Narcondam Island of Andaman is the only home for the Narcondam hornbills. Rohit Naniwadekar and his team ran a science outreach project to spread awareness about the vulnerable island ecosystems and sensitise communities who live and work around these areas. The team is also an awardee of 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant. In this article, Joel uncovers the journey, experiences, logistics, highs and lows of running an outreach program intended for on ground stakeholders.
From mountains to rivers, oceans, woods, and islands, the landscapes and their inhabitants make India a rich and diverse ecosystem. One such unique landscape — a volcanic island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and its biodiversity — inspired Rohit Naniwadekar, Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru, and his team to reach out to the stakeholders of this ecosystem and the general public with their new findings from the island.
Located about 250 kilometres northeast of Port Blair, Narcondam Island is a volcanic island of about 6.8 square kilometres in area. The island is the only home for the Narcondam hornbill, a fascinating bird that helps preserve the biodiversity of the island.
Having studied the hornbills in Northeast India for about two decades, Naniwadekar led a five-member team of scientists and artists on an expedition to the Narcondam island in December 2019. The goal was to study the Narcondam hornbill and the plants of the island. The team spent two months on the island, counting and observing the hornbill by the day and resting on the seashore by night.
“The place is a paradise,” Naniwadekar says. “We fell in love with the place and the species, and we thought we should spread the word about this bird as far as we could.” That’s when an opportunity came his way in the form of the first IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant. Naniwadekar and his collaborators decided to apply.
“Increasingly, I’ve realized that scientists have to take that extra effort to communicate their science. It just can’t remain in journal articles. It’s our moral responsibility to communicate it to a wider audience, particularly because public funds support a lot of the research being done,” Naniwadekar says. “That is why we decided to take this step to communicate our research to the general audience.”
Working on research projects with grants that have little to no room to allocate money for outreach, Naniwadekar found it exciting to have a grant exclusively dedicated to science outreach. With such a grant, it was now possible to spread awareness about this vulnerable ecosystem among the stakeholders of the island — the local people, the policemen, and the administration — and the general public.
Seizing the opportunity, Naniwadekar teamed up with some of his friends and newer collaborators for this project. The team consisted of Sartaj Ghuman, Artist and Writer; Adarsh Raju, Photographer, Filmmaker and Web Developer; Prasenjeet Yadav, Photographer and Filmmaker; and Sangeetha Kadur, Graphic Designer.
“We had spent time with about 40 police officers on the island during our expedition. While it was nice to see that they were all concerned about the island’s biodiversity, they were not fully aware of the same,” Naniwadekar says. To build a rapport with them, and create awareness about the island, the team prepared posters that were given to the officials to be deployed on the island.
The team also made calendars featuring Ghuman’s paintings, depicting the island and its hornbill. Kadur designed the calendar to have postcards with the paintings, which could be used later (calendar can be downloaded here).
“We met with the police officials and personally passed on the calendars,” Naniwadekar recollects. The team also connected with teachers and birdwatchers in Port Blair and distributed the calendars to them.
The calendars were a huge hit, and people have been preserving them well beyond the calendar days for the paintings and the content. “I was in Port Blair recently, where I met this person who had framed the cut-outs of these postcards. I was touched by the gesture — that somebody had valued it so much,” Naniwadekar says. “It was also heartening to see our calendars on desks, for the paintings, even after the year was over.”
Naniwadekar, Ghuman, and Yadav have also written popular articles to share the story with a larger audience.
Through the grant, the team has also been building a website to spread awareness about their exciting findings from the Narcondam expedition. They hope to launch the website by August this year. In their own words, it is “a one-stop location for all information from the time the hornbill was discovered by Allan Octavian Hume in the 1870s.”
The team hopes to make short videos on hornbill ecology in the near future. “We are still looking for people who can work with us to create these videos that can be shared on social media,” Naniwadekar adds. “Most of us may not be able to go to such places, but to even know that there is such a place in India, and see them in photographs or videos, is still amazing.”
Although the team embarked on this project with great enthusiasm following their exciting expedition, it has been a bumpy ride. The team had all the material that they needed to communicate in place, but the pandemic and the associated lockdowns made it difficult for them to communicate with each other and with the stakeholders of the island.
“It was all great when we were working together on the island. We were all pumped up, drawing energy and inspiration from each other. But it was difficult working in isolation,” Naniwadekar says. The long conversations the team members used to have in-person, during their travel, which culminated in art and articles, were now not possible.
Even as they complete the objectives of their current project, Naniwadekar thinks that there is a lot of ground to cover, both for them and for science communicators at large. He is also actively looking for people who can collaborate with them to share their science to a wider audience through different platforms.
“There are people out there, who have been captivating their audience with fascinating content. It is for scientists to connect with such people to create interesting content (and disseminate them) through diverse media — blog posts, articles, social media content, etc.,” Naniwadekar says. “There’s a lot of room for collaboration, a lot of work to be done. And I’m sure, like us, there will be hundreds and thousands of stories to be told.”