If I had told you that I had been looking forward to the announcement of the next edition of the Naturalist Training Programme for months, it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration. I had been introduced into photography and birding just about a year ago and the NTP had always been something of a magic spell- an initiation, one could say, that separated the proverbial ‘boys from the men’. Many photographers and birders I met along the past year often spoke dreamily of their NTP sessions and how it had sparked their interest in a particular area of naturalism and conservation. I decided sometime last year that I had to be on the programme and wrote to Karthikeyan Srinivasan, Chief Naturalist at Jungle Lodges and Resorts, asking to be on his mailing list to ensure that I would know when the next session would be held. Karthik (or Guruji/ Guru G) as he is fondly called by the flock of NTPites responded immediately and politely saying that he would definitely keep me informed. It would be a long time before I got that email about the NTP- and one fine Wednesday morning in August 2012, the announcement finally arrived and it was now up to individuals to sign up before the slots were filled. The rest as they say is history, maybe natural history in this case.
We were 16 of us gathered for the training programme at Bannerghatta National Park near Bangalore. The ice breaker session was one where we all gathered in a circle under a tree and gave ourselves an animal name that started with the same alphabet as our real names and followed it up with a memory game. The idea was that this would help us remember the names of the people around us. At times though we could only remember the animal name of a person and not his/ her real name- but there was an identity that was linked- much like looking at a Japanese Kanji or a Chinese character knowing what it means but not knowing how to pronounce/ spell it. I called myself ‘Starling’ heralding back to my myna days. I’m sure I would have been stalked by a few angry mynas otherwise.
Our schedule indicated that our days were fully divided into classroom sessions, field visits/ nature walks and documentary viewing sessions. And so we started off with the first session of the programme which was actually about the concept of ‘The Naturalist’. In the end I came away with the understanding that a naturalist was someone who had a broad understanding of nature, who was willing and curious to keep learning more and finally someone who was always looking to spread that knowledge and awareness to others making them want to learn more as well. The last I believe is important as there would be no point in just hoarding information and not sharing it with others.
One of the other primer sessions was also about biodiversity in India. The evolution of global landmass and India in particular meant that there was time for a lot of endemic (present at only that particular location) species in India. Another contributing factor to biodiversity in the country was also the range and variety of habitats that we have from the evergreens to the deserts to the Himalayan and the Wetlands. All this made me quite nostalgic, making me wish I had really paid more attention in my school geography classes. And yet we had all made it here and that was good. The key note for me was that there was a wide variety of species- mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and so on in the country and that we had to take care to ensure that we spread our efforts across preserving all of them rather than on one particular species.
We then visited the wonderful world of birds that afternoon and a few more after that- because birds are so prominent and are also such a source of joy and wonderment. Tips on birdwatching included how not to only focus on getting the right shot of the bird on the camera and plotting it on a field guide but how to actually observe the birds with your eyes and then sketch them on your field note book. I thought I would die of shame when I was asked to draw a bird on the board. But I must confess my peacock on the whiteboard was probably a thin shade better than one or two of the other avian species that speckled the board. By this time of the day the skies had opened up in full force and when we went out on the field visit in the evening, everything was cool and fresh and green.
On these field visits we sketched birds (or thought we sketched them), we learnt names of trees and some of the fungi on their leaves, we saw ants scurrying around, spiders camouflaging themselves and were even lucky enough to witness the birth of praying mantises from their egg case. But what was most impressive for us was the depth of knowledge of Karthik. A true naturalist, he never shied away from explaining what he knew but also frankly admitting what he didn’t know. The night-time held eve more surprises with the scorpion that glowed in UV light and a painted frog that was photographed even as it hid within the bark of a tree.
I think what impressed everyone was the story of the trees- about how intelligent and old they were and how absolutely fascinating. The story of the intelligence of the fig trees especially- about how evolved they were and how each one of them supported an entire ecosystem that would be wiped out if even one of the supporting links failed. It was a lovely story and I would hardly do it justice if I told it here. It is one of those special stories on a cold night under the stars huddled around a warm fire. The trees are old and they are wise. Tolkien had a point about the Ents. So did M. Night Shyamalan with his movie- The Happening- where the trees spew out toxins that makes humans kill themselves en masse. Maybe they are being patient with us- as loving parents are.
Karthik also taught us the importance of realising the fact that naturalism and wildlife didn’t always mean having to go into the jungle or another remote location. That close observation will yield us many subjects to study even in the cities. In fact Karthik’s many anecdotes of saving snakes, spiders, mice and many other animals made me wonder if his house wasn’t a veritable menagerie.
Time flew quickly as it always does when good things are afoot. The sessions were rivetting and we did not often feel sleepy, but Jungle Lodges pride upon the fact that they feed you like fond grandparents with exactly the same kind of homely food- so it was inevitable that we were often slow to react but nothing could stop us from realising what a wonderful opportunity we’d had in attending the programme.
The NTP did wonders for me. I cannot confess that I have lost all my fear of spiders but when you know that there has not been a spider bite fatality in India and that most spiders are in fact harmless, you do look upon them more favourably. I’m no t currently looking at spiders for pest control (of cockroaches- my geckos do a wonderful job) but I will attempt to treat them with more respect.
As for the trees, well I have fallen in love with them. For they are beautiful, patient and do not fidget like the birds. I went to the NTP a human and came out an ent-wife. There that’s a tale for you now!
(Note: Ents are the mythical trees who walk and talk in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’)