Finding nature in the urban jungle

Armed with a binoculars, camera and passion for nature, M Yuvadeeban chronicles the fascinating natural diversity of India – not only in forests, but also in urban landscapes.

I have never seen a butterfly laying eggs. Or an ant protecting a caterpillar from predators. And I certainly did not know that birds could associate the rumble of tractors with the prospect of a feast in the freshly ploughed fields. Not until I came across M Yuvadeeban’s Instagram page, where he catalogues his fascinating encounters with and experiences in nature.

Butterfly laying eggs

Learning from nature

A 21-year-old naturalist based in Chennai, Yuvadeeban or Yuvan, as he is commonly known, is largely self-taught. He studied at Paathshala, an alternative educational institution in Kanchipuram District, where he took long walks in the wilderness around the school premises and observed the behaviour of creatures big and small. He bred moths and butterflies in his room and learned to handle snakes. Eventually, people from the neighbouring villages began calling him whenever a snake strayed into their habitation. He improvised a snake-catching kit with a hook and a laundry bag attached to a stick and released the rescued reptiles into the wild. Yuvan now conducts workshops, classes and wildlife walks for Paathshala, Bhoomi College (located near Bangalore) and Bhoomi Rainforest Research Centre in Sharavathi Valley, Karnataka.

Yuvadeeban

Wildlife watching from the window

Regarding his preferred spots for wildlife spotting, Yuvan says, “You don’t have to go to a Corbett or Bandipur to observe nature. Nature is all around us. You can learn about the behaviour of birds just by looking out of the window. There is a landfill close to my house, where you can see the interesting interaction between hawks and crows. Crows keep tailing hawks and when the latter catches a prey, they set upon it.”

Yuvan doesn’t go out with a checklist of creatures to cross off. And nature, as it often does, surprises. Near his house in Chennai, he came across the common beak butterfly, a species that was formerly unheard of in the city. His approach is strikingly refreshing in a world where most conversations about wildlife is dominated by larger mammals – big cats and elephants – and jeeploads of tourists in the quest for a tiger sighting leave a trail of traffic jams and habitat degradation in their wake.

“Nature is not something that you should have to go 100km away from your house to enjoy,” he says. “It is when we think of nature as something separate from the world around us that we get alienated from it. This alienation is one of the causes of the present ecological crisis.”

The Indian bully ant and the caterpillar of the gram blue butterfly share a symbiotic relationship

One of his favourite places to observe birds is the Pallikaranai Wetland in Chennai. A heavily polluted and encroached waterbody, it nevertheless is home to many migratory birds. “Although a lot of sewage flows into the marsh and a highway cuts through the middle, the diversity you can find here is amazing. I spotted about 70 species, which is roughly the same number I saw in the Bharatpur sanctuary.” He rues that little has been done to protect the wetland and hopes that as more people discover the natural wonders in their neighbourhood, the environment might stand a fighting chance.

Yuvan weaves his love for nature into his other passions as well. He plays the recorder and has composed several pieces based on bird calls. His writings on nature and wildlife have been compiled in a book by Notion Press. To follow his work, check out his Instagram page, which celebrates the jungle – even the one ensconced in the concrete jungle.

A striped keelback preying on a common Indian toad

The naturalist’s starter pack

Camera Sony Cybershot DSC-HX400V. I have a DLSR, but do not use it in the outdoors as often, one does not have the time to change lenses.

Binoculars Olympus 8X40 DPS 1

Books I like books where the author has a connection with nature and does not merely treat it as an object to be studied and manipulated. Some of the writers I admire are Annie Dillard, Thoreau, Emerson, M Krishnan, EH Atkins and Douglas Dewar.

Movies One of my favourite movies is Big Year. Directed by David Frankel, it chronicles the adventures of three men taking part in a contest to identify the most species of birds over a year. Although their quest is rather competitive in the beginning, the film is suffused with a passion for nature.