Abhisheka Krishnagopal dons many hats – wildlife rehabilitator, researcher, educator, artist, and dancer. The common thread that ties all these facets together is nature and wildlife. In this interview, Abhisheka talks about her diverse experiences in each of these roles.
1.How did your love for nature and wildlife develop?
I grew up in Bangalore before the IT boom, when kids walked to school without the fear of traffic. It was natural for children of my generation to engage with trees for play – by collecting Rain Tree pods to make a ball, or squirting the liquid from African Tulip buds on each other. I also spent my school vacations in the Western Ghats, at my grandmother’s place in Sakleshpur. There, I spent considerable time in coffee plantations, agricultural fields or by the river. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother and learnt her way of life – looking for wild mushrooms, fishing, and collecting wild edible plants and wild fruits.
So, the experience of being amidst nature was already there: what was lacking was knowing how or why it is important to value nature and wildlife. That happened when I started volunteering at an urban wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre, ‘Save our WildLife’ (SoWL) while I was studying for my bachelor’s degree; I was inspired by the work done by Saleem Hameed, Harsha J, Tarun Nair and Srini (the core team members). Working in such close proximity to wild animals helped develop a deep connect to nature and wildlife.
2.You are a trained artist. Tell us a bit about your art.
I studied Bachelor of Fine Arts, specialising in painting. Like any other art student, I was initially interested in making a mark in the art world. But being part of the SoWL team changed my entire perspective about what I wanted to do with art. By the time I was finishing college, I had shifted from figurative styles and human-centric themes to urban wildlife. It was also a time when Bangalore was undergoing drastic changes – trees were being cut in large numbers to widen Bellary Road and build Hebbal Flyover, and waterbodies were claimed to build IT parks. I started expressing the harmful impacts of the unprecedented development of the city on local wildlife, in my paintings. By the time I finished college, it was clear that I didn’t want to be an artist who only exhibits in a gallery for a certain audience or to earn a living, but one who uses art for conservation.
In my personal art practice, I like working with natural materials like using twigs for drawing, natural dyes for colouring, arranging natural objects, or turning trash into a piece of art. I am a very hands-on person, so I am happiest working with materials rather than just painting. I enjoy the process of making art than coming up with photo-realistic work, which is why I have kept away from digital art; I need to feel the materials to feel good about creating art. I am also very fond of Indian folk art, so I often indulge in learning different styles and using them in my nature-related arts practice.
I also do nature illustrations as and when required, for developing nature education content.
3.You have also used performing arts (dance) to spread awareness about the role of fig trees in the ecosystem. How was this experience?
Before conceptualising the fig dance, I had a bit of experience collaborating with folk performers in rural areas, for environmental awareness. ‘How to be a Fig’, a movement-based performance, was my first attempt at communicating a complex ecological concept. What made it enjoyable was having many wonderful collaborators – scientists as well as artists. Dr. Mike Shanahan, a rainforest ecologist, whose book ‘Ladders to Heaven’ inspired this performance, had already simplified the ecological concepts through his writing. This made it easy for me to explain the concept to the performers, who were non-scientists. Veena Basavarajaiah, a contemporary dancer, choreographed this piece so beautifully that even non-performers could perform; so, many researchers who had never performed before were part of this project. Also, all those who volunteered for this project did it for the love of trees, so every rehearsal was filled with new ideas and enthusiasm.
In ‘How to be a Fig’, human bodies became the flowers, wasps, trees, and birds, and expressed the complex role that a ficus plays in the ecosystem. The audience saw how pollination takes places, predation happens, how a strangler fig engulfs the host tree and eventually puts out fruits for birds to eat, how ficus trees deal with calamities like drought and floods, and so on. When the piece was performed at a conservation science conference, it was very well-received by the scientific community, and several young researchers in the audience mentioned that they would like to use dance to communicate their research. I have a keen interest in performing arts because of my training in classical dance and music, and the fig performance has definitely inspired me to explore performing arts for communicating conservation.
4.How and when did the shift from art to research and education happen?
Volunteering at Save our WildLife had made me sure of wanting to continue in the field of wildlife conservation, by the time I completed my degree. But in those days, wildlife rehabilitators were unpaid volunteers who had to fund the expenses from either their own pockets or donations from well-wishers. So I had to work in the corporate sector for a while, to fund wildlife rehab as well as for my own livelihood. Three years into the corporate job, I knew I didn’t want to be stuck inside those glass buildings in front of a computer. Also, the guilt of encouraging consumerism made me quit, and I went on to study MSc in Ecology and Environment.
It was when I was doing my master’s project at ATREE that one of the senior scientists, Dr. T Ganesh, noticed my passion for wildlife and offered me positions in two different projects – one on education, to coordinate a state-level nature education program in rural schools of Karnataka, and the other, a research project involving studying water use in agriculture and its impact on bird diversity and the local migratory patterns of wetland birds at the foothills of Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. My colleagues there were extremely helpful and taught me the skills required to be a wildlife researcher. My rich field experience as well as spending time with other ecologists in the field encouraged my interest in wildlife research. I then worked with BNHS, studying migratory birds, where I got to ring birds in some of the best wintering sites like Pong Reservoir in Himachal Pradesh, Chilika Lake in Orissa and Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu.
Between my research, I spent time travelling to rural areas and volunteering, which is where I started to experiment with art-based teaching. This experience came in handy when I joined NCF’s ‘Education and Public Engagement’ programme; here, I had the opportunity to further explore my interest in bridging art and ecology.
5.Your role as an educator is diverse – you’ve published a birding hand-book and also conduct nature journaling workshops for children. Could you please elaborate?
Since my focus with education has been to pass on my knowledge and love for nature to others in whichever way possible, I have never followed a single mode of communication – I use various mediums based on the audience I am interacting with. I try to teach ecological concepts through art and games – I create art-based activities and design games for children, or experiment with folk art to get people to paint community wall murals. I also design simple ecology projects for older children, to encourage scientific thinking. My goal is to get people to learn scientific facts about the natural world while also emotionally connecting to nature; so I try and simplify both art as well as ecology.
I am more interested in being a facilitator and bringing out the creativity in people as well as getting them to explore the natural world themselves, rather than me being a teacher or provider of information. With my experience in working with children of various age groups and from diverse backgrounds, I have understood that it’s about finding which medium and methods work well with the group I am interacting with. Being flexible has helped me reach out to different kinds of audiences.
6.You are recognised for your excellent and reliable work in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. How did you get involved in this?
I have an anecdote to share. In 2001, during my college vacations, I saw an advertisement by People for Animals (PFA), asking for volunteers. PFA’s office at that time was right next to Karnataka Chikrakala Parishath, where I studied. When I started volunteering at the PFA office, I once had an opportunity to carry an injured Eagle Owl to PFA’s wildlife rescue centre, which was newly set up at the outskirts of Bangalore. It was the first time I was seeing wild animals at such proximity. I quietly went around the centre observing the animals in care. Saleem Hameed, who was then the Chief Wildlife Rehabilitator, noticed how keen I was, and suggested I spend my summer vacations volunteering there. Within a month of volunteering – mainly cleaning cages and entering medical data – I learnt to gently handle all sorts of wildlife including snakes. And by the time college reopened, I was invited to be part of their core team. I am thankful to the trustees of PFA, who allowed me to stay at the centre and get trained in wildlife rehab as I continued attending college during the day. For several years, I continued to take care of wildlife even when I was in various other jobs.
7.Please tell us about how the rescue and rehabilitation process broadly works; it’s very species-specific, isn’t it?
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is not as glamorous and fun as people think. You need to put on the hat of a veterinarian, an ecologist, wildlife biologist, a parent, and so on, as wild animals have different handling requirements, diets, habitat and housing needs, diseases, and parasites. It requires sourcing the right kind of food to feed them and having thorough knowledge of wildlife medicine. Along with theoretical knowledge, a rehabilitator requires good animal-handling skills, as wildlife is also stressed by humans. Proper training in wildlife care is essential for the benefit of the wild animal and the safety of the caregiver. Whether you are caring for a baby Pipistrelle Bat the size of human thumbnail, or treating a 5-foot long adult Russell’s Viper, you need to know how to handle the animal gently without harming the animal or yourself. And orphaned wild animals are demanding, resulting in sleepless nights for the rehabilitator.
Sometimes, we could get birds or other animals that we have never worked with before. In such cases, we have to reach out to the experts, do our own research to know more about the species, as well as use our experience and intuition to take care of the animals. Unlike domestic animals, you cannot get emotionally attached to a wild animal, as the animal has to be at some point released back into the wild. A rehabilitator has to be able to take the decision of letting go of the animal at the right time.
8.Are all rehabilitated creatures released back into their habitats? Do most manage to adapt or are there struggles too?
Once an animal is rehabilitated, it goes back to the wild, most often to the same place where it was rescued from. In some instances, the animals go through a soft release, where they are released outside the centre and supported with food and shelter until they find their way in the wild. If an animal is rehabilitated well, it does adapt well in the wild. We have seen hand-raised animals raising families too, after being released. But there are also instances of threats cause by humans – once, I witnessed all the squirrels that I had hand-raised and released being killed by my neighbour’s domestic cat.
9.I am sure that it is very rewarding to be a rehabilitator, but you also see a lot of trauma up-close. How do you navigate both extremes?
Wildlife rehabilitation can be stimulating, rewarding, and sometimes pleasant, but it is rarely fun. Rather, it is physically and mentally demanding, emotionally stressful, and considerable work. It involves many tasks that are not pleasant, such as cleaning wounds, fixing broken bones, and occasionally making the decision to euthanize an animal that is suffering and cannot recover. Effective wildlife rehabilitation includes compassion, but it also requires emotional strength to deal with the death of an animal. What kept me going with rehabilitation despite all the challenges is the deep connection I have with animals. I always feel that I didn’t save wildlife; instead, they saved me. I am never bored of life, and retain a sense of curiosity and wonder, thanks to wild animals.
When you see animals in trauma, there is the danger of disliking humans. When you are suturing a snake which has been ripped open by people trying to kill it, or attempting surgery on a monitor lizard whose limbs were broken by humans to transport for wild meat consumption, it is easy to get angry with the world. But wildlife rehabilitation has also brought me closer to several caring human beings. The knowledge that there are enough compassionate humans in the world stops me from turning bitter towards my own race. Art, music and dance have also helped me a lot in healing from the trauma of seeing animals in pain.
10.A lot of us may not realise this, but tree-felling or even pruning displaces birds and animals or causes them injuries. What protocols do you recommend before tree felling, if it is inevitable?
Always look for bird and squirrel nests before pruning branches or cutting down a tree. If animals are nesting, then postpone the cutting.
11.What can people do when they come across an injured bird or animal? Could we take care of them at home without any prior experience?
It is highly recommended to not take care of injured or displaced wildlife at home, as they are very different from domestic animals. Caring alone does not make a person a wildlife rehabilitator: it requires specialised knowledge, skill, facilities, permits, licenses, and more.
Indian wildlife is protected under law and it’s illegal to keep them at home. When you find an injured animal, follow these steps:
- Take a carton and make holes in the box for the animal to breathe.
- To pick up the animal, in most cases, throwing a towel or sheet over the animal works well; this helps restrain the animal, and covers its eyes, which helps reduce stress.
- Place the animal in the box, close it, and place it in a warm, dark, quiet area, away from people and pets. Resist the urge to peek or take photos. Avoid talking, loud music, and other disturbing noises.
- Do not feed or give water to the animal.
- Take the animal to a permitted wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian as soon as possible.
Sometimes, the animals may just be in shock and not injured. In such cases, allow the animal to de-stress and try to release it. In case of squirrel babies or bird chicks, locate the nest and put them back into the nest or put up an artificial nest. Monitor to see if the parents find the babies.
12.In urban areas, glue traps are commonly used to catch rodents and “pests”, but these traps also cause collateral damage. What would be a better option?
Glue traps are extremely dangerous for wildlife. We have found snakes and birds trapped, and it’s a long, tedious process to remove these animals from the glue trap and to get the glue off their body.
The natural way of controlling rodents is to create a habitat for predators like snakes and owls and learning to co-exist with wildlife. Rat Snakes are not harmful to humans, and keep the rodent population under control. Encouraging Barn Owls to nest in the premises will also keep the rodent population down. Otherwise, using a conventional rodent trap is safer for other wildlife.
13.What’s next for you?
I don’t really make long-term plans. The pandemic has also taught us that we live in uncertain times. This year, I am focusing on doing more work on using art to study ecology, which I believe will help connect emotionally to our natural surroundings. If Covid permits, I would like to work more on the ground with rural schools and communities. In the future, I would like to find a way of pursuing research as well as art-based outreach simultaneously. Given that I have my roots in the Western Ghats, and I do feel very much at home there, I hope to make that my permanent home in the future.