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The event at the Bangalore International Centre was on the occasion of the book “Women in Wild” by Anita Mani, and it was a panel discussion with seven prominent female Wildlife Biologists and Researchers.
I did go into the session blind, but glad I went. I am sure that I would not have come across the fascinating lives of icons like Jamal Ara or J Vijaya (India’s first herpetologist who died at the young age of 28 under tragic circumstances — and on the book cover). Or heard the passion and challenges of the women on the stage.
With many in the audience students in the area, aspirants, or even enthusiasts who want to know more, these are the points I felt are good takeaways for all who want to know the space.
1. Decades before, wildlife research was a bastion of the male. Not anymore, now many are there, and doing substantive work. In fact, in many undergraduate and postgraduate schools, the girls significantly outnumber the boys in the class. However, women’s representation in the decision-making positions is still low.
2. The career is still relatively uncertain, especially in monetary terms. So passion is very important for deciding to enter, as a long arduous, and often lonely journey awaits one. But it is extremely enriching at the same time.
3. Many people come to the space after being in other areas, and hence so-called “later in life”. Does not matter, so long one is clear about the space, and the methods can be found out.
4. Given the nature of the profession, a mentor who will back up through thick and thin is a great advantage. Does not matter who that mentor is, and many areas are so nascent that there are only a handful are available in that field. But empathy is a key criterion to look for.
5. Most people are supportive, and specifically for women — most men are. Some shared that in their experience members of the forest department are more enabling than fellow wildlife community. Possibly because they are universally more invested.
6. There are constraints in terms of women-specific challenges, specifically health. The best way to handle this is to call out, seek help, and take rest/ care if necessary. At not point goal should be to prove a point as a woman.
7. Safety was not called out as a big issue, but the lack of environment to call out cases of harassment and the institutional apathy to deal with them were discussed. It was stressed that all discomfort has to be called out early, as in many cases it helps to build security.
8. Media engagement is a key lacuna, but critical as it builds public awareness and advocacy. A lot of scope exists for the community to work with media, and media to also have reporters who have both the knowledge and sensitivity for the subject.
9. All the panelists expressed their willingness to engage with anyone who wants to reach them for suggestions/ guidance or any other support. Email is the best form as shared.
Women in the Wild is an anthology of essays on some of India’s most brilliant women field biologists. It brings together an extraordinary set of women – from India’s mysterious ‘Birdwoman’ Jamal Ara, the brilliant, tragically short-lived J Vijaya to the current generation of biologists.
The evening begins with the book launch, followed by a panel that brings together some of these accomplished women as well as the writers who contributed to the book to talk about women in wildlife research.
In collaboration with:
Vidya Athreya is the Director at Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-India). She obtained her MS in Ecology from Pondicherry University and a MSc in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Iowa, USA. Dr. Athreya obtained her doctorate from Manipal University in 2012 for her thesis on ‘Conflict resolution and leopard conservation in a human dominated landscape’. A member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, she has assisted in formulating state and national level policy guidelines on managing human-leopard conflict. Vidya’s research work has led to an increased awareness of large carnivores outside Protected Areas in India. Vidya was awarded the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award in 2011, TN Koshoo Memorial Award in 2012 and the Maharana Udai Singh Award in 2013.
Zai Whitaker belongs to a family of naturalists – she is the daughter of the renowned ornithologist Zafar Futehally and a niece of India’s most famous birdman, Sálim Ali. A noted environmentalist, she is one of the founders of the Madras Crocodile Bank and the Irula Tribe Women’s Welfare Society. Zai has written over twenty books including Andamans Boy, Kali and the Rat Snake, Cobra in My Kitchen, Salim Mamoo and Me, and more recently Termite Fry and Salim Ali for Children. Her other interest is education; she taught at the Kodaikanal International School for eighteen years and was principal of two other schools. She lives and works at the Croc Bank outside Chennai, where she is the Managing Trustee.
Uma Ramakrishnan is a professor and senior India Alliance fellow at the NCBS. She did her PhD at University of California San Diego and a postdoc at Stanford University. She has worked on tigers from a genetic lens since 2005. She and her group have developed cutting-edge tools to understand tiger connectivity, inbreeding and isolation effects and relatedness/family structures. She is also working on disease ecology, and trying to understand spillover dynamics in reservoir hosts like bats and rodents.
Uma is a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences. She won the Parker Gentry award in 2016, the Kalpana Chawla Karnataka State award 2021, the Conservation Beacon Award given by the Society for Conservation Biology in 2021 and the Molecular Ecology Prize 2023.
Dr. Ghazala Shahabuddin has a PhD in Ecology and Conservation Biology from Duke University, USA for which she studied butterfly species in habitat fragments in Lago Guri, Venezuela. Ghazala earlier taught at School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University, Delhi (2009-14). Since 2021, she has been a Visiting Professor at Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Haryana. She has published extensively on ornithology, community-based conservation and biodiversity policy in India. Her book ‘Conservation at the Crossroads’ (Permanent Black and New India Foundation, 2010), examines wildlife policy in India. Since 2015, Ghazala has been researching issues at the intersection of anthropogenic change and biodiversity in Himalayan oak forests of Kumaon. Her long-term goal is to promote the use of field-based ecological sciences for sustainability, education and policy-making.
Divya Karnad is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies with a PhD in Geography from Rutgers University, USA, and a Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the Post Graduate Programme run by NCBS. Prior to joining Ashoka University, she consulted with the Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organization and founded InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative. The focus of her work is marine conservation, fisheries management, the geography of seafood, climate and aquaculture and common property theory. She has published in scientific journals like Ambio, Biological Conservation, Conservation Biology, Marine Policy and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Dhanusha Kawalkar works as Senior Research Biologist and PhD Scholar at Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (South India Centre of Wildlife Institute of India). For the last six years, she has been working on caves and cave-dwelling animals and has been part of several islands and mainland cave explorations. In her study site in Western Maharashtra, her work focusses on the cave-dwelling Indian Swiftlet which is known from Vengurla Rocks of Sindhudurg. Following her passion for caves and subterranean habitats, she co-founded a non-profit organization named, “Speleological Association of India”. Her future focus is to contribute to the slowly revolutionizing cave science in India and help people to understand more about caves and their conservation.
Purva Variyar is a conservation and science writer and editor who works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust. She has previously worked with the Sanctuary Nature Foundation where she co-led multiple Sanctuary campaigns. She has also worked with The Gerry Martin Project on human-snake conflict mitigation and radio-telemetry study on Russell’s viper in Rathnapuri, Karnataka. Purva’s writings and photographs have been featured in several science and environmental publications including The Wire, NatureInFocus, Roundglass Sustain, Sanctuary Asia, and IndiaBioscience. She is a hobbyist micrographer, and fossils hold a special interest for Purva. Through her writing she is trying to create awareness about India’s incredible but languishing fossil wealth.
Anita Mani lives, works and birds in Delhi, from where she runs Indian Pitta, her book imprint with Juggernaut Books. In addition to editing books about birds and natural history, Anita writes on technology and communications, a throwback to the time she ran the operations of a communications software company. For several years, she ran a news and current affairs publication for children called Child Friendly News. For now, she is content to watch, read and write about birds.