Aswathi Asokan

Young Naturalist Award
Driven youth leader, who sets an example for his or her peers and older generations alike, through a thirst for knowledge and conservation entrepreneurship… motivated by hopes of a sustainable future on planet Earth.

Aswathi Asokan
Nature educator, naturalist, community campaigner

What do nature education, Carnatic music, and the butterflies of Chennai have in common? Winner of the Sanctuary Young Naturalist Award Aswathi Asokan!

A dedicated nature educator, researcher, conservationist, accomplished Carnatic vocalist and veena player, Aswathi is also co-author of a bilingual field guide Butterflies of Chennai and Seashells: An Activity Book for the Beach and Ocean – all at the age of 22!

Brought up in Chennai, Aswathi is dedicated to protecting Tamil Nadu’s biodiversity and making nature education accessible to all. With ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ rampant in today’s children, it takes passionate youth to rebuild the connection between children and the wild. Reconnecting kids with the environment through hands-on nature walks is crucial not only for their physical and mental health, but also to create the next generation of eco-warriors, and Aswathi is among those leading the charge.

A nature-educator and Programme Coordinator at the Palluyir Trust over the last two years, Aswathi is now studying for her Master’s in Wildlife Conservation Action – where she is researching the invasive Charru mussel Mytella strigata and its impact on local fisherfolk and coastal biodiversity. She is dedicated to propagating nature education among the broader public and legal advocacy for environmental issues, particularly in her home state.

Aswathi says that the stories of shores, tides, spiders and trees are not meant to be secrets. They are meant to be sanctuaries that belong to everyone, and everyone could belong to. Reaching out to the public, in her view, is essential to build connections and a sense of belonging between people, their environments and landscapes. And she walks her talk. Aswathi started off as a member of the Young Naturalists’ Network (YNN), Chennai where she was the Content Editor and then Chief Editor of an e-magazine called Nature Trail. As part of YNN, she started organising more outreach in the form of walks and workshops for people in the city. Aswathi then joined a small team of youth from YNN and the Madras Naturalists Society (MNS), and worked along Tamil Nadu’s coasts. This has been a great effort in documenting the region’s ecology and biodiversity in scientific literature, identifying threats, and preserving and communicating local knowledge. All this to create documentation vital to argue the case for protecting these sites for posterity. Through this work, Aswathi and her team also published a scientific paper, and created field guides and other nature education material focused on coastal biodiversity. Wanting to expand her horizons into other habitats and ecologies, while making nature education more accessible, and a culture across the city, Aswathi joined the Palluyir Trust.

At the Palluyir Trust, Aswathi played several roles. She has co-facilitated the fisherfolk apprentice programme for fisher-kids, creating field guides, educational games and posters, handled social media accounts, and led nature walks and workshops. She has helped develop the Climate, Biodiversity, People curriculum, currently being used in many Chennai schools to communicate the importance of conservation. Aswathi has also continued her work in research and environmental advocacy.

Much of Aswathi’s work involves youth and children of climate-vulnerable communities such as fisherfolk, using a habitat familiar to them as a portal for learning and connecting with their home-landscape, with a focus on empowering them and hopefully, leading to a shift in culture. There’s more. Through this work, she has also been involved in documenting local Tamil names for field guides, and along with her team has been meticulously recording local knowledge to make natural history more accessible, and to preserve the fast-eroding traditional ecological knowledge.

Aswathi is deeply passionate about all the life bustling in her immediate urban landscape, while working with local communities and hoping to make nature-based learning a norm everywhere, for everyone. She has worked along with other young naturalists to create a comprehensive field guide titled Butterflies of Chennai, which was released earlier this year, based on the documentation work of many contributors over the last 10 years. She is increasingly involved in and excited about urban wildlife through documentation and outreach. She considers urban biodiversity “one of the last remaining portals to tap into the nature-shaped gap in people’s hearts.”

For being the lighthouse that guides children towards safer ecological inheritances. For being the reason countless young minds stand before their oceans, swamps, marshes, estuaries, wetlands and ask, ‘What is your story?’ For being all this while still a student, Sanctuary honours her.