‘Mumbai is Nature’s treasure trove!’
Rohan Chakravarty is an award-winning wildlife cartoonist from Nagpur famous for cartoons that deal with the environment, conservation and wildlife, and creator of the Mumbai map…
Q: What made you leave dentistry and foray into the world of cartoons?
After encountering a female tiger bathing at a waterhole in the Nagzira wildlife sanctuary in 2005, I was inspired to switch from dentistry to the world of cartoons, launching my own series, Green Humour, in 2010. Over the years, I have created myriad cartoon strips, illustrations, maps and books that create awareness of environmental issues for a range of clients, including wildlife parks, tiger reserves and organisations such as WWF India, the Wildlife Trust of India and Pratham Books.
Q: Why emphasise on bio-diversity in a densely populated and concretised metro city like Mumbai?
Most people only think of Mumbai as a concrete jungle, with skyscrapers, slums and beach promenades, but scratch beneath the surface, and you will find a place of rich biodiversity, with flamingos, leopards and black kites among its flora and fauna. The goal of mapping Mumbai’s natural treasures was part of a campaign launched by the Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic, a new “climate action collective” of Mumbaikars and organisations such as the climate non-profit Waatavaran and entertainment company- DeadAnt- that use social power to protect what makes Mumbai magical. The idea of creating this map was to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the city’s wildlife among the city’s youth, and sensitise the government to the importance of protecting this rich heritage. The map also includes two of Mumbai’s important indigenous communities, the Warli and the Koli (one of the oldest fishing communities). From flocks of migratory flamingos in the Sewri mudflats to a rich marine life along the coast, birds from yellow-footed green pigeon to shaheen falcon, and even leopards in a forest in the heart of the city, Mumbai is a revelation. A special section of the map highlights intertidal wildlife hotspots in places such as Haji Ali, Carter Road and Juhu Beach, thanks to the work done by Marine Life of Mumbai, an organisation that runs shore walks and educates the public about the hermit crabs, corals and sea anemones that run along the shoreline, not far from the busy roads. Usually I visit the sites I am mapping to get to know and understand the terrain, but the Covid pandemic meant it was not possible. To be honest, I’ve had to rely a lot on secondary information. I referred to books, research papers on species being discovered and material online, and consulted researchers, marine enthusiasts, scientists and organisations in Mumbai to draw up the map.
Q: Describe Mumbai as you see it as a ‘nature cartoonist’.
Mumbai, India’s financial capital and home to 20 million people, emerged from an amalgamation of seven islands, and a series of land reclamations. The loss of mangroves (vital in protecting the city from erosion) and deforestation are major environmental issues today. The city has lost 60% of its green cover in the past 40 years due to a growing population, rampant development, pollution and a narrow geography. Land reclamation has caused perennial flooding and devoured creeks, which acted as natural drainage systems. Though I know a fair amount about Mumbai’s biodiversity and am familiar with spaces like Sanjay Gandhi national park and the mangroves, it was only when I was drawing the map that I realised that Aarey Forest (the favourite part of the map for me), which has been at the heart of so much public activism, actually has four to five new species. Aarey is a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, amphibians and mammals. It is full of diverse microhabitats with arachnids and scorpions, two of which are even named after Aarey, and the gorgeous Giri’s geckoella, a leopard-spotted lizard. The map shows more than 95 species of flora and fauna found in the city, including plants, trees, birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.
Q: How is your work helping in conservation-related awareness?
I think taking science to the layman and taking the layman’s response to science is important, and in this case, that mediator is me. I know kids and adults who can identify cars, but not birds. I want to involve people from beyond the spheres of wildlife and science in this discourse. When I started, most of my readers were from the wildlife, science and ecology community, but that changed after I ran my newspaper columns from 2013 to 2015, especially the Sunday columns with Midday and The Hindu as they usually have seven to eight panels. They gave me a chance to focus on much longer narratives and simplify complicated issues through my comics. I was able to reach all kinds of people through them and develop my reader base. I would like to see more tangible impacts though. There have been cases, like this instance where somebody from Peru wrote to me saying that he refrained from buying a pet monkey after reading my comic strip about the illegal pet trade. In that case, my work could directly save an animal’s life. Then, there have been people who have stopped drinking civet coffee from South East Asia because it exploits wild civets after reading my work. There have been women from India who have written to me saying that my comic about eco-friendly sanitary products available in India make them aware of the fact that they can make the switch to these menstrual products. Similarly, this whole EIA episode – a lot of people have written to me that my comics have helped them engage with the complex information in an easy way.
Q: Tips on connecting with nature when you live in a city?
One does not have to travel to forests to understand the web of life, what space we share our species and the role they play in our lives. I think that this kind of education begins right at home. This year, during the lockdown, I have tried to change the way I look at wildlife myself. To my amazement, I found five species of jumping spiders in my house. You don’t even have to go out! And these spiders have been eating fruit flies from my kitchen and saving that fruit from rotting. And I think the way the Indian government has been looking at development, will lead to a scenario where the conservation of urban biodiversity will become very important in the coming days. Not limiting communication around those issues to forests or tigers is the future of this discourse. Sadly, I don’t see the pandemic as something very hopeful or something very positive for nature, because the way we are planning to bounce back is going to be lethal. But, I do think we need to adapt more to the ways of life we have learned during the lockdown like working from home and saving fuel. The most important thing is – more conversation between people, scientists and the government