How does The Green Rhinos Program intend to create Youth Nature Leaders?

How did you get started on this journey?

I love animals. When I joined the Nature Club of La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata in Class XI, a new world opened up for me. It was at a nature camp conducted World Wildlife Fund- India (WWF-I), Eastern Region in Hazaribagh National Park (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) that I met a group of naturalists and nature enthusiasts, many of whom I am still associated with today. One of them was my future husband, Kushal Mookherjee. In Class 12, I was one of the leaders of this nature club

After finishing school, I worked as an Education Assistant to the Education Officer, World Wildlife Fund- India (WWF-I), Eastern Region, Bonani Kakkar, for a period of four months. While studying Economics in Presidency College, I continued to be a volunteer with the nature camps organized by WWF-I Eastern Region.

During my work tenure at SAHAY, an affiliate of Children International, an International NGO based in Kansas City, U.S., which conducted a Child Sponsorship Program, I organized nature camps for sponsored children.  I was also an instructor for nature camps organized by Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata. In 2001, a group of us like-minded conservationists formed Association for Social and Environmental Development (ASED), of which I am a founder member and Chief Executive Officer. The primary reason for forming the organization was to work with school students on sustained programs to promote action-based nature conservation.

How do your family, relatives and friends react to your work?

My family has always supported my work. My mother, Rekha Basu, is a great source of encouragement and support. My husband, Kushal, is a naturalist and an ardent nature conservationist so our work is integrated into our lifestyle. When I started doing this work nature conservation and working with NGOs were a little known and appreciated concept in India. Today the awareness about the need for nature conservation as well as the role of NGOs is more than when I started my work and I hope my work will be better understood now.

The young people you have worked with - how have they surprised and taught you?

I work with middle school students, equipping them to undertake action-based nature conservation. My team from ASED and I have worked from 2004 with groups of twenty-five students and two teachers (called the Core Group) from schools (mostly government schools) in Kolkata, Durgapur and Howrah. We have trained them on nature observation and recording. They have then undertaken school-based projects to protect the biodiversity in and around their school. What has surprised me is the depth of the love of these students for nature and the passion they have to protect it.

What have been some of the unintended consequences of your work - whether positive or negative?

I would like to describe a positive unintended consequence of my work. An unintended yet eye-opening consequence of my work was with our experience with the students of Sarangabad Jajneshwari Pathshala Girls' High School. The teenage girls of this government school in Kolkata studied water monitor lizards found locally and campaigned to preserve their habitat.  The Water Monitor Project revealed that the habitat of the endangered Water Monitor lizard was under threat from a large private housing project. The students and teachers brought this to our attention with a map showing the area of the water monitor that had been encroached by the housing project. This was brought to the attention of the Department of Environment, West Bengal. The Department of Environment organized a meeting at the housing site with the housing company and ASED. The housing complex plan was reworked to preserve the habitat of the water monitor lizard. In the Environment Clearance certificate issued to the housing company clearly mentions that the habitat of the water monitor lizard needs to be protected and that the residents need to be made aware of the biodiversity of the area. 

Could you describe how your work has affected one particular person?

Munna Bose is the office assistant at ASED. When Munna first came to work at ASED, over five years ago, she had no experience of working in an office nor did she have any idea of what work we did. She just wanted to spend some time out of home and do some kind of work so that she could tell her friends that she was gainfully employed! Over the years, learning about ASED’s work, interacting with the youth we work with and the resource persons who help with conducting our programs, Munna has developed a deep love for the organisation.

What have been your biggest failures?

The Program on conserving urban biodiversity with school students was based on the assumption that students would create their own school based projects and that they would provide the leadership for the projects. I had thought that participation and leadership of the students would come automatically as it would be part of the school 'culture'. It had been that way for me. However I was mistaken!

When we facilitated the initiation of school projects, the first reaction of the teachers was 'how can students alone plan a project? We have to help them plan it and execute it!'. I had to spend a lot of time to try to convince the students and the teachers that the students could do it on their own. Few project ideas had to be revised as I felt that this was not a project initiated by the students. Even in the leadership for the projects, the participation of the students was not as spontaneous as I would have liked it to be. I feel that this is a fall out of ‘culture’ of education is most schools nowadays where participation of the students and leadership promotion is not encouraged.

With this learning, I have included leadership training for students and mentoring training for teachers for the Green Rhinos Program.

How do you see yourself, going forward?

I am committed to working with leadership development for youth and women. In the future I will continue to work on creating youth nature leadership in India and in the world through the Green Rhinos Program. My team from ASED and I launched the Green Rhinos Program with three hundred students on two remote islands of the Sundarbans on 27 and 28 April 2012. Our target is to create ten thousand Green Rhinos by World Environment Day, 5 June 2013. I attended a transformational women’s leadership program called Women Leaders for the World in California last December. This has inspired me to bring transformational leadership programs to women in India and later to other countries in Asia.  I am working with Global Women’s Leadership Network to bring this program to India in November 2012.

Who is your biggest source of inspiration?

The young adults that I work with are my source of inspiration. I marvel at the incredible potential they have to affect change. Their ideas, dreams and enthusiasm inspire me. The sparkle in their eyes when I tell them that ‘you can be vehicle to protect nature’ gives me the energy to reach out to more and more young adults with my message.

By Sanjana Janardhanan