Science of humour

Close encounters

Science of humour

A wildlife biologist and a researcher, Arjun Srivathsa’s research papers are not just top-tier journals that follow and adhere to complicated logistics. They are colourful, humorous and most importantly, powerful storytelling tools.

“Was looking for prey...now I just pray,” says a gharial (crocodile) in one of Arjun’s cartoons. And that depicts the sorry state of crocodiles that are not only losing their fodder as a result of illegal fishing, but also get entangled in fishing nets and are drowned to death! Such is the intensity of his ‘science toons’ — cartoons that summarise scientific and conservation studies of Indian wildlife.

“My parents inspired me to use cartoons to communicate science. When I could not explain to my parents as to what I do and why I do it, there was no point in lamenting how unaware the general public is about wildlife. When I found it difficult to explain my research to my parents, I realised there was a flaw in the way we were trying to communicate science,” he explains.

He had to find a solution, and soon, humour became his tool. His idea was to break down science and conservation messages in such a way that even children could perceive and understand them.

“I feel that general public often view stories related to wildlife conservation, environmental awareness, climate change, global warming etc as outcries of a gloom and doom future by jingoistic activists. Through my approach, I am trying hard to break that stereotype,” says the artistic scientist.

Simplicity being his mantra for storytelling, he took to social media to spread awarenesss and garner support and started the Facebook page ‘Pocket Science India’, where the rocket science of wildlife research is broken down to powerful ‘science toons’. These toons undoubtedly became the weapons spreading wildlife awareness and his work has been picked up by various conservation organisations, village schools and forest department information centres.

On what forms the crux of his ‘science toons’, he explains, “I read a lot of published scientific studies as part of my job as a wildlife researcher. There are many wildlife biologists in India who are doing and have done some amazing work on a suite of wild animals. These studies have been pivotal in trying to conserve animals. But even the educated citizens of our country remain oblivious to this. My cartoons carry these important conservation messages in simplified forms.”

He ideates a storyline after reading five to ten articles and translates them into cartoon panels. “Some of these stories are based on my own research work. But I have also made many cartoons based on studies by my colleagues and others in my field. However, I restrict myself to studies of Indian wildlife, conducted mostly by Indian scientists. This is something I feel I owe them for the amazing work they do,” he adds.

A goofy looking wolf, a panicked wild dog, an elephant that looks worried; he has worked on cartoon series on human-leopard interactions, overfishing of sea food, the sorry state of gharials, human-elephant conflicts and many more.

While cartooning to Arjun is a means of communication with the mostly oblivious world, it is wildlife biology, which is his passion. “As a child, I was absolutely fascinated by animals​. Of course, most children are. But all through school, I remember thinking I would grow up and be a zoologist (I didn't know you could be a 'wildlife biologist' back then). A school trip to Bandipur National Park when I was 12 years old, sealed the deal for me. I knew I wanted to grow up and study animals. Eventually, I did end up becoming a wildlife biologist. And coincidentally, I did my MSc research work in Bandipur!” he
recalls.

The journey into the woods that began here, has bewitched him with the best of moments every minute — from “watching herds of elephants up close, encountering a tiger on foot, watching a pack of wild dogs hunting and eating up a spotted deer to running into a hyena on a cold misty morning and counting gharials in the Chambal river”.
It is this excitement in the natural world that keeps him going as a researcher and he says, “This is perhaps why my job can never become boring.”

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