"Sparrows have been with us since the time humans became farmers from hunter-gatherers," says Mohammed Dilawar, the Indian conservationist whose name is synonymous with sparrow conservation in India. On the occasion of World Sparrow Day, Dilawar spoke to Vishnu Sreedethan of The EarthView about the need of creating awareness among the masses about the conservation of sparrow, the work done by his NGO, Nature Forever Society and what we can do to make sure these chirping birds continue to thrive.
March 20 is recognised as World Sparrow Day but it was due to the work of Mohammed Dilawar and his NGO that awareness for the dwindling sparrow population has come to foresight. In 2008, he was named "Heroes of the Environment" by TIME Magazine for his efforts.
Q. How was Nature Forever Society formed and how were the initial days?
Mohammed Dilawar: This organisation started because of the attitudes towards species and conservation around 15-20 years back. When we started working for sparrows, they were not considered as an important species for conservation by the scientific community. The population of sparrows was not something the scientific community was aware of or sensitive about. Conservation is still looked upon as threatened species-centric. To be considered, it had to be threatened or be a glamorous species, like tigers.
I come from a non-conservation background. There was absolutely no involvement of citizens during those times. It was a bunch of scientists or government officials involved in it. Citizens were seen as cash cows who could donate and do cheque book charity. This is the landscape in which we started.
Q.What motivated you in such a scenario and what kept you going?
Mohammed Dilawar: All organisms are equally important and all species play an equal role in the ecosystem. I had approached a lot of organizations to help us with sparrows, but some species were largely ignored by these organizations. Even scientific data was missing on many common species. The price that we have paid for it is with the disappearance of vultures, from being one of the most common raptors to being almost functionally extinct. The entire scientific community was sleeping over it and by the time the alarms went off, it was too late.
From my childhood, I have seen vultures and sparrows closely. I had decided that what had happened to the vultures, I will not let it happen to the sparrows. NFS was born out of this and based on the principle that it will not differentiate between endangered and common species. We want citizens from all walks of life to be involved - only then conservation becomes meaningful.
Q. What sort of change do you want to bring about in citizens?
Mohammed Dilawar: There is no need for government policies or drastic changes. The only need is strong willpower. Citizens from different parts of the country have to be involved. Sparrows are highly dependent on humans for their ecological requirements. They have evolved over the past 10,000 years with humans. From their food to their protection, their ecological requirements are involved with humans and therefore they are only found around human habitation.
Sparrows were one of the first birds I saw growing up. Today if children are not introduced to sparrows, it will result in a generation that does not care about nature. Coming generations when detached from nature and attached to digital gadgets, will not care whether oceans are polluting or forests are burning.
Q. What are the activities conducted by your organization?
Mohammed Dilawar: We started undertaking large scale secondary habitat creation. We started the 'Adopt Nest Boxes and Bird Feeders' flagship scheme. We wanted to provide uninterrupted bird feeding. For this, we wanted to put out hundreds of thousands of bird feeders. So we involved citizens from all age groups. We asked citizens to adopt feeders and nest boxes which would be a conscious decision for the citizens. This would be a responsibility that they were taking and would be a conscious decision. 90% of the people who started with the program have started a habit of feeding birds now.
We were able to recreate the emotional attachment people had with birds. The major development was when we worked with the Delhi government and got sparrow declared as the official bird of Delhi. This got international recognition and the 20th of March was declared as World Sparrow Day. Today it is celebrated in over 50 countries over the world. People were given individual activities which were doable at a personal level. Conservation was made doable for citizens. After 12 years, it has become a global movement.
Q. What have been your challenges along the way?
Mohammed Dilawar: We had three particular problems. One was getting the citizens involved. The second was creating large-scale habitats for the sparrows. The third was a sustainable source of income for which we did not want to depend on the whims and fancies of a funding agency.
Q. You had mentioned in Ted Talk that the data regarding the sparrow population is not documented in India whereas Western countries have analytical data. How affected are sparrows in modern India in terms of numbers?
Mohammed Dilawar: We do not have enough people to record data. Platforms like eBird which are people-driven, the data distribution is limited to a few states in India causing a disparity. The data so available is from regions that have a low sparrow population.
Compared to the western countries that have been documenting data for the last 100 years, they have large data sets which are not available in India. We have seen that where feeders are made available, the sparrow population is bouncing back.
Q. What can citizens do to conserve the sparrow population?
Mohammed Dilawar: People can start by growing native plants. If people can be as meticulous as they are when buying a mobile phone, it will go a long way in increasing biodiversity. They can also keep water for sparrows outside homes. Another thing is becoming a voice for sparrows, people should start talking about sparrows, only then real conservation will begin. It will happen not when the government gets involved, but only by people's participation.
Q. What would you like to tell our readers about World Sparrow Day?
Mohammed Dilawar: I would say only one thing. All the causes of the decline of sparrows are also affecting humans. Electromagnetic radiation and pesticides which are killing sparrows are affecting humans as well. The increasing level of non-native plants which is causing a decrease in biodiversity is also leading to increasing levels of air pollution.
When we do remedial efforts such as reducing the use of pesticides, reducing electromagnetic waves and reducing the glass buildings there will be economical savings for humans as well. And therefore I would say that saving sparrows is saving humanity.