If you love wildlife and want to get involved in conservation, you might consider spending some time in a protected area volunteering with an NGO.
That’s what I’ve being doing for the last couple of months in Mukki gate in Kanha Tiger Reserve where I’ve been given this amazing opportunity by Mumbai based Last Wilderness Foundation.
Anyone with a strong passion for conservation can get involved. All skills are required and appreciated. The most important ones are a good dose of flexibility to adapt to a new environment and the aptitude of being around people from diverse backgrounds.
The will to give and receive, to teach and be taught and overall to be open to new experiences are a must for anyone who wants to be part of it.
The tiger had been calling me for a long time, and with it the wilderness it inhabits.
As a tiger lover, blogger and amateur wildlife photographer I’ve traveled many times to India to get a glimpse of these magnificent animals.
It was time for me to stop just being a “tourist” and try giving back a bit of the extraordinary experiences I’ve been many times gifted by the Indian jungles.
For me, learning new things is as essential to life as breathing. You never know what new experiences and new encounters can bring you, and on what path you can find yourself after that.
I have an academic background in the arts and an “unconventional” career path. I’ve had different professional experiences that have taught me I need to be passionate about my job. Furthermore, it was also time for me to start evaluating whether wildlife could become more than just a passion.
I’ve been studying Hindi for more than a year and I needed a full immersion in the language. That skill is still very much a work in progress but spending two months in a rural area in Madhya Pradesh has been a fantastic opportunity to practice.
I will never forget the infinite patience and the open mind of the whole community here who has stoically endured my painfully slow and grammatically incorrect sentences, my daily butchering of the most common Indian names and my terrible accent.
So far my most used words in Hindi have been ajib(weird) and lagbhag(more or less), a clear demonstration of my still somewhat tentative and unsure approach to this amazingly rich language.
LAST WILDERNESS FOUNDATION
LWF is an NGO passionately run by women. Vidhya Venkatesh, the director, and Bhavna Menon, the project manager, are behind this structure that focuses on preventing conflict by empowering local communities who live in and around protected areas.
Amazing work is done by amazing people, and I’ve had the chance to be part of a great team here in Kanha. Amongst them Mr Khare, Assistant Field Director of Kanha Tiger Reserve, who is going above and beyond his duties to ensure the development of the local community, and Laxmi Meravi, Forest Officer, who is doing an exceptional job organizing the Nature Education Program with the students of the local schools.
Alongside them, a whole team who works together efficiently and always in good spirits has welcomed me and made me feel every day part of the group.
This people are working hard to ensure that the locals, especially kids and women are getting as many chances as they can for good education, working opportunities and self-development even in such a remote area.
THE NATURE EDUCATION PROGRAM
Raising awareness about wildlife amongst local communities is of uttermost importance for successful conservation practices. Within these communities, children are those who will ensure a smooth co-habitation of people and animals in the future to come.
This interesting program has been created for kids of secondary and middle schools who live in the outskirts of Kanha.
In one and a half days, they are brought on a safari, attend learning sessions with a naturalist and a forest officer, learn how to recognize animals and plants and also have a lot of fun.
Above all, they learn about forest and wildlife conservation and why it should be important to them. They are also made realize that they live in a very special and unique place in the world of which they should be proud.
In the first 2 weeks of my stay in Kanha I had the chance to participate in the program and accompany the kids to the forest.
At the beginning of the first safari we heard some spotted deer alarm calls. Almost magically, the Umarpani male, the biggest tiger in Kanha, appeared under the Sal tree canopy.
It was great to see the kids reacting to a tiger sighting, even if I have to admit I was as excited as they were.
On the second day of the program the kids are taken for a walk in the buffer area.
Varun Mani, a fellow volunteer and a trained naturalist was there to skillfully unveil some of the most interesting secrets of the forest. Alongside the kids, I’ve learnt about why termites are the smartest engineers in nature and how to recognize many species of birds.
The children took it all in with loads of enthusiasm, asking plenty of smart questions and giving thoughtful insights.
THE LADIES’ CANTEEN AT MUKKI GATE
An initiative of Kanha Forest Department to empower the local women by giving them a sustainable form of livelihood, the Morni Tejashwini Swa-Sahayata Samoohcanteen was created two years ago. It is now run by about 10 women who take turns in preparing snacks and drinks for the guests and the workers of the park.
The canteen ladies have been given very good training by the local resorts’ chefs in Indian cuisine.
Last Wilderness asked me to complete this training with some international delicacies that could appeal to tourists.
Having worked for 5 years as a professional chef, I’ve been more than happy to embark on this project.
I am quite proud to announce that now some delicious pasta, pancakes and sandwiches can be ordered at the canteen as well as the classic samosa, poha and aloo bonda.
The morning of the Holi festival the canteen has received a very exciting delivery: a brand new pizza oven gifted by the Singinawa Foundation. Since then, I’ve been teaching the ladies how to make homemade pizza with local ingredients and I’m sure it will be a hit with their customers.
We’ve also worked on local varieties of cereals, kodo and kutki, two sorts of very nutritious gluten-free alternatives to rice who are found exclusively in this area.
The canteen is the heart of the social life of Mukki gate. Every day the guides, the drivers, the local people and the park visitors come for tea and snacks.
It’s a moment to relax and take a break, the pace is slow and friendly. Being there every day has been a way of getting to know all the people of Mukki and become for a while part of this pleasant routine. Drinking chai and watch the daily life of people passing by has been one of my little pleasures.
TEACHING ENGLISH TO THE BOORSINGH SCHOOL’S TEACHERS
Learning English is a fundamental part of the Indian school system. In such a huge country where many different languages are spoken, English is an important way to communicate. Also, examinations to obtain government jobs and many corporate careers require its knowledge.
In rural areas, it can be tough to find English speaking teachers willing to commit themselves to work in such a remote place. The general lack of basic structures and the isolation is not appealing to the majority of people who choose instead to settle in urban realities.
The difficulty of getting good training in the English language is therefore often discriminating. At the end of their curriculum, students coming from remote villages find themselves lacking some of the most important skills acquired by their urban homologues.
For this reason, LWF and other NGOs working in these areas are often on the lookout for people who can give up some of their time to teach English, either as a trained teacher or on a conversational level.
That’s what I’ve been doing in the second part of my sojourn. My students are a group of ladies who teach at the local nursery school or work with the Forest Department in different capacities.
English is not my mother tongue nor am I a trained teacher, but I’m fluent enough to prepare classes with a mix of grammar and a lot of conversation.
It’s been interesting and fun to help the ladies freshen up their skills and hopefully acquire some useful new ones for their daily work.
There is something special about volunteering for a project. Money is not involved, and you can allow yourself a completely disinterested way of helping out for a cause you care about.
The reasons to do so vary from person to person but overall, it’s a fantastic experience that will give you a lot of satisfaction in return.
On a professional point of view, there is so much to learn by working with local communities in a protected area as special as Kanha. The balance between wildlife conservation and sustainable development is a tough call considering what is at stake.
There is a not a unique recipe to succeed, but Kanha is a positive example of how good management practices, strong commitment and dedication from the actors involved can prove extremely effective.
Working for two months alongside the Forest Department is an incredible opportunity for anyone interested in wildlife who wants to get a direct insight in the daily life of the on-field forest protectors. And of course, on a personal point of view, it’s an incredible experience as well as a real cultural exchange. The people I’ve worked with will be greatly missed and I know that soon a time will come to be back again to this special place.