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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

Hidden from a clear view by our naked eye, the only true flying mammal hung upside down from a tree’s high branches. Sleeping through the sunlit morning, its eyes and made-for-manoeuvre-wings, snapped shut. Waiting for the darkness.To hunt prey. At night, one may have even seen a bat gliding. Before the pandemic.

For after that, it seems to have become prey. In April 2020, the bat roosts found in cave and building in two provinces of Cuba, were set on fire. In May 2020, people in four districts of Rajasthan, killed 150 bats, in a misdirected effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In September 2021, the only colony of fruit bats in the Nilgiris, is under threat as people want to cut down the trees they roost on. Out of fear? 

This when, different bat species remain important for varied reasons. For much of India’s agri-lands, bats act as a zero-cost biological pesticide, controlling pest populations. Useful broadcasters, they disperse the pollen which clings to their fur, especially while drinking the nectar of flowers blooming in the night. They are vital in preserving natural habitat across terrain, helping forest regeneration and growth of new forests too. But yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic where old and new conspiracy theories also meet?

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

Even though we have seen so many reports of bats being culled in many parts of India, it has not stopped the pandemic anywhere,” says Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, a Postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

As someone who has worked on bat conservation for many years across India, from Maharashtra to Telangana, she offers a more nuanced commentary, “Indians in general think bats are a bad omen. So, everything bad imaginable is associated with bats, because they emerge in the darkness, so darkness is synonymous with everything evil, thanks to our movies on Dracula and all. In India, even today you have lots of negative perceptions about bats.” But there is another side as well, she continues,“In certain pockets of Karnataka, there are bats roosting in their cowsheds and there are houses next to the cowsheds, they do not bother. Some are tolerant, some do not tolerate the presence or anything of bats.” 

So how did it shift when Covid- 19 hit all India? Dr. Bhargavi continues,“During the pandemic, it [attitude] was much more negative. People used to give us calls and then ask us — we can see bats flying around, how do we kill them, we are scared for our elderly and our children. What if they come in and bite and my grandmother or mother gets Corona.” She fielded worry and questions, why can’t they be culled, what is their use? Responding patiently, she explained how the coronavirus found in bats is different from the human one and the host that transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans still remains a complicated mystery. 

WHY WE NEED NOT MORE CAT, BUT BAT VIDEOS IN 2021

A recent study across 17 Spanish-speaking countries on human perception of bats, focused on the role of information and visual stimuli, in boosting a positive response. It also looked at how sociodemographic factors affect it. Published this April by Alex Boso, an associate professor of Social Sciences, at Chile’s University of La Frontera, the research team came together from departments of Forestry, Environmental Sciences, Zoology and Psychology from several universities in Chile. 

Shedding light on how providing information and aesthetic stimuli can increase a positive response towards bats, it experimented in four ways. The first two, solely visual stimuli, showing, say, only a picture of a panda bat and vampire bat. The third condition included both visual and informational stimuli together, in the form of a 72 second bat cartoon video, showing the who what where when why of bats in their natural home.The fourth and final condition offered no stimuli, visual or informational.The study found the third experimental condition, providing both informational and visual stimuli, gave a major boost to positive responses, in the attitude towards bats.

When it came to human responses in the study, males were found to have a more positive impression towards bats than females. Participants with a higher education level, ditto. Christians were seen to have a more negative attitude towards bats compared to those participants of other religions, or those who had no religious beliefs. Previous experience with bats was found to be a significant factor of influence. 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

If this study’s findings attempt a link between the nature of stimuli provided and the socio-economic, gender and religious belief being influential in attitudes toward the bat species, in India, Dr. Bhargavi, working largely in rural areas, places some responses in a wider experience and span of time. “When we spoke to the elders, they said when they were young boys, they used to go inside the caves and collect all the guanos [bat excreta] and use it as fertiliser in their crops. Their crops used to be so healthy. They also used to be healthy because they used to feed on non-chemical fertiliser food.” Once this link was broken by either ignorance and now fear, it has been and will continue to affect both human health and the wider ecosystem. 

In cases where there was once a close link between the community, ecosystem and bats, scientist-conservationists reached out.to share how people must let bats be. Or how people could  actively protect them, even during the pandemic. Dr. Bhargavi in her own work, specifically mentions being able to do this in Karnataka’s Kolar area,“When we were doing our various conservation activities, if we had not consistently gone there and told them repeatedly, over a period of time, you know, these [bats] are very important to the ecosystem, agriculture and all, based on scientific facts, videos and pictures. You have to go there and consistently talk to them in a scientific manner, break it down in a simpler manner.” Her field experience and the 2021 study’s centrality of providing clear information and visual stimuli, while in entirely different country contexts, in this way, do speak to each other. Infact a study published in China this February, by Wuhan’s Central China Normal University tried to understand how public fear would negatively affect bat conservation. Not only were the study findings similar, in the role previous knowledge of bats plays and influence of gender/education level of the respondents, there was also a new element.  

A specially curated bat conservation lecture. This, on the one hand, improved people’s attitude towards bats, but on the other, failed to clear the misconception surrounding the alleged transmission of the coronavirus to humans directly. The research recommended clarity in messaging around human-bat encounters for conservation of this much-maligned species. Batting for bat-science, it mentions public display of scientific facts on bats as well as highlighting their benefits. 

But beyond a few driven scientist-conservationists, including Dr. Bhargavi’s own partner, Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, more science and easy to understand information about bats, reaching the public, remains perhaps, as important as washing our hands. At the very least, in a National Wildlife Week being held during an ongoing pandemic.

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 13

Deconstructing the NEP: how important is experiential learning in wildlife conservation?

We usually hold turtle walks starting at midnight. Going and searching for their nest, taking the eggs and putting them in a hatchery, until they hatch and then putting them back,” says Manan Chhugani, a first year undergraduate studying Environmental Science at Ashoka University, describing his midnight routine in Chennai. To stay awake, patrol the beach and protect the turtle eggs, from the stomping of possibly careless human feet. 

They are this tiny,” placing his fingers close enough to each other to imply that the eggs are only a few centimeters in size.“You can hold 20-30 of them in your hand. After [the turtle walk experience] I’ve always wanted to pursue hands-on, working with the hands, working with the body,” he continues.

 The turtle walk he went on, continues to be helmed by Chennai Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a network of school and college students who work alongside the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. But 2020’s National Education Policy gives students the option to take wildlife courses, without making field-based learning compulsory. It makes it mandatory for higher education centres to include environmental education courses and projects promoting “holistic and multidisciplinary education.” 

“The flexible and innovative curricula of all HEIs shall include credit-based courses and projects in the areas of community engagement and service, environmental education, and value-based education.”

Field based learning is indispensable for learning about biodiversity in general and wildlife in particular- there is no doubt about that,” says A. J Urfi, an Environmental Studies professor at Delhi University. So does this hold back the meaning of a “quality higher education” and could keep students from having the upper-hand in looking for jobs in wildlife conservation? This limitation of meaning can be defined by Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction as explained in his essay, “Sign, Structure and Play”.

Not including hands-on work, especially in the field of wildlife, goes against Derridian thought, whose work has been greatly influential in the late twentieth century. Derrida speaks of the “arbitrary nature of a sign,” where a sign refers to a word with its meaning. Therefore, the “arbitrariness” of a sign then means that a word’s letters have no inner relation with the word’s meaning. 

The NEP states that a quality higher education must make “good, thoughtful, well-rounded, and creative individuals” The letters that make up the words “quality education” have no fixed relationship with the meaning of being that it makes quality students. Therefore, giving “quality education” a meaning, limits the possibilities of it, which allows the NEP to leave out field-work for college students, who are otherwise taking courses meant to be experience-based. 

Dr. Divya Vasudev, founder of Conservation Initiatives, chimes in, “If [colleges] do offer field-based courses or internship-based courses for credit, during the summer semester, especially when you have fewer courses to take, it will be quite an enriching experience.You learn a lot when you go to the field, you don’t just learn from textbooks, you learn from experience,” Manan echoes this when asked about his current environmental science courses,“the only thing is you don’t have physical interaction. You can comment on the readings how many ever times you want, but the way you lead your life is always different.”

Derrida speaks of the absence of a centre when talking about the meaning of a word. This can be placed in the education setting, where a quality education can also mean the ability to experience and learn, and not simply learning from theory or research. The removal of the fixed classroom or laboratory-based learning is the removal of a centre which now allows the freedom to define education, or redefine it.

In the wildlife employment sector, Divya adds on, field-based experience “definitely gives [students] an edge, but it’s not the main thing.” While hiring people in her organisation, she says “the things that I look for, are your passion for conservation, because that’s critical.

Sleeping under tarpaulin sheets, using the toilet outdoors, collecting your own water from the nearest sources, travelling often and working with a group of people, are all add on-qualities that wildlife employers look for in the hiring process. Developing these habits, can be achieved by experiential learning in colleges.Equipping students for wildlife job-readiness as well as learn about the outdoors, outdoors. Being flexible is being without a “centre” and allows one to explore all angles of a quality education. 

Yogita Karpate, an engineer turned research consultant at Wildlife Conservation Society-India says, “my knowledge on nature, on various species and their biology is not that great, not as great as my colleagues. I would say you can pick it up when you work.” This shows another aspect of there being no “centre” to education and that learning has no point of origin in the field. 

While relating his experience with the Planet Life Foundation doing otter conservation, Manan Chhugani went looking for otter excreta, to check their movements for a conservation paper. “There are a few places they are likely to [defecate], large rocks, near a stream. I set up a camera trap to catch them doing their business. This is a very basic work you have to do if you want to start conservation.”

“It’s quite a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun. Once you see the product of the work you’ve done for a long time, best thing,” he adds cheerfully. 

Ishita Ahuja is a second year undergraduate student of Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 8

Whose History Is It Anyway? – A Call For Inclusive Heritage Conservation

There exists a fine line between history and heritage. Our history, according to the books, lives in stone monuments and larger-than-life structures. It consists of towering monuments, expansive halls and rustic motifs. It speaks of kings and kingdoms, riches and grandeur, wars and battles. As for our heritage – it is all that lies  in between. It is in the pages of recipe books of food we eat, the letters we write, the medicines we take. It is in stories we share, songs we sing and the gossip we whisper. It exists not behind the plexiglass of museums, but within us – our communities and families. Our heritage is our history. However, we often tend to forget the role we ordinary people have played in our history. While the preservation of monuments and structures is important, it has resulted in this separation between the people and their history – a separation fostered by dusty, glass-encased, cement-ridden ruins that dot the expanse of most of India, especially New Delhi which is home to over 3000 historical monuments and sites. Historical preservation in India currently does not attempt to bridge this gap between people’s heritage and history, instead focuses merely on preserving monuments as ruins to be admired from afar. To create an environment where heritage is not only admired but lived in, conservation needs to be inclusive of the people and the culture that has sustained the very monument that is being preserved. 

The historical architecture of Delhi spans centuries of civilization, starting from the 12th century (or even earlier, according to some historians) under the Delhi Sultanate. From the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort, to Mirza Ghalib’s tomb and Roshanara’s gardens, to the Kotla Mubarakpur fort – it has an architectural legacy that almost mirrors the plurality of its culture. However, the upkeep and restoration of these monuments leave much to be desired. As heritage enthusiast Sohail Hashmi puts it, “There isn’t enough understanding of how to go about conserving heritage at the governmental level, nor are there ever enough funds for the Archaeological Survey of India”. 

Even the process of conservation and restoration of monuments has often displayed a lack of expertise from the ASI. Monuments deserve special restoration techniques since the materials that were used in their construction are different from what we use now, and the ravages of time and elements have rendered these monuments delicate. Sohail Hashmi explains how “in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 27 monuments were selected around Delhi to receive a facelift, and the ASI was tasked with that, to be completed within two weeks. The original plaster used in the monuments would take a year to dry if used properly, and so the ASI, placed in a difficult situation, used cement on these structures. It ruined those monuments”. 

The deprived nature of the government’s heritage conservation infrastructure hardly allows for engagement with historical monuments. Most structures in Delhi have a few plaques around the heritage compound explaining the basic history of the place, but nothing further. For a city that is oozing with historical significance at every street corner, it is an affront for Delhiites to not be more aware of the heritage they’re living around. However, the entire blame for such  negligence cannot be placed on the ASI and the Indian government. For decades, the decisions on which monuments to preserve and related methodology  have been taken based on the procedure established by the British colonialists, meaning that monuments requiring protection  were chosen based on what the British felt was worth preserving. “So while the Qutub Minar was deemed worthy of conservation, the adjacent caravanserai that was built in the 17th Century was broken down by the British because they didn’t believe it was worth preserving,” Sohail Hashmi continues. 

The city of Shahjahanabad, a bustling region dating back to the period of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan is now but a shadow of its previous self. Several other monuments lay forgotten and ruined around Delhi’s landscape.

The restored face of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan’s Tomb

One such monument is Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb in the Nizamuddin East region. Built during the 16th century by one of Akbar’s famous courtiers for his wife, it had been reduced to a dilapidated ruin in the last few centuries. It was not until the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) began its work under the Nizamuddin Renewal Project that the structure was restored and with it, a new process of restoration was brought about.

Interior motifs of Abdul Rahim Tomb

This process prioritises the restoration of monuments to their former glory, keeping in mind the methods and craftsmanship that had been used earlier. It thinks of conservation as serving the purpose of not just preserving history, but also making the structures useful in the present. The Abdur Rahim tomb, for instance, employed craftsmen skilled in the art of carefully restoring every motif on the dome and walls of the tomb, putting in almost 1,75,000 man-days of work. The work by the AKTC also included bringing back to life Rahim’s history, his poetry and his significant role in the Mughal court. It provided visitors and citizens of Delhi with a wholesome experience of the history of the place, its aesthetic beauty as well as its living heritage. The AKTC has worked similarly in places such as the Sunder Nursery, Humayun’s Tomb, Isa Khan’s tomb and other structures in the Nizamuddin region. Alongside archaeological restoration, the Nizamuddin Renewal Project focuses on enhancing the importance of the Nizamuddin Basti itself as a living heritage region and attempting to liven up its heritage value through food, music, and cultural traditions of the people living in it.

Sunder Nursery Post-Restoration
Isa Khan Mausoleum after Restoration

India is a country with a rich heritage, one that deserves not only to be protected but also cherished. While we are miles away from sustaining an inclusive development and conservation strategy in every monument and historical site in the country, we are on the right path. Projects like Aga Khan’s are required in other areas while aiming to protect our heritage. The restoration of our country’s heritage requires the government to invest in a manner that actively involves locals as stakeholders. With community engagement at its core, historic preservation can be turned into a culturally as well as economically profitable venture for the government and local residents. 

Picture Credits: Nayana Vachhani

Akanksha Mishra is a second-year political science and media studies student at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).