Last month in Kanha I had the pleasure to meet Ratna Singh, one of India’s first professionally trained woman naturalist.
Ratna, who today works as a trainer with a strong focus on empowering women, welcomed me in the beautiful surroundings of the Asteya resort in the buffer zone of the reserve.
We spent a whole afternoon talking about wildlife, our respective journeys and our hopes for the future to come. Her experience is an inspiring example of how determination and the will to follow our dreams can lead us to great achievements.
1 – Can you talk about your journey ? How did you become a trained naturalist and why ?
I’ve always loved the jungle. I was born in a really remote area on the outskirts of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. I’ve studied in a boarding school far from the village and when I used to go back for me, home was the jungle. At the time I didn’t know that there was a job called naturalist. I’ve always loved animals and when I used to go with my parents to national parks I saw mostly the men working there. I’ve always been an outdoor person, at school and university I used to play two sports at a national level.
Then somebody told me that Taj Safaris was launching a training to become a naturalist, and I decided to try my chance. When I applied, many people told me that I was never going to make it. Then I got selected, and during the training I was the only girl. After I completed the course, I spent almost a decade working with the same company.
2 -What difficulties, if any, have you faced ? Being a woman, has there ever been a problem of acceptance ?
I had the chance to work for a company where equal opportunities are extremely important as well as the professional ethics. The company culture is just great.
One of the main difficulties at the beginning was how people would look at me. In this part of the world people stare a lot. Being a woman in this sort of job used to attract people’s attention even more than usual.
I’ve never had a hard time from my own colleagues. Initially they would sometimes try to protect me, for example I would get assigned guests that were gentle or elderly or families who had young kids. The hard core adventurous guests would be assigned to the boys. But that was only for a little bit in the beginning.
Only once in my career a set of clients requested to change me with another naturalist. They felt that as a woman I was not aggressive enough for tiger tracking. They were probably a bit frustrated for not having seen the tiger so I tried not to take it personally and I let them go with a male colleague.
In the end we were both on the same sighting ! I guess they felt quite bad after that.
I remember an incident that occurred in Pench back in 2007 when I was still a new guide. At the time it was allowed to enter the park with private vehicles. A group of guys got stuck in a ditch because they didn’t know how to use their four wheel drive. While I was passing them on my jeep their guide suggested them to ask for my help. They were very ashamed and I could hear them telling him not to do so. Then after a while I passed them again and the guide called me. I got in their car, engaged the four wheel drive and got them out of the ditch. The whole time they remained very quite and then went away all embarassed. That was really a funny experience !
Another time I was driving in Bandhavgarh and my route included a dangerous steep track. The guide suggested me an alternative that would have meant to deviate from our allocated track and therefore going against the park guidelines. I was quite confident and I refused to bend the rules. All the way on the track the guide kept one leg out of the car just in case something went wrong ! But when we came out without any problem he confessed that he thought I was a better driver than many men.
In the initial few years I constantly had to prove myself. I was extremely careful not to make mistakes because they would be even more talked about than say if someone else had made the same error.
But after I proved myself, it all went smoothly and I even started to get more appreciation than the men.
Back in the day, rules weren’t as strongly enforced as they are now, like respecting the speed limit in the park etc. I have always been ethical about park and forest laws, as well as treating everyone with respect.
After a while, at work the difference of gender ceases to exist.
3 – Did you know at the time that you were to be one the first woman to become a trained naturalist (Professional Wildlife Ranger/Guide)
No, I had no clue. I didn’t realize that it was something out of the ordinary, for me it was just doing what I loved. At the time this field was not well organized. There wasn’t a school to become a professionally trained guide, unless you went to Africa.
The first Ranger Training School/course (aka naturalist training school) was started in India in 2006. I’m from the first batch that qualified from that training school. At that time being a professional wilderness guide or Ranger as they say in Africa, was not a job that many Indian women really aspired to.
4 – How did your career evolve after that ?
After a few years on the job, I started questioning myself. If I loved wildlife so much, what was I doing to conserve it ? So I started wondering how I could try to make a difference.
A perfect balance for conservation is taking care of land, wildlife and people. This was the ideology that we learned on training, and it’s a fantastic ideology, mainly because its so simple and effective.
Working with people who live on the outskirts of protected areas is of uttermost importance as they need to start seeing the jungle as a good source of income instead than only focusing on its remoteness.
That’s why I started training and educating other people. Around 2011, Kanha decided to induct lady guides in the park. It was an honour to be a mentor and contribute to training of those girls. Of course, there was opposition from the others, more from an economic perspective, rather than gender.
5 – What evolution do you wish to see in the years to come ?
Even now seeing a woman driving in protected areas is seen as somewhat unusual. My wish is for it to become as normal as possible, and for them to be looked at just as another guide. I am really happy with the way things are changing right now. The mindset of the various states’ Forest Departments is changing.
Last summer I met some lady guides who came for my training from Pench with their small children. Their husbands had also traveled with them and were taking care of the little ones while the girls were on training. If I look back at 2006, when I was driving through small villages, people used to run out of their houses shouting just to see me ! There had been times when there was a tiger sighting happening, but people would take pictures of me in the car instead. Seeing how much the mentality has changed in a decade it’s already a huge achievement.
6 – In my several trips to India I have met many strong and independent women. Indian women are finding a way to evolve within the tradition of the country but a lot is demanded to them.What are your thoughts on the general condition of the Indian woman ?
In many cases the stereotype of the Indian woman is still true today. In various areas of the country women still don’t have their lives in their own hands. It takes a huge amount of strength to rebel.
On the other hand, in some areas of India, there are still some traditional matriarchal societies where the men take the women’s name after marriage.
Women are often still seen as a liability because they have to be married off and spent a lot of money on. It’s still a long way to go until families realize that educating girls is not a waste of money because they will go to live with another family. There is still a lot to be desired for the condition of women in India, but many things have changed and are rapidly changing with the digital era. Women are getting more and more educated and are starting to affirm themselves.
Many people ask me if I am a feminist, and I don’t know what to say to them. If being a feminist means wanting the equality of everybody, I might as well be one.
7 – You have been working as a trainer with a focus on empowering women. What are the obstacles that could discourage women to embrace a career in wildlife ?
The first obstacle is in their own mind. In India people are really worried about what the society is going to say.
Last year in Kanha I trained 6 girls. 4 of them went on to have a good job as a guide or naturalist and one went for further studies. Another one was offered to continue her training, but she refused because her husband didn’t allow it. She didn’t have the courage to stand up to her decision and go against her family and the society.
When I started my own training a lot of people criticized my decision saying that it was not appropriate for a lady. I decided that I didn’t care even if it wasn’t easy to do so. With the encouragement I now get, I’m glad I decided to stick to my decision.
8 – What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in wildlife ? Where to start ?
There are many ways. People who are still in their studies might consider a government career in the Forest Department or as a researcher.
For people who come from other fields and are passionate about wildlife the best option is to work in tourism. There are many companies who train guides nowadays.
Many people think that it’s an extremely glamourous job but… it’s not. It’s actually a lot of hard work. It can be completely isolating. The connection is getting better now but when I started we didn’t even have landline in Kanha ! You have to be comfortable in your own skin and in your own company because there are times when you’re all alone. For people who don’t know about it I’d advice to first take short trips in the jungle. Volunteering with an NGO is also a very good way to get a sense of life in these areas.
9 – Who are your inspirations if any ? Who do you admire in wildlife today ?
There is a man in Assam called Jadav “Molai” Payeng who created a huge forest over a few decades on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. When he was a young man of 17 or 18, he saw a few tree snakes who were trying to shelter in the shade of some small bamboo. He felt sorry for these animals who couldn’t find enough repair so the next day he planted some more bamboo.
From then, every day he continued to plant other indigenous trees and he created, single-handedly, little by little, a huge eco-system where wildlife started to come.
(The area was then called Molai forest after him. It now houses tigers and rhinoceros as well as other animals like deer, rabbit, monkeys and several species of birds. A herd of elephants regularly visit the forest and generally stays for about six months. A/N)
Mr Payeng was an illiterate man coming from an extremely poor tribal background but his life’s passion brought him to great achievements. That’s true greatness for me. He has been awarded many illustrious prizes and recognitions for his life work and he has been called “The Forest Man of India”.
10 – What are your thoughts on wildlife conservation in India ? In your opinion, what are the most urgent issues to be tackled in the next few years ?
Some states are really progressive and are very smart about wildlife conservation. Madhya Pradesh is one of them. In some places efficient practices are still lacking, so it really depends on the area.
One of the most urgent issues will be how to find the balance between development and conservation. Development cannot be stopped. People of remote areas also want network, roads, good hospitals and that’s totally normal. But development needs to be sustainable in order not to harm wildlife protection.
11 – What is your relationship with the tiger ? Has the tiger been somewhat important in your wildlife career ?
Always. I’ve come full circle with my relationship with the tiger. I was born in a place where tiger sightings were very common and not at all out of the ordinary. Then when I became a naturalist tiger tracking was a huge part of my job because of course everybody wants to see the tiger.
Earlier, if I knew there was an alarm call in the middle of the night I would just go, sit on a macchan with my torch and wait for hours.
I am now again back from where I started. I am very happy to know that there are tigers in the wild and I feel their presence. I hear alarm calls, I see their pugmarks and scratching on the bark of trees, but I don’t have the need to constantly see them. Make no mistakes, I still enjoy a good tiger sighting and the thrill is never going to go away !
I still love the tiger the same amount, but now this feeling has become somewhat more spiritual.
12 – Can you tell me a personal tiger story ? A memorable sighting for example.
I remember my first tiger sighting very vividly. I was standing at the balcony of my home overlooking the kitchen garden. My house was the last of the village and beyond there was the jungle.
We had a kitchen garden behind my home, beyond which began a dense jungle. It was the end of the day and the sun was setting. I was with two older girls on a balcony overlooking the kitchen garden. We saw a tiger jump into the kitchen garden. It was nothing unusual for us because tigers and leopards used to come into the village quite often. The girls with me, simply raised an alarm. E Some workers of the farm came beating on some huge tin cans to make noise and scare the tiger away. I saw the tiger jump out and go back to the forest.
Another time I was returning from town back to our village through a jungle track.. At some point we saw a tiger sitting on the road, so we stopped the car and just waited. For us it was not an uncommon sight in those days. We waited for a good half an hour until the tiger decided to get up and go on its way.