In conversation with Zai Whitaker
Or listen to it here:
Deepika: You know I am generally excited about all our conversations but this one is going to be big!
Arpita: I think we’re a little bit like that at the beginning of all our chats – but I get this one, this one is coming straight out of your childhood and that always has that ability to bring back the child in us and get us excited!
Deepika: Yes, visits to the Madras Crocodile Bank was one of the outings my family took on holidays to Chennai which was an annual affair for many years – and one that my sister and I both loved. Coincidentally, we had a chance to visit it again in 2019 and even as adults, it continues to fascinate. So much so that I think it was the highlight of our trip!
Arpita: Well I’m not going to forget the many croc and monitor lizard pictures that you sent me – but you know but let’s set it up properly, tell us who you spoke to!
Deepika: Well I wish I could have met her at the Croc Bank, but considering the pandemic, I was lucky enough to meet the lovely Zai Whitaker, who is the co-founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank on a zoom call one morning!
Zai: I’m Zai Whitaker and I’m one of the founders of the Crocodile Bank and currently its managing trustee, and apart from being at the croc bank I am also a writer and write mostly for children and mostly about the environment.
Deepika: So Zai wears many hats. She started the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in 1976 with conservationist Romulus Whitaker, at a time when India’s crocodile population had been exploited to the brink of extinction. She was also a teacher at the Kodaikanal International School and is a prolific writer – having written over 14 books for children and young adults.
Arpita: You know I remember reading one of Zai’s children’s books – Salim Mamoo and Me. She begins that book by sharing how her conundrum as a 6 year old was not only that she had this amazingly renowned and well-travelled ornithologist, Salim Ali, as her uncle but that her whole family was very skilled at knowing the birds and other creatures amidst them and she felt left out – and I remember being rather envious and thinking that that’s the kind of conundrum I’d have loved to have had as a child!
Deepika: Yeah, that sounds about right! As Zai said, what drew her to the natural world and conservation work was rooted in the influence of her family – her father, Zafar Futehally, who started the World Wildlife Fund and was Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, and mother, Laeeq Futehally, a landscape designer and author.
Zai: I grew up in Bombay in Andheri which at that point was a very different place. It was a very junglee place with jackals howling in the evenings and such a beautiful environment.
My parents were both very passionate, very committed naturalists, great birdwatchers and we had a lot of family, other family and friends who were similarly very committed to natural history and conservation. So my sister, brother and I grew up in this environment of, you know, where the weekends were all about bird-watching in Karnala or Borivli National Park and binoculars and the picnic basket were very big parts of our lives. Of course we were always more interested in the picnic than the binoculars but you know, it was just the way we grew up.
Arpita: It seems unreal to imagine Andheri as a jungle with wild animals! I remember going to the Bombay History Museum and coming across pictures of old Bombay covered in forests with leopards apparently roaming about in places like Malabar Hills – its such a dramatically different vision from the present day Mumbai full of its tall concrete buildings and speedways. Imagine what a contraction of green space Zai must’ve witnessed in her lifetime.
Deepika: I agree – it’s a very different visual now! The city is where Zai did a lot of growing up, and where she began her journey as a conservationist in many ways. It’s also why she so strongly advocates for the need for open, green spaces to be embedded in cities, and for conservation efforts to be part of planning.
Zai: There was a very close connection with the Bombay Natural History Society where my father was then the honorary secretary. And then actually my father was by that time very much on the international platform of conservation and one of the things he did which my sister and I helped him to do was setting up WWF India with its headquarters in Bombay. So it was a tiny little office which the BNHS had generously loaned is and a lot of the time was spent sitting on the floor and licking envelopes and sending out our cyclostyled newsletters and so on. And my sister and I started doing programs for schools about natural history, and one of the programs we did was about common snakes – the common snakes of India, which ones were venomous, which ones were not, what to do if bitten by a snake.
Arpita: I love how naturally these experiences of childhood snowballed into the work Zai ended up doing!
Deepika: Yes, she said whenever she or her siblings would come across snakes or other reptiles in their garden, they’d ask someone at BNHS what it was. In the process, it whetted their interest in the species living around them.
I was thinking about you actually when she mentioned that and how you’ve similarly taught yourself about the many butterflies, birds, dragonflies and the ilk from the time you spend in your garden.
Arpita: Well there is something to that process of finding joy and companionship in nature which very easily slips into the space of curiosity and learning.
Deepika: I think Zai would agree, I mean joy is at the heart of it!
Zai: You know growing up with these experts all around you is quite a challenge and very often it can be quite a pain for the child, you know, who just wants to enjoy life. I was probably putting more pressure on myself than was necessary. But I do remember times when I felt, well, not up to the mark and made a very concerted and very unnatural effort to start learning bird names. And then at some point, I think a lovely point in my life, I realized that you know, it’s just not necessary. One can enjoy birds, one can enjoy nature without making lists of names and without knowing the Latin names of all the common birds in your gardens. I think that was an important moment in my life.
Arpita: Ah latin botanical names – they are still my absolute bane! I so prefer the more fun and relatable common names anyday.
Deepika: I agree! Yellow-billed blue magpie or gold-billed magpie makes so much more sense than Urocissa flavirostris – I can barely even pronounce it!
Arpita: Absolutely agree! But tell me how did Zai turn specifically to herpetology, which is the study of amphibians and reptiles?
Deepika: It was through an exhibition being organised, also connected to BNHS, where she met Romulus Whitaker, a herpetologist who she married and with whom she moved to Tamil Nadu where he was setting up the Snake Park. Also, in the 1970s, crocodiles in India were on the verge of extinction because of crocodile hunting and the destruction and pollution of their habitats. Surveys indicated that almost 90 per cent of these reptiles had been wiped out.
Arpita: So there was an urgent need to find ways to stop that and to begin some form of conservation?
Deepika: Exactly, and that was the beginning.
Zai: Well the Croc Bank is a reptile conservation organization. It’s probably one of the oldest conservation organizations in the country and it was started for the conservation of the three Indian species of crocodilians which in the 70s, when it was started, were really on the brink of extinction, especially the ghariyal which inhabits northern rivers. But then over the next four or five decades in stages the range and depth of what we do has increased. So now it’s not just the three crocodiles of India but of the world and we now have 15 of the 23 species of the world’s crocodile species. And also not just crocodiles but all reptiles. So at the moment we have 45 or so species of reptiles, many of the more endangered ones are breeding, and the other big part of the Croc Bank, of course is spreading public awareness, public education about why these animals are important and the need to conserve them.
For instance in the last few years we’ve been focusing a lot of attention on snakebite mitigation because we realize that if you want to conserve snakes, you need to tell people how to escape death if they bite you, and of course, there’s a lot of misinformation in India about snakebite treatment. People going off to healers and faith practitioners and so on. The only cure really is anti-venom serum.
Arpita: Oh god yes, snakes have so much fear attached to them that even in my neighbourhood often the first response on spotting any snake irrespective of whether it is venomous or non venomous – is to get rid of it. Making that shift from fear to wonder and fascination through the use of knowledge and awareness is so vital in being able to respond to the human-animal conflict especially since we are in the midst of a period of massive biodiversity loss and extinction of species worldwide due to human intervention and tinkering.
Deepika: Yeah, in fact a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released in 2021 says as much – that conflict between humans and animals is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most iconic species, and that India will be most affected by it.
It might seem unconnected to spaces like the Croc Bank or to zoos, but this is why conservation efforts are so crucial. That and just having spaces that children and adults alike can access in their cities to build awareness and start to see natural spaces and other species as contiguous to the city, rather than separate. And you know speaking of snakes, listen to this example that Zai gave of the work they’ve been doing in Agumbe in the Western Ghats to research and conserve the king cobra, and how they’ve seen a transformation in the response of the local community because of it.
Zai: One example I can give you is Agumbe in the Western Ghats where we have a field station for the study and conservation and research of the king cobra, which as you know is one of the most interesting snakes in the world. The local community in Agumbe has really gone through a sea change in their attitude to living with the King Cobra.
I just saw a video the other day recently that they sent us of this king cobra, you know, this big 12-14 foot king cobra foraging along a field, a rice field. And just you know, like 20 meters away is a family bringing their cows home. They know the snake is there but they’re not at all worried and nobody tries to hurt them or kill them. King cobras are one of the most gentle snakes in the world. Again, I’ve seen videos of some of these rescuers who actually sometimes need to be rescued from their own bad snake handling skills and being so rough with the snake, but the snake never made an attempt to bite this person. So I think it’s in a way a metaphor for what the Croc Bank has been doing and it’s just lovely to see that. It’s lovely to see the relationship between the snake and this community.
I would say because of three things—education, education and education. So when we first started people would ring in a panic and said, “Oh, yeah, there is a snake here, do something.” Now, they will call and say, “Look there’s a king cobra in my yard. Don’t bother coming if there’s a problem, I’ll call you.” Well, yeah, it’s really amazing.
Arpita: You know I’ve heard a lot of descriptions of the King Cobra but a ‘gentle snake’ has never figured in them! It seems so transformative to just see the snake from that perspective. People often forget that most reptiles are reticent and are probably more afraid of us than we are of them.
Deepika: And, this journey towards education and building public awareness is very much the trajectory the Croc Bank has taken since its inception. Through a curriculum specially designed for children in schools, for instance, they are building a knowledge base.
Arpita: That sounds great, especially cause if the pandemic and the lockdown have taught us anything, it’s to see how closely connected we are to the natural world and how human action affects what plays out in our environment. More and more evidence is also pointing to urban green spaces and how crucial they are to the health and well-being of all of us.
Deepika: And in the last few years there has been so much research coming out which speaks to this, for example a meta analysis in 2019 by The Lancet Planetary Health found that green urban spaces can actually help people live longer, have better mental health, immune system and protection from diseases.
It’s something Zai emphasised as well because even as it houses over 17 species of crocodilians, three of which are listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, the Croc bank is also a veritable bird sanctuary with over 60 species spotted there which are drawn to the water bodies, ponds and large trees that make up the space – and all this just outside of the city of Chennai!
Zai: In India 30 to 40 percent of our people live in the cities and I think the pandemic, one of the major things it’s shown us is how important open spaces, green spaces in the city are. And how importantly linked to the mental health of the population. You know, when we talk about health we speak about things like polio eradication and so on which we of course did an amazing job with, something to be really proud of, but I think now it’s also there’s more and more literature and science about the importance of open spaces for people just to be able to relax and you know have some down time. So I think it’s a very very important topic and I’m really hoping that now hopefully that you know, we’re not post pandemic but in the pandemic, but I hope that we start really thinking about this very seriously.
Deepika: I think this is something a lot of people have come to realise through the lockdown and – and it was so evident in the number of people I suddenly saw outdoors, walking or cycling – as soon as things began to open up. And so I asked Zai about how she thought we could think about this differently.
Zai: Well, I think for me it means more than anything else that we give an equal weightage to open natural spaces that we do to constructed spaces. Or hopefully even more, and that’s what it really means to me. To some extent, you know, I mean, if you are in a certain economic bracket, these things are always available and accessible to us, but that’s not always the case. So it would be great if everyone had that access. You know, instead of turning every other open space into money, we actually left it in which case it’s even more valuable to us than, you know, a constructed space. Now we’re finding out that actually clean air and water are heavy cash, you know.
Deepika: It’s so interesting right, that we don’t measure the value of clean air and water, but it’s only when exactly those essentials for life and living become untenable that we start to wonder how we’re valuing what’s really important. It feels so obvious that green spaces should be part of city design!
Arpita: Totally, you know it reminds me of that really often quoted Native Indian saying that goes – “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” And while researching this episode I was looking through these Government urban development guidelines – and they recommended 10 to 12 sq.m open space per person within a city. However, most Indian cities are unsurprisingly well below this norm. Mumbai has a mere 1.28 square meter per person, Chennai has 0.81 square meter per person, Bengaluru offers 2 square meters and that’s the garden city so imagine how the rest are faring.
Deepika: And frankly more than any other time, it has been through the pandemic that we’ve all felt the deep pull of nature to calm our frayed nerves. So much so that Zai mentioned how she was overwhelmed by the support they received during the pandemic.
Zai: One of the few things I felt good about during the pandemic, was that we got a lot of support from Chennai families. Chennai City sees the Croc Bank as one of its own. So 4.5 lakh people visit us every year and it’s interesting that you ask about open spaces and providing that in the Croc Bank because we’ve just finished this little project of making benches and picnic tables for people to spend more time here. We see that as a very important thing which we must contribute to – more open space, more clean, and more big trees to look at for people who come out of the city and who obviously need these resources.
I’ve also met families, you know, walking around the Croc Bank and talking to people, I’ve met many families who say, you know, we come here for the trees. We have a lot of trees, unfortunately also a lot of egrets nesting here, and so sometimes we have to wear hats during the nesting season to protect ourselves from their droppings, but people do that. They come here because they love the greenery and the open spaces and now they’re also going to love sitting on these nice stone benches, many of them which will have reptile motifs on them.
Arpita: That paints quite the picture – reclining on crocodile benches, wearing a hat to avoid bird shit – but you know more importantly, the invitation, to sit, rest and find pause with the trees and birds around, that sounds so great! It’s something I am most grateful for during the lockdown – access to green space and being able to sit with my plants.
Deepika: And yet, in the lockdown is also when so many clearances were given for projects that essentially take away from this right to green open spaces. It’s as if in terms of governance, there is still little recognition of what really has value and how to protect it. The Central Vista Project being a really stark example of exactly this which has led to 1800 trees being ‘transplanted’, as the newspaper reports put it and all that for concrete structures!
And this need for a shift in perception is something Zai also pointed to.
Zai: So basically, it’s just that the government has to and you know, local administrative bodies have to buy into it and do it, you know and stop seeing this as a wasted space. It’s not. It’s much much more valuable than that, you know 20-story building that you just made which brings in crores of rupees, but this is bringing in much more. And it’s a much more permanent benefit. So as long as we’re just seeing, you know, short-term cash as the way to go it’s not going to happen. We need a very significant change in our mental systems about open spaces.
Apart from the species of wildlife and there’s always a lot more than you expect ,and a lot more going on, and it’s just so heartening how animals can adapt to pretty crappy human-made environment, you know, you see beautiful birds and long species list of birds in very polluted spaces, you know. Even the backwaters near the Croc bank you have pelicans and storks and it’s just amazing. So the species of trees, grasses, you know vegetation generally and wildlife is just amazing and around that so much could be done by local parks bodies. For young people or not, I mean for everyone.
Arpita: And that’s where we all come into the picture, right? Conservation isn’t something that is done away from your home or living space in some far off reserve or national park. It’s how we tend to our spaces and choices and the decisions we make to cultivate these spaces–whether it’s first learning to pay attention and being observant of what is happening around us, and then diving in to see what and where and how change can come about.
Deepika: Yes, sometimes responses to these issues can be so overwhelming as they can feel removed from everyday decision making but that’s what I loved about Zai’s suggestions, and her lens on this – the idea of a city that cultivates open space for all the many kinds of people that live in it.
Zai: My ideal city I think would have, would be a green and pleasant land as the poet’s put it, not just for the economically privileged, but for everyone. I think we often forget that, you know, the less privileged also need these spaces. I think really that’s a very important change we have to make. Our cities have beautiful parts to them, you know, Lodi Gardens and Theosophical Society and so on but accessible to a very few of us.
Deepika: So Zai was saying how she considers herself lucky that even at her ‘ripe old age’ as she described it, she’s is still so engaged with life and conservation. And while her family shaped much of her journey, how she has chosen this life, to look at the natural world and learn from it, is something that’s accessible to all of us, should we choose it.
Zai: Well, I think part of it just happens naturally because you want it to, so you become more observant for instance. But I think at a more conscious level, there’s now so much wonderful literature about the wildlife around us, when we were growing up there was nothing. So if you wanted to know the name of a snake for instance, you took a bus to the BNHS and found some patient fellow there who would spend time with you and talk to you. Now, that’s not the case.
Arpita: That’s so true! Now it’s so ridiculously easy to find things – firstly, there is Google lens which a lot of smart phones have, and if Google lens doesn’t get it right, which can happen quite a bit, then there’s lots of fantastic crowd-sourced websites which can help with identifying birds, plants, trees, insects.
Deepika: Indeed, I find myself looking up wildflowers, dragonflies or birds that I come by on my walks – it’s how I now greet the picture wing dragonfly – a spotted golden and black one. And it was all possible courtesy to what the Internet has now to offer. And in addition to that, Zai also brought attention to what we can do in our everyday lives that adds up to bringing conservation into the everyday.
Zai: And I think the other thing is, you know, just small changes that we can make in our own lives. We don’t want to think that way because we want to be dramatic and either make some huge change or forget it, but little psychological, physical, mental changes can do a lot. So for instance, I always find that I have to print something and read it on, you know, as a printed paper to be able to fully understand it, and so now I’ve stopped doing that to a large extent and I’m making myself more easy, you know reading on screen. So I mean we all have our own sort of limitations and ambit so we should look at our own lives and make some decisions.
I think it’s a wonderful thing for a family to sit down and think about. You know, as a family what changes can we make. How can we use public transport? Can we use less paper? Can we stop buying these kitchen rolls and use old rags instead, you know, look after them. This rags business was a big thing when I was growing up. My mother had this bag of rags and all our old clothes and of course, we didn’t buy clothes the way one does now, you know, you just made things last and last and last and finally they ended up in that rags bag and there were big bags and small rags and you know, it was a big project. We used to help her cut them up and sometimes stitch the sides because all the threads would come out while you were cleaning the sink or whatever so yeah, I think families can do a lot. I mean imagine if because of these rolls of kitchen cleaner towels and that in itself must create a mountain of waste!
Arpita: I love the detail of what she’s suggesting here – it literally is in our hands what and how we choose to use the finite resources that we have. And that’s the conservation ethic, if I can call it that.
Deepika: I remember something you shared with me from poet and activist Cleo Wade’s work, where she says: “When the world asks us big questions that require big answers, we have two options: 1. To feel so overwhelmed or unqualified, we do nothing. 2. To start with one small act and qualify ourselves.”
That’s what Zai’s life’s work represents – participating, engaging and in the process, qualifying herself. And in many ways, it’s what we can choose to do in our lives each day. What we can choose to do to stay hopeful.
Zai: I need to say that for some mad reason, I’m still hopeful. I’m not a doomist. I don’t believe in doomism, and I will keep that optimistic streak going, apart from anything else because of all the wonderful people who are doing such wonderful conservation work all over the world. So I keep telling myself that it has to get us somewhere. There’s so much positive energy there. There’s so much commitment and so we will get through it.
Outro: To learn more about how you can support the work of the Madras Crocodile Bank, visit their website at madrascrocodilebank.org. You can choose to ‘Adopt a Reptile’, donate or plan visits for school and college going students.
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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The Sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.