Written by Debanngini Ray
When people ask me, how did you end up doing what you do? My usual reply is, “In the morning I chase the butterflies and at night I let the fireflies lead the way!”
Growing up in a neighbourhood devoid of tall buildings or infrastructure, surrounded by Assam-type houses (type of architecture developed during the late modern period in Assam featuring high ceilings and sloped roofs, leaving plenty of crevices and cosy nooks) in Guwahati, I literally grew up amidst urban wildlife! Add to that, tons of trips to National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and other Protected Areas as a kid (since my dad worked for the State Forest Department), and I became somewhat of a naturalist without even realising it. I had no means to document the nature around or understand it in depth, but I never missed the opportunity to slip out of the house every now and then to go for nature walks with the neighbourhood dogs, which usually ended with them chasing a mongoose or me getting chased back home by a frantic mother as it got dark.
And yet, I never realised back then, the importance of urban biodiversity. I was conditioned into thinking that wildlife only belongs to natural habitats like forests, mountains and rivers. Looking back, I feel so grateful that even without that knowledge, I inadvertently learnt so much. I was a socially awkward kid, and didn’t like to interact much with human crowds, I liked my own peace and quiet, and preferred spending time with animals. It was nothing unusual then, that I used to get plenty of weird glances, from parents of kids I used to study with, and my classmates used to treat me like I accidentally dropped on Earth from another planet. You see, back then, there was no social media, or as much activism and awareness about biodiversity as there is now, naturally because 20 years back, urbanisation and human-wildlife conflicts were both comparatively low.
I have these amazing memories when I was little, of my dogs chasing civets and mongooses, my first snake encounter in the drains leading out of our house (it was most probably a Checkered keelback), observing “black-headed white” birds (now I know they are Black-crowned night herons) roosting and building nests in our mango trees. I remember chuckling in delight when I saw blue-throated barbets (I used to think they were parakeets) scrumptiously enjoying guavas in our backyard, or the spotted owlets making themselves cosy in the crevices of the tin roof of the house. I remember a fist-sized fruit bat, so full after devouring almost an entire jackfruit that he decided to sleep the night in the barn. I remember the woodpecker digging away in the coconut tree, unperturbed at our cat staring up at it going “ek-ek-ek-ek-ek”, with his whiskers alert. I remember every time I used to spend time in the open field near my house, trying to keep my eyes open for a plethora of colourful butterflies whizzing across, sometimes settling on rocks and pebbles, sometimes on a flower. There were bugs and little insects of all shapes, sizes and colours, buzzing around my head, zooming past me before I could properly decode their features.
I carried all those memories with me after I grew up and shifted to a flat- I never really stopped looking for animals around me- be it dragonflies, black kites or garden lizards. And I always find them. You know why? Because they are all around us, we look but we don’t really see, it is because we are getting detached from reality every passing day. And I feel afraid of what we are losing each day.
Since Physics and Chemistry scared me to bits and I pursued Arts because of my love for history, literature and the arts, soon after graduating with Bachelors (Honors) in English Literature. But my love for wildlife only grew; I used to read books, take nature walks, practise nature journaling, watch documentaries, until finally I could get back to what I loved, by joining the Centre for Ecology, Environment & Sustainable Development, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati as a Masters’ student. I had to answer to a lot of people who suddenly decided they have the authority to tell me that I wasn’t wise to change my discipline just like that and pursuing a career in wildlife isn’t suitable for a ‘sheltered’ girl like me.
I dedicated quite a few diary entries to them and moved on to conducting research on freshwater turtles in temple ponds inside the city, studying perceptions of people towards turtles in cities as well as of fishing communities along river ecosystems. It was amazing! I learnt the importance of indigenous knowledge and role of communities in biodiversity conservation, especially after I worked closely with Whitley award winner Dr Purnima Devi Barman for Greater Adjutant stork conservation, giving biodiversity classes to villagers and raising awareness along with an army of village women who were determined to save the stork. All this made me realize that it is alright to not have a degree in science to be able to make a difference in the field of conservation; I mean, I learnt all the scientific names of bird and turtle species in a jiffy. If I can do it, so can anyone else- all you need is unwavering passion.
It was only recently, a few years ago, when I fully grasped the concept of urban wildlife and acknowledged that urban ecology is becoming a fast-growing discipline in the world. That is when I decided I wanted a Diploma in Environmental Law & Policy and got one, because it bothered me that I understood the environmental laws of my own country so little. Following the work of Dutch evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen opened my eyes wide to a world which is fast becoming urbanized. I was struck by the realization that cities too are ecosystems, created by the human species, using resources found in nature! Right under our noses, hundreds of species are embracing the cities to as their new habitats- surviving, adapting and evolving. As Menno says in his book Darwin Comes to Town, “Cities are today’s pressure cookers of evolution”.
I spent endless nights reading books on urban ecology, re-analysing my past experiences in the field and the research I had done until then, walking down memory lanes to dig up endless archives of interactions with wildlife, right from childhood. I was like a bee which smelled nectar- I couldn’t stop buzzing with anticipation- I wrote all my experiences in a journal, re-started nature journaling, started interacting with non-professional nature lovers through Instagram. I realised that there is a huge gap between scientific studies conducted by people who work in the field of wildlife, and social perceptions of the same (how citizens like to perceive the same issue or subject). This is because scientific research is mainly limited to the selective people, most knowledge is not immediately accessible to citizens or even rural communities for that matter. Who are we conducting the research for, then? This is a serious issue, because most of the human-wildlife conflicts in urban spaces happen because of false beliefs and myths, lack of awareness, and incorrect knowledge.
It is critically important to give correct knowledge and raise awareness in cities about urban wildlife. The trail of human footprints we leave wherever we go, (or the false trail as I like to call it, misleading all animals other than ourselves), have a huge impact on the overall survival of any urban species. I am sure I am not the only one who sees birds making their nests with materials which surely weren’t in their checklist decades ago- broken cables wires, synthetic ropes, artificially coloured craft materials, etc. More concerning is how urban birds like common myna or cattle egrets forage in discarded chips packets and aluminium foiled oily food remains.
With this concern in mind, I started a citizen-science platform called The False Trail, which encourages citizens to share their stories, observations and images on urban wildlife or their interactions with the same, across the country. The idea is to appreciate and learn a little bit more about our urban biodiversity, bust myths and misconceptions, hoping to mitigate conflicts and learn to co-exist. Because it doesn’t matter where you are, you will always be surrounded by non-human organisms around you. It doesn’t matter what size or how abundant the creatures are- what matters is their significance in our ecosystem. What matters is having the enough knowledge about the creatures we share our spaces with. What matters is co-existence, living and letting live.
For more of Debanngini, check out @thefalsetrail_ on Instagram