Monday, November 28, 2016

Eric Dinerstein: Interview about What Elephants Know, Nepal & environmental activism

My students are responding What Elephants Know, by Eric Dinerstein, as an adventure story, a call to action and a window to a different part of our world. They talk about how this transports them into the jungles of Nepal. I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend time talking by phone with Eric Dinerstein, learning more about his work as a scientist and his time living in Nepal.
Eric Dinerstein is Director of Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions at RESOLVE. For much of the last 25 years, Eric was Chief Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. Beginning in 1975, he conducted pioneering studies of tigers in Nepal and led conservation programs for large mammals such as greater one-horned rhinoceros and Asiatic elephants.

Mary Ann: First off, please help us--how do you pronounce your last name?

Eric: Dinerstein is like dinner-steen.

Mary Ann: How did you first come to know the region of Nepal where What Elephants Know takes place?

Eric: My introduction to what is called Bardia was in 1975 when I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nepal. I knew so little about Nepal. All I thought of was mountain climbing in the high Himalayas. I found out that the Bardia district was in the lowlands of Nepal, with hot steamy jungles. They say that humidity was invented here, in this monsoon environment.
map of Bardia district of Nepal
Before 1960, this hot, steamy lowland area was overrun with mosquitoes that caused malaria. So it was avoided by most people except the Tharu, who were immune to the deadly disease because they had lived there for generations. As treatments for malaria improved, people from other regions began to move into this area because it was a fertile jungle and they could make it into farmland.

This novel takes place in 1975, as the first signs of development were occurring. As people settled this region, conflicts with wildlife increased. Wild animals’ habitat disappeared as farming spread. Poachers further threatened wild animal populations.

Mary Ann: What inspired you to focus on a young boy who wanted to be an elephant driver?

Eric: When I first lived in Nepal in the Peace Corps, we didn’t have elephants. All of our research was done on foot. When I came back with the Smithsonian to study in Chitwan National Park, we used elephants for our research. There was a government elephant center near us, and an elephant breeding center. I spent five years in the company of drivers. As I started to think about the story, I wondered if I could create a character who could be attuned to the natural world. It helped learning so much living around elephant stables. I wanted to infuse my book with that, but also to make it universal--how you find your way in the world.
elephant driver in Nepal (source: Pixabay)
Mary Ann: What do you want kids to know about elephants today?

Eric: I am noticing a quiet revolution in the West, against elephant captivity and keeping animals isolated in zoos. Elephants are social animals. Moving elephants to sanctuaries and out of zoos is the right thing to do. Elephants should not be kept isolated. Elephant camps in Asia are different because they are kept in larger, social groups. In Hindu countries, elephants are tremendously important so they are treated kindly and with great respect. As a subba-sahib once told me,
“Don’t ever mistake these elephants as domesticated. They’re still wild. They’re just so gentle and accepting that they let us ride them.”
Mary Ann: What advice do you have for kids who want to make a difference with wildlife conservation?

Eric: The poaching crisis for elephants, rhinos and other large animals is significant. Kids need to learn about this, but the pictures are really gruesome. Local nature clubs can make adults aware of their concern--writing letters to press adults to do more. Three crucial steps can help young people take action:
#1: Awareness -- learn all you can about animals you care about.
#2: Connect -- reach out to nature clubs across the world.
#3: Advocate -- together, call for change
Mary Ann: Thank you so much for taking the time. I hope you continue to inspire young readers with your stories.

Special thanks to Armin Arethna and Emma Coleman, children's librarians at the Berkeley Public Library, for their help interviewing Eric.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

No comments:

Post a Comment