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

- JRR Tolkien

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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

Sep 17, 2019

India Must Stop Deforesting its Mountains if it Wants to Fight Floods.

During floods and landslides in August 2019, two villages were completely destroyed killing several people, while a year earlier Kerala saw its worst floods in a century.

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WRITTEN BY

Gayathri D Naik

Floods are now an annual nightmare in many parts of southern and western India. Valleys in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala that weren’t considered flood-prone until recently are at risk.

These floods appear to be getting more severe. Climate change is causing stronger and more erratic rainfall with recurrent floods in low-lying areas while population growth is putting more people in risky areas. And another problem comes from deforestation in the mountain range where much of the water first fell: the Western Ghats.

More than 500 people died in severe flooding in Kerala in 2018.
AJP / shutterstock

The Western Ghats run for 1,600km in parallel with India’s west coast, from Gujarat right down to Tamil Nadu at the tip of the subcontinent. It is – or was – a picturesque landscape of serene valleys, steep gorges and virgin forests. Yet recurring floods and landslides in the mountains, hills and areas downstream (between the Ghats and the sea) show that India must rethink its environmental law to balance the needs of nature and humans.

The Western Ghats follow India’s western coast.
Nichalp / wiki, CC BY-SA

The mountains are teeming with life. Though they cover only a small part of India’s total land area, the Ghats are home to more than 30% of the country’s species of plants, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, including both wild elephants and tigers. Its combination of unique species and habitat loss means Unesco has recognised it as one of eight global “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity.

Climate change is already having an obvious impact, with unprecedented rains in monsoon seasons and severe drought and dry rivers in summer. And as the human population has grown, people have chopped down the forests and replaced them with spice, tea, coffee and rubber plantations. Thousands of illegal stone quarries now also operate in the Ghats, where mountainsides are demolished to generate stones and sand for the construction industry. Deforestation and the use of highly destructive explosives mean these areas are prone to increased seismic tremors and landslides.

Large dams on major rivers offer renewable energy yet also raise another set of environmental problems. In Kerala, many are located in eco-sensitive parts of the Western Ghats, with some dating back to British rule. As demand for energy increases, India plans to build more dams which in turn could lead to massive deforestation and ecosystem destruction. All this makes flooding more severe, as deforestation in the catchment area of a river reduces the land’s ability to retain water.

Tea plantation on deforested land near Munnar, Kerala, in the Western Ghats.
Mazur Travel / shutterstock

Whether triggered by damming, deforestation, or exacerbated by climate change, human-induced natural disasters in the region have pointed to a need for stronger environmental protection laws.

How to protect the Western Ghats

India’s 1950 constitution claims that protection of environment is a fundamental duty of every citizen, and though it does not explicitly contain a right to a clean environment, legal authority for environmental lawmaking is derived from the document.

Over the years, the country’s central government has enacted various laws that are applicable to the Western Ghats: the Environment Protection Act 1986, the Forest Conservation Act 1980, the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2002 and so on. However, these laws are not implemented efficiently, which makes me wonder if areas like the Himalayas and the Western Ghats – internationally significant ecosystems and biosphere reserves – need their own special laws.

The endangered Boulenger’s tree frog is found in the Western Ghats – and nowhere else.
lensalot / shutterstock

Additionally, India’s water laws are inadequate. Existing legislation primarily focuses on pollution control, meaning the law has little to say about preventing or even managing floods which result from mismanagement of dams or too much riverside development.

The problem is enhanced in case of rivers that flow across state boundaries. Some of the major floods in the past couple years happened after dams at or near full capacity in one district or state were opened, letting water flow downstream into another area. Recently, a draft dam safety bill has been proposed to address these problems.

Similarly, discussions over climate change and environmental lawmaking should involve more grassroot level participation. For most people, poverty and earnings still matter more than climate mitigation or adaptation. Hence people’s perception should be moulded to recognise and realise how deforestation or climate change impacts their daily life.

The Western Ghats are south India’s lifeline, with millions dependent on the range either directly or indirectly. These mountains need protection. However, while new development in the region continues to be human-centric, the entire concept of nature preservation is relegated. To protect the Western Ghats, what we require is an attitude that recognises the significance of these mountains, and that will involve specific laws.The Conversation

Gayathri D Naik, Research Scholar, School of Law, SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover Photo: Mountains above Munnar, a hill town in Kerala, India. Santhosh Varghese / Shutterstock

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