Author and nature lover Zai Whitaker wants to see future generations armed with more information on environment and wildlife
“I couldn’t and can’t be anything other than a nature junkie!” declares Zai Whitaker. “I have always been an outdoor kid, outrageous and outright about my love for the environment.”
Could life be any different for Zahida Whitaker? Conservationist Zafar Rashid Futehally, who started the World Wildlife Fund and was Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, is her father. Landscape designer and author Laeeq Futehally is her mother. Dr.Salim Ali, Bird Man of India, was her grand-uncle. Shama Futehally, the author of Tara Lane and Reaching Bombay Central, is her sister. Herpetologist and wildlife conservationist Romulus Earl Whitaker, founder of the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank, is her ex-husband. And Nikhil, a wildlife management expert, and Samir, a conservation biologist, are her sons.
Zai’s quaint little staff quarters in Kodaikanal are dotted with pretty potted plants. The room is filled with light and literature. “No animals here,” she laughs.
As a child in Mumbai, she lived in a house full of conservationists and naturalists. “I and my sister were encouraged to read…and read more. We watched our parents write a lot. The most important thing in my life too is writing,” she smiles. Zai has written 14 books mostly for children and young readers. Her most recent book is Kodi Cocktail, which she describes as a “tea table book for tourists and visitors alike.”
She now teaches English as a second language to middle school students of other nationalities at the Kodaikanal International School. “I use a lot of wildlife stories in my class and I can see how it enthuses them. There is a lot to be done. Right education is so important,” she says. Zai feels that kids have to be brought back to nature. “It amazes me when I meet parents who feel guilty about taking their wards off television and computer. Adults make children feel insecure without gadgets. Let a child be alone and you will be surprised to see all the wonderful things he or she can do,” she says.
Zai emphasises, “For growth, there is nothing better than interaction.” The continuous stream of guests at her childhood home benefitted her immensely. “Though I and my sister were young, the interactions we had even with adults was a learning experience and helpful,” she says.
Her mother’s maternal uncle, Dr.Salim Ali, came every weekend and took all the kids out for a walk. “He was a terrific walker and always had us on our toes.” During one such walk, Dr.Ali asked them to identify the bird from the sound it was making. “We cousins reeled out names and he kept rejecting them. Finally he had a loud laugh and said it was a distress call from a squirrel and we all climbed up the tree in surprise!”
Since herpetologists are hard-core birders too, when Zai met Rom Whitaker, the chemistry was instant. He had founded India’s first snake park in Madras in 1972 and it received early support from the World Wildlife Fund. “I do not regret a single moment with him,” she says.
Helping her father, who is now 92 years old, with his autobiography, Zai commutes between Bangalore and Kodaikanal, writing and talking about wildlife and conservation, the fascinating lives of animals and the importance of protecting them, bad land use practices, preservation of water bodies, pollution and more.
Kodi Cocktail happened because hill stations are fragile ecosystems and need long-term development plans. The book gives tourists more information on how and what they can do to maintain the environment besides other issues for the locals to ponder -- like denuded slopes, decreased water table and water shortage, unregulated construction, and bisons driven out of their habitat.
Zai is also interested in indigenous people. She has worked with people of the Irula community, who are snake catchers. As the director of the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, which has 300 members, it is her endeavour to empower them. “Irulas are very knowledgeable about medicinal plants. We buy raw materials from them that are used in making herbal products. Their children now go to schools and the drop-out is zero. We are integrating them into mainstream colleges and institutions.” Her only regret is that she is unable to give more time to the Centre based in Chinglepet and even to conservancy work.
Zai also wants to resume writing full time. She enjoys writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as long as the issue is the one constantly on her mind, the environment. She treasures thoughtful letters from children, parents, teachers and grandparents. “These have terrific value,” she says, “as they take me through people’s minds and the common love I share with them for natural history.”