Media portrayal of wildlife and environmental issues are greatly responsible for shaping public perceptions about wildlife. Besides being a primary source of information for many, the media also holds great power to influence public understanding of and response to conservation issues. Sensational or erroneous reporting can lead to increased antagonism toward wildlife and negatively affect policy and management decisions that could prove detrimental to humans and wildlife.
Researchers and conservation practitioners have shown an increasing interest in engaging with the media and vice versa. Even on contentious conservation issues, engagement for information sharing and capacity building has facilitated more fact-based reporting in the recent past. The reporting on human-leopard interactions in Mumbai is one example of how sustained engagement with media can bring about a significant change in the tone of reportage.
In this interview, we bring you Akshay Mandavkar, a senior correspondent with Mumbai Tarun Bharat. Akshay began his career in journalism, covering the human-leopard conflict in Mumbai. He has been actively working on highlighting stories on wildlife and the environment over the last five years.
While there is no dearth of stunning visual imagery from across the world, people are often unaware of the wildlife and issues closer to them due to the lack of locally available information. Akshay wants to bridge this gap by showcasing the wildlife life of Maharashtra to the people of Maharashtra in Marathi. Akshay is currently working on a 100-episode video series called 'Species and Habitats Awareness Programme' in collaboration with The Habitats Trust, which features the lesser known species and habitats of Maharashtra, and the people working to protect them. Twelve published videos are available on the YouTube channels of MahaMTB and The Habitats Trust.
1. WCS-India: How long have you been a journalist, and what challenges did you face when you began working in this field?
I have been a journalist for the past five years, covering environment and wildlife issues exclusively. When I began as an environment correspondent during my internship, I used to cover the human-animal conflict in and around Mumbai. There were a lot of incidents of leopard conflict in the region, and the most significant issue I faced was connecting with the right people to cover the news. I encountered another big challenge in getting acquainted with the scientific language, data, and the root of the conflict.
2. WCS-India: We learned that you are a classically trained Kathak dancer. Can you tell us more about your passion for this Indian classical dance?
I grew up in a household where art was encouraged and appreciated. My father is a folk dancer, so I think that’s where I inherited this interest. I have been learning Kathak from Guru Pandit Mayur Vaidya for the past 13 years. I am also fortunate to learn and perform in various events under the guidance of the late Padma Vibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj. Under his guidance, I have performed across India and abroad as well as a few tv shows. Dance was never a career choice for me; I chose dance as an art form because it made me happy. Being a male classical dancer always attracted unwanted attention from society; however, it did not bother me as I had ample support from my parents and my guru.
3. WCS-India: What led you to pursue journalism as your profession?
During my studenthood, I was doing well as a dancer, which yielded appreciation from everyone and a decent amount of money. However, since I had finished my formal education in journalism, I thought of pursuing an internship in media and joined the environment beat of Loksatta, a Marathi newspaper. Experiencing the beauty of nature and accompanying various researchers and naturalists piqued my interest in environmental journalism. As work progressed, so did my interest in environmental journalism, and thus began the second stage of my career.
4. WCS-India: How did your work come to focus on wildlife conservation?
I once misreported the name of a senior researcher and received strong criticism. This mistake made me realise that I need to acquaint myself with the ground realities of wildlife and not be restricted to desk journalism if I want to do justice to the field. I spent several days in the field with scientists who helped me learn the value of their work and the importance of species in their habitats. Because I had no previous experience and knowledge of wildlife, it was difficult to understand the scientific language initially. However, with time I built my knowledge and expertise to simplify these concepts and bring them to my audience.
5. Could you tell us more about your site of work and the issues you are currently focusing on?
Currently, my work focuses on the Konkan region of western Maharashtra and its marine life. Due to my interest in marine life, I am more familiar with researchers working on marine systems and the communities whose livelihood depends on them. Mainstream media often overlook the wildlife of Konkan. This region has a rich natural heritage but also has a lot of misconceptions associated with it. I have made a conscious effort to ensure that I touch upon these and report on them. Since I am also a part of a digital platform, we create videos on species and habitats to create awareness among viewers.
6. You write in Marathi, the regional language. How do you think Indian regional languages play a role in creating awareness about wildlife conservation?
There are lots of misconceptions revolving around wildlife. We often hear people spread misinformation about wildlife in rural and urban areas to some extent. In Maharashtra, Marathi is the local language used widely in rural areas. Producing quality content in Marathi makes it easier to connect with people and ensure a wider reach, especially in remote rural areas, and spread the message of awareness. In my opinion, environment beat in Marathi journalism is often treated as entertainment material, thus not taken too seriously, leading to a severe lack of awareness among people and giving rise to superstitions and misconceptions. In the recent past, the quality of environmental journalism, especially in Marathi, has improved. However, it still lacks the inclusion of scientific knowledge and ground realities.
7. Please tell us how and when you started making films on wildlife and the response you received from your audiences.
Since I started working with Mumbai Tarun Bharat, we have started making videos on the environment and wildlife. Our target was to create awareness of lesser-known habitats and species amongst crowds. We also wanted to boost the work of budding researchers; thus, we often focus on young talents who relentlessly work in the field. For example, when we created a video on the Indian Pangolin, we received a tremendous response from people. People appreciated our work so much that now when there is a gap between two videos, they reach out asking when the next video will be released.
8. Could you share your experience working with the news & media website, The Maha MTB?
So far, my experience with The Maha MTB has been delightful. Generally, the environment beat of media is ignored and not taken seriously. In Maha MTB, our work is highly supported and encouraged in every stage of work. Our Editor Mr Kiran Shelar is an active supporter of wildlife conservation; thus, we receive a lot of support from him and creative independence.
9. How do you think local media houses can sensitise people about wildlife in their respective states?
People now have started using digital media more than in previous decades. Thus media houses, especially the ones reporting in local languages, should create a digital platform that reports on environmental issues in the form of videos that will reach out to locals of the region. While reporting must sensitise people, journalists should not give away sensitive information such as locations of species or details of seizures that people can misuse.
10. Do you mind sharing your plans for the immediate future and the stories you want to shed light on through your work?
We are currently making a video series that focuses on lesser-known species, habitats, research projects, and issues faced by wildlife in and outside Maharashtra. In our initial phases, we have started making videos on pangolins, wild dogs, otters, and elephant conflict in Maharashtra. The main idea behind this program is to acquaint people with the wildlife in their neighbourhood and that they should actively look out for their well-being and conservation. We are trying to create more conservation reserves in Maharashtra, especially in the state’s coastal regions.