India has great conservationists with creative ideas – Ian Lockwood

India has great conservationists with creative ideas – Ian Lockwood

Ian Lockwood is an educator, photographer, and writer with a lifelong interest in the ecology, landscapes and cultures of South Asia. He has a special interest in tropical forests, obscure mountain peaks and conservation themes in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. He makes a living as a teacher and has taught photography, environmental science and geography at several distinguished international schools in South Asia. Ian’s photography utilises hand-printed and digital black and white imagery to emphasise conservation themes.

As humans move into animal territory, wildlife is put at risk. How do we make sure that our valuable species are not wiped away? “There isn’t an easy answer to this and this question is the focus of many conservationists today. Designated areas that are free of development and kept free of infrastructure like roads and dams is important. In India there are complicated issues of people accessing areas that they have used traditionally. This is, of course, a major, major point of conflict and disagreement. There are good people working on creative solutions in India itself,” says Ian Lockwood.

There is one way ofcourse, and that is through Ian’s great passion – photography. He writes in a blog on how some Mizos have laid down their guns and taken to the camera. “Mizos have traditionally had a very close relationship with their physical environment and it was not so long ago that all aspects of their lives were closely governed by the rhythms of nature, seasonal cycles of rain and shifting agriculture (jhuum). Hunting was an important activity, both as a practical source of protein as well as an important rite of passage for men. In my family, my bother in laws, uncles and cousins of my generation had a strong relationship with the outdoors through hunting. On my past visits we never went on an outing without several different rifles and shotguns in the vehicle. But these habits are changing and it could not come sooner given the generally alarming state of wildlife populations in the state. Something different is happening and it is thanks to digital photography and a growing awareness about the fragile sate of Mizoram’s wildlife. On our visit during the monsoon of 2014 I noted that the guns are rusting in a corner and now my same brother-in-law is nuts over wildlife photography!”

Ian visited India first in 1970 when he was about two months old. His family, originally from the east coast of the United States, has lived in South Asia for the last four generations.

The Sunderban is this vast, 10,000 square mangrove forest and it’s a place that in the 21st Century still embodies wilderness in its rawest, most beautiful and sometimes terrifying form. 

Asked how India can best project her natural environment like Africa has done, Ian says he is not sure if he has the answers. “Africa is a very different kind of situation with lots of different ecotourism models (Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda etc.) and I don’t think it is all necessary relevant for application in India. I think Sri Lanka has a working model that is worth looking at. The case of Sinharaja rainforest is a model example of conservation, ecological restoration and ecotourism. I’ve written about it in my blog and am working on a more comprehensive article for Sanctuary now.”

The best place to start conservation initiatives, Ian says is one’s backyard. “I think that it is important to start with a deep understanding of where you live and work there to achieve conservation goals. Most cities in India and South Asia have clubs and conservation -oriented individuals that interested people can work through.”

About one of his favourite places in India, Ian speaks about the forest at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal. “It is a forest like no other and spread over a vast area where two of South Asia greatest rivers meet the sea after their long journey from the high Himalaya. The Sunderban is this vast, 10,000 square mangrove forest and it’s a place that in the 21st Century still embodies wilderness in its rawest, most beautiful and sometimes terrifying form.  Political boundaries separate it between Bangladesh and India but once inside the maze of mangrove trees there are few signs of any human presence. The area hosts impressive plant and animal diversity and is well as one of the most secure locations for wild tigers to breed in.”

Ian has waited for days, weeks and months to spot a rare specimen. “To experience and observe a rare species is to better understand an ecosystem. To find fulfilment in a sighting after long hours of hiking and waiting (and even longer hours, days or months getting the necessary permission) is very satisfying. Rare species provide a reason to go further and look harder in an ecosystem. They provoke you to get to know it better and to be patient and maybe hike further.”

Ian says he has enjoyed looking for Masked Finfoots and Tigers in the Bangladesh Sunderaban, the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush on the slopes of Sri Pada, Hoolock gibbons in the forests of Mizoram and the Sri Lanka Bay Owl in the forests of Thatekkad (Kerala). “There are quite a few other stories but these are a few of the highlights from recent years.”

He says that the most unique unpublished image that he has from his Agasthyamalai summit trips is the mountain shadow taken on the summit of Agasthyamalai. "These were my pre-digital days and it was taken with a cumbersome, awkward looking box (a Noblex panoramic camera) with a rotating lens to produce an uninterrupted 11 cm long negative or positive image. To this day it, along with many other medium format slide  and colour negative images, sits awaiting my attention.  My initial focus has been to present our pilgrimage to the peak in black and white and I have hesitated to mix it with the colour work."


He says he witnessed the shadow on the lower slopes of the mountain as he ascended with pilgrims from the Kerala side. "I was dumfounded to experience it having only read about Mountain Shadows in the context of Sri Pada and higher mountain ranges such as the Himalaya. But this image was taken after spending an unforgettable night with my companions from the Dhonavur Fellowship. We had been exposed to a violent storm with winds, lightening and heavy rain without any shelter other than a plastic tarp. Out of that experience emerged one of the most amazing and glorious mornings that I have experienced in the Western Ghats. Here is an extract from the Sanctuary Asia piece:

Dawn is a magnificent affair and makes the stormy night worth all its fear and discomfort. As the rays of the new day begin to fill the sky, they paint the cirrus clouds in fantastic hues of gold and scarlet. A kestrel is hovering over the precipice near the summit and Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes are chattering in the trees by the Agasthya shrine. Looking north, we are blessed with a view of  the dark evergreen  forests of the  Mundanthurai range. The azure mountains stretching beyond the Shencottah gap and up towards the Periyar Tiger Reserve are imposing.

Then something incredible happens. The sun, just a hair above the horizon, projects the conical shadow of Agasthyamalai into the light haze of the west, creating a surreal pyramid-shaped shadow that shifts as I walk along the summit. This is a phenomena often observed by mountaineers on high peaks at sunrise. It is well recorded on Sri Lanka’s Adam’s peak, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happening in the Western Ghats. The magical shadow doesn’t last longer than ten minutes and disappears when the sun slips behind a low cloud."


While visiting the wilderness areas, he says, he’s “not interested in luxury or comfortable accommodation. The main idea is access to some interesting habitat where I can walk and observe. Homestays can provide a modest accommodation option and they can support local involvement in conservation, so they have great merit. The Forest Department bungalows and dormitories are often ideal but getting permissions in the Western Ghats can be challenging.”

India has had great conservationists and Ian says he has had a bit of exposure to Indian conservationists starting in his childhood. “People like Rom and Zai Whitaker, Shekar Dattatri, Zafar Futehally, Belinda Wright, the Van Ingens of Mysore were all family friends that I interacted with. I worked with Pippa Mukherjee, Ghazala Shahabuddin, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Farshid Ahrestani and Rauf Ali in the PHCC, Kodaikanal in the early 1990s. My work brought me into contact with KN Chengappa in the High Range,  Richard Radcliffe in the Nilgiris Hills and the Davidars in Masinagudi. In those years I corresponded with George Schaller and Cliff Rice-legends who had been instrumental in studying Nilgiri tahr. Back in Bengal/Bangladesh I worked with Biswajit Roy Choudhury who published Environ magazine.”

Leech on a log, with tiger stripes,  a feature of the South Western Ghats (Pic by Ian Lockwood)

“My cousin-sister Anna Lockwood was working on a variety of wildlife films during this time and that gave me exposure to wildlife filmmakers. I exhibited at the BNHS and IIC, New Delhi in 2001 and met key conservationists and photographers through that. People like Valmik Thapar, Ragu Rai, JC Daniel, Isaac Kehimkar, Ravi Singh, AJT Johnsingh, the Godrejs and others. My time with my wife teaching at MUWCI in Pune from 2002-05 brought me into contact with Erach Barucha, Ashish Kothari, Ashok Captain, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Vivek Gour Broome,Sunita Rao and many others. I’ve published numerous articles with Sanctuary Asia and gained good exposure through Bittu Saghal’s landmark conservation publication. Through my interactions with Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar of VCT in Kodaikanal, I met notable people working on ecological restoration: people like Subrabha Seshan, Vasanth Bosco, Tarun Chabra, Shankar Rahman and Divya Mudappa. Here in Sri Lanka I have enjoyed interactions with notable conservations in the academic world including Professor Sarath Kotagama and Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke. I’m in touch with Krithi Karanth and follow her work and that of her legendary father Dr. Ullas Karanth.”

(Photos courtesy Ian Lockwood)