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The green network


THE NEW CRUSADE: This vegan campaign was kick-started by an online connect

Want to discuss a rare moth or start a campaign to save the sparrow? Flummoxed by a butterfly's habitat? Social media could have the answers.

On Mother's Day, last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wanted to protest human consumption of cow's milk. In true PETA style, they thought up an eye-catching visual: a chained pregnant woman flanked by protesters carrying signboards with the words, "Try to relate to a mother cow's fate. Go vegan. " To find a pregnant volunteer, PETA targeted their online fan base through Facebook and Twitter. "She (the woman in the poster) was on our network and she replied back saying that I am eight months pregnant, I am vegan and I am willing to do this, " says Sachin Bangera, PETA India's media and celebrity project manager.

Besides finding volunteers for sensational stunts, PETA also uses social media to respond to reports of animal abuse, create a buzz around an issue and garner support for online campaigns. And they are not the only one. Since 2007, Greenpeace India's web team, which analyses social media trends, has approximately doubled in size and even staid research organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) are finding that the online medium is an invaluable educational tool.

The BNHS's Conservation Education Centre has its own Facebook page since 2009, offers online courses in entomology and biodiversity conservation, mentors students on Facebook and posts information about environmental campaigns and educational activities. "For World Sparrow Day, we posted: 'Here are three things you can do for a sparrow today like keep a bowl of water, offer some grains as food and install a nest box', " recalled BNHS's deputy director, Dr V Shubhalaxmi. "And, 3, 300 people shared that post. It went viral. "

In order to make their posts go viral, PETA gets celebrities like Celina Jaitley to retweet them. Greenpeace, on the other hand, identifies influencers on Twitter and finds ways to engage them on important issues. "If they have a Klout Score (a website and app that measures users' online social influence) of more than 50, they are an influencer in their domain of expertise, " explains Greenpeace's digital media manger James North. "People tend to listen to what they say, people tend to pass on their tweets and to respond to them. "

Long before big organisations jumped on the social media bandwagon, individuals were already sharing information about moths, fungi and birds online. BNHS staffers, for instance, have been active on Yahoo and Google e-groups like 'insectlovers', 'Indianmoths' and 'ButterflyIndia' for the last ten years. Shubhalaxmi made a presentation at an environmental conference last year, tracking the growth of these egroups and their contributions to wildlife conservation. She explained in her presentation that these listservs morphed into Facebook groups because members were drawn to Facebook's interactive features and photo-oriented interface.

While amateurs flock to these e-groups to get their photos identified, experts stay engaged because there's always the chance that a hobbyist might click an image of a new species. Two years back, for instance, a teacher from Arunachal Pradesh snapped a photograph of a moth at the Talle Wildlife Sanctuary and mistakenly got it posted to the ButterflyIndia e-group. The image eventually found its way to Shubhalaxmi, who is an expert on Indian moths, but even she couldn't identify it. So, Shubhalaxmi sent the image to a moth expert in Taiwan, who confirmed that it may be a new species. "He said, 'If you can collect a specimen, we can actually describe it, " she recalls.

Despite trekking to the leach-laden Talle Wildlife Sanctuary, Shubhalaxmi couldn't get her hands on the elusive moth. However, others have had better luck. Alok Mahendroo, an amateur naturalist who started FungiIndia, has currently sent specimens of both a moth and fungi to experts abroad and is waiting to find out if they are new species.

While experts may occasionally log on to Facebook to identify a rare species, most consider the forum too casual. The more serious hobbyists, like Mahendroo, visit groups like Mushroom Observer and Efloraofindia where members are very particular about how one posts an observation and what data one provides.

In 2011, Mahendroo helped butterfly expert Peter Smetacek publish a paper on how the range extension of the Red Pierrot butterfly is an indication of climate change. "I had seen it in my area and he (Smetacek) was taken aback, " recalls Mahendroo. "I am talking about an altitude of 2, 100 metres and this butterfly is supposed to be found lower down at something like 1, 200 to 1, 300 metres. He (Smetacek) said, 'If it is flying at 2, 100 metres then this is a sign of climate change'. "

Considering his fascination with wildlife, it's hard to believe that Mahendroo struggled with science in school. It was only while working to empower villagers at Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh that he started studying the flora and fauna around him. He soon got hooked to online resource groups and even bought himself a microscope. He started FungiIndia because there was very little information about the different species of fungi in India. "When you start looking at flowers, at butterflies, at fungi, " he says, "you start realising there is so much variety in life that you have not noticed before and it is so fascinating. "

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