The Zai Whitaker column | On World Environment Day, looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all — time

Us folks in the conservation field would do well to use this lockdown time, to look back at what Time has tried to teach us collectively, as a country | Zai Whitaker writes in a humorous, introspective essay for #WorldEnvironmentDay

Zai Whitaker June 25, 2020 10:03:25 IST
The Zai Whitaker column | On World Environment Day, looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all — time

Thanks to the lockdown, I have been able to do some wonderful travels: super-comfy ones, sans the discomfort of airports/stations, frozen shoulders from carrying luggage, anxiety about delays. I’ve been down many memory lanes, nudged along by the old photo albums which had to be sorted and tidied.

The other day, I saw one from the late mid(ish) 1970s,  of myself sitting on the bank of Amaravathi Reservoir, during a crocodile egg collection trip: I’m wearing a rather  heroic expression, a bit self-satisfied in fact, and it was probably taken soon after the Green Keelback Incident. I was walking along the bank, and others including Rom were on a bund above the dam, looking down.  Seeing the snake meandering along the water’s edge, I shouted excitedly and pointed.

“Catch it! Catch it!” was the herpetologist’s immediate response. He couldn’t see it clearly, and I didn’t know what it was, but being newly married I was at the must-impress stage and dived and grabbed the surprised snake.

Fortunately it was harmless, but those few seconds of wondering whether or not it was venomous, stayed with me.

I continued to pretend I was braver — and more knowledgeable — than I actually was. In the Andamans, I caught a pit viper mistaking it for a cat snake, and vice versa. At the Snake Park, I insisted on being taught venom extraction, and almost came to grief. At the Croc Bank, I sneered at the idea of taking a stick with me while observing nesting females from my hide, and almost died of fright. In Papua New Guinea, I waded through a stinking, opaque swamp inhabited by serious-sized saltwater crocodiles. In the beautiful Annamalai Hills, I crouched behind a bush and took (bad) photos of an enormous bison’s backside.

The Zai Whitaker column  On World Environment Day looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all  time

Visiting Caesar, our iguana. Photo courtesy Zai Whitaker

And then, one day, something beautiful happened, thanks to Time the Great Teacher. I realised I didn’t have to pretend to be brave. What an amazing, beautiful, freeing moment that was! Time highlighted — and revised — this lesson with me, until I became proficient. I became an expert on the thesis  that one can love and care about animals, and be a bona fide human, without being able to pin the head of a saw-scaled viper or jump on the back of a crocodile.

Another great lesson learned along the same lines was from our Uncle Salim, who often rounded up a few of us — grand-nieces and nephews — and took us bird watching. One of his favourite tricks was to point at a sound and ask us which bird it was. We would yell out ignorant answers: “Spotted dove!” “Babbler!” etc. He would greatly enjoy the moment when he’d look at us with scorn and pity, and say, “It’s a squirrel”. Or some other non-bird. Once, it was the traditional wooden well-winch. As we grew older, his responses became more harsh and direct: don’t pretend to know.

The Zai Whitaker column  On World Environment Day looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all  time

Life certainly becomes easier, more comfortable, if one lets go of the pretence. Pretence sits on one like a poky, scratchy, ill-fitting jacket; too tight at the elbows, floppy in the wrong places, itchy, inelegant. The good news is that one can be a nature lover, and enjoy animals and be deeply engaged in conservation, without knowing the names of everything you come across. A rose by any other name, as per the Bard.

Another interesting lesson from Teacher Time is that often, the backyard/kitchen window observations are just as exciting, sometimes more so, than what I (secretly) call TV-wildlife-sightings. I’ve seen quite a few of those, and if a little boasting may be allowed, they include multiple lion, rhino and cheetah sightings in the Kruger, birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea and the Lake Manyara flamingos in Tanzania.  But my two favourite animal memories are from right here in our own Chennai; a garden lizard laying its eggs near the Croc Bank canteen, and a bunch of bonnet macaques having a whale (monkey?) of a time behind the Snake Park campus in Guindy National Park (then a sanctuary).

The Zai Whitaker column  On World Environment Day looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all  time

Egg-laying garden lizard. Photo by Gnaneswar CH

I sat within 3 feet of the garden lizard, watching as she dug her nest hole, laid her pearly white eggs, filled it, and tamped it down by ramming her head against it. She was totally oblivious to me, and to the loud clacks of our archaic Nikon camera with its roll of black and white film that one had to rewind with whirrs and whines. It was a beautiful, private moment; me, and the Calotes versicolor, and this made it special and memorable. (I had greedily not informed anyone else.) As she finished her job and went off with that athletic waddle of lizards, she turned round and gave me a friendly “See you around” look.

The macaques were playing in a rain-filled pond, lined up on a branch arching about 10 feet above it.  It was a perfect diving board.  The first one in the queue would jump off, swim to the bank, and race back to join the line for another go.  Meanwhile, the others in the queue would get impatient, pushing and shoving the one in front. Sometimes the diver would get a panic attack at the last moment, and had to be shoved off the branch, as seen with swimming instructors and their students. What a sight!

Us folks in the conservation field would do well to use this lockdown time, to look back at what Time has tried to teach us collectively, as a country.

What tremendous opportunities we’ve had, to protect our wildlife and forests! Why and how were they lost? As per Hector Belioz’s brutal truth: “Time is a great teacher but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.” Inevitable; but before it does, we can learn a lot — and apply it in our lifetimes. Due to COVID-19, we have an opportunity to do this.

Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology

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