When Ratna Singh had said, “be back in a year or two,” to her brother, it lacked conviction. She was anxious, after all, when the prospect of spending her life in the wilderness dangled itself in front of her; because the other prospect was equally enticing, albeit not half as invigorating – studying law at the prestigious Oxford Brooks University. However, she owed it to the little girl in her – the notorious mowgli, who grew up amidst nature’s wonders coddling creatures great and small, fancying a life where she could do this for a living – to at least give the opportunity a real shot. So, she swung by the branches, away from the confines of certainty, and into the endless possibilities of nature’s secret garden.
Our very own flower blooming in bloomers!
Thirty-seven-year-old Ratna’s ancestral home was a couple hours’ driving distance from Bandhavgarh National Park (in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh), in a picturesque village surrounded by mountains and forests. She went to Lucknow’s La Martiniere Girls’, and since she was a little girl, she had considered the wilderness her home.
She went on to do History (Hons) at Delhi University and then a post-graduate diploma in Human Rights and Refugee Laws, following which, she worked for a few years with the UNHCR and the Red Cross before she heard about a ‘naturalist training progamme’ by Taj Safaris. Meanwhile, she had also been accepted at the Oxford Brooks University for an LLM in International Law for the following year. But the training programme had already caught her fancy.
“I’ve always loved animals. We have a large home in the village that had plenty of space for all creatures great and small, with the usual dogs, cats, horses, mules from time to time and plenty of wild creatures like barn owls, honey badgers and snakes in the granary and the woodshed. I always envied naturalists when I visited national parks. When I heard of the Taj Safaris Naturalist training programme, it was an opportunity I found hard to give up. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d make the cut. I was the most surprised when I cleared the gruelling five-week selection process that was like boot camp,” she reflects.
“Be back in a year or two,” she had famously said, only to never return to the life she had initially planned for herself. “It’s been over a decade and I’ve become completely wild,” she quips. The bug, it seems, had bitten her, quite literally.
The road not taken
Simply put, a naturalist is a wildlife guide, typically accompanying guests and guiding them inside a national park, bringing to life all the finer nuances of nature rather than just looking for the big cats and mammals.
While training at Bandhavgarh, which was very close to home, she did face some resistance, but not for long. “I do have a faint memory of some stress, but all the wonderful support from friends, colleagues and family far outweigh the short period of stress before I made my bones and earned my stripes, so to speak,” Ratna adds.
The odd one out
Some women researchers or scientists in the wilderness were still around, but not many women were professionally-qualified wildlife guides or naturalists. “When I began all those years ago, I was still an oddity. It was a challenge to be taken seriously as a professional. It amuses me when I think of some sets of guests who felt I was too polite and hence wouldn’t have the required instinct to track a tiger. A lot of the trackers were not sure I could handle a large vehicle and drive on steep or rough tracks. The forest guards and villagers hadn’t really seen a woman in a position of authority, or literally wearing the pants – so I too got addressed as ‘sir’ for years together. But once they saw I could hold my own, I had overwhelming support. Besides, my teammates and colleagues really looked out for me. After a while I got treated like a man – in a good way I’d say,” Ratna recalls.
Perksmasquerading as perils
Above all, the incredible animal sightings and some truly unusual behaviour by animals that she got to savour all by herself, made the rocky road full of delights – like helping a teammate with a flat tyre in the jungle as two tigers emerged from the dry river bank below, passed within six feet of them, as they watched on in awe. Or the night when she was getting back to her cottage late at night, and a leopard jumped from a tree onto the track in front of her. “I stood trembling for a few minutes and slowly made my way home, yet admiring the cat in his stealthy glory,” Ratna remembers.
While her best moments in the wild are awe-inspiring, her favourite moments in civilisation are heart-rendering. “Numerous people over the years have come and told me that they are keeping their daughters in school, as they see that an education can provide opportunities even in the jungle or rural areas, contrary to popular belief,” she adds proudly.
More women going the Mowgli-way
And surely enough, in the last few years, quite a few women have joined the fray. In fact, the forest departments in some parts even began training tribal and local girls as trackers, and Ratna was asked to mentor the first batch. For ladies wanting to get into the field, Ratna has some pearls of wisdom from a decade of experience. “It’s physically demanding and one has to be a people’s person to be an effective naturalist and guide. There are almost no avenues of modern-day entertainment; one has to really get back to the basics,” she cautions.
After all, nothing is ever certain in the wilderness, so living in the moment is the key. “But, once you are up for the challenge, this other side of humanity is life-affirming. The rural areas around the jungles have a very strong sense of community and old-world ethics and courtesy, which is sort of disappearing from urban set-ups. It is such a big relief not to be connected all the time…”Ratna adds.
She has moved into a training role for some years now, and currently works as a consultant in the field of wilderness tourism and hospitality – both in training as well as responsible tourism. She even got shortlisted to the top four finalists for the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT) award for the Best Naturalist in India in 2012.