The conservation community suffered a great loss in India last month when prominent ornithologist and field biologist Ravi Sankaran passed away of a sudden heart attack. Many of us who knew him, even if briefly – and the list must include practically every field biologist who has been active in conservation or ornithology in India over the past several decades – were left stunned and bereft. I have tried several times over the past couple of weeks to recollect and share my own memories of Ravi, who was one of the very first real live ornithologist I’d ever encountered. Waiting for the words to articulate my grief, and being too far across the planet to share in the mourning back home in India, I turned to the electronic public square to share my sense of loss, to find some communion in grief. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response on the little Facebook tribute page I set up, and kept thinking I should write something even as others shared their memories most eloquently.
But my blogorrhea deserted me, in part I think because it had been some years since i had last met Ravi and hadn’t really kept up with him all that well since both of us got busy with distant careers, kids, and family. An occasional email, an electronic nod while passing each other by remotely in cyberspace – that hardly counted – and only deepened my sense of loss, for not having made the most of the man when he was alive. Was alive… so alive… hard to accept that he is not any more.
And then came this wonderful surprise from Ashish Chandola, who posted this film, this time-capsule of a living, breathing, laughing, talking (the man could laugh and talk, couldn’t he?), bird-catching, gregarious Ravi! In his element, doing what he loved and expounding upon how best to conserve an endangered bird population he had been the first to study systematically in India, the edible-nest swiftlet of the Andaman islands. He lives on in these brief moments of electrons flickering on our screens, immortalized at least a bit here in cyberspace. So I feel compelled to add a piece of him to my electronic scrapbook, and share this film with you, even those of you who had never heard of him, because his message is both simple and profound, and goes right to the heart of reconciliation ecology:
Yet again, Ravi was way ahead of his peers and most conservationists in India, advocating what might be tantamount to domesticating a wild, endangered species in order to conserve its populations! All based on a good understanding of the species’ life history, as well as the socioeconomic compulsions of the people who depend upon the crystallized saliva of these little birds, and the irrational but rich market for the nests! A truly win-win-win solution the like of which one seldom hears articulated among conservationists, especially in India, where any “exploitation” policy is anathema to most practitioners, and charismatic megafauna dominate the headlines. I don’t know what the current status of Ravi’s efforts were on this project, but knowing his energy and capacity to push things along, I’d be surprised if he hadn’t come a long way towards implementing the strategy in the 6 years since this film was shot. I certainly, fervently, hope that the powers that be see the wisdom of his approach and implement his sensible middle-of-the-road management policy for the swiftlets. That will be a good part of Ravi’s legacy to preserve.
A larger legacy remains, I reckon, in those of us whom he had touched, in often profoundly transformational ways. Twenty-two years ago, my own life took a distinct turn towards ornithology and conservation, and at that turning point, beckoning me on with that twinkling roguish smile, stood a lean, lanky, dirty-jeans-and-flip-flop-clad (much of that attire still in evidence in this film), scruffy, chain-smoking, garrulous, and thoroughly charming young man unlike any I had ever met before: Ravi Sankaran, graduate student, then camped (literally, I think) in the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, in between field trips chasing Lesser Floricans. My hitherto sheltered middle-class life (on the path to becoming a staid doctor until I failed my family miserably in that ambition) lurched, and my limited imagination, which had been stirred lately by written accounts of exciting field adventures of explorers like Darwin and Wallace, really caught fire upon meeting such an explorer and scientist in the flesh (scrawny as it was!)! And now, two decades and many a wild field adventure later, as I’m settling into the perhaps staid respectability of a professorship, the older Ravi has lit a fire once again. The young Ravi had opened up the doors of the wilderness for me, and now this older, wiser Ravi, chuckling about unknown aphrodisiac qualities of swiftlet saliva, and devising radical new ways to save an endangered species while bettering the lives of people dependent upon exploiting it, reminds me of what lies at the heart of reconciliation ecology. I only hope I can muster a fraction of his energy to continue traveling along these paths he pioneered!
Ravi Sankaran, may your spirit live on, and keep on inspiring me as long as I live!