In conversation with Mr. Maria Antony P. | ATREE – ACCC

A group of children clamours excitedly as they stand calf-deep in the Tamiraparani river. Each child clutches a pair of binoculars, and they point and call out to their guide as they make out new birds through the lens.

Maria Antony was always passionate about nature education and working with children. Over the past 15 years, he has been involved in numerous formal and informal education programmes, most recently working as a Nature Educator with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)’s Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC) in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Here, he spearheads the Wetland Rovers programme along with other nature education initiatives for children across the district.

“Connecting with nature through birding and other activities helps build an all-important connection with the living world,” says Antony. He cites his mother, who encouraged him to observe the natural world around him, and his mentors Dr. Robert B. Grubh and Shailaja R. Grubh as his inspirations for taking up this work. Antony is particularly influenced by a specific trip with his mentors in the eighth grade. “They took us on a nature trail to the wetlands of Suchindram, Theroor, and Manakudy and talked to us about wetland birds and invertebrates. I was enthralled.”

It is no surprise, then, that Antony helms the Wetland Rovers programme at the ACCC. The programme works to educate children about the biodiversity, conservation, and threats to the Tamiraparani River that flows through Tirunelveli District, as well as its associated wetlands.

Antony is a fountain of enthusiasm, which is very evident as he speaks about a typical day in the Rovers programme. The children begin the day with a local walk through paddy fields and try their hand at spotting local bird life. Here, the educator team explains the complex relationship between owls and rats in paddy fields. Farmers used to keep perches for visiting owls, as the birds kept the rat population in control. However, due to pesticide use, the owl population has decreased in the landscape as they eat poisoned rats.

Next, the team takes the students out to sample macroinvertebrates – the creepy-crawlies living in wetlands and shallow waterbodies. The students are taught to take soil cores (samples) at five different spots and then pour water into the soil to dilute it. After this, the diluted soil is poured through a sieve or net and the macroinvertebrates are caught. Antony, an expert on macroinvertebrates, takes the time to sift through the sample with the children and points out the basic biology and anatomy of whatever creatures they find.

Another exciting trip is to the saltpans of Tirunelveli, where Antony points out red fairy shrimp to the excited students. They also have the chance to interact with the saltpan workers, who teach them about the process of extracting salt. After a spot of bird watching, the group travels to the estuary of the Tamiraparani River. There, Mr. Saravanan, a botanist and research associate with the ATREE-ACCC teaches the students about mangroves and their importance in protecting the coastline against storms. The group also learns the basics of mangrove biology. A favourite topic is the way mangroves breathe in waterlogged conditions using pneumatophores, which are special roots that stick out of the water like straws to help the plant breathe. Watching the group’s reaction, Antony is further convinced that nature is the best schoolroom for children to learn about the planet.

When he’s not out exploring the natural beauty of Tamil Nadu with his group of excited students, Antony can be found designing curricula for future nature education programmes and short workshops in collaboration with other groups and schools in and around the ACCC.

Apart from Wetland Rovers, the ACCC has designed a toolkit for nature education, helmed by Antony. The toolkit consists of storytelling and nature education in local schools, conducting field trips, workshops, and short courses around Tirunelveli, organising quiz contests, art contests, and games, and initiating Green Brigades and nature clubs in local schools and villages to bring children one step closer to the natural world.

“I believe in nurturing empathy for the environment while helping children care about nature conservation,” says Antony. “I hope these sort of programmes will encourage children to develop a healthy self-esteem and become responsible, aware citizens and future custodians and ambassadors for nature conservation in the future!”

About the Author

Maria Antony P. is a nature educator working with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) at the Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC). He heads the Wetland Rovers programme among other conservation education initiatives in and around Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu.