Eco-Warrior Cara Tejpal talks wildlife, Sanctuary Asia and Indian mega-diversity

As part of our special series on young conservationists and wildlife biologists, we feature Cara Tejpal, at Sanctuary Asia, who actually used social to plant the original idea and then helped guide us along the entire series. (Read on to learn more of that side of her work profile…and who she considers an inspiration!)

More on our Eco-Warrior series here

A huge thank you to the young conservationist, who always knew that she’d be working with (and for) animals and animal welfare — whether with Friendicoes as a teenager, or as a passionate eco-warrior as a young adult. Cara takes us through why conservation is so essential, how being in the wild, out in nature is always inspiring, and how the digital age has enabled her to get up and go… not working from her corner coffee shop, like the rest of us, so much as the Sunderbans, Kumaon or Kashmir…wherever she can manage an internet connection.

She The People Eco Warriors

She The People Eco Warriors

Cara Tejpal, 26

1. Can you take us through projects you’re working on at the moment? 

There’s a constant stream of new ideas and projects at Sanctuary since conservation issues are forever evolving and changing.  Currently,I’m very excited about establishing a Small Grants Project to fund grassroots conservationists who are engaged in critical work across the country. Surprisingly, I find that grassroots workers are the least represented of the many professionals that comprise the conservation fraternity in India. These people are unsung and unsupported, working for conservation on their own dime, in hostile settings and against surmounting odds. 

This project will allow them to expand the scope of their work exponentially and bring to the fore conservation issues that are as yet untouched. Grantees have been nominated by a phalanx of stellar scientists and conservationists, and their stories have moved me beyond words. This is a grant for ‘mud-on-the-boots’ wildlifers, and is not open to organisations, city-dwellers, or for research. This year, I’ve also been working towards placing conservation stories in the mainstream news. In April, we worked with the Nature Conservation Foundation’s incredible Oceans and Coasts Team to tell India that Lakshadweep’s reefs are bleaching at an unprecedented rate. Indian media was caught up with (rightfully) reporting the horrific state of the Great Barrier Reef but they forgot about the biodiversity in our own backyard.

Similarly, in July we worked with the Kolkata-based PUBLIC to highlight the grizzly, massacre of protected, indigenous wildlife in the East Midnapore district of West Bengal.  Part of Sanctuary’s mission is also to promote the concept of the Community Nature Conservancy (C.N.C) in India. This is a new category of protected areas, one that aims to have communities re-wild their land and benefit in multiple-ways from the return of biodiversity. A pilot project is currently underway in Maharashtra, and the state government has gone as far as to release a G.R. on the creation of CNCs.

The Maharashtra forest department have been extremely pro-active and I believe that once a successful model is established, other state’s will want to emulate it.   A lot of my work is uninteresting in that it involves the relentless drafting and relay of policy suggestions, formal letters, and networking between organisations and individuals, but I’ve also come to realise that this work has great conservation relevance. Beyond this, I independently work to raise funds for a small nature-education school on the periphery of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, have editorial priorities for Sanctuary magazine, and am always on the lookout for new conservation stories and initiatives to articulate and support.

Cara Tejpal, eco warrior

Cara Tejpal In Manipur for a sangai conservation conference 2015

Also read: Environmentalism of the poor: Sunita Narain on universal challenges of our surroundings

2. Could you describe an average day in the life of… I’m an inherently restless soul, and I did away with routine as soon as I completed high school! So really, there is no average day. I live between Delhi, Mumbai and Goa, and make it a point to be in a wilderness area at least once a month, and the mountains at least once in two months. Whether in the Sundarbans, Kashmir or Kumaon, as long as I have my laptop and even erratic internet connectivity, I’m able to work from wherever I happen to be at the moment. The perks of living in the digital age!

3. Tell us a bit about your journey — as a child you also loved animals/ wildlife. When did you know that conservation and the environment was something you really wanted to work on?

I’ve been obsessed with animals and the outdoors for as long as I can remember. Till my late teens, our home was down the road from Friendicoes, Delhi’s oldest animal shelter, and became an informal animal hospice of sorts. My parents quite calmly accepted the fact that sometimes there would be a snake in the dining room or a squirrel in the dressing room or maimed dogs in the garden and orphaned kittens in the guest room. That I would work with or for animals was a given.

Reading has always been an escape of sorts, and as I grew older, I became almost frantic in my consumption of conservation literature – from (Jane) Goodall to (Gerald) Durrell to E.H.A . This is truly what allowed me to realise that there are ways to work with animals, and the earth beyond being a vet. After school, I spent a gap-year working with Wildlife S.O.S, and while in college in the States, a semester at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey; then I dropped out of college in 2010, and came back to India to travel and work. For the first year, I volunteered my skills to any conservation organisation that would have me, and after that, I found opportunities rolling my way. It’s been a pretty untraditional journey, but it’s allowed me to meet some of the most fantastic people and travel to some of the most breathtaking places. Being mentored by people like Gerry Martin and Prerna Bindra, and now Bittu, has given me a far superior education than what college offered me.

Cara Tejpal, eco warrior

Cara Tejpal, searching for markhor in Kashmir 2016

Also read: Environment journalists an endangered lot says one herself, here’s Bahar Dutt

4. Anyone who inspires you in your field?

So very many people! Wildlife conservation is the kind of work where achievements/victories are few and far apart. Those who persist towards this end, with their sense of humour in tact, are extraordinary. I will admit that while I admire a range of senior conservationists, those named above as well as many others, inspiration itself comes from my own generation of conservationists. I have friends spread out across this country doing the most incredible work and the spirit of sharing, camraderie and purpose that we have is one that I haven’t perceived elsewhere. So whether it’s Nandini Velho working in Arunachal, Aditya Panda in Odisha, Roheet Karoo in Maharashtra, or Neha Sinha in Delhi, these are the people who inspire me. But they too, come second to Nature herself. The other day a friend asked me whether it was the terrible destruction around us that fuels me to work in conservation. In answering her, I realised that it’s not the terrible things that I want to undo, as much as it is the beautiful things that I want to preserve that make me love my job.  The lily pad foot imprints of wild elephants were embedded in the soil near a watering hole, deer were rustling in the undergrowth, winter mists were caressing our midriffs, and the mountains around us were glowing pink in the soft light of the setting sun.

5. What do you feel most passionate about and what are some 3 things Indians should know about wildlife / wildlife conservation?

This is a tough question. I’ve never been able to narrow my interest down to one species, one landscape or one avenue of conservation. I’m equally fascinated by bugs and big cats, deserts and forests, wildlife research and wildlife crime.

I’m equally fascinated by bugs and big cats, deserts and forests, wildlife research and wildlife crime.

For now the idea that I find very compelling is that of re-wilding, allowing nature to return with limited interference. I recently read George Monbiot’s Feral, and the book articulates many of my own thoughts about the human-nature relationship, the bizarre extent of humans ‘othering’ themselves from all other life on Earth, and the ‘ecological boredom’ that we consequentially suffer from. There are so many things that Indians should know about their natural heritage! To start with, India is one of 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries in the world. The different life forms that this country harbours are staggering in their diversity. Schools should include natural history and exploration as part of the sylabus, instead we seem to stamp all curiosity and magic out of kids.

There are so many things that Indians should know about their natural heritage! To start with, India is one of 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries in the world

Just 4.89% of the country comes under the category of Protected Areas, this includes National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves. Yet, even these are vulnerable to exploitation and sale, as every meeting of the National Board for Wildlife shows.  Finally, the simple fact that we need nature, not the other way around. It’s astounding to me that anyone would put economic success before ecological security. Our wildlife regenerates the forests that are the source of our water and air and soil. And it is water, air and soil that we need before all else. Biodiversity conservation, climate change and human rights protection are all intricately entwined, and thus so are solutions.

Cara Tejpal, eco-warrior

Cara Tejpal,in Jabarkhet 2015, for a story on private nature reserves

Also read: Every day should be Environment Day says Neha Sinha

6. What’s your most inspiring moment been like? A moment or two, even where you feel the momentum or that things are going to be fine and … Otherwise.

Being in wild nature is always, always inspiring. It is the ultimate balm to my anxieties. Luckily, each year sees plenty of such moments. In January, I walked through a revitalised meadow known as Haathigaliyar in the Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve. The lily pad foot imprints of wild elephants were embedded in the soil near a watering hole, deer were rustling in the undergrowth, winter mists were caressing our midriffs, and the mountains around us were glowing pink in the soft light of the setting sun. I was in the company of forest guards, forest officers and other conservationists, and all were brought under a twilight spell till we fell silent. That I can experience moments like this, month after month is enough inspiration. The only urban event that can attempt to match this is the evening of the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards that are held in December every year. It’s an event dedicated to India’s earth heroes, and as citations are read out, stories are shared and speeches are made, there’s not a dry eye in the auditorium!  

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