“Hello human! Have we met?
We live in your city!
We forage in the waste you generate.
How well do you know us really?”
This is the bio for The False Trail, a platform that is dedicated to encouraging people to pause and observe the wildlife and nature around them. Through engagement like this, comes knowledge and appreciation, and in this space, we find motivation for conservation and feeling responsible for the fate of these natural wonders. The False Trail reminds us of the magic and significance of everyday encounters with nature and wildlife – especially in urban environments!
Debangini Ray (pronounced Dey-ba-a-ang-eenee) is an interdisciplinary ecologist based in India with a focus and passion for conserving urban wildlife. She is currently pursuing her PhD in this field, trying to understand the interactions between owls and humans in an ethno-ornithological study in some of India’s large cities. Debangini is also a naturalist who loves to spend time observing nature and journaling these observations. Through the creation of her platform The False Trail, she encourages other citizens to do the same.
WILDLIFE IN CITIES
Debangini grew up in Assam, in north-eastern India surrounded by nature, a green pocket right in the middle of the city.
“I would see wildlife around the house, which was very natural for me. As a kid growing up, I did not pause for a moment to think that this might not be the case with other people and that I’m actually so lucky.”
Flying foxes, spotted owlets, rat snakes, black-crowned night herons, blue-throated barbets….It could be something as small as a garden lizard or a butterfly and as big as a leopard slinking through the shadows of a nature reserve; people may not expect to see much wildlife in a city but it’s there! Debangini explains:
“We live in cities and are also the first to say you cannot find wildlife in a city. Instead, we travel to National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries to spend time with nature. While it’s true that urban areas have much less green cover than forests, the fact is that the lines between urban and natural spaces have started to blur pretty rapidly now because urban areas are encroaching on natural ones. There’s a spillover in the sense that more animals are being displaced as natural areas are being developed, and moving into cities to accept urban ecosystems as their new habitats. That’s what got me so interested!”
However, it wasn’t until Debangini moved to a different area in the city that she realised she had had a unique experience with a somewhat inflated abundance of urban wildlife.
“Once I moved from that green space, I realised okay, so then this is not how the entire city actually is! There is very little wildlife that people can easily see around them unless they pause and observe, or unless they are interested or aware.”
Although she has a background in English literature and interdisciplinary ecology rather than pure zoology or wildlife sciences, Debangini was always interested in wildlife, especially the wildlife she observed in cities. She joined the Centre for Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati as a Master’s student and began getting involved in urban wildlife research.
From then onwards, Debangini started reading and networking with researchers and started her work with an internship focusing on the freshwater turtles found in the temple ponds in her city.
“We have some temple-ponds in the city which are brimming with freshwater turtles… and because turtles are regarded in Hindu religion as avatars of Vishnu (a god), people have some religious beliefs revolving around them. You would never expect to see turtles in the middle of a city normally, so this can actually be a repository for citizens to observe and learn more about such herpetofauna!”
After completing her interdisciplinary course at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she found an appreciation for the importance of interdisciplinary ecology in today’s world.
Debangini never looked back! After watching TED talks and reading books by Dutch evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen, she realised that urban environments are just man-made ecosystems and built by resources taken from nature itself, just like any other natural ecosystem!
“We are a species that has built cities by taking resources from nature. So, it’s just another type of ecosystem, why do we factor ourselves out of the equation? Of course, I had never looked at it that way you know. It’s a different matter that as a species we have gone over the top, compromised our natural resources in an unthinkable way, and built structures of unimaginable magnitude. But if we replace other ecosystems with man-made ecosystems, other animals will inevitably start adapting to survive in this new environment. After all, we haven’t left them with any choice, right?”
With humans and other wildlife living side-by-side in urban environments, conflict can arise through fear, nuisance and sharing of resources. Cities can also be dangerous places for wildlife to live in with traffic, waste mismanagement, noise pollution and light pollution impacting their lives and, in many cases, altering their ecology and natural behaviour. For these reasons (and many more), it is important to learn about the wildlife in cities, as well as foster an understanding of nature to improve our relationship with it.
SHARING THE URBAN NATURE EXPERIENCE
While research may be conducted and published by scientists on topics such as urban biodiversity conservation, this knowledge is rarely shared with the citizens in an accessible and digestible format. Whilst reading up and connecting with researchers on her fascination with urban ecology, Debangini found that a lot of the information was hard to find, and there was no place to share her experiences of the nature she encountered in cities.
And with social media allowing the spread of misinformation that stems from deep-rooted myths, Debangini wondered how she could help to bridge the gap between the information contained in scientific papers and general knowledge in the community.
“Of course, research papers are important but I also believe that we must bridge that gap that exists using effective scientific communication. It is not always possible for citizens to access scientific papers and even if they do, reading them and understanding the scientific and technical language they are written in is a difficult task. It even took me a long while to get used to reading scientific papers and there are still times when I feel lost, even with the information right there in front of me!”
So Debangini decided to write more popular articles and create a citizen science platform where people could share their observations and encounters with nature. This led to the creation of The False Trail.
“The human mind is somehow equipped to understand and appreciate stories more than anything else, I feel. It is because of oral storytelling that we have reached this far. In this way, science communication is effective when it’s visually appealing, interactive and interesting. Especially since people have (unfortunately) developed a shorter attention span over the last few years with social media.”
So how did The False Trail get its name? Cities are full of anthropogenic activities and human footprints, all of which leave an impact, a trail as Debangini explains –
“We leave our footprints wherever we go, right? A trail of evidence that we have been here, look, the plastic we created, the trees we are destroying, and the shiny surfaces and spiky fences we build everywhere. And I feel like it’s this trail that (mis)leads wildlife towards cities, a place where they face the biggest challenge of their lives! Even if it might seem like some animals thrive in urban environments, others do not. Cities have many anthropogenic threats to wildlife like waste, traffic, light, noise and air pollution – and this is why I decided to call it The False Trail.”
WAYS TO EXPERIENCE WILDLIFE
WAYS TO EXPERIENCE WILDLIFE
When we talk about urban wildlife, we talk mostly about nature in our backyards. Not in a literal sense, but rather in our local area or neighbourhoods. Debangini explains:
“Humans have this relationship with nature and we cannot completely dissociate ourselves from it. We like to see nature. We like to go for a walk in the morning and experience it in our everyday lives in some way or the other. Honestly, even if you try, you can’t help but encounter wildlife in some form. It can be as small as a paper wasp or an earthworm, and as big as a rhesus macaque or a leopard.”
Long ago humans had a very close relationship with nature, living amongst it and being a part of it. We had something called sensory awareness skills, a constant awareness of the small changes happening around us, which can be stimulated in mindfulness practices even today. While society and technology have developed and distanced us from nature in its raw form, it is still intimately a part of us.
Debangini has seen this first hand whilst spending time in nature with children:
“Children have such an active imagination and when we start engaging them with nature around them and start showing them the wildlife, they start treating it as something magical, something amazing! It is this appreciation that can encourage them to go for more nature walks, learn more, and ask more questions. And when you experience and learn how things are, the myths and superstitions are completely busted, and the misconceptions go away.”
Three ways that people can reconnect and experience nature
- Observe nature in your backyard, your neighbourhood.
Birdwatching can be a gateway to unlocking a passion to learn more and gain knowledge of local bird species. Debangini believes birdwatching is particularly important because:
“It’s so healthy and accessible to everyone – there is no mandatory cost or requirement of travel outside your daily routine. People who have started birdwatching with their children or when they have retired now share stories with me about the birds that they observe. Also, it’s not just about spotting the bird, it’s also observing which tree they are on if they’re feeding or building a nest, it’s about appreciating the full picture in a moment. And once you start doing that, your life changes!”
- Record your observations in a nature journal
You can submit your observations, big or small, to The False Trail as photos, videos, written extracts, audio notes or artistic interpretations of your nature experience like paintings, journal notes or crafts.
“Honestly, your perceptions can totally change for the better because you start realising how many beautiful species there are around us and they all have ecological importance in some way or the other.”
Debangini believes that nature journaling humbles the ego and expands your awareness.
- Questions beget more questions
Once you are aware of the nature around you and start recording and sharing your experiences, the questions start coming fast and furious!
“We humans are a curious species. Once we start learning more from our observations, we start asking more questions, which we attempt to find answers to, leading to more learning.”
THE VALUE OF SHARING
“So many people have contacted me saying – this is something which I noticed, but I never thought it was important or worth sharing. So, I feel that already The False Trail has increased the value of urban wildlife for many people. And, gradually I feel like more and more people, even if they don’t start sharing their stories, will start noticing more wildlife around them.”
While Debangini has big dreams for where she would like to take The False Trail into the future, expanding engagement with people from different areas, and developing the citizen science components of the project, she believes the most powerful part is in connecting citizens with nature.
“I’m grateful to all citizens who have contributed to The False Trail and shown such love and fascination for nature around them, that they have reached out and shared their stories, observations and lovely photographs and art! There are so many things which were news for me as well and I continue to learn so much from people’s experiences.”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more about the False Trail from Debanngini? Follow the False Trail on Instagram @thefalsetrail_ or Debanngini’s personal Instagram @carb_on_credit . You can also email Debanngini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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