Comic artists and illustrators in India are using their work to promote awareness about wildlife
Social media (Instagram in particular) has provided a platform for these artists to reach a wider audience
Three elephants look lost on a narrow thoroughfare in a city. Flanked by tightly packed homes, one elephant asks, “Are you sure we’re on the correct route?" Another replies, “I updated Google Maps just last week.… This used to be a forest!" This is an illustration by wildlife scientist Arjun Srivathsa, 30, who uses striking visuals and humour to portray the realities of wildlife conservation. His depictions make numbers—like those in the census report “Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation, India 2017"—more accessible to a wide audience. The report stated that the population of elephants in India had declined by nearly 11%, or 3,399, between 2012-17. It also claimed that the increase in elephant-human conflict could be attributed to shrinking elephant habitats in most states. The conflict has taken a toll on 100 tuskers and 660 people since 2015.
“As a wildlife scientist, I realized there is a huge gap between science and society. It didn’t matter that we were doing the coolest of scientific studies if we were not able to communicate the outcomes with the public," he says.
Around six years ago, he decided to bring together his two specializations, as a self-taught artist and a trained scientist. Srivathsa has a master’s degree in wildlife biology & conservation from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, and is currently pursuing a PhD in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, US.
“For the longest time, the narrative for conserving wildlife has had a certain doom and gloom theme to it. I don’t think that works any more. I think art and humour serve the purpose in a more effective way," he says on email. He shares his work on his website Arjunsrivathsa.org and his Facebook page Pocket Science.
Srivathsa is not alone. Comic artists and illustrators in India are using their work to promote awareness about wildlife—whether it is trivia about lesser-known species or concrete steps for their protection. Combining a curiosity for wildlife, nurtured from a young age, with formal art training, they seek to address city-specific ecological issues in collaboration with wildlife organizations. They have created visuals on, for instance, the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard.
In Mumbai, Ashvini Menon, 28, who runs her own design studio, says she has always been fascinated by wildlife. “That love sprung from bird-walks, trails and forest visits that my parents often took me on. I always looked forward to animal encounters, I don’t think I ever feared them. Seeing them filled me with a sense of awe," she says. Today, as an artist with a master’s from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, she has collaborated with nature trust Here On Project Environment (HOPE), Thane, to sensitize citizens on the declining sparrow population in the city. Menon has a regular strip in The Hindu, Ecotism, and has had a stint with Hornbill magazine. She has done projects with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the activist organization Greenpeace to raise awareness. “I read the news, some wildlife magazines and newsletters and am in touch with activists, so that is where I get most of information from," she says. These include, among others, her parents Seema Shinde and Sasikumar Menon, Gaganpreet Singh, a sustainability leader at Mountain Homestays, and Ramnath Chandrasekhar, founder of Youth Conservation Action Network (Youcan).
Social media (Instagram in particular) has provided a platform for these artists to reach a wider audience. Award-winning cartoonist and illustrator Rohan Chakravarty, 31, runs a site called @GreenHumour, which has close to 20,000 followers on Instagram. Artist Rohan Dahotre, whose bio reads “I draw animals, birds and all things wild. Spreading wildlife awareness through illustrations", has 10,000 Instagram followers. “My style is less comic-strip and more illustration-based," says Dahotre. “Some of my works went viral all over the world, so I am very happy that it gave me recognition as an illustrator," he says, referring to the series Animal Doodles, where he superimposed his sketching over photographs of animals from Google, using black and white line drawings of tribal art.
There are signs that their work has had an impact. In 2016, Chakravarty created a comic about the Pygmy Marmosets, the world’s smallest monkeys, being captured from rainforests and sold to exotic pet owners as “finger monkeys". The last image in this comic features the primate showing the finger. “A reader from Peru wrote to me after reading my comic about the trade of Pygmy Marmosets, saying that he was planning to buy one as a pet but refrained after reading the comic," he says.
Chakravarty took up his childhood passion for art after a “dormant interest" materialized around 13 years ago, when he was volunteering for wildlife and photography magazine Sanctuary Asia’s Kids for Tigers programme in his hometown, Nagpur. “I’ve managed to dissuade a lot of people from purchasing civet coffee with my comic on the subject. I have also encouraged several female readers to switch to sustainable sanitary products, which I know from emails and social media responses. I aim to make more of such tangible impact with my art on a greater scale in future," he says.
Srivathsa too, has helped raise funds to help with research and conservation programmes. “I ran my first art exhibition in 2009. The funds raised from selling my paintings were used for conducting surveys of critically endangered gharials in Chambal, Rajasthan," he says. “Subsequently, my sci-toons on the leopards of India have been displayed at a restaurant in Singapore for collecting donations for leopard research in India," he adds.
Armed with comedy, art and the ability to effectively communicate with audiences across platforms, these artists are effecting change, one doodle at a time.