Humans of the Sea – Saw John Aung Thong
by Namrata Lunia
“John is a community leader, biologist and an inspiration to many!”- that’s how our director, Naveen Namboothri describes Saw John Aung Thong, one of the first employees to work at the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) field station.
From following his instinct to finding his calling and now, leading programmes that help conserve the environment and the unique cultural heritage of his community – the Karens, Saw John’s story is nothing short of inspiring. Since 1994 he has been involved in many pioneering ecological surveys and expeditions that ANET has conducted and has been instrumental in all aspects of its growth and expansion. He is also one of the architects of the Andaman Karen Crafts – a cooperative that ANET helped establish to facilitate local economic empowerment of the Karen community while revitalizing their cultural heritage, conserving local ecosystems and following sustainable practices.
John has a wealth of knowledge on all aspects of island ecology and conservation and his work has been recognized by Seacology, a U.S.- based environmental organization that focuses on preserving the environments and cultures of islands throughout the world. Each year, the board of directors awards the Seacology Prize to individuals who have shown exceptional achievement in preserving the environment and culture of their home island. The Seacology Prize, for the year 2021, has been awarded to John in appreciation of his many years of work towards conserving the ecological wealth and the culture of his community in the islands.
We’re extremely proud to have him on our team and would like to share a part of his story with you.
What made you choose to work at ANET?
I always knew I wanted an adventurous job ever since I was young but government jobs were the most available options on the islands and I knew I did not want that for myself so when I got the opportunity to work at the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) field station in 1994, I took it although I intended to just have a ‘job’. I didn’t know or care much about the environment at first, I just knew I didn’t want to be restricted to a desk.
What got you started in the field of conservation?
After many years of interacting with researchers, learning about their work and assisting them in the field, I learned about the environment and the importance of a well-balanced ecosystem. Now, I consider it to be my responsibility to preserve it for my community.
What motivates you the most?
After spending many years at ANET, away from my family and community, I decided to go back home. Unfortunately, only 2-3 community members knew about traditional Karen crafts and weaving methods. I knew I wanted to do something to preserve our traditional culture as it’s very unique. A proposal from ANET to Seacology was awarded two grants to build the Andaman Karen Crafts Seacology centre and initiate the work. After getting funded, we built the crafts center as it was needed to bring the group together in a common space to work together. After that, different training programmes and workshops were held at the center where we now sell our traditional crafts and run a restaurant that serves traditional food of the Karens. I’ve also started a nursery with traditional Karen medicinal plants and minor forest produce with the help of Dakshin in order to preserve Karens’ knowledge of traditional medicines and also to reduce the pressure on the forest. I even run a homestay so people get to experience traditional Karen culture. I want the community to start community-based tourism but we have a long way to go. Andaman Karen Crafts has brought our community together for the first time. Providing a sustainable livelihood for the community without putting pressure on natural resources is my goal.
What’s your most memorable experience at work?
I’ve worked at ANET for about 23 years. I love the ocean, nature, and fieldwork. Whenever we had Sea Turtle monitoring camps, I would go on a boat to different islands to track turtle nests and observe. Learning how to monitor and conduct surveys was a priceless experience. I was also involved in forest ecosystem monitoring and I found this work refreshing as I love growing plants.
My favorite experience to date is my first leatherback sighting. It was a full moon night and the tide was high. I saw something crawling and I couldn’t believe that I had finally seen the giant turtle! I always heard rumors that a leatherback turtle could carry 3-4 people on its back and I was so glad to finally see the majestic size of that animal myself.
How do you feel about winning the Seacology prize?
I never thought this would happen nor did I hear about this opportunity. I am really glad and thankful for this and I hope this will motivate the youth to do the work that I’m doing. This award will also help me continue my work for the community and environment.
What would you like to tell people in our country?
We should always protect the environment and see how we can sustainably use the environment. If you protect what you are dependent on and use it sustainably, you can conserve and protect your tradition and culture.
We hope you found inspiration in his story. Click here to learn more about Andaman Karen Crafts and to follow their work!