HHow do small insects defend themselves in such a huge jungle?” a five-year old asked in amazement as I escorted 30 young children a quarter way up the Yewoor Trail in the rain-drenched forests of Borivli, Mumbai. “Won’t these ants drown?” asked a tiny girl, wearing gumboots almost as large as her. “I heard that ants can talk to each other and warn each other of danger in advance,” responded a sage 13-year-old veteran of many such walks, by way of explanation, before I could open my mouth.
I am not a zoologist, botanist or entomologist, but years of associating with experts in the field has taught me enough to get by with a combination of answers involving chemistry, biology and philosophy. And, when I am well and truly stumped, I say so in so many words and promise my young wards that I will soon get back to them with answers after consulting more knowledgeable experts.
One of the greatest pleasures in life is to watch a curious child’s expression change from frowningly quizzical to elated discovery on uncovering a plain truth; “the eye spots on the butterfly wing help to scare away bigger creatures.” Another pleasure is sitting for hours at home in search of answers to questions from kids that have stumped me in the field: “If the rain washes away the scent of flowers, then how do insects find flowers when it rains?”
I love children. I enjoy interacting with them. They are my reward for having to do battle with the army of dismal ones that I must interact with on a daily basis, who “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” Like the scientist in charge of a key department in the Ministry of Environment (so much power, so little wisdom or caring) who said that a thermal plant spewing out 40 tonnes of sulphur per day was doing India a service because: “Indian soils are deficient in sulphur and money should not therefore be wasted on a desulphurisation plant.”
I make it a point to talk with eight or ten thousand children each year by way of large and small meetings, slide shows, assemblies in schools and other such programmes organised by good people around the country. Filled with hope and positive energy, children recharge my depleted batteries. In fact, when parents express their gratitude for invitations to public functions Sanctuary regularly organises, I respond by saying: “I should be thanking you! I feel a sense of possession over your children. I am hungry to influence their minds in favour of nature, and I refuel my own purpose and resolve by tapping shamelessly into their optimism.”
There is, of course, another wonderful byproduct of investing time in young persons – like ducklings that grow up to be swans, they quickly grow up to take charge of things! There are some very bright young journalists who said to me that they first got involved with nature through Sanctuary Cub, a magazine for young naturalists that has been around for over 30 years. That sort of makes all the trials and tribulations worth it!
Anyone who works with them will confirm that children respond instinctively to nature and are capable of assimilating even very complicated concepts provided you dispense with jargon and convoluted arguments. It is more than enough to say: “Pollution kills dolphins” or “plastic bags kill turtles”. They understand this and believe this because they can smell the truth.
Nature conservation is nothing other than good long-term economics. This was a fact well known to our elders. But who is to teach such lessons to the upstart politicians who mismanage India today? Alongside the desire to save our wilderness areas, this is possibly the most ambitious quest that wildlifers and conservationists will have to embark on today.