It’s not unusual for naturalist Ratna Singh to have a rat snake slithering over the tiled roof of her cottage in Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, as she calmly sips her cup of tea sitting on the steps. She is truly one with nature here, seeing as typically she spends eight to nine hours every day driving wildlife enthusiasts around the jungle. In addition, she conducts guided walks and even takes people into neighbouring villages.
Singh’s job may seem like fun but it’s far from it. Here’s why. She has to brave extreme weather conditions – from sub-zero temperatures in the winters to the harsh summer sun that drives the mercury up to 44 degrees Celsius; she is required to keep abreast of all wildlife information, especially any new research in the field; and she has to constantly upgrade her skills. But she’s ready to do all this just to experience the peaceful life that the jungle offers. “It is unaffected. Animals don’t waste, or pollute. It is as we were meant to be,” she says.
When she first started working at the Kanha National Park, she made for an unusual sight in the rough terrain of the jungle. Often the local villagers used to rush out to see her as she drove past on her jeep. Then, in early 2007, a forest guard, Ramdin, approached her and said: “Will you meet my daughters? I want them to see what education can do for them even in a jungle.” Singh would regularly meet with Ramdin’s girls and, inspired by them, other people on her staff also asked that she meet their daughters. That’s how the 33-year-old naturalist has come to be a role model for many young girls in the area today. So much so that 11-year-old Parvati, the daughter of another staffer, is even ready to undertake a bumpy bus ride just to meet her.
Singh is indeed a trendsetter – she belongs to the rare species of a trained professional woman naturalist. Being a naturalist – the equivalent of a ranger in Africa – wasn’t really a profession till ‘Taj Safaris’, a private company, set out to train people to become professional guides. But it’s not easy to become one. Naturalists have to have a sound knowledge of the area’s flora, fauna and ecosystem; they need to be able to identify not just animals, birds and plants but animal tracks, sounds, animal behaviour and the weather as well. They are also trained in astronomy, first aid, vehicle maintenance and even the art of hosting. Soft skills like an understanding of the Indian culture, current affairs and a flawless English diction are some of the other requirements of the job. Today, Singh is the first-ever head naturalist at Taj Safaris, a joint venture with Andbeyond, a well-known Africa-based company.
For Singh, it was a professional that came ‘naturally’ to her. “I love wildlife. I love the wilderness! I grew up with a lot of animals around me. It’s as if my soul belongs here. It’s an easier, simpler life. But earlier if you wanted to be in the jungle, you had to be a man. A trained, professional woman guide was unheard of,” she says.
During the initial years some distant relatives did try to dissuade her. “It was rather hard. I was criticised for wearing pants and living among men, doing a man’s job, getting sweaty, being unladylike. After a while, I got quite fed up and made police complaints. I decided to stay put. It’s my sixth year and over the years more women can be seen around. So I guess, it’s the hardest for the first one, and it was good that I didn’t crack under the pressure,” she adds.
Her parent’s support kept her going. “I was a complete jock throughout school and college, and played judo and basketball till the national level. My granny would worry that I’d be either crippled or scarred in a sporting accident and wouldn’t find anyone to marry me!” she laughs. Singh’s parental home is a two-hour drive from Bandhavgarh National Park, also in Madhya Pradesh, and so she was no stranger to thick forests, wild animals or rural environs. She went to a boarding school when she was four but she always came back for the holidays. Apart from the farm animals, there were frequent sightings of langurs, macaques, wild boars and deer. There was the occasional leopard, tiger and bear too. “My family used to hunt in the olden days, but my father had turned to conservation. I think that’s the grain I imbibed. You lived with animals; they had their rightful place alongside the villagers. I come from a feudal family were it’s a norm for people study in city schools and return to their roots to farm. We are all rooted,” she elaborates.
These days Singh is often considered one among the men. “Many of them call me ‘sir’ or a few ‘madam sir’.” She recalls once she received a call from a guide at Kanha. He said, “You have to protest with us, against the park authorities’ decision to induct women as guides.” Surprised, she replied, “Why would I do that?” He said, “Why not?” To which she replied: “In case you have forgotten, I’m a woman!” A moment’s silence followed and then he sheepishly said, “Oh, haan. I forgot.” Singh laughed off the incident but she felt good that people had accepted her as a professional and that her gender wasn’t an issue anymore.
After all these years, life in the jungle still fascinates Singh. She is also an avid animal lover. “I love dogs – simply for their unconditional love and loyalty. In the wild, it’s the tiger. There is nothing more regal,” she says. One of her most memorable experiences was driving actor Amitabh Bachchan when he came for the NDTV Tigerthon. “It was quite an experience! There were cameramen perched all over the vehicle. I had to drive very carefully. He was very interested, took a lot of photos. And, in fact, he mentioned me in his blog, for two days!” she smiles.
One of Singh’s pet causes is to ensure better security in the jungles to avert man-animal conflict. “Villagers on the periphery of the jungle have to be provided with alternate sources of fuel and employment. We form close bonds with locals. We participate in their lives, festivals, weddings. It’s a small community that you belong to when you live in the jungle. You can’t keep away,” she says. She enjoys taking local village children on safaris, so they can see their natural heritage see the value in what they need to do and why.
Like all naturalists, she also dabbles with photography. “It’s a shame to be there and not capture the beauty and miracle of the jungle. Animals and wilderness look beautiful irrespective of the angle from which they are shot,” she says.
And she is determined to build a place for herself in the jungle, “I will always have an association with the jungle. Always.”