Wildlife special: Munmun Dhalaria & Kartick Satyanarayan chat about COVID-19, Earth Day and a new Nat Geo show
As the global COVID-19 lockdown continues, the noise of traffic along with pollution is diminishing, billions of people are noticing louder birdsongs, and butterflies have been floating by more often. The air has cleared and wildlife is flourishing when we are caged at our homes.
As we are on the onset of the 50th Earth Day celebrations, a brand with over 131 years of credible and immersive storytelling is all set to inspire and empower people to feel connected and appreciate the planet and make them recognise that we each have a role to play in creating a positive future through its campaign #UnitedbyHope.
On this Earth Day, Nat Geo will be releasing a special film, which will feature the voices of National Geographic Explorers such as Kartick Satyanarayan and Munmun Dhalaria.
Kartick Satyanarayan is the Co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS, an organisation that works to protect and conserve India’s natural heritage, forests and biodiversity. To promote human-wildlife coexistence, they run wildlife helplines to rescue and rehabilitate urban wildlife and help create alternative and sustainable livelihoods for communities that traditionally depend on wildlife for sustenance.
Munmun Dhalaria is a documentary filmmaker from Himachal Pradesh, who shares the isolation experience from the hilltops, focusing on human-wildlife coexistence.
Tell us about your role in the upcoming documentary on National Geographic? What can viewers expect from the film?
Munmun Dhalaria: Earth @ Home was an opportunity for me to reflect on my time spent filming wildlife-human interaction stories in India, across various landscapes. As I am currently isolated in my hometown Dharamshala, surrounded by the splendid Dhauladhars, it’s hard for me to ignore the plight of others in far worse conditions, a lot more exposed to the imminent threat of both COVID-19 and the repercussions of a curfew like a national lockdown.
Viewers can expect to hear my experiences of filming in high-altitude villages during my first independent film, and see glimpses of sprawling national parks and rare species. Much like my career, this lockdown has brought me to a special place - to the mountains that I call home.
I have always been inspired by the Himalayas and I have wanted to document endemic species that maybe our underdogs. In the process of capturing these animals, I have been blessed to spend time with some of the most hospitable and selfless human beings. The first story I ever pitched to National Geographic Society was called The Jujurana’s Kingdom. This was my journey to find out the threats that one of the rarest living pheasant faces.
The Western tragopan is endemic to the Western Himalayas, found most easily in the Great Himalayan National Park. These rare, elusive creatures are facing local extinction and are part of a special breeding program for their conservation. Less than 3,000 of these birds exist in the wild today, and I wanted to share their story through engaging visuals, capturing the beautiful male in his breeding plumage, out in the wild.
I have used this lockdown to try and delve more deeply into the problems our world faces from now on, but I have also been overwhelmed with gratitude for the mountain communities that have been my family for the past few years.
Knowing my filming schedule, most of my friends from these communities have checked up on my whereabouts, making sure I am safe. These range from Ashwani ji in Shimla, a true leopard whisperer to the women of Kibber village, embarking on their own journey to protect snow leopards in their landscape.
A lot of these people are cut-off from the mainland, which hinders them in many ways - opportunities are seldom tied to networks and networking. But they share with me a lot more than I can ever repay. I only hope my stories make them feel heard at this time of crisis.
In the wake of current events, do you think Earth Day celebrations can inspire people to start appreciating our natural resources?
Munmun Dhalaria: The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be a big wake-up call. A wet market in China has shaken us up in a way that we cannot ignore the follies of our past anymore.
Nature has been therapeutic for my body and soul. I can attest to its power, having been in the great company of Himalayan bulbuls, great barbets and sunbirds every morning, albeit from the confines of my home.
This pandemic has given us a chance to go back to our basics, learn ancestral recipes, make art, work with our hands and appreciate those who have sacrificed their own pleasure for us all these years. Due to this pause, India has experienced marginally cleaner air and less noise pollution, helping us listen to our inner voice for once. My hope is that these realisations stick with us, and we collectively demand and envision a different future.
How different is isolation in cities as compared to the hills? How are you managing essentials?
Munmun Dhalaria: Isolation in the hills is life itself.
Due to the lack of extensive infrastructure, people have always relied on each other rather than on material goods for comfort. Mountain communities, especially in the upper Himalayas, sometimes spend months cut-off from the outside world. They live a very slow life of hard work.
Himachal Pradesh is one of our country’s more privileged states, and we have not been hard-pressed for essentials. Dairy products were home-delivered long before the lockdown, although meat is more difficult to find. Dharamshala is a tourist town, many restaurants and hotels will suffer huge losses this year, as they are completely shut down in the peak season. Some shopkeepers I spoke to are still optimistic, and they believe they will make their profits next year.
Villages, and my neighbours, have always believed in helping each other out. The local kirana storekeeper has known our family for decades. He politely caters to everyone’s needs.
I have very little to complain about. We may not have high-speed internet, but people’s homes and hearts are filled with love and care.
How are people in the hills ensuring that the wildlife is nurtured and fed during the time of lockdown?
Munmun Dhalaria: The work in the Sarahan pheasantry continues as usual - the captive birds need to be fed. A captive breeding centre cannot afford to shut down. The release program for the chosen birds has slowed down, but will revive soon after the lockdown. Out in the wilderness, wildlife thrives without human disturbance. Sadly, a few instances of poaching may get worse in certain areas since guards can’t be as vigilant during the lockdown, but overall, I believe animals must be having a breather, away from our greedy hands and intrusive cameras.
Tell us about your Earth Day special film. What is the message you want to give to your audience, given the ongoing circumstances?
Kartick Satyanarayan: The film Earth @ Home is a one-of-its-kind documentary interwoven together using self-shot footage of National Geographic experts, including myself, from different corners of the world, produced entirely from home. It highlights the delicate connection between human actions and nature, and the lessons we can draw from this unprecedented situation.
As this disease is rooted within the animal kingdom and originates from the loss of the buffer between man and wildlife, it is time to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. This film talks about the need to rethink our lifestyles at the moment.
Over time, as natural habitats and forested lands have been encroached upon by humans, wild animals have been driven to survive on more restricted territories. Their forest base has decreased, and their prey base has shrunk due to urban development and increasing agricultural practices.
The thing about nature is that she is not greedy, and she wants us to be respectful of her, and her creatures. Wild animals just want to be left alone. The current global pause on commercialism and aggressive exploitation of everything Earth and nature had to offer, also gives us a chance to rethink our relationship with nature. This is the message we hope to convey. The film will premiere on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22 at 7 pm.
To get more involved you can connect with National Geographic and Wildlife SOS and learn more.
Earth Day is celebrated every year, but do you think the day will matter to people more this time?
Kartick Satyanarayan: In my opinion, Earth Day is even more significant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has shown us in no uncertain terms the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Humans have always taken nature for granted and assumed that her resources are limitless. As we hear every single day of the effects of climate change, groundwater under cities running dry, it’s time for us to sit up and think! What will become of the animals and the habitat once this pandemic is contained, and humans return to stake their claim to all those green spaces and blue rivers and cleaner air?
We go back to our daily lives, but have we, as a society, learnt from our mistakes? Will we let the waters and skies remain blue? Will we let the trees and wildlife thrive? Can we be compassionate and give as much as we take?
Instead of always taking from nature, should we not learn to give back? I hope this Earth Day will help people take a resolve that they will treat nature and her creatures better, with more respect, dignity and be responsible in their daily lives.
What do humans need to do to preserve wildlife and strengthen the human-animal relationship?
Kartick Satyanarayan: Humans need to just be sensitive and conscious of ensuring that economic and developmental plans must allow for forests and wildlife to have a say. It would be a folly not to see how conservation of forests, natural habitats, preservation of wildlife and preventing pollution of rivers and oceans is related deeply and inevitably to our own well-being and survival of the human race. If we want to stay safe, we have to protect nature.
The lockdown resulting from this global COVID-19 pandemic should make us, each of us, reconsider our lifestyle and make necessary changes that were a long time coming.
A good way to avoid natural disasters and pandemics is to protect forests and green spaces around us, be responsible about disposing of our waste, keep our rivers clean, help to protect and conserve wildlife instead of employing exploitative processes.
What has been the greatest impact of COVID-19 on nature and wildlife?
Kartick Satyanarayan: As the coronavirus lockdown impacts countries across the world, wildlife tourism has also plummeted to an all-time low! Elephant rides at all tourist destinations have come abruptly to a halt. Hundreds of elephants that get walked in chains on street processions across Southern India and in tourist camps of Thailand and Sri Lanka have received a reprieve from their daily labour and suffering.
It is very important for all of us to understand how elephants are trained to give rides. When elephants are used for recreational purposes, such as giving rides to tourists or in processions, these animals are trained using harsh brutal methods.
Elephant calves are poached from the wild, separated from their mothers and then subjected to a lifetime of torture, so they can be trained. We need to think if this is really necessary for our entertainment?
The lockdown is a time for introspection, a time to question our need for such entertainment and examine the ethics that lie behind elephant training.
You can visit the official Refuse to Ride organisation website to learn about how elephants are trained and sign a petition to help protect elephants. That’s one way you can help nature and her creatures.
In the wake of the nationwide lockdown due to this pandemic, wild animals are sighted on deserted streets across cities in India, reclaiming the spaces they once roamed in.
My team at Wildlife SOS has been receiving several reports of wild animals spotted in cities, starting from a wild bull elephant wandering the streets near Dehradun, a Malabar civet at a traffic intersection in Kerala, Nilgai Antelopes outside Malls in Noida, Sambar deer crossing the roads in Chandigarh, dolphins and fish enjoying the clean water of the rivers - the country is indeed witnessing some rare animal sightings! I hope most of us can see the poetic justice in this.
On domestic animals that depend on man for regular feeding, it has had a negative impact with many people abandoning companion animals, poultry and livestock. Wildlife SOS itself has rescued over 2,000 abandoned poultry birds and is caring for 400 abandoned cattle.
With wild animals, the COVID-19 situation has given them a reprieve, and what is bad for man is apparently good for wildlife, as animals have started to use forest corridors that have been hard to access due to human presence.
Do you think everything will get back to its previous state once the lockdown is over?
Kartick Satyanarayan: The pandemic is thought to have originated at a market selling wild animals, throwing the spotlight unexpectedly on the global wildlife trade. Studies now prove that this pandemic could have been prevented, and there were many stark warnings beforehand.
Organisations around the world have been urging governments to ban live animal markets, stop illegal trafficking and poaching of wildlife for a long time, and the onset of coronavirus highlights the implications of ruthlessly exploiting nature.
Allowing the use of wild animals like pangolins, bears, bats, tigers, etc for traditional medicine will encourage illegal poaching of many endangered species for their body parts.
Worrisome reports have emerged that wet markets in China have reopened, despite the pandemic, followed by worldwide condemnation, and body parts of bears and the use of bear bile is being encouraged for traditional medicines. This callous approach will again drive the poaching of endangered bears and other animals.
Animals like pangolins and monitor lizards are sold widely in the black market, because many communities believe that their genital organs and body parts hold medicinal value. It will truly be sad and unfortunate if everything goes back to humans being exploiting nature unsustainably and taking nature for granted. It will be a lesson that people did not learn despite the pandemic. We would like things to go back to normal, but with the caveat that people treat animals and nature in a more respectful manner.
Take for instance the plight of elephants in India. For tourists to have an elephant ride, baby elephants are poached, separated from their mothers and herds and starved and beaten for months. Is this really necessary for our entertainment, just so we can ride elephants? No wild animal will allow itself to be ridden, certainly not without brutal training without pain and fear!
From our own work within India, we have seen many examples of such unnecessary sacrifice. Every year during Diwali, our organisation makes anti-poaching busts because wild birds like owls have a deeply religious connotation to the festival. Many people believe that sacrificing a bird will provide them with favours from the goddess Laxmi.
While there is little truth to these beliefs, it is important to understand that mindsets need a complete revamp at the grassroots. Working with wildlife always involves working with communities to ensure an alternate, peaceful path emerges that constructs a win-win scenario for both. Until that day comes, change won’t.