Meet India’s Environmentalists: Tanvi Vaidyanathan who is saving sea horses
As part of our special series featuring India’s amazing young conservationists, we feature Tanvi Vaidyanathan on SheThePeople.TV. These green guardians, India’s environmentalists are changing the discourse on what and how women can save the environment.
A young marine scientist, she is studying seahorses (yes you must pause to admire the beautiful photo!). We’re told by the wonderful Cara Tejpal of Sanctuary Asia, who helped us curate this series, that Vaidyanathan’s work focuses on the ‘Conservation of Incidentally Caught Organisms’, a topic few Indian conservationists are looking at. Vaidyanathan tells us more about how her work looks at conserving species that are accidentally caught by fishermen, how that can impact the entire marine eco-system… what all Indians should know about conservation, and who she draws inspiration from.
Tanvi Vaidyanathan, 32
1) What can you tell us about the projects you’re working on
In one line, my work is on conserving seahorses.
But in essence, I am trying to use seahorses as a case study to help conserve species that are caught by accident in fishing nets.
The modern fishing nets often haul up any number of species that the fishermen never meant to catch, called by-catch. Some of the time, the incidental catch is thrown back into the sea, but in other cases, like with seahorses and even sea cucumbers, they are then sorted and traded illegally.
Dried seahorses are extensively traded for Traditional Chinese Medicine and curios, and live seahorses are traded to a lesser extent for the aquarium trade. In 2001, in India, seahorses were placed under Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 that prohibits their catch and export. It is economically viable for the fishers to trade seahorses, which means that they continue to do so despite the ban. I am trying to look at how current policy measures impact the conservation status of the seahorse, and also other by-catch.
I spent a large part of 2015 traveling around the coastal states and Union Territories of mainland India, interviewing fishers to understand the current status of seahorse catch and trade in India. In my current season, I am focusing on the importance of incidental catch as a source of income, and mapping the distribution of seahorses, using local fisher knowledge, in Indian waters.
1a) What is Project Sea horse?
Project Seahorse, founded by Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey in 1996, is essentially a group of people dedicated to marine conservation, and we are trying to ensure that the marine ecosystems are healthy and managed better. The main aim of Project Seahorse is to protect seahorses, and through seahorses, we can support conservation of the entire marine ecosystem.
The main aim of Project Seahorse is to protect seahorses, and through seahorses, we can support conservation of the entire marine ecosystem.
We are the World Conservation Union (IUCN) global authority on seahorses and their relatives. Our work involves trying to find a solution to marine conservation through the understanding that the human communities and the marine life are interdependent. Through that understanding, we are trying to effect change that will protect the world’s shallow seas, save seahorses and train conservationists. We have masters and PhD students who are working in a number of countries including the Philippines, China, Thailand, Malaysia, India and Vietnam.
2) You’re a marine scientist? What does that involve… Can you describe a bit of your journey, from growing up to your interests, to pursuing a PhD and looking at marine policy?
I was initially drawn to marine biology with dreams of working with animals that every child wants to work with, like dolphins, seals, dugongs, whales and whale sharks in their natural habitat. However, once I completed my first Master’s degree in Marine Biology in Goa, I realised that something was missing: the link between human beings and the marine ecosystem.
This pushed me to take up a second Master’s degree in Florida, which I transferred into a Masters in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. This was where I began to realize that pure science was not the answer to many of the problems we have with conservation. I realized that my true calling was with policy so I could integrate the perspectives of people involved in shaping the environment to present a more comprehensive picture that could help conserve what is left to us more effectively.
I started to see the impact of human interactions have on the environment. How livelihood and other concerns shaped the way people looked at the environment around them, and without addressing these concerns, it would be impossible to rectify the damage wrought by humans on the environment.
For the past couple of years, I have spent around six months in India, travelling the coastline, interacting with fishers, and the other half in front of a computer analysing my data.
Incidental catch from shore seines in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. Despite being considered a traditional method of fishing, a large number of juveniles and non-edible fish are brought in by this method. With depleting fish stocks, the ratio of non-edible to edible fish is quite high
3) What’s a day in the life of… like these days?
I am currently working out the logistics of my field season. This involves fine-tuning my questionnaires and planning my field itinerary. I also spend a lot of my time talking to other researchers who work in the field to help prepare myself better.
Once I am out in the field, according to the fish landing centres, I either work really early in the morning, or late at night when the fishers return from the sea. So while most days would start at around 6 am, where I walk around fishing harbours to conduct interviews with the fishermen. In most places I rely on my broken Hindi or my Tamil to get by, but in other places, I have a field assistant with me, who is conducting the interview and taking notes while I oversee them. When I have enough interviews in one fishing harbour, I travel to the next nearby town and do some more interviews. Most days I’m done by about 1 p.m., which leaves me half a day to compile the data and draw up a plan for the next day. However, since the fish sorting in some harbours takes place very late at night, my plan for the day changes accordingly.
Quite often, I’m on the move constantly, spending up to a month at a time traveling. I have a rucksack that has seen more use in the past year than it has from the entire time I have previously had it. I’ve stayed in a number of slightly dingy hotels, and there is constant excitement because I never know what the day has in store. Most of my travel has been on by train, giving me a new appreciation of the Indian Railways and roadways, but also an increased tolerance of cockroaches and rats.
4) What are you most passionate about?
Animals and photography. I have been documenting my travels on my Instagram @ostentatiousoxymoron. The Indian coastline has some amazing views, and I have been lucky enough to be able to see most of it.
5) What are some of the things you wish Indians knew about wildlife/ wildlife conservation?
a) Wildlife is not limited to tigers and lions. India is a highly biodiverse region, but most of our conservation efforts seem to be directed towards these bigger animals. We fail to acknowledge that there are so many other animals that need our attention and efforts.
b) There is a misconception that wildlife conservationists are activists and are anti-development. This is far from the truth, most of the time we only try to advocate a sustainable use of resources, so that neither the organisms nor the people dependent on the resources are impacted. At the end of the day, if conservation is not prioritized, those dependent on these resources are also not going to have a livelihood. Conservation is not about animal rights or animal welfare, but quite often only about sustainable use to ensure that these organisms persist for generations to come.
c) Wildlife conservation is not limited to people in the field. Everyone can do their bit to help conserve, through small initiatives, like for example moving away from unsustainably caught seafood, and gradually bringing about a change in fishing practices in our country.
6) Who inspires you? And any moments of inspiration along the way…
It is tough to list one person or one incident as inspiration, but there are a number of people I draw strength from, and have been inspired by. Much of my inspiration comes from people I have worked with during my sojourns, often tirelessly working for the cause of conservation with little recognition. Everywhere I look I find inspiring stories, whether it is the fisher in Gujarat who watches Discovery channel and plans to practice more sustainable fishing, or the child in a village in Tamil Nadu who is the first person in his family and has big dreams of one day becoming an IAS officer so he can do good for his community. It is inspiring for me to see the younger generation of fishers taking an active interest in conservation.
There are a number of others, too, including the people in the conservation community, who I interact with on a regular basis; the faceless fisherwomen whose importance is often overlooked in fisheries because they do not go to sea, but are in fact the pillars of strength of the society, who help extensively with the sorting and marketing of the fish, in addition to also looking after their households. These inspiring figures help me get up every morning excited to work another day. A lot of the fishing communities are so vested in the education of their children, that they toil away and despite their mounting debts want the best education for their children. In a couple of fishing villages in Tamil Nadu, it was really heartening to children being sent to private schools and a number who have gone on to become doctors and lawyers, after the determination of the parents to keep them away from the uncertainties of fishing.
One person I have drawn a lot of inspiration from is my father’s mother, who, despite having six children, still completed her CA and worked at my grandfather’s firm as a partner for most of her adult life. When the going gets tough, I draw strength from the knowledge that no matter what the obstacle, my grandmother has probably faced something worse, and overcome it.