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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

May 14, 2019

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.

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WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

This article was made available to The Outdoor Journal via a press release by Tourism New Zealand.

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic Kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird. Wellingtonians are known for their love of flat whites and their passion for the arts. But there’s a new pastime that’s rapidly growing in New Zealand’s capital and all around the country.

Assembling and setting traps for rats, stoats and other predators in their own backyards. It’s a somewhat unlikely hobby, but in Wellington alone, there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management.  They’re all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world and a paradise for native birds such as the tīeke (Saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), kākā, kākāriki and toutouwai (North Island robin). 

In Wellington alone there are now more than 70 community groups involved in pest management all aiming at making their home town the first predator-free capital city in the world. Photo by: Capital Kiwi

Ever since conservation project Zealandia created a fully fenced 225-hectare ecosanctuary within the city limits in 1999, native birdlife has returned to many suburbs and Wellingtonians have embraced their avian friends. The groups are part of a groundswell of community conservation initiatives sweeping New Zealand and delivering fantastic results.

“Where once it would have been a remarkable sight to see a single kākā (a boisterous native parrot) in the wilderness of our mountain ranges, we now have literally hundreds of them across Wellington city, screeching across city skies,” says self-confessed “bird nerd” Paul Ward. Buoyed by the birdsong orchestra he thought, “Why stop there? Let’s bring back New Zealand’s most iconic bird, the Kiwi.” “The only time I’d seen a Kiwi growing up was in a zoo, and that’s not right for our national taonga (treasure),” he insists. 

The flightless birds with hair-like feathers and the chopstick bill have been absent from Wellington for over a century due to the loss of their habitat and the spread of predators. Ward’s ambitious project Capital Kiwi hopes to lure Kiwi back to the Wellington region within the next decade. Approximately 4,400 traps will be set on 23,000 hectares of public and private land stretching from the outskirts of town to the coast.

“Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime”

As long as stoats, ferrets and weasels are around, Kiwi chicks have hardly any chance of surviving their first year.  An average of 27 Kiwis are killed by predators each day according to charity ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ which supports community-led initiatives around the country. They warn that at this rate “Kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.” 

But projects in Rakiura / Stewart Island in the south of New Zealand, Whangarei Heads in the north and Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty have shown that with the involvement of the community as kaitiaki (guardians) it is possible to grow a wild Kiwi population. 

The project Capital Kiwi hopes to bring New Zealand’s iconic birds back to Wellington by setting more than 4,000 traps in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Photo by: Capital Kiwi.

Michelle Impey, from Kiwis for Kiwi explains that one of the challenges of Kiwi conservation is “getting people to understand and care about something they can’t see and don’t experience.”

Kiwis are nocturnal, and with only a few exceptions live far removed from cities, towns and villages. “Bringing Kiwi closer to where Kiwis live makes them top of mind, completely relevant, and creates a sense of ownership with those who are privileged enough to have them living on or near their land,” Impey adds. She hopes that the new project will create “a city of Kiwi conservationists” who feel a personal attachment to their national bird. 

In August 2018 the government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, which aims to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten the nation’s natural wildlife by 2050, announced their support for Capital Kiwi, committing more than NZ$3.2 million over the next five years.  It may sound like a lot of money, but the other way of looking at this is “What is the cost if we don’t?” Ward ponders.

“Can we, as a nation of Kiwis, afford to let our national icon die and become extinct? What would that say about us as guardians of the taonga (treasure) that makes our country so special and unique?”

https://www.outdoorjournal.com/featured/environment/reaction-european-single-use-plastic-ban/

Ninety-year-old Ted Smith, who lives in the small seaside settlement of Makara just over the hills from Wellington, helped to kick off the project with the setting of the first trap in November. He and his local community started trapping in their backyards a decade ago which resulted in a remarkable increase in birdlife – tūī, kākā, kererū, pūkeko, kingfishers, quails and others. “If we allow Kiwi to die out then we deserve to be called idiots,” he says. Wellingtonians love the vision of having Kiwi rummaging through their gardens and Ward says he’s been overwhelmed with the offers of help and support from the community.  

“We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington”

Capital Kiwi has received hundreds of emails from people keen to help. Schoolchildren are now monitoring tracking tunnels, mountain bikers and trail runners check reserve trap lines on lunchtime rides and families come together to build traps. If the eradication proves successful after three years, the Department of Conservation will look at translocating Kiwi to the hillsides. The hope is that in less than a decade, tourists will be able to post their Kiwi encounters on the outskirts of Wellington on social media, and locals will beam with pride at hearing the shrill call of the country’s iconic birds in their backyards. 

“I would love to be woken up by the sound of the Kiwi. We want to see Kiwi come back into Wellington,” the capital’s Major Justin Lester says. 

The Department of Conservation is backing Capital Kiwi too. “Getting Kiwi back into the hills of Wellington where people can hear them call is a great way to demonstrate what New Zealand could look like if we get rid of the stoats and ferrets,” DOC’s Jack Mace says. 

“It would certainly add another feather to Wellington’s cap as one of the best places to see New Zealand’s unique wildlife.”

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Cover Photo: New Zealand’s little spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Eco-sanctuary in Wellington. Photo by: Zealandia Eco-sanctuary

 

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