Meet the first woman field director of the Kaziranga National Park
Sonali Ghosh, who was working as a Chief Conservator of Forests, has now assumed the role of the first woman field director of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP).
Amid night vigils to monitor the migration of animals across highways, safeguarding the biodiversity of the park, delivering rations to remote camps and managing administrative work, Sonali Ghosh, the first woman field director of Kaziranga National Park (KNP), has found herself losing track of days.
On September 1, Ghosh, who was working as a Chief Conservator of Forests, assumed the role of the first woman Field Director of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP).
She now oversees all activities related to afforestation schemes, animal rescue, biodiversity conservation, scientific wildlife management, and the development of wildlife habitats within Kaziranga National Park.
She calls Kaziranga National Park her ‘karma bhoomi’ as she started her career at the national park and her range training at Burapahar—one of the four ranges at the park.
Ghosh is well-versed in the requirements of her role.
“My first priority would be to continue with its protection to ensure and strengthen rhino and other flagship species conservation. The second important task would be the utmost welfare of the forest frontline staff who serve 24x7 in one of the most challenging conditions at Kaziranga,” she tells HerStory.
Ghosh hails from a family with an Army background. She says that she was an active child and that her love for the outdoors was further strengthened with her exposure to sports, adventure and extracurricular activities.
Moreover, since childhood Ghosh loved animals. She recalls that as a child she always had pets and with her elder brother she used to rescue stray animals and bring them home.
“I feel this love for outdoor spaces and animals which was ingrained within me since a young age has led me to where I am today,” she says.
Following her calling, Ghosh pursued a master's in wildlife science from the Wildlife Institute of India in 1995.
After her post-graduation, she worked for a year with WWF India as a junior biologist and thereafter as a researcher with the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing wherein she surveyed forests in Mizoram and Uttarakhand.
“I attempted the Indian Forest Service exam in 1999 and got selected to join the prestigious service in the year 2000. We were 25 forest officers out of which 7 were women. Since then there has been no looking back for me,” she says.
On the same lines, Ghosh says that women joined the Indian Forest Service only from 1980 onwards and today there are less than 300 women officers out of the over 3,000 IFS officers.
“Because of its colonial past (Imperial Forest Service started in 1867) and the rigours nature of the job, men were naturally inclined towards joining the forest department,” she adds.
She also believes that this job became challenging especially for mothers because of the lack of proper facilities and work-life balance. Ghosh recalls a time when she was posted as Deputy Director Manas National Park and her husband was in Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh. Her daughter was only one and a half years old and because of better living conditions, she stayed with her father.
“Whenever my husband was travelling outside the state, we exchanged the baby at Guwahati airport. After some time the airport ground staff started to recognise us. This was a tough time as I was away from my family, but we put in efforts together to make it work,” she says.
However, she says that the situation is changing as proper facilities are now made available.
“Forest frontline staff (especially the Ranger and Deputy Ranger level) has seen a lot of women entrants in recent years. They are young, fit and enthusiastic. As long as there are basic facilities (such as a private bath, and toilet) and sometimes a school/crèche to take care of children (below five years), there is nothing that can stop a woman from joining the department,” she says.
Talking about gender discrimination in the field, Ghosh recalls a time when she joined as a young ACF (Assistant Conservator of Forest) and was the only woman in the field. “Being called sir-madam was natural. But I am fortunate to be working in Assam where the gender divide is much less and women are treated at par and with much respect,” she adds.
She says that women who love being outdoors, who want to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable communities and be the voice of the voiceless plants and animals, must drop all their apprehensions and try to make a professional career in forest and wildlife conservation in India.
Reaching new heights
Ghosh’s new responsibilities include basic patrolling and surveillance against poachers, wild animal rescue, and visiting local communities to understand the dependencies of the villagers on the forest and seeking sustainable livelihood options. Additionally, she is also required to keep a count of wildlife using scientific techniques and manage tourism by designing and implementing ecotourism activities.
“Kaziranga is surrounded by village communities that have been historically dependent on the forest for income generation and livelihood support. These activities range from livestock grazing to the collection of minor forest produce such as grass and medicinal plants. As part of sustainable development, the forest department involves local communities to take up alternate livelihood activities such as weaving, eco-tourism etc. so that the biotic pressure on the forest is reduced,” she explains.
In addition to her multifaceted role, Ghosh is integral to the administration of Kaziranga National Park, where a specialised wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre is situated. This Centre for Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation houses skilled veterinarians and dedicated animal caregivers. Within this framework, Ghosh plays a pivotal role in making collective decisions concerning the treatment and subsequent release of animals back into their natural habitats.
Ghosh recalls that while serving as DFO Social Forestry Kokrajhar in Assam, her team had rescued two clouded leopard cubs. They were very young and had to be bottle-fed. Very little information about their diet and other requirements was available as it is a very rare species.
However, with the help of vets, a scientific plan was set in to rear them in captivity and then release them in the wild. “This included teaching them to hunt and climb trees without being too familiar with humans. Once they were old enough to fend themselves they were released in the same forest area from where they were rescued,” she explains.
Although Ghosh has recently assumed her new role, she acknowledges that her responsibilities are expected to grow over time.
"I take great pride in my work and I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this endeavour, as it allows me to work within the system for the noble cause of conserving India's wildlife and forests,” she says.
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti