A few weeks ago, I was with a motley group of students, walking on a stretch of Chennai beach looking for nesting sea turtles at night. Everyone in the group, barring a wildlife expert, was a volunteer for the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a programme started 25 years ago.

Between December and April every year, Olive Ridley turtles, one of seven species of sea turtles, come to nest on the Chennai coast and volunteers have been walking from Neelankarai to Besant Nagar, a 7km stretch, every night looking for turtle eggs. Once a nest is found, the eggs are relocated to a safe place and when turtle hatchlings emerge after 45 days, the volunteers safely release them to the sea.

“We don’t need funds, we need good volunteers. There is a turtle walk for interested people every Friday and Saturday night. We use this opportunity to interact and create awareness about the plight of an endangered species and the state of the environment. From January to March end, our work mainly comprises of walking on the beach looking for turtle eggs and we often encounter nesting turtles," says Akila Balu, coordinator, SSTCN.

Naturalists and conservationists are often asked by people belonging to different age groups and backgrounds how they can help in wildlife conservation. “How can I get involved in nature conservation?" is the oft-asked query. The best possible answer would be to go out and volunteer for a local non-governmental organization (NGO) or the forest department.

The Internet has opened up many opportunities; there are initiatives with which one can connect through a click of the mouse. But it’s wise to remember that nature conservation is not a one-day, one-off sort of activity; if you really want to help the cause you have to invest your time.

Today, scientists are crowd-sourcing data and citizen science is being recognized as a conservation tool. As a society, it is important to document existing and vanishing species instead of relying on professional scientists all the time.

Take the case of sea turtles. Every coastal state has at least one NGO working on the species, so even if you are not living around Chennai, you can help at other places.

The Internet and social media have turned bird watching into an exceptionally popular hobby. In numbers we are not yet close to the millions of bird watchers found in Britain or the US but every Indian metro city has an Internet-based bird group present on social media sites such as Facebook.

Several forums such as Indian Birds and Delhi Birds also reach out to common people through their Facebook posts. In the past few years, the number of people venturing out to unexplored places to look for rare avian species have grown, and old records have been replaced by new bird sightings.

Among the many birding related initiatives, the Asian Waterfowl Census, an annual exercise in January for collecting data on water birds has just got over.

The 18th Indian Birding Fair took place at the end of January (30-31 January) at Jaipur’s Man Sagar Lake.

From 13 to 16 February, hundreds of birdwatchers from all over India will be looking for birds, recording what they see and putting the information online. They will join over 100,000 other bird enthusiasts from all over the world in the global Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual four-day event open to everyone across the world.

Indians have been participating in the GBBC since 2013. Last year, more than 1,000 birdwatchers recorded over 800 species—more species that any other country. The most frequently reported species overall were House Crow, Common Myna and Rock Pigeon. Rare species like the Baikal Teal and the Blue-naped Pitta were also seen during the count.

VB Mathur, director of the Wildlife Institute of India (a member of the Bird Count India partnership), said: “Over time, the information generated from the GBBC can be used to see whether some species are declining and others increasing. Therefore this event needs to be supported by professionals as well as enthusiasts and society at large."

On 8 March, the Delhi Bird Club will have its annual Big Bird Day, a full-day birding event where birders across the country join in to log the maximum number of species spotted on that day.

The Uttarakhand Bird Festival is being held from 4-8 February. There is also the Great Backyard Bird Count from 13-16 February.

Birdcount.in runs a monthly ebirding challenge. Then there are focused groups on bird species as well, such as Hornbill Watch which is looking for records and images of the nine species found in India—Great Hornbill, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, Narcondam Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill, White-throated Brown Hornbill, Malabar Grey Hornbill and the Indian Grey Hornbill.

The disappearance of the house sparrow from our cities has been in news for sometime. The portal www.citizensparrow.in collates data on sparrows through crowd sourcing. You can also join in as citizen scientist for Common Bird Monitoring of India.

The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), in association with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and Indian Birds journal, has been running two citizen science based initiatives—Migrant Watch where it welcomes public participation in reporting the annual migration of birds and Seasons Watch, which looks at seasonal patterns in leaf-flush, flowering and fruiting of trees.

According to the science paper, Network environmentalism: Citizen scientists as agents for environmental advocacy, public participation of non-scientists in scientific research, published in Global Environmental Change in December, citizen science has become an important tool for monitoring and evaluating local and global environmental changes. Citizen science projects have been shown to enable large-scale data collection, increase scientific literacy and monitor environmental quality.

“People who care about wildlife are largely disconnected from ground realities of conservation field work. Only when citizens interact with park officials or villagers facing conflicts with animals such as tigers, leopards or elephants they begin to understand the issues layered in wildlife conservation. These experiences give them a whole new appreciation about the difficult challenges of conservation and the reality of people who live in these landscapes," writes Krithi Karanth, associate conservation scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society (USA) and co-author of the paper.

According to Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental charity, citizen science allows scientists to observe more species and landscapes, enabling volunteers to make a direct contribution to scientific research.

India Biodiversity Portal is one such platform which enables everyone in contributing to and accessing information on Indian biodiversity. “We believe such open access benefits science and society and contributes towards a sustainable future," according to their website. “People participation is vital for environment conservation."

If you are interested in global scale activity, then visit sites such as the Encyclopedia of Life and Project Noah.

Two years ago, the web portal Conservation India was launched as a technology platform to facilitate wildlife and nature conservation by providing information to campaign effectively. Today, it has grown to be the default forum for wildlife conservation in India, with over 350,000 unique visitors.

Conservation India’s Professionals For Conservation initiative welcomes citizens from different fields to engage and contribute to wildlife conservation. “There is a constant need for writers, designers, legal and technology experts, film makers as well as people from marketing and branding," say Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founder, Conservation India.

Wildlife needs you, so start volunteering today.

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