Photograph by Suri Venkatachalam
Birthplace: Tamil Nadu, India
Current City: Bangalore, Karnataka, India
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A writer or an archaeologist!
How did you get started in your field of work?
Serendipity, really. I had started out with a career in molecular biology research, but found I did not like working in the lab for long hours with test tubes and pipettes. Then I happened to attend a talk in the campus on ecology, which seemed much more in line with my interests, and decided to change track!
What inspires you to dedicate your life to nature?
I don't believe humans can live or function in a world without nature. And, conversely, I don't believe that the only way to preserve nature is by keeping the humans out. I am interested in looking at all the ways in which humans can, and do, protect the environment, and in exploring synergies and positive tradeoffs—and minimizing the negative consequences to the extent possible. I can already see my daughter is growing up in a world where the intersection of nature is less pervasive than it was in my childhood (and certainly a far cry from the environment in which my father grew up, where he had to worry about leopard attacks when sleeping outside as a child, in what is a big and densely populated city today where no self-respecting leopard would make an entrance!). That worries me. If anything I can do, in collaboration with others, can make the smallest dent in the situation—the likelihood of a better world for my daughter's generation is worth it in and of itself.
What's a normal day like for you?
I have the good fortune of being able to work from home, so I have the shortest commute time ever! I put in an hour or more of work in the morning, then take a break and get my almost four-year-old ready for playschool. Once I drop her off, I get back home and work until lunch, when it is time to bring her home. I may have some meetings in the city, or with students, which I largely reserve for the afternoons. I try and keep aside the evenings for my daughter and family-if I have some urban field research or field meetings in the evening, I bring her along. She has seen her share of lake visits and protests against tree felling!
Do you have a hero?
The innumerable (and often ignored) local communities, civil society workers, forest practitioners, government staff and citizens who work tirelessly for environmental protection and conservation in the most challenging, seemingly hopeless situations, often with little acknowledgement and appreciation, but on whom we rely (often without knowing it) to make this world a better place.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience is going to an urban lake near my home, which has been restored recently through a very innovative partnership between local citizens (with whom I also work) and the government. The lake is right next to a very busy road, but once you enter and walk a few steps in, the noise and chaos of the city melts away and you start to appreciate the importance of conserving nature in a big city! I love going to the lake precisely because I go so often, and now know it so well, but each time, there is something new to discover. The levels of water rise and fall with changing seasons, and new birds come in, breed and fly out with their chicks. There is always something new to see! I take my four-year-old with me, and she loves it too, and it is great to be able to introduce her to such a diversity of bird and insect life within a city, so close to home.
One of my most challenging experiences has been fieldwork in the hills of Nepal during the insurgency about ten years ago. We lost our way and ended up in a situation where we were surrounded by people in a remote village and questioned quite closely about where we had been, and what we were doing. Fortunately for us, they didn't observe the GPS units, compasses, and maps that were lying in the trunk, or we could have been in serious trouble. Even during this visit, though, people who were living in the most challenging of situations (especially in terms of security) were so generous with their time and working so hard toward forest protection; thus the trip was memorable in a great many ways.
What are your other passions?
Writing and music
What do you do in your free time?
Spend time with my daughter; read; listen to music
If you could have people do one thing to help save the urban environment, what would it be?
Know your neighbors, bring your local community together, and do something proactive! Plant trees on the road, protect your local lake and park, work on solid waste segregation-whatever interests you, but do it as a community and it takes on a life of its own.
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In Their Words
If anything I can do, in collaboration with others, can make the smallest dent in the situation—the likelihood of a better world for my daughter's generation is worth it in and of itself.
Dr. Harini Nagendra talks about the restoration of Kaikondrahalli Lake.
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