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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

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Earth

Aug 29, 2018

Dealing with Humans, for a Love of Tigers

For the first woman to earn a doctorate on tigers in India, while overcoming institutionalized sexism, it was a cruel journey.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

Today, Dr. Latika Nath is recognized as the first Indian woman to hold a doctorate in tiger conservation.  Back in the seventies, in the beginning, it wasn’t that easy for her. Being the daughter of one of the founders of the Wildlife Institute of India proved to be both an advantage and a disadvantage. She was deliberately put under immense scrutiny and had to consistently fight the cruelty of the Indian male ego. After realizing that she may not be able to deal with centuries of bloated egos and sexist perceptions all by herself, Dr. Nath decided to pick another battle. She went to the University of Oxford to do guided research under Prof David MacDonald, an acclaimed carnivore biologist. Her important questions, previously shunned by Indian researchers, were appreciated by the professor. That’s when Dr. Nath’s career in wildlife biology really took off.

“However, the “wildlife” of the academic circles was a shock to my sensibilities.”

Dr. Nath spent initial years in India, when she frequented diverse natural terrains with her family. After studying in the U.K. for eleven years, she returned to New Delhi in 2015 to focus entirely on tiger conservation and restoration of local tribal communities in India.

In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Dr. Latika Nath about why she stuck around in the field of wildlife biology, how she was able to overcome institutional sexism, and what tiger conservation means to her.

Photo: Dr. Latika Nath

Proving Competence as an Indian Woman in Wildlife Biology

TOJ: What kind of excitement and challenges did you face as a beginner? Can you reflect on those intense moments and how such experiences shaped your perspective?

Dr. Latika NathAs a beginner, the first challenge was to prove my ability to my peers. Being the daughter of one of the founders of the Wildlife Institute of India, I was under twice the amount of scrutiny and received double the criticism. It was a tough fight all the way. It didn’t help that I had never lived away from home, had never faced tough field conditions and that I looked like a delicate city girl.

“From the time I entered the field, several male colleagues and male conservationists have gone out of the way to discredit me and my work.”

Wildlife moments were not new to me since I had been spending time in wilderness areas all my life. However, the “wildlife” of the academic circles was a shock to my sensibilities. From experiencing heartbreak when my work was published and credited to someone else, to facing the beginning of what was going to be a lifetime of antagonism from people who were outraged that I dared to question scientific methodology, techniques and statistics, and stand up to men who told me that since they were “Rajput Men” their word was written in stone and therefore not to be questioned – it was a cruel journey.

I chose to move to work under the guidance of Prof David MacDonald, one of the most acclaimed carnivore biologists in the world at the University of Oxford and to leave the convoluted world of Indian male egos and jealousy of Indian academia behind. This decision made it possible for me to complete a doctorate on tiger conservation.

Oxford is a place where people are judged purely on the basis of their work quality. Academic excellence is promoted, and resources made available to ensure that research is at the cutting edge. This was so different to India and such a welcome change.

TOJ: Being the first woman to hold a doctorate on tigers in India is a big achievement. It must have been a huge challenge too. What kind of obstacles did you face on the way to recognition and what motivated you to keep going in the face of hard times? In times of trouble and self-doubt, what or who did you resort to?

Dr. Latika NathMost people base their estimation of my ability on my physical appearance or my family background which bely my ability to work through the toughest and most extreme conditions in the field and does not show my infinite patience and persistence while doing research and photography. From the time I entered the field, several male colleagues and male conservationists have gone out of the way to discredit me and my work. People have published my work as their own, written to my University Professors and even used influence to ensure that I don’t get assignments or work.

My parents have always supported me in every way. They are my strength and my support. In times of need, I have also looked within myself to find the strength to fight on, avoid direct conflict and use my work to prove my worth.

The Reality and Rewards of Wildlife Conservation in India

TOJ: What made you feel that you could focus on tiger conservation and research in a male- dominated environment? How was the struggle in the last 25 years? Can you describe your energy, anticipation, fear, and finally achievement during this pursuit? In what ways do you think the field has evolved in India?

Dr. Latika NathI never thought about working on tiger conservation as entering a male dominated environment. It was what I wanted to do, and I has always learnt that if you want to do something you just go ahead and do it. You need to work hard, give your best and stay focused. It was not about proving anything to anyone but simply doing what I loved and wanted.

“It is a job for people with passion and a commitment to nature conservation.”

The challenge for me has been more about staying true to my commitment and finding ways to continue to work in the field despite people wanting to thwart my attempts at joining things like the IUCN Cat Specialist Group where I was asked to withdraw my application quietly as ‘guru dakshina’ to someone who was associated with my PhD research, or being told that I had been black listed in the final interviews for an international job position because some phone calls had been made. This was tough to deal with especially since I had done nothing to deserve this and was being targeted just because I had refused to blindly follow all directions in connection to the research work I was doing.

The reality in tiger conservation politics has not changed much in the past 25 years. The people who are working today and dominating the scene are still the same and just a handful of new people have entered the field. There is still little cooperation between various stakeholders, and suspicion and animosity between the Forest Services and the tourism community. Wildlife biologists seem to be an appendage that is sometimes useful and sometimes to be ignored.

TOJ: What inspired you to work with tribal communities in the buffer zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve and the Forest Department of the Government of India? What kind of challenges did you face during that journey, and how did you overcome them? What about working with the Singinawa Foundation?

Dr. Latika NathI wanted to opt out of academic research on tigers as it was becoming impossible to work in the field as an independent entity and political pressures seemed to be increasing constantly. I also realized that while a lot of research and conservation work was being focused on the tiger reserves themselves, little work was being done on the areas surrounding the tiger reserves which acted as a sink for the dispersing tiger populations from the parks. This made me take the decision to focus on the local communities, corridors and buffer areas of the Park.

I founded the Singinawa Foundation as the Madhya Pradesh branch of the NGO my father had called AHEAD. The foundation had only one person in it – me, and 100% of all funds received were used for the project they had been assigned for. I made waterholes for the Park; helped the purchase of five 4×4 bolero campers for the Park; created a computer school for the children; held a festival called “Trees in their lives” focusing on the tribal communities of Kanha; held science competitions for the school; took children into the park; held health camps; cleaning drives for removing garbage from the area between Singinawa and the Park gate at Mukki; worked on alternate energy; focused on minimizing plastic use; etc

Photo: Dr. Latika Nath

“Life has taught me that there are good times and bad; that there are good people and bad. This is a part of life. And if you love what you do, then you take all this in your stride.”

The Pursuit of “Ikigai”

TOJ: Do you have some words of encouragement for women who aspire to pursue wildlife biology in India? Are there certain realities they should keep in mind while chasing this dream?

Dr. Latika Nath: For women aspiring to pursue a career in wildlife biology in India, it is important to understand that there will be many moments in their life when they will have to choose between a traditional home life and working in the field. Like all women in careers which involve travel, they will have to learn to balance both these aspects of their lives.

It is also important to remember that these are not incredibly well-paying jobs especially at the beginning of the career, however, the places you work in and the species you work with are a privilege that only a few have. It is a job for people with passion and a commitment to nature conservation.

TOJ: Fundamentally speaking, what personal values and philosophies are at the core of your success as a woman biologist in India?

Dr. Latika Nath: I love what I do. I have found my “ikigai”. My work is my passion and gives me great satisfaction. Life has taught me that there are good times and bad; that there are good people and bad; that there is success and failure; highs and lows. This is a part of life. And if you love what you do, then you take all this in your stride. You do your best and success follows. And there is always something to look forward to – that next meeting with a tiger!

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Environment

Nov 11, 2018

Update: Following a Wave of Protests, China Postpones Lifting the Ban on the Use of Tiger and Rhino Parts

The use of rhino horn and tiger bone for medicinal uses was to be permitted again, which would have had a large impact on tiger and rhino endangerment.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

UPDATE

Since this article was published, China has postponed the ban being lifted. This decision has come in the face of international outcry, and in a statement China has said that they are “dedicated to the cause of wildlife protection”.

State Council Executive Deputy Secretary-General Ding Xuedong, did not explain for how long the ban would continue, but that the “three strict bans” will continue to be enforced: strictly ban the import and export of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts; strictly ban the sale, purchase, transport, carrying and mailing of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts; and strictly ban the use of rhino horns and tiger bones in medicine.

The WWF has responded, explaining that they “welcome the news that China has postponed lifting its ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bone, signalling a positive response to international reaction. Allowing trade from even captive animals could have had devastating impacts on wild rhino and tiger populations. This move helps maintain the leadership role China has taken in tackling the illegal wildlife trade and reducing market demand.”

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

“All five of the world’s diverse species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of human appetite for their distinctive horns” says PBS Nature.

On October 29th, China released a statement allowing the trade of tiger and rhino products. According to Leigh Henry, the wildlife policy director at the World Wildlife Fund, “This new regulation replaces the outright ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been in place since 1993.”

Mother and young rhinoceros killed for their horns. Taken at private game farm in Gauteng, South Africa. Photo: Hein waschefort

The ban was originally put into place as a way to mitigate the rhino and tiger poaching crisis, which was contributing to the endangered status of both animals. With fewer than 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers left in the wild, the possibility of those species going extinct is unfortunately, extremely high. According to Dr Jo Shaw, A Programme Officer with TRAFFIC, “A decade ago the first signs were on the horizon of the forthcoming rhino poaching crisis, but few then could have foreseen the magnitude and ramifications of what we face today. However, with the surging demand from Asia, people willing to pay high prices to get their hands on rhino horn, and little fear of capture by those smuggling horn, it was perhaps inevitable that this ‘commodity’ would catch the attention of the hardened criminal fraternity, creating a ‘perfect storm’ for rhino poaching and horn trade.”

“taken daily to keep illness at bay and restore vital energy rather than to treat specific symptoms”

Tiger bone and rhino horn have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as healing agents for the past 3,000 years. Tigers and rhinos are thought to have strong energy, which if used medicinally, will give strength and energy to the person receiving the medicine. According to Dr. Rebecca Drury of Flora and Fauna International, “In order to understand consumption of many traditional tonics, one also needs to understand more about Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine. For example, these tend to be taken daily to keep illness at bay and restore vital energy rather than to treat specific symptoms, and wild-derived animals are considered to have stronger vital energy.”

Despite tiger and rhino bone being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the past 3,000 years, scientists today say there is no actual proven healing benefit from the products. PBS Nature says, “Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the (rhino) horns. In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.”

According to Leigh Henry with the World Wildlife Fund, “Tiger bone and rhino horn were removed from the official pharmacopoeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine after the 1993 ban on trade in these products was put in place. In 2010, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies released a statement urging members not to use tiger bone or any other parts from endangered species.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, originating more than 3,000 years ago, includes an emphasis on the importance of being in balance with nature, as this balance contributes to our health and well-being. It is in this spirit that many TCM practitioners no longer endorse the use of rhino horn or tiger parts.

Rhino horn in packaging horns, seized by UK Border Agency. Photo: UK Home Office

Despite the lack of scientifically-proven medical benefits, tiger bone and rhino horns are still highly valued around the world. TRAFFIC reports “at least 65 rhino horns have been stolen from public display within South Africa with similar thefts carried out in the US and in Europe.”

6,500 tigers live in China’s tiger farms, far outnumbering the roughly 3,900 remaining in the wild.

In a statement released by the World Wildlife Fund, “The new regulations say hospitals can obtain parts from captive facilities within China—excluding zoos—where tigers and rhinos are bred for commercial purposes. Experts estimate that more than 6,500 tigers live in China’s tiger farms, far outnumbering the roughly 3,900 remaining in the wild.

These “tiger farms” that the WWF refers to are legal farms in China that raise tigers for legal commercial sale of their skins. “The trade in tiger and rhino parts and products was prohibited in China. However, there was an exemption for tiger skins and their products obtained from legal sources, including from captive breeding, if permitted by the government, legally registered and accompanied by a certificate.” These legal farms are now permitted to sell and trade tiger bones as well as skins.

“this move risks causing confusion among consumers as to what products are legal or illegal”

The World Wildlife Fund is worried that China’s declaration allowing the use of tiger bone and rhino horn will spur a rise in poaching. “It is WWF’s position that the movement of tiger products from tiger farms into the marketplace (through legal or illegal channels) negatively impacts enforcement efforts directed against those who trade in tigers poached from the wild. This is of great concern given that poaching remains the greatest threat to conservation of the species at this time. The same concern exists regarding rhino horn trade and impact on conservation of rhinos in the wild. Equally, this move risks causing confusion among consumers as to what products are legal or illegal and could expand the markets/demand for these products, which have thus far been in slow decline thanks, in large part, to the 1993 ban.”

The World Wildlife Fund is clear on their stance with this issue. “The unfortunate reality is that tiger farms in China have been growing in size for some time now, posing an increasing threat to tigers in the wild. This decision is a move in the opposite direction from where we believe China should go; maintaining the 1993 ban and setting a clear plan and timeline to close existing captive tiger breeding facilities used for commercial purposes.”

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