‘I have found cartooning to be an amazing method in my tool kit as a conservation biologist’ – ARJUN SRIVATHSA

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Do you think of cartoons as a way to popularise environmental issues?

The age-old method of communicating wildlife/ nature/conservation/ environmental issues has been through some sort of gloom and doom stories, with activists crying foul. May be this worked initially, but people get tired of the tirades. I think cartooning changes that radically, making people laugh while communicating an important piece of information or message. Just based on my own experience in the past couple of years, I strongly believe that there should be more cartoonists taking up conservation causes through their art.

What drew you to cartoons as a means to speak out about the environment?

I realised that people stop caring about negative news (say wildlife crime, climate change etc) because they become immune to it. It becomes just another news article or a Facebook post. But art (particularly cartoons) is different. People stop and look. And if these happen to be illustrations, with just about two or three lines of accompanying text, people are more likely to absorb it. I have found cartooning to be an amazing method in my tool-kit as a conservation biologist. The scientific papers we publish are read by a few hundred scientists, all within the academic circle. Cartoons help break the barrier between statistical jargon and the lay person.

ARJUN SRIVATHSA | Cartoonist
ARJUN SRIVATHSA | Cartoonist

How would you rate platforms available in India for environmental cartoons?

I think ‘environmental cartooning’ is not that old a concept in India to have a platform of its own. But I am pleasantly surprised with the power of the social media. My work has been picked up by so many organisations, news agencies etc, translated into regional languages and also used in conservation awareness and education. But beyond this, I am not aware of a formal platform specifically for conservation/environment- related cartoons in India. So far, social media like Facebook and Twitter work well, at least for me.

Who is your inspiration?

I have always been doing art, since I was a child. I took up cartooning when I realised that there are incredible wildlife biologists in India who are doing amazing work to understand and conserve wildlife, but most of their work goes unnoticed because it is bound by the fortress of science/academia, which does not allow citizens to know or appreciat these efforts. My cartoons are my way of appreciating Indian wildlife scientists for the tireless work they do. Besides the wild animals themselves, the wildlife scientists are my inspiration.

Do you sit down and start sketching or do issues draw you to the sketch board?

I get interested in a particular conservation topic and read up published literature on the subject. Then I condense everything I’ve read (anywhere between 3-10 scientific journal articles) into 9-12 image panels as a series, with blurbs to go with each. My individual wildlife caricatures are different… I just come up with an idea at random and sit down with my book and pen. I then digitise these on my tablet and/or computer.

Among the gamut of pressing environmental concerns, which issue is closest to your heart? Why?

It is such a dynamic field. Every day there is a new issue of concern. But owing to my training and experience in this aspect, conservation of wild endangered animals is something that is very close to my heart. That is what drove me into making science-toons (if I can call them so!)

Tell us about the most interesting project you have undertaken in environmental cartoons?

Each one is an adventure. I learn so much while reading up about these issues and then there is the whole creative side where these need to be broken down for anyone to read and understand, and perhaps add a little humour in the process.

But if I have to pick, then it’s the two stories I made on leopards of Maharashtra. I found the information so fascinating. And I love the series I made based on that: Living with Leopards and Ajoba.

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How do you divide time between research and art? How you combine the two?

I wish I could do art all the time. But I know that research is as important. So unfortunately, I spend 90 percent of my time doing field work, analysing data, struggling with statistics and writing up papers. And meanwhile, I strive to give more than 10 percent of my time to art.

So far, what is the best compliment you have received for your work?

I think the impact that my work can have is better than any compliment, verbal or otherwise. I gave a talk at a public event once and showed my series the on sea-food crisis and the problem with over-fishing.

Some one from the audience raised his hand in the end and said he would no longer eat sea food because he understood the level of destruction and the unsustainable fishing practices. I was thrilled that I was able to bring that change, even if in one person.

deepa@tehelka.com

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