Wildlife filmmaker Akanksha Sood Singh is amplifying stories of women in the wild on Instagram
From animal communicators and safari guides to wildlife photographers and conservationists, Women of the Wild offers a safe and non-judgmental space.
Thursday May 11, 2023,
7 min Read
- Akanksha Sood Singh is a wildlife filmmaker.
- She started Women of the Wild India page on Instagram
- It offers a space for women working in the wildlife sector to come together
Earlier this March, the Instagram page, Women of the Wild India, started by Akanksha Sood Singh, featured harrowing accounts of women leading to a #MeToo movement in the wildlife conservation sector.
The page, as part of a regular series, had called for an institutional review of Turtle Survival Alliance–India, and messages of harassment, abuse, misogyny, and patriarchy in the organisation began pouring in.
After more than 300 comments were posted on the page, TSA, which operates under the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society, announced the replacement of its director, Shailendra Singh, against whom many allegations were raised.
“Though we had been featuring institutional reviews for some time, here people did not come out anonymously, they used their personal handles and also talked about their experiences. They were not afraid. Also, this was the first time where an accusation of rape had come up; it could not be left as a comment, and had to be escalated,” Singh, a wildlife filmmaker, tells HerStory.
Singh had called for institutional reviews so that women from organisations in this sector could talk about their experiences working, volunteering, or studying.
Initially, there was very little interaction. She says the first “game changer” happened during a review of the Centre for Wildlife Studies. People became more confident in sharing their stories of harassment and abuse.
“This had a lot of skeletons tumbling out of the closet. For a whole week, people were sending their anonymous reviews,” she adds.
Singh is clear about one thing. Every person who messages has to reveal their identity so that she can post it anonymously on their behalf. She also looks them up in common contacts, on LinkedIn, and does a little background research before posting their comment anonymously.
After accusations against the TSA snowballed into another #MeToo reckoning, Singh believes the community has grown, and has become a platform where people look to each other for support. The National Commission of Women (NCW) got involved, an FIR was filed, and lawyers called, offering their services pro bono.
Not just a page, a movement
Women of the Wild was no longer just a page, it had become a movement.
In 2020, Singh, a member of the advisory board for the Jackson Wild Film Festival, was looking at ways to use the free time during the lockdowns to help women in STEM use social media as a tool to talk about their work and make short films. As she was putting the presentation together, she had a number of questions, most importantly, the challenges women face, but when she searched for them online, she hardly found any.
Frustrated with the process of trying to get at least 15 women to talk about their challenges, Singh just shot off five questions to women she knew and asked them to pass them on to more women. The aim was to start a directory of women in STEM.
She posted the first three responses online and realised that there are so many women connected to the wild in a million ways.
“One thing led to another and soon we had stories of women in this field, and they were connecting with each other on the platform. There is networking, mentoring and people looking for jobs. It’s incredible to see what this platform has become,” she says.
Singh says she wants to feature everyone working with the wild in some way. “The process is simple. When I started the page, I spent a lot of time researching women in the space online, reached out to them, sent them questions, and started posting their stories. Now, people send recommendations or their own stories.
The stories are diverse. There are animal communicators, safari guides, wildlife photographers, wildlife biologists, social entrepreneurs, and others telling their stories in their own words.
“Every story has something unique. One common thread is that every woman has come into this field because of their passion for it. What really stands out are the different ways women today are working in the wild and taking it forward,” says Singh.
The story of Ishita Das, a behavioural neuroscientist, artist, and author, who was still struggling after two decades in the field but who remained rooted to her passion, moved Singh. Till then, women spoke nice things about their journeys; Ishita’s story prompted other women to talk about their own hardships and challenges.
Chasing big cats
Twenty-one years ago, Singh became a woman of the wild herself when she started assisting wildlife filmmaker Praveen Singh, whom she later married. It changed her drastically, learning to live in solitude and silence.
“You are on your own most of the time, and you have to live with that because you need to understand what nature is speaking, the sounds and signs, otherwise you won’t be able to work. I started off with research, basic production, and then cinematography and post-production,” she says.
In the first 10 years of her career, Singh did not direct but stuck to different roles in filmmaking. Her directorial debut interestingly was not on wildlife, but a human interest documentary on Padman Arunachalam Muruganantham that went on to win a national award. It gave her the confidence to direct her second film, this time on wildlife called Tigress Blood for Discovery Channel. This again got her a national award, and Singh went on to do a number of films on the big cats.
She was also the first-ever to shoot films completely at night in India–a two-part series on the lions in Gir and the resurgence of the Manas National Park in Assam.
“Usually, one gets permission to shoot only from sunrise to sunset. We received government support to shoot life at night in the jungle. They were eye-opening films,” she adds.
The couple moved on to On The Brink, which looks at lesser-known species and habitats in India, now in its third season.
Singh admits wildlife filmmaking cannot be process-driven. One could start off with a story in mind, but end up with totally different content.
“In 2019, we had written a script for a film on the Indian pangolin. When we went to Papikonda (on the Odisha, Telangana, Chhattisgarh border) known for a good population of pangolins, we didn’t even spot one. We had to change the story and ended up meeting hunters and poachers of pangolins who offered pangolins for us to film.”
They had to decline the offer and change the location.
Despite the dangers lurking in the wild, Singh feels that after 22 years, she has learned to understand the warning signs and animal behaviour, and knows how to be careful around them.
“More than the animals, there are poachers, you are sometimes filming in conflict regions, or you might step on a landmine. These are dangerous. But we have also been chased by rhinos in Assam and by unpredictable elephants,” she says.
A full-time filmmaker, Singh also understands her responsibility of running a page like Women of the Wild India. She runs it with a few volunteers and is looking for funds to expand it.
“I want to make small cohorts of people–mentors, experts, and volunteers who can help others in different ways. There is a definite lack of role models in this space, and I hope more women will step up to guide and help others,” she says.
Edited by Megha Reddy