Finding wisdom in India

February 6, 2015

I recently travelled to India from my conservation project in Paraguay, Para La Tierra, to meet environmentalists and fellow Rolex Award Laureates. It was an inspiring trip.

Having visited India before for the 2012 Rolex Awards for Enterprise ceremony in New Delhi, I was excited to return in July this year [2014]. The difference between this visit and my last, was that this time I was not just another tourist to the Golden Triangle, I was there to build on my skills in NGO management, network with other like-minded biologists and conservationists, and explore new solutions to universal community and conservation challenges.

I spent 10 days near Pune with my Earth Expeditions Masters class, hosted by the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF); three days at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station followed by three days at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, both run by Romulus Whitaker, a 2008 Rolex Associate Laureate; then finally a visit to the home of Arun Krishnamurthy, my friend and fellow 2012 Rolex Young Laureate.

With AERF I visited local sacred groves, each of which was protected by local communities and linked to a flagship species. While this idea was born organically in India, it’s a technique employed by conservation organizations across the world, including Para La Tierra [established by Atkinson] in Paraguay, which is represented by the endangered white-winged nightjar. AERF do a wonderful job of involving communities in conservation, ensuring that local voices are heard and their views valued when making forest management decisions. I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of remote communities, discovering that conservation in India has as many spiritual links as scientific ones, a concept which unfortunately seems to be fading quickly in Paraguay.

At Agumbe, I joined interns and volunteers studying skink behaviour, in much the same way as interns do at Para La Tierra. Their studies contribute to protecting the area and all of the biodiversity within it, in addition to training them in conservation biology. The Croc Bank was founded specifically to conserve and protect endemic species of reptiles, but now educates thousands of people every week in reptile conservation, funding research at Agumbe, among other projects.

In addition to witnessing conservation of Indian biodiversity in action, I had the privilege of speaking with a number of inspiring individuals, each doing their part for conservation. Dr Chris Myres is the founder and director of Project Dragonfly, an award-winning programme which links people from around the globe through science, education and the environment.  Chris shared his passion with me: to change the way children are educated. He believes firmly that everything can be traced back to “Inquiry Community Voice”, the mantra of Project Dragonfly. Talking to him renewed my motivation to work hard for what I am passionate about, and reminded me that wide networks of like-minded individuals have the power to drive change, much like the Rolex Awards network.

My second inspiring encounter was with Romulus Whitaker, founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. A very cool and collected Rom welcomed me to his farm near Chennai for lunch and a chat, reminding me of my life in Paraguay for the first time since I’d arrived in India. Perceived as a foreigner in his own country, he reminded me that you can’t do anything without help from friends, and that involving local people is key. He told me that “successful people are visionaries; they see the past and the future and apply it to the present”. I’ve been implementing his advice in my own life and work since returning to Paraguay.

My stay with Arun Krishnamurthy opened my eyes to another way of solving problems, again through engaging people and communities. Arun’s fervour for his “beautiful India” and its people manifests itself through proactive cleaning of waste dumped at lakes in and around Chennai. I was kept in awe as I witnessed him leveraging teams of hundreds of volunteers, animating the streets, and engaging the media. It’s clear that Arun’s infectious energy gives him the power of bringing people together to fight what looked like an almost impossible battle, for something they all believe in.

This learning experience renewed my energy to connect people and nature, and helped me to realize that by sharing each other’s successes and solutions, whether in India, Paraguay or anywhere in between, we can tackle conservation and education on a global scale.

Learn more about Karina Atkinson

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