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Meet Gerry Martin

Meet Gerry Martin

Gerry Martin credits much of what he has to India’s most well-known herpetologist and conservationist, Rom Whitakter.Photograph by Mamta Naidu.

Gerry Martin is fascinated by the natural world and wants all urban dwellers to recognise that they, too, can be enriched by connecting with nature. Drawn towards kids and their relationship with nature, he is also working to reduce the incidence of snakebites in India. He began his career at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, working with Rom Whitaker and was appointed the National Geographic Channel’s first Indian Adventurer in 2000. In 2003, through his work at iDiscoveri Education, he introduced children to an experiential and outdoor-based curriculum. He speaks to Bittu Sahgal about his influences, his work and his plans to build a network of wildlife enthusiasts, government officials, conservationists and researchers to turn them into a force for nature conservation.

Gerry, why are you so insanely popular with kids?

That’s very flattering! I think kids relate to me because I try my best to hear them as well as create experiences that allow them to build their own learning and context, rather than spoon-feed or tell them what is. Children thrive in situations of discovery. I think kids also enjoy succeeding in situations that are outside their comfort zone. Holding them safely in these situations allows them to draw upon latent strengths and builds a solid sense of self-esteem and confidence.

The bottom line is, children don’t get the chance to connect with much these days and my team gives them a lot to connect with from wilderness and wildlife to friends and even themselves.

Where did your journey begin? What got you stuck to nature?

I think nature got me stuck to nature. The first catalyst that I can remember was my early childhood in Ahmedabad. On a visit there about a month ago, I took my wife and four-and-a-half year old daughter to the first house that I can remember. It is a small little house in the old part of the city. I was recalling the various animals that I used to feed there – sparrows, pigeons, squirrels, etc. and realised at that moment that that’s where it all began. I believed that all the animals in the house were my Aunt’s pets! Another key influence was Sundervan, the snake park in Ahmedabad. I remember holding my first snake there and being completely smitten! It was a red sand boa and I was a little over three years old.

Who have your greatest influences been?

The greatest influence in my naturalist life would definitely be Rom Whitaker. He had been my inspiration ever since I first heard of him and read his biography. A few years later, I landed on his doorstep and he gave me all my first breaks. I’ve also learned a lot from him over the years. Other influences were not direct but still inspirational – Gerald Durrell and Jim Corbett being the most important amongst them.

Gerry Martin believes in changing people’s perceptions of wildlife. He is seen here photographing water monitors in Thailand.Photograph by Stephen Lloyd.

What’s your take on the sale and promotion of snakeskin products?

Personally, I think vanity is a terrible reason to kill an animal. It is a good indicator of a lot of what’s wrong with our society today. Indifference to the consequences that our ‘want-based’ actions have on our surroundings is symptomatic of most ‘developed’ societies.

I also know that in today’s context, there needs to be some value to wild animals for people to continue to want them around. The only way we can have even a sliver of hope for succeeding in this battle is if the people who are the problem become our allies. Changing mindsets is the ideal scenario but it takes too long, and time is one thing we just don’t have. I feel we need to find avenues like (true) eco-tourism, education and sustainable utility of wildlife to make this work. Even a monitored and licensed pet trade would be useful to bring more people into the fold. From what we read in the newspapers, illegal trafficking is decimating species. Imagine if we destroyed that mafia with simply taking the power out of their hands and gave children something to connect with while we are at it? I remember keeping numerous pets as a child and that truly fuelled my love for these animals. However, the bottom line is it is illegal in India and unless there is a change in that policy, there should be none of it. We need to support the system.

How would you go about reducing the number of snakebite deaths in India?

Well, the first thing to do is to see that fewer people actually get bitten. Education and public awareness are key to this effort. There is strangely a very low understanding or consciousness of the fact that walking barefoot at night without a torch is a dangerous thing. The strange thing is that even people who have torches will not use them. Reaching out to these people across the country is going to be a mammoth task and that is why we’ve decided that going through the thousands of snake rescuers around the country would be the best way forward.

Tell me a bit about The Gerry Martin Project (TGMP).

TGMP aims at creating a nationwide movement through a network that will enable outreach and on-ground effectiveness.  Much of what we propose will rock the boat. Right now, we are focusing on the snakebite problem in India. The solutions are, in no manner, simple. However, it is possible to change this situation and we need to do this by first changing people’s perception of snakes. They don’t need to like them but they do need to understand that a snake is merely an animal going about its business with nothing supernatural to it. This understanding will also help us begin the dialogue about how to treat snakebite.

We are enabling our work by raising funds and resources through the programmes that we run. TGMP is for profit, responsible, conservation entrepreneurship. We’re also trying to bridge the gap between field biologists or wildlifers and other city folk who don’t hear enough from the former. There is a growing support base in cities that is untapped. Liaising between these groups will potentially create a very strong conservation force. TGMP also supports, in a small way, various projects and is working at creating new avenues or platforms to support this work. We also very strongly believe that conservation is not a cause but a necessity. If we don’t succeed at environmental and wildlife conservation, we are the ones who will pay the price. It is akin to being sick and simply treating ourselves.

Croc camps such as these offer kids a unique experience to overcome their fear of reptiles.Photograph by Emilia Dexter.

Have you actually succeeded in establishing a herp network in India?

No! We’re working very concertedly at it. We now have around a hundred small groups who have signed up and we’ve started training a few of them. It is going to take a couple of years but will be well worth it in the long run.

How does the quality of field biology in India compare with the rest of the world?

I dare say our top level of researchers and biologists are at par with the best in the world. I think where we’re sorely lagging behind is in the level of B.Sc. and M.Sc. research around the country. There is a widespread lack of understanding of what a study needs to be. Most of the studies seem more caught up in the methodology rather than the methodology being a means to test or enquire or explore.

Have you experienced any victimisation for defending forests against commercial projects?

No. I haven’t really done much of that. Most of our work involves engaging people to change themselves. We do oppose a few things like the double standards that many urban dwellers maintain. For example, we find it very easy to throw people out of tiger territory but want all the ‘inconvenient’ wildlife like snakes and frogs out of our backyards.

Are you upset with the disproportionate attention that the tiger gets when compared with herps?

To tell you the truth, the tiger horn is being blown ad nauseum! However, that isn’t what upsets me. What upsets me is the corporatisation of this process. It has become a gimmick for many and a golden goose for others. A fraction of what is generated actually makes its way to the real grassroots level.

Again, the other thing that troubles me is the fact that people see writing a cheque as their ‘bit for conservation’! What we need is changes in lifestyle that will put less pressure on all our resources and an understanding that none of these are infinite in the least.

Could young kids actually dream of making a living out of doing the kind of things you do? Any message for them?

To begin with, I think the aspiration should not be to make a living out of this but to make a life out of this. Yes! It is more than possible. In fact, it is much more possible today than it was a couple of decades ago.

I’d like to ask children to think out of the box and create new avenues for themselves. Life isn’t about getting a job but being truly satisfied with what we’re achieving. Even the efforts we make towards this are truly rewarding. There is no such thing as failure until you give up. The rest is all learning.

Martin’s outdoor workshops have revolutionised the attitudes of countless children towards the wild. Photograph by Gerry Martin.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXI No. 6, December 2011


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