How did you feel when you first landed in Antarctica?
Antarctica is a magical place, unlike any other and to experience its sights, sounds and smells and the array of wildlife is beyond imagination, you have to be there to comprehend it. The coldest, windiest, driest, highest and most remote continent holds 90 per cent of the world’s ice and 70 per cent of its fresh water. It has no native human population, no permanent residents, no official language, no capital and no currency. In spite of the extreme weather, the coastal areas and surrounding seas of Antarctica are rich in spectacular wildlife. They enthralled us from the first day we entered Antarctic waters. I will never forget the thrill of seeing Orcas for the first time, the magnificent and elusive animals also known as the Killer Whale. More than the pills or patches, it was the sight of the Orcas on the second day of navigating the Drake Passage, the world’s most dangerous seas, which effectively rid many of us of sea-sickness. I will also cherish the close encounters with Minke and Humpback whales, much larger than our shore landing rubber zodiacs, as they blew or breached at a short distance.
The first landing on the white continent was on the shores of Trinity Island at the picturesque Mikkelsen Harbour and Gentoo Penguins ran in to welcome us, which was quite unexpected! Antarctic Fur Seals and Weddell Seals lolled on the ground less than five meters from our path, totally oblivious to our presence. Snowy Sheathbills, which apparently relishes penguin droppings among other things, were a revelation. They showed no fear either. Skuas and Giant Petrels, those big Antarctic birds that sometimes feed on weak or dead Penguins, reveled in the attention as cameras clicked the coexistence of prey, predator and carrion eaters.
It made me wonder if a show had been put together for the civilized visitors, a lesson in peaceful coexistence and interdependence of species. I realised how pristine the Antarctic environment was, totally in the natural order of things and undisturbed by humanity. On the first landing, I got my nose filled with the overwhelming smell of Penguin excreta that somehow stayed with me throughout the duration of the expedition!
Please tell us more about your experience with Robert Swan.
We landed at Ushuaia on the afternoon of February 28 and there he was, Robert Swan himself, cycling to the airport at every scheduled time of arrival to personally welcome the Inspire Antarctic Expedition 2013 team. While I was momentarily lost in the sights of picturesque Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, Rob and his team were already hauling our bags to the bus, setting the tone for the rest of the expedition with his hands-on leadership of every situation. Through the trip, we were in awe of the man as he narrated his inspiring adventures and his unique perspective of the world. At the personal level, the ice was soon broken, with him addressing each one of us by first name from the first day and ensuring everything was perfectly planned and executed for everyone.
Robert Swan was there to captivate us with his narratives while we cruised, hiked and camped across some of the most mesmerizing landscapes on earth. The humility, wit and spontaneity of the man were evident as he regaled us with anecdotes from his epic walks to the poles, the circumnavigation of the globe in his yacht and his experience with world leaders in the last two decades. This he did, while he selflessly pursued his fifty year commitment to save Antarctica.
He is the inspiration for the 2041 team and together they are creating a global network of 2041 alumni who will, hopefully ensure the protection of Antarctica beyond the year 2041, when the treaty that bans drilling and mining activities on the last great wilderness comes up for review.
Robert Swan is one of the last great explorers, a genuine hero taking on the daunting challenge of leading a South Pole expedition in 2015 that will rely solely on renewable energy sources, that is, nearly a 1,000miles over treacherous Antarctic terrain on human power and solar energy for sustenance.
What about your colleagues in the trip? How was the experience?
What can you say of a group of 80 people from 28 countries representing every continent, every religion and every race, of diverse age groups, cultures and social strata put together on a ship, a bunch of passionate naturalists committed to contribute to the challenges faced by our planet?
It was incredible to share rope space on the hikes, for example, with a teacher from America, an Arab banker, a journalist from China and a student from Australia. The teams were random and every hike or zodiac ride was also a journey of discovering something about someone. Some were really trendsetters, being the first from their country or region to set foot on Antarctica. A few were on a mission to prove something they were passionate about. The expedition was also about discovering people.
The camaraderie was spontaneous. We enjoyed every moment and every activity on board the ship and off it. At the end of the expedition, new bonds had been forged among people of diverse personalities, cultures and age groups and it got reinforced at Buenos Aires, where several of us stopped over to unwind and explore the city. These friendships to cooperate in the field of environmental conservation can only be strengthened in the years ahead as the 2041 alumni network continues to grow.
Please tell us more about the journey.
My journey started at Nagaon, my hometown, and after a gregarious drive in the company of family, friends and colleagues who came to see me off, I was at Guwahati, the starting point of my epic air journey that would finally end 48 hours and 17000 kilometers later at Ushuaia. At the airport in New Delhi and later at Dubai, I met up with several teammates from Asia. The excitement of the impending adventure overwhelmed us all. It meant that many of us were sleepless throughout the journey that took us across half the Asian continent, over the vast expanse of Africa, the width of the South Atlantic Ocean and the length of South America.
When we flew over the magnificent landscape of Patagonia and the snow- capped Andes mountains between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, my mind went back immediately to the glittering Himalayan peaks on view during the flight from Guwahati to New Delhi two days earlier. Though worlds apart, the similarity of these two great mountain ranges of the world from the air was spectacular and stunning. At the end of the journey, there was the joy of meeting Robert Swan and the 2041 team and there was drama too, when one of my bags was ‘lost’ and great relief when it miraculously arrived by the next flight !
How did you prepare yourself mentally, physically and financially for the trip?
The first couple of months after my selection were mentally and physically taxing as I racked my brains to shortlist prospective sponsors while running from pillar to post to meet payment deadlines. Several companies initially gave me the thumbs up and promised to help, but the proposals were rejected by their headquarters. It was a series of huge disappointments. It did not help that most corporates I approached had their marketing office or decision making bodies outside Assam.
However things changed once I met the Chief Minister and his one of his advisors, who is also a corporate leader. I was able to rope in several sponsors. I must mention here that many of my friends, including some who know me only through the Green Guard Nature Organization group on Facebook, came forward to encourage and contribute to my fund raising efforts. My sponsors included Amalgamated Plantations, Tea Board of India, Topcem, Rotary Club of Nagaon, STEM Center USA, DataZen Engineering, Loyola School Nagaon and a number of individuals who would rather not have their names published.
Once the finances were in place, I could finally reflect on the journey of a lifetime that awaited me and began preparing in right earnest. My selection was given good media coverage and it felt great when family, friends and even total strangers congratulated me. It strengthened my resolve to continue in the path of conservation activism.
I have been physically active and work out several times a week. In preparation for the expedition, I started running and walking in the morning, followed by yoga to boost my stamina and overall fitness. I also adhered to a set schedule of gym work followed by some aerobic activity in the evening.
What are the critical climate change issues there? Does Northeast India have similar issues?
Climate scientists believe that Earth’s Polar Regions are harbingers of the effects of global warming and play a major role in regulating global climate. We experienced firsthand how the fragile Antarctic ecosystems are being threatened by the effects of global warming and climate change. On the March 9, standing in the freezing top deck of the Sea Spirit at 7 AM for the Iceberg Ceremony, Robert Swan pointed out how and where the entire mass of 3,250 square kilometers of the Larsen B Ice Shelf had dramatically collapsed within a month in 2002 after being stable for over 12,000 years, an event, climate scientists say was triggered by rising temperatures.
Populations of the Adélie and Emperor penguins of the Antarctic have been effected differently at different places within the Antarctic due to climate change. Sea ice off the coast of some parts of Antarctica is disappearing and so have the Adélie. In some other parts, the sea ice is becoming more open and increasing and so have the Adéliepenguins.
Over the past 50 years, the population of Emperor penguins, which lay their eggs during the dark of winter when the sun never rises for three months,has declined by 50 percent.
Warmer air and sea surface temperatures cut the amount of ice in the sea leading to smaller populations of krill, which is a staple for the Emperor penguins. The ice where Emperors raise their chicks is becoming too thin and blows away before the chicks are grown. It means, fewer and fewer young penguins have been returning to live in this colony. On the other hand, populations of penguins those survive without ice and breed later in the summer like the Gentoo has risen dramatically.
The melting of Himalayan glaciers and formation of burgeoning lakes in the mountains threaten thousands of downstream villages with sudden inundation in Bhutan and Assam. The downstream impact of melting glaciers has already affected the lives of millions in Bangladesh. If the melting of polar ice causes sea levels were to rise by a meter, 15 million marooned people from Bangladesh could potentially influx the Northeast. That would not only be a huge humanitarian crisis, but also threaten the existence of several communities. We all know that Assam cannot survive another wave of mass influx from across the borders. We remain at the precipice. But our leadership fails to grasp that we need to act now to prevent a calamitous future for our future generations.
What have you learnt from your trip to Antarctica that you can share with people in Assam?
Global warming and climate change issues are real. Urgent action needs to be taken by individuals, groups, corporate and governments around the world to address the worsening our planet’s health. We were introduced to some of the biggest renewable energy ventures in the world, the latest technological developments in the field of clean energy generation. Every moment, I realized that we, as a nation, are far behind in understanding and imparting knowledge of our natural environment. It was a humbling experience to see common people being so careful about throwing litter, wasting food, water, power or even paper and reflecting back on the mess back home.
During the expedition, we visited the Russian Bellingshausen base on King George Island, the site of the inspirational 2041 run ‘E-Base’ which is the first education station on the continent and the only base in Antarctica run entirely on renewable energy. In 2008, when the E-Base went live, Robert Swan became the only person to have a base in Antarctica, the reward and culmination of his massive effort to remove & recycle 1,500 tons of abandoned Russian waste materials from Bellingshausen.
There at King George Island, the site of research stations from several nations, we saw the effects of continued human presence in the Antarctic region, with introduced vegetation, scattered debris and even polluting vehicles & machinery providing a stark contrast to colonies of Gentoo & Chinstrap penguins and Southern Elephant seals. King George Island with its receding snowline is a study in contrast, of human folly and of enterprise, of hope, in the form of the E-Base, which stands as a testimonial to Robert Swan’s 50-year mission to protect Antarctica.
We were made aware of our fragile surroundings always. We religiously adhered to the policy of protecting the pristine Antarctic environment. We had to ensure no foreign organism was introduced into Antarctica even by mistake. All bags and gear were sanitized. No foodstuff was allowed on Antarctica. We had the choice of riding back to the ship, or use portable toilets when camping. While on the ship, we were told of our carbon footprint and given an opportunity to calculate the CO2 cost of getting to Antarctica and shown how each one of us can offset it. This invaluable lesson that each one of us must be aware of the threats to our planet and be responsible for our actions and contribute to help keep the natural environment clean will stay with me forever. We, the people of Assam must stand up and be responsible for our own future. As Robert Swan succinctly says, ‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it’.
Please tell us something about your love for nature. How did it evolve? Was it a childhood passion?
The natural world has always fascinated me. It was always a sense of wonderment for me to discover the wildlife of every new place. Every visit to the zoo or the sanctuaries was cherished as I could watch the antics of different birds and animals. I vaguely remember a visit to north India during childhood. I clearly remember though, the thrill of seeing peacocks in the wild during the trip. The Kaziranga National Park is close to my hometown and the annual visits were always eagerly awaited and the disappointment was immense if we missed visiting some year.
When I was based in Nagaland for some years, I was shocked by the apathy of people to wildlife and was agonized to see all kinds of birds and animals being slaughtered for meat. Those days, every man had a gun and every boy a catapult and everything that moved was a target. Even the markets in the urban centers grossly displayed the severed heads of all domesticated and wild animals along with the meat.
When I returned to Assam, I got involved with the various nature conservation initiatives with Green Guard Nature Organization. We went into various forest reserves and found out that man-animal conflict was threatening the existence of numerous birds and animals and decided to work with fringe forest communities.
Around this time I discovered the world of birds. Birding became a passion. The world is a much better place for me since and no place or journey is boring as long as there are birds to see. At Green Guard Nature Organization, we are a group of like-minded friends from different professions come together for a cause; we feel duty bound to nature conservation.
What is your advice for youngsters who are keen to have a career in wildlife and environment?
We have so much choice of career options now related to the fields of wildlife and environment management now, many of which were not available even a decade back. I am here because of my passion; this is what I like to do, so I have to keep updating myself on new happenings. My advice is to use your head to follow your heart and if nature is your passion, get some degrees to pursue a career in these fields. If you are involved in environmental or wildlife research or just nature photography, you will surely contribute to nature conservation directly or indirectly.
Birding or bird watching and nature photography are two of the world’s fastest growing hobbies and helping people to appreciate and be responsible to the natural environment.
Even if you belong to an entirely different profession or field of study, but feel strongly about environment issues or nature conservation, there are several ways you can get involved. One can join an NGO, do volunteer work, develop a hobby, turn an inline campaigner or even have a second career as a photographer.
What kind of activities has your organization involved in?
Green Guard Nature Organization was formed in 1994 and registered in 1996, primarily as an agency for wildlife conservation. Its stated objectives include wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, environment conservation, environment education and awareness generation, helping forest dwellers, survey, census and documentation of biodiversity, scientific study and analysis, protection of natural habitats including wetlands, grasslands and woodlands and supplementing the efforts of the Forest department.
Green Guard has been involved in the survey, census and documentation of the biodiversity of PAs in central Assam, migratory birds census under the International Wetland Research Bureau and the Asian Wetland Research Bureau, the Wetland and Waterfowl Census cum Survey conducted by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology (SACON) and the UNDP and various periodical Hoolock Gibbon, Rhino, Tiger and Elephant Census conducted by the forest department, the Important Bird Area programme initiated by the International Bird Conservation Network & Bombay Natural History Society and documentation of wildlife killings in the Karbi foothills.
Some community based initiatives include Greater Adjutant Stork conservation project, Human-Elephant Conflict mitigation through the deployment of indigenously developed Early Warning System, Chilly Based Repellent & Crop Barrier Fencing methods, Educational Support Program for students in the Karbi foothills, Support program for forest dwellers, celebration of various events on the environment calendar, like the World Environment Day, Earth Day, Wildlife Week, Ban Mohotsav, Wetlands Day, etc., with school children of the fringe forest communities and teachers training programme under ‘the National Green Corps programme’ formation of Eco-clubs funded by Ministry of Environment and Forest.
We have collaborated with international & national agencies like the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service, IBCN, SACON, Club 300, BNHS, WTI, IWRB, AWRB, Aaranyak, Forest departments of West Bengal & Assam, etc.
In recent years, we have taken up mass plantation of trees in collaboration with various institutes and groups in fringe forest areas left barren by illegal deforestation and traditional slash and burn cultivation. We are working to mobilize fringe forest villagers against illegal logging and poaching activities in the Karbi foothills. Since my return, we have organized Earth Day at two schools, one a rural, Assamese medium Govt. school with most students from fringe forest communities and the other a private, urban, English medium school, in collaboration with Sanctuary Asia. We had a plantation programme with Jadav Payeng, the ‘Forest man of India’ at his forest site. We plan to start tree plantation on several other sandbars later this year.