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Café Oikos: Ecology & conservation straight from the horse’s mouth

Anisha Jayadevan

Café Oikos, a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit initiative, is the brainchild of engineer-turned-ecologists Anisha Jayadevan and Shishir Rao. It is a free and open public event regularly held at Bengaluru bookstores or cafés wherein people from all walks of life can come to learn about ecology and conservation research directly from active scientists. In this article, Anisha writes about how Café Oikos came to be, and what it aims to achieve.

Rucha Karkarey talking about her research on how coral reef fish cope with climate change in the Lakshadweep archipelago during a Cafe Oikos session
Rucha Karkarey talking about her research on how coral reef fish cope with climate change in the Lakshadweep archipelago during a Cafe Oikos session  (Photo: Anisha Jayadevan)

Why are there so many species in the Himalayas? Why are hornbills called farmers of the forest”? How does elephant behaviour change in suburban landscapes? These are some of the questions ecologists have addressed as part of Café Oikos— a series of public ecology talks held in informal spaces in Bangalore. 

I co-started Café Oikos with Shishir Rao in 2017. We chose to call it oikos” because it is the etymological root of the word ecology”; oikos in Greek means home’ or place to live’. We started Café Oikos with the aim of helping make the field of ecology and conservation more visible among the public, share research being carried out on different species and ecosystems and in various parts of the country, and increase awareness of conservation issues in India. We now have three other co-conspirators to brainstorm and co-organise Café Oikos with: Ishika Ramakrishna, Janhavi Rajan and Manini Bansal.

Having started out as engineers ourselves, Shishir and I found out rather late about the possibility of a career in ecology, conservation and wildlife biology. Newspapers in India rarely featured the work of scientists in these spheres, and science communication at the time (the 2000s) was not as popular as it is now— ecologists usually communicated their results to audiences that comprised of other ecologists, and there was very little written about their work outside of scientific journals. 

More recently, with pseudoscience gaining support from the Indian government, politicians, priests and godmen have variously denied Darwin’s theory of evolution, burnt 50 metric tonnes of wood to curb pollution and declared that it is unscientific’ to attribute the recent floods to climate change, and these are just a few of the more egregious actions and claims pertaining to the environment. These are not harmless, inconsequential claims as one minister demonstrated himself, by wanting to remove the mention of Darwin from school textbooks.

India is currently witnessing the effects of the climate emergency, rampant forest conversion towards ill-planned infrastructure, increasing human-wildlife conflict, species extinctions, and wildlife deaths. Our decision-makers have a poor understanding of several ecosystems such as deserts, savannas and wetlands. We need now, more than ever, a better-informed public to stand up for the environment and to demand scientifically-backed policies. We need scientists to engage with the public, especially on topical issues that require urgent attention.

We modelled Café Oikos in the format of Science Café and Café Scientifique, which are not-for-profit, typically volunteer-driven initiatives, and are free and open to everyone. The very first of these Science Cafés, reportedly, was started in Leeds, UK, in 1998. It was in turn inspired by Café Philosophique which started in France in 1992, as a way for philosophers to share ideas with the public in informal, friendly and lively settings such as cafés. There are currently over a hundred Science Cafés across the world. Although many Science Cafés have talks on any discipline of science, Café Oikos is focused on ecology and conservation.

the first Cafe Oikos talk in Goobe's Book Republic
For the first Café Oikos talk in Goobe’s Book Republic, we turned bookshelves into benches to listen to Nishant Srinivasaiah talk about the behaviour of elephants in human-modified landscapes

There have been 11 Café Oikos talks so far, in different cafés and bookstores in Bangalore. Around 25 – 80 people have attended each talk. We have had a diverse set of topics, ranging from bird mimicry, the impacts of unregulated hydropower development on rivers, the mind-boggling variety of life in the Thar desert, and the effects of climate change on coral reef fish. Similarly diverse are the people who attend the talks. We’ve been happy to see everyone from students, to artists, lawyers, photographers, writers and septuagenarians attending the talks, making for engaging discussions. 

India has a small but growing community of ecologists, conservation biologists and evolutionary biologists, working on a range of species and ecosystems across India. Many people among the audience had never even heard of the spiny-tailed lizard which Madhuri Ramesh, Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, spoke about during our last talk. 

It is incredibly inspiring to listen to researchers recount the species, habitats and natural phenomena they study, the people they encountered while in the field, the excitement (or horror) of their findings and the conservation actions that worked. To top it all are the rip-roaring field stories tucked up the sleeves of many a researcher.

In emulating the very western Science Cafés, it is true that such initiatives are not truly open to everyone in India. Despite being free, they are conducted in cafés which not all spectrums of society are likely to visit. They are held in English, which again excludes a large proportion of India’s population which speaks 22 official languages, and hundreds of unofficial ones. We hope to collaborate with other science communication initiatives to address the language gap and hold our talks in spaces that are more open to different sections of the public, such as public parks and schools.

If planned well, discussions from these meetings can draw on the strength of both the speaker and the varied professions of the audience, to lead to actionable outcomes. We hope that in the future, Café Oikos, or other similar initiatives that sprout up in India, will evolve to build communities that can meet regularly to discuss solutions to pressing environmental issues. Ultimately, conservation science requires the support of an informed and empowered public.

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