat, I will write. Theodore Sir explained that he gathered his observations over 25 years, writing them down as small notes. He suggested that I'll have time to write books after retirement, and there's no rush to finish one now. He advised me to keep adding to my notes, as they will eventually take shape in some form. According to him, writing a book can feel like reaching an end, and he encouraged me to keep progressing instead. After trying to write a book a few times, I decided to put it aside for now. I believe there will be a right time to write in the future.


How has your work contributed to advancements in the field overall?


We attribute societal change to the aspirations of a young girl. Our success has been possible by the support of aspiring individuals, students, and educators from every school and college. While traveling through various districts, we serve as an example for all bird enthusiasts, inspiring them to engage in impactful conservation efforts. Today, notable groups have emerged in the Dharapuram and Dindigul areas, actively participating in conservation initiatives. Additionally, through the efforts of dedicated lawyers, a sanctuary for Manatees and Lorises has been established. Their role is paramount in our efforts. Our data alone may not suffice; thus, it's crucial to maintain and present our data legally. The Madurai High Court Bench sets a commendable example in this regard. Why do you keep the designated reserve forest as it is? It was the judiciary that forced them to transform them into sanctuaries. Similarly, by establishing a robust foundation for ecological concerns, the government can propel these initiatives to the next level.


Interviewed by: Vijayabharathi, Anangan, Thamaraikannan Puducherry

Photographs Courtesy: Ravindran Natarajan

To read this interview on Tamil