Born Free recently announced the appointment of 16-year-old Nikita Dhawan as their latest Youth Ambassador, in recognition of her work raising awareness of the plight of captive animals as co-founder of Youth for Animals. The not-for-profit organization promotes animal welfare and is already a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Education & Communication.
We caught up with Dhawan to find out how she came to be involved with the foundation, and what it takes to become such a champion for conservation at such an early age.
How did you come to be involved with Born Free?
Born Free, both the movie and the organization, has inspired young aspiring animal activists for decades. I happen to be one of them as well. When I founded Youth For Animals, I followed Born Free’s projects and always strongly identified with their ethos of opposing animal captivity and keeping the “wild in the wild.” Joining BFF’s Youth Ambassador program seemed like the perfect platform to amplify my voice about animal rights and inspire our generation to take action.
What did it take to get here?
I am a Grade 11 student at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. For the last two years, I have been working on animal rights advocacy through a student organization, Youth for Animals, that I co-founded. I also did a summer internship with World Animal Protection, where I learned about the plight of captive elephants.
In addition, I also enjoy other forms of community service, such as teaching underprivileged kids and working on environment-related projects. Some of my leisure activities include reading, badminton, piano, and zentangling.
Can you tell us a bit about “Youth for Animals”, such as how and why you co-founded the organization?
When the pandemic started, being held captive even in my own house felt excruciating. Frustrated by my isolation, I could imagine the mental state of animals who spend their entire lives in zoos. This motivated me to start “Youth For Animals” in April 2020 to promote animal welfare. Through YFA’s platform, we conducted research, contributed articles, organized art campaigns, and initiated an expert-interview series to raise awareness on the ill effects of captivity.
In early 2021, I came across Shankar, an African elephant held captive for 24 years in the Delhi zoo. Through our research, I had learned that captivity is particularly harmful to large mammals like elephants, who are intelligent, social, and sentient beings. Shankar’s dismal situation was exacerbated by his solitary confinement. I also came across a 2009 Indian law that banned the exhibition of elephants in zoos. Yet, Shankar had been imprisoned 12 years post the legislation!
Appalled by Shankar’s situation, highlighting Shankar’s plight, fighting for his freedom and the freedom of all captive animals became our flagship project. We ran a social media campaign and worked with NGOs. To date, we have received 158,000 signatures for our online petition, letters of support from multiple NGOs, and coverage from 50+ news agencies.
We also wrote letters to the Delhi zoo and the Indian Prime Minister. Having received no satisfactory response, we eventually filed a legal petition for the release of Shankar. And we got our first win: The Court ordered the Zoo to explore rehabilitation solutions for Shankar. We now have a follow-up hearing in March and I expect the final decision to offer hope to hundreds of other captive elephants in India.
The proudest moment from your time campaigning?
From the time we started campaigning for Shankar’s freedom, I think the proudest moment was on January 4, 2022: The Delhi High Court admitted our legal petition and the Chief Justice directed the Delhi Zoo to evaluate rehabilitation solutions for Shankar. The order was covered extensively by both domestic and international media, and this helped us immensely in making Shankar’s story known to the world.
Any advice for other young people wanting to get involved?
I think the best advice that someone once gave me was, “Start small, Start local but do Start.” And that is what I would like to pass forward to other young people trying to make a difference in the world.
We started by advocating for “one elephant” in our local zoo, but that taught me a lot. I learned how to build a community of people who will chime in and support your cause. I understood the power of research and fact checks in building the backbone of your campaign. I learned about campaign marketing and amplification, e.g. through celebrities and media.
Every door we open leads to new opportunities to make a difference, and so the youth should embrace causes close to their heart and take the first step.