(Vineeta Yadav. Canoeing is often a part of her expeditions)
By Zaiceka Ahmed
It fills my heart with joy to see women break ground in arenas conventionally set aside for men. For instance, while most people don’t see anything unusual in female labourers hauling bricks in construction sites or sweating it out in agricultural fields, to picture a young woman in the shoes of a naturalist/conservationist spending days in the wild is ironically deemed drastic. So, when Vineeta Yadav – a young naturalist at Pugdundee Safaris from Haryana– earned the recognition of the winner of ‘Wildlife Young Naturalist Award’ this year from Sanctuary Asia, a leading Indian environmental news magazine, it’s time to sit up and acknowledge the grit, determination, and tradition-defying dedication women put in to protect wilderness to let nature thrive.
She is busy with academics these days and I feel a little guilty for taking up more than an hour of her time for our conversation! Here it is anyway:
“Being a naturalist is typically seen as a man’s job. Were you reluctant at any point to be in the wilderness where physical strength is pivotal to survive?”
“Yes working in field is considered a man’s domain. But the good thing is that animal/nature does not distinguish between man and woman. Situations are equally tough towards or easy for both. Since physical fitness that matters is what really matters, one can always work to achieve that with discipline and practice. The passion towards the nature is the must to go ahead and move people around you. I think it was my mental strength that drove me to pursue my dream.
Was it easy to stay by yourself in forests?
Generally I stayed in camps on the periphery of the park and spent morning to evening in the park. It is not legally permitted to people to stay within the National Park itself unless they are from the wildlife department. But residing at the lodge site itself is adventurous too as the parks are not fenced and wild animals frequently wander into the premises -a bull elephant visited the elephant camp occasionally, spotted deer would rest under the cottages at night, there is a resident jackal family at the lodge – even a resident python. Once, a rhino crossed by my room and I woke up to its footprints right outside the door!
I had to stay all by myself when I went to Nepal. I knew little about the Terai habitat and ecosystem. There I became friends with fellow naturalists who mentored me and helped understand Chitwan, its culture, people, seasons and wildlife.
“Why did you decide to be a naturalist?
People wait to retire to admire nature and that is it. One holiday, one retirement plan – I don’t quite get the concept. I have previously worked with agencies and corporates. I was not sure if I was making a difference to the lives of people or adding to the problem of consumerism and destruction. I decided not to be a part (however tiny) of the problem. I opened my mind and decided to do what I had always wished to do, be with nature. Everything fell into place then after!
(Recent visit to meet Gibbons)
“What was a typical day in your life as a Naturalist in the wilderness like?”
Life was simple to say the least. My day started at 4:30 am sharp, I used to take the guests of the lodge for their safaris into the park – we would go bird watching, track animals, spend time with the elephants and return by sunset. I consider myself lucky to have not missed a single sunrise or sunset in the past two years. We were greeted by the forest dwellers at every step, some bird making its nest, some plant opening its leaves, some insect marching for food. It was never tiring, and then the sky would be filled with stars, everything nocturnal would hum and howl. The forest never sleeps.
“Any particularly memorable encounter with the untamed?”
It would have to be my closest experience with sloth bears! I had set out for a nature walk with four young boys from the city. We were well into the forest when we heard a swish meters away, and after a few more watchful steps we found two sloth bears standing on their hind legs facing right at us! Thankfully they weren’t much interested in us and we chose not to interfere.
“You have travelled extensively across the country in your quest to grow as a naturalist. How many nature reserves have you visited?”
Around 25 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries! It’s very addictive. And this count is still very less for someone in love with wildlife! I love the idea of repeated visits to a few favourite ones.
Corbett, Kanha National Park, Tadoba Andhari and Chitwan National Park.
“So what interests you more in nature… the birds and beasts, or the shrubs and the trees?” (This rhyme is also why I will never be a poet)
Haha! The entire system interests me. This whole puzzle where one leads to the other. No trees, no birds. More trees, more birds. It is almost impossible to isolate any one component. But the heart goes to follow birds!
“Name a naturalist who has inspired you”
There are two – Salim Ali Sir and Sir David Frederick Attenborough. You must watch Planet Earth 2, if you haven’t yet!
“Your most memorable assignment and what did you learn from it?”
We went for a daylong walk to a sight in the park called golden pool (sun khola) and ran out of water. And because our expected pit-stop was not functional anymore, we had to walk a few kilometers till we found some clean water! Lesson learnt – never finish your stock till you are at the next source. And of course always carry refill bottles instead of the plastic ones!
“Last question – which animal is your favourite?
Elephants- as I have spent so much time with them. They are so huge still so complacent. Elephants are also very intelligent and active, and recognize your love provided you give them their space.
(Vineeta poses with ‘Rani’)