Many parents lament the growing influence of gadgets and the World Wide Web on their children, worried that the lack of outdoor activities and the constant exposure to technology and social media, can be detrimental to their well-being. They could take a cue from teenager Vikas Madhav to inspire their kids － he was recognised by Sanctuary Asia with the ‘Young Naturalist’ award when he was just 15 years old, for his efforts to conserve wildlife in the urban environs of Chennai.
The verdant outdoors held great appeal for Vikas even as a toddler. But it was a chance encounter with a woodpecker, pecking away at a tree trunk that really sparked his interest in the natural world. He was only in the first standard then. “My grandfather was with the Zoological Survey of India, so he had a lot of reference books on birds and animals. I loved reading them and became really interested in the living world,” says the 17-year-old naturalist and birdwatcher.
A Love for Winged Creatures
Vikas chose his passion early -- he was amazed by birds and butterflies and has concentrated on documenting these winged creatures. He has travelled and recorded around 700 birds and close to 400 butterflies all over India and has been closely associated with the Madras Naturalists’ Society (MNS) and the Tree Foundation. His checklist of various species of birds has featured in the society’s publications and he has also written about his findings in both national and international journals.
So how does he spot rare birds and recognise them so easily? “It takes some practice but when you become accustomed to documenting butterflies in the wildlife, it is easier to recognise birds. While recording butterflies, your eyes get trained to look at the small creatures and differentiate among each of them, depending on features such as size or number of dots on the wings. You also have to read up a lot,” he explains.
Relentless campaign for a greener world
It is this dedication that has helped Vikas pursue his conservation efforts. The youngster has been instrumental in putting the spotlight on urban wildlife in the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai by campaigning for its protection and also the water birds in the Odiyur Lagoon. These efforts received attention not just in India but also from birdwatching communities abroad.
What is his family’s take on his interest?
“My parents have been really supportive and I couldn’t have done so much without their encouragement. They accompany me on all field trips and take a lot of interest in the conservation activities,” says the youngster.
Presently pursuing his first year of Chemical Engineering at the SSN Engineering College, his enthusiasm for the great outdoors has not waned even a little bit. In fact, he has already recorded 110 species of birds and 60 species of butterflies in his college alone. Apart from writing serious articles for environmental journals, Vikas is also interested in wildlife photography. His photographs have been displayed at wildlife photography exhibitions. The most recent bird he has spotted is the Black Baza on his college campus.
More Eyes for Birdwatching
The young naturalist feels heartened that his college has made efforts to keep the surroundings green, which contributes to urban wildlife. Considering there is so much pollution everywhere, more colleges need to think seriously about maintaining greenery in their urban campuses; this would really help in increasing bird and wildlife population in cities, he feels.
“I want more people to be involved in birdwatching. We now have a Whatsapp group of enthusiastic birders from varied backgrounds. Our youngest member is 16 years old while the oldest is 74. We often go on field trips together and have been documenting whatever we see. The next step is to come out with a catalogue. We need younger eyes for birdwatching. Children need to really get outdoors and connect with the environment to enrich themselves. It will help them experience the miracle of life,” says Vikas.
What Children Can do to Conserve Nature
“Start small. Take up small eco-friendly projects in the school and college. Clean up your neighbourhood, segregate waste. Spread awareness about avoiding the use of plastic and so on. Those interested in birdwatching can enrol in field trips organised by the Tree Foundation and similar organisations,” he concludes.
May his tribe increase.