The advance of the Internet, and the technological advances in digital photography have come together to impact our lives in many ways; but few would have thought, a few years ago, that it would result in a major innovation in a field – wildlife — where until now, enthusiasts were never near a net connection. Yet a team of four people, all from Bangalore, have, in a short time, managed to build up a strong association and bond between diverse people, by starting India Nature Watch (www.indianaturewatch.net), an online resource for Indian wildlife and photography lovers.
I decided to meet Vijay Cavale, Sudhir Shivram, Kalyan Varma, and Yathin S K, who form the India Nature Watch – Team and help in keeping this online web-wildlife forum up and running.
Vijay Cavale quit Infosys, Bangalore, to follow his passion for wildlife and birding. Sudhir and Yathin work for companies in the software sector; and Kalyan quit his software firm a few years ago, worked extensively in the forests of Karnataka, and is now making a name for himself as a wildlife photographer and videographer. Perhaps, for these people with a software background, the progression into utilising the Internet for furthering the cause of wildlife was natural. It is a marriage of the two fields, one in which they were already experts, and the other in which they have fast been gaining expertise.
An all India nature forum
However, though started in Bangalore, India Nature Watch, or INW for short, has grown into an all-India nature lovers community where folks from many different backgrounds and walks of life meet on a common platform – love for nature. One can see a continuous flow of pictures of wildlife and nature from every part of India along with informative field trip reports, and interesting discussions on INW.
According to October 2007 statistics from INW, the number of files uploaded onto the website per day averages at 135,211 with a maximum of 163,858. The site has an average of 3540 pageviews a day, with a maximum of 4380. The number of visitors per day is nearly 900. Everyone is free to join INW…it is not restricted to Indians alone. The only criterion is that the matter should deal with wildlife in India. All foreign visitors who would like to share their experiences with nature while in our country, and their photography while visiting, are welcome to post to INW.
The origins of INW lie, says Vijay, in his having started www.indiabirds.com which focused on birds found in India in 2000. Soon, he was flooded by various enquiries and messages, and he decided that everyone should be able to post their images, and he started a e-group India Bird Pix, which soon morphed into India Nature Pixs (INP). India Nature Pixs celebrated its 4th anniversary recently, and is a email list, where people would regularly share images from nature. INP membership grew by leaps and bounds, and even today, stands at around the 700 mark.
The email lists’ limitations were exposed when Yahoo, whose e-group facility they were using, decided to stop archiving images. This meant that if anyone had not seen a photograph, or could not receive a particular post due to full inboxes, they could not go back later to see it. Several member of INP mooted the idea of a web based forum. This led to the launch of INW, on October 01, 2005 coinciding with the world wildlife week.
INW Team (pic: Deepa Mohan)
This meant, essentially, says Kalyan, "Instead of our pushing the content at the members, they could go directly to the content on the web. They could post their own pictures, add their own descriptions, and write field trip reports and travelogues of any wildlife-related trips that they had been on. The forum was designed with several categories: birds, mammals, insects and so on…and to be sure that everything under nature is included, categories such as flora and landscapes have been added, There is also a category called "Others"…for those interesting shots that might not exactly fit into the other slots! As INW gathers speed, the sun has to set on INP soon, adds Kalyan.
"INW can be looked at as the end or the beginning of the journey," says Vijay. For some, sharing their images on INW is the culmination their effort as they showcase their love for nature. For others it is the beginning of a long journey that would expose them to the joy that nature always has on offer.
A non-commercial approach
An essential aspect of INW is that it is non-commercial. At present there is no membership cost. The "INW Team" takes care of all issues leading to the smooth functioning of INW. We want INW to be a "happy place" for nature lovers to freely share their love for nature as they forge friendships and continue to learn from each other, says Vijay.
"We are not interested in activism, evangelism, or confrontation here," he emphasizes. "At the end of the day, folks should look at INW as to a pleasant haven of rest and recuperation, where their love of Nature will re-charge their energy for the future." The idea is also to lead newcomers to a greater appreciation of nature in all her aspects. To this end, "negative" posts or photographs are strongly discouraged. "We find that the positive approach works much better," says the INW team.
I myself saw evidence of this at the first INW anniversary meet, in March this year, at Dandeli, held at the Kulgi Nature Camp run by the Karnataka Forest Department. INW’s active encouragement of the honest and committed forest officers and the other officials resulted in a synergetic meet where members were given every assistance by the Forest Department. Sudhir worked in close co-ordination with the Forest Department officials and indeed, at the end of the meet, officials handed empty CDs to the visitors, asking that any memorable images they had could be copied on to them and sent back to the Forest Department, so they in their turn, could display those images to other visitors or use them in training programs.
Several Indian Forest Service officers, indeed, are members of INW and actively post photographs and field trip reports. The co-operation was a palpable force at the meet. An upcoming INW meet is also being organized in co-oridination with Forest Department officials in Madhya Pradesh.
The democratic nature of INW is also something dear to the INW team. No one bothers who or what the members are, apart from their shared interest in wildlife and photography. A 60-year old corporate icon could talk as an equal with a 21-year-old who is thinking of taking up his first job! Everyone is encouraged to post photographs, field trip reports, or topics of interest; the exchange of information is unlimited and untramelled. "Such content generation on the Web on nature-related topics has never happened before," says an enthusiastic Yathin. Several photographers’ skills have improved as they exchange tips with the others.
However, all this takes a lot of effort and maintenance, which the INW team keeps up assiduously. Posts or photographs which go against the guidelines are pulled, generally with an email to the concerned person. This is the only time, feels Sudhir, where sometimes people are disappointed. "But we have had several huge discussions on topics such as banning of nest photography, and feel that lines have to be drawn somewhere, and it is sometimes tough," he says. If someone posts a picture of a bird’s nest, the INW team generally sends a note to the person concerned, saying that the photograph is being deleted for this reason. All such guidelines, INW’s founders say, evolve out of the members’ participation and are not unilaterally laid down; so by and large, they are also observed.
Each of the team members takes care of a different area. Kalyan is the "technical expert" and the "security guy"….the guy whom everyone turns to when something goes wrong with the server, for example. Sudhir is the public face of INW; he moderates the emails and other communication. He has a devoted band of helpers. Yathin is a technical professional. He has a good hold on the technical aspects of running the front end on the internet and helps in trouble shooting any user related issues. Vijay’s vision and ideas inform the forum at all times; and he is the supporting force. The membership of INW now stands at 900-plus and is growing.
Second anniversary coming up
New members are vetted by the INW team; each new applicant has to have a "credible" identity; faceless posters cannot join. This makes for a great community spirit, and there is very little of the acrimonious debate or ad hominem that mark other e-forums sometimes.
INW sees several developments happening in the future; they are not even sure, at this point, what directions those developments may take. "The sky is the limit, as far as the marriage between technology and communication are concerned," says Vijay. They might introduce video and audio components on the forum. Another possiblity is the "Golden Collection", where the best photographs might be displayed.
The INW team insists: "It is important to understand that INW is not an organization, it is not an NGO with office bearers and objectives". They say that INW is simply a common platform that helps the coming together of nature lovers and likes to focus on the positive aspects. Awareness building, content generation, sharing the joy and forging friendships is the way to go, they all agree. I will feel a sense of achievement when folks enter INW with a smile on their face and peace in their mind, adds Vijay.
The second anniversary meet of INW is scheduled at Pench, the tiger reserve, in Madhya Pradesh, during 7-9 December 2007. Although many of the delegates will be from Bangalore, several members will be flying in from all over in India, and also from abroad, to attend!
As INW continues to grow in strength, let’s wish this band of wildlife enthusiasts the very best in their efforts to bring the wonderful, majestic facets of Nature to everyone. Check them out at http://www.indianaturewatch.net/ and you will definitely be stunned by the accumulated wealth of information and photographic talent that this community has brought out!