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Flashes from childhood come to my mind as I write this article. Mr Rakesh Sharma, an astronaut who had just landed on Earth from space travel, had appeared in an advertisement. In the commercial, a visually challenged child asks, “Uncle, what is moon?” Recounting this small, yet powerful incident, I often think that in a few years, children will look up to their parents curiously and ask, “What is and where can we find a firefly?”

                                           

                                         
“Why can’t we hear the magnificent roar of the tiger? Why doesn’t the cuckoo bird fill the air with its melodious sounds?” Though Mr Rakesh Sharma had managed to muster an explanation then, how will the future generations find answers or witness the bounties of nature? I believe, they will have to be satisfied with mere photographs, colours of elegance splashed on blank sheets.

The story of the destruction perpetuated by us on the environment to satiate our material needs is reprehensible. We have also snatched away the home of the winged ones who glorify the sky. Today, we have lost many of the most beautiful bird species. It is easily evident that the main reason for this is urbanisation and resulting deforestation.

Mr Rakesh Khatri, an ardent nature lover, has worked for the cause of saving birds for over 20 years. Thousands of children have been acquainted with the situation of declining birds and have joined their hands to create homes for them. Till now, over 12,000 children from Delhi and NCR have come together in the Nature Workshops where they not only learn to interact with environment in a more meaningful and effective way, but also find out how to build bird houses. Mr Rakesh Khatri is the executive director of Nature Foundation India and also organises and conducts all the workshops which enhance our relationship with nature.

His work has been acknowledged and appreciated by many NGOs, children and their parents. His passion for bird conversation has hit the headlines many times. By interviewing him, we have attempted to reveal the intricate relationship between nature and birds.
Sanjeev Kumar Dubey: You are working with children on bird conservation? Do you think they can play a vital role?
Mr Khatri: Yes. Do you remember the game we used to play when we were children? It was called ‘Chidiya Ud’(Fly Sparrow Fly). Children are closely linked to the environment. Even when I was working in films, I remember an incident when I heard my artist friend Virendra Saxena sing- ‘Ek Chidiya Anek Chidiya’ (One Sparrow, Many Sparrows). This song captivated my mind. Making environmental films made me raise questions, such as why fireflies were disappearing, and why we couldn’t any longer hear frogs. Most importantly, when we wake up from our slumber, sparrows’ chirping is the very first sound that we hear. I realised that their voice was being silenced slowly. While the reasons for this are many, I knew that the imagination, creativity and passion of the young can resolve this. The worry is that we have literally made sparrows fly away just like we used to playfully push them away in the game(‘Chidiya Ud’).

Sanjeev: What kind of workshop do you conduct to create awareness among children regarding the issue of bird conservation?
Mr Khatri: The workshop is very simple. We generally start by getting an idea of their prior knowledge about the birds. We ask them to tell us the name of 10 birds they find near their homes, apart from pigeon and crow. Very few end up giving all the names.
When we ask them if they see many House Sparrows these days, a voice in unison says ‘Not many’. We aim at giving them the opportunity to find out reason for that. We ask them why they think this is the situation. While many give variety of reasons, hardly anyone states that the prime reason for decline in population of House Sparrows is that we have shut the doors of our House for ‘House’ Sparrows.

Sanjeev: Do you believe that in the midst of rapid urbanisation, the children who have joined you will be able to make a difference?
Mr Khatri: This is where we succeed. The children are ecstatic about House Sparrows and nest making. That is the moment I feel so glad that my cause is gaining strength slowly. I have worked with over 12,000 children along with my team. We have also received the support of Residential Welfare Association. I cannot explain how happy I feel when I receive mails and calls from excited children enquiring about birds. The sigh of relief is accompanied by the gasp of hope and the image of countless birds flying in sky.

Sanjeev: How do you see the association of nature with birds? What will happen if birds become extinct?
Mr Khatri: Birds are an important part of nature. First, some birds carry a variety of things through the environment. For example, birds serve to spread seeds of various plants, thereby helping in plant dispersal. Second, birds like swallows and nighthawks eat hundreds of insects, most of which we consider pests. Third, birds are the best indicators of the effects of pollution. For instance, the most famous environmental pollutant, DDT, is an insecticide for controlling various forest and agricultural pests, which was banned in the United States in 1972 after they realised its negative effect on American Robins (who consumed pests).
If the birds become extinct, there will be ecological imbalance. Since birds are an important part of the food chain, their absence would lead to increase in the number of their prey (bugs and other insects), leading to destruction of plant life to a great extent.

Sanjeev: What is the biggest reason for extinction of birds?
Mr Khatri: The main reason for extinction of birds is the destructive nature of modern development, like human encroachment on bird habitat, hunting, and climate change wrought by human activities. We have to take conscious measures to save birds which are symbols of our climate change.

Sanjeev: When you build a bird house, do you think that a bird family will live in it? How important it is to build a bird house to save birds?
Mr Khatri: Yes. Making bird houses is the best way to reach children. We make coconut bird house using waste materials. This teaches children about environment conservation and waste management. We aim at making a network of environmentally-responsible future generation which will lead to a greener environment.

Sanjeev: How can we save birds by making bird houses?
Mr Khatri: As I mentioned before, birds are getting extinct primarily because of human activities. We can save them by small and effective measures. By making bird house, you invite birds to breed and imagine how we can change this trend of depleting bird species if every house in the whole nation has a bird house. Their numbers would gradually increase. The point is to acknowledge the problem and find a solution. This is one solution along with many others.

Sanjeev: Is it enough for children to be aware of this or each one of us will have to work for it?
Mr Khatri: Children are the future. But how can we preach to them without practicing it? What kind of examples will we be then? We must be responsible parents and teach our children to be innovative and nature-friendly. We must tell them the importance and dire need to save the environment.

Sanjeev: What are the other measures that we can take?
Mr Khatri: As I already mentioned, we are responsible for the condition of birds today. We can only save them by small and effective measures. One of these, as I said before, is building bird houses.
Besides, we can also place native plants which will attract different species of birds. Thick bushes must also be planted, especially in residential areas. The example of a country working sincerely for bird conversation is Turkey. There, they believe that placing bird houses is auspicious. Before the month of March, which is the breeding month of House Sparrow, I think we should create a festival to welcome this season and gift nests to House Sparrows. Nature does not ask for returns. The only way to show our gratitude to her is by saving her children which includes all forms of life, plants and birds.

Sanjeev: Can we bring back extinct animals?
Mr Khatri: Earlier, it used to be a notion that it is impossible to bring back extinct animals. However, now there have been talks about cloning of extinct animals. There have been various debates about this and it is a very difficult process.

Sanjeev: How can we save endangered species?
Mr Khatri: Yes, we can. Some ways are: Conserve habitat of these animals by preserving national parks, reserves and wilderness areas; place a birdfeeder, bird bath and bird house at your place; start composting in your apartment garden (and remove complete dependence on chemical fertilizers); follow the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle); plant trees which will attract more birds and maybe even threatened species; join organisation and further the cause; and most importantly, educate, spread the message to as many people as possible.

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