Call of the wild
Storming into yet another male bastion, she has a job many may envy. Being in the lap of nature amidst the wild animals since a child and later...
Ratna Singh is one of the few women naturalists in the country and perhaps the first professional woman wild life guide
Storming into yet another male bastion, she has a job many may envy. Being in the lap of nature amidst the wild animals since a child and later showing them to people in the safaris in Madhya Pradesh is something wonderful but fraught with a lot of hard work as well. The petite, smiling Ratna Singh handles all this including riding a jeep with ease, as she loves her job. Brought up in Khairaha village near Bandhavgarh National Park, Ratna went to the famed La Martinere boarding school in Lucknow and later studied ‘History Honours’ in New Delhi after which she did a post-graduate diploma in Human Rights and Refugee Law from the University of Delhi. Later she did a stint with the UN where she worked with the Afghan refugees in India. However, nature and wildlife seemed to be her calling and she came back home and joined the Taj Safaris in their lodge at Mahua Kothi lodge near Bandhavgarh. After about eight years as a naturalist, she is now Manager, Naturalist Training, Banjaar Tola lodge near Kanha National Park. Ratna has enough to talk about wildlife in this conversation.
Ratna grew up amidst the forest and wildlife. “My family is a feudal one which has been living in the region for 1300 years. The Rewa region was famous for the white tigers and the Maharaja of Rewa was the first to spot one. The Maharaja was progressive about wildlife reform and had laid down certain rules. Everyone in my family, including my dad hunted in the beginning, but later on they all became sensitive to wildlife. Our 300-year-old house is at the edge of the forest. So, wild animals were not a novelty. I had seen a tiger when I was five or six years old, when I was sitting on my dad’s lap in the jeep, and the animal was on the track in front of us! Later, I saw a tiger at the vegetable patch in the backyard from the balcony. There was a policeman in charge of a chauki who would tell us he saw leopards on his beat. The monkeys would eat the wadis (spiced dumplings made from lentils) which were drying in the sun at home! My baby sitter, who was from the Kol tribe, taught me the basics of tracking. Though I went to boarding school and had a British education I feel at home amidst nature. I understand animals better than humans. In animals, what you see is what you get. There is no diplomacy or sugar coating!”
Although Ratna studied and later worked with the UN it was difficult for her get into a regular job. “I wanted to be a naturalist. I used to see boys taking guests out. I asked family friends and they said one could be in hosting or house-keeping. I didn’t like or do house-keeping. And, there were no women as wildlife guides. So, when Taj Safaris came up, someone suggested to me - it’s close to you why don’t you try being a guide. I thought I’ll do it for an year. Now I am in my ninth year!
After a proper training, Ratna began her job as a full-fledged guide/naturalist. Her job entailed taking people into the safaris twice a day – beginning at the crack of dawn till about three-four hours or so and later in the evening, driving her own jeep! “I make people aware of wildlife and try to make the best of sighting experience and make their trips meaningful by explanations so that guests go back with a better understanding of wildlife.”
“People may think you may not have what they want. It’s a man’s job. And the jeep is a huge vehicle. So one has to have knowledge of mechanics and one people may think you may lose nerve and not handle a situation. After the initial 2 years, being a woman worked greatly to my advantage. Now people marvel and say nice things. I have become a role model to local village women. I am even called ‘Sir’!”
There are times when people may not see a tiger or other animals which they may want to see and be disappointed. After all, seeing the wild animals is often a stroke of luck. Ratna, however, tries to lessen their regret and disappointment. “From the moment people are at the lodge, we guide them. If they can’t see the big animals, there are other things to see. The excitement they had in terms of the ride helps alleviate the disappointment.”
Ratna is now also a trainer who is involved in training guides even those from the Forest Department at times (women included). “When I joined I was the only woman naturalist, now there are two more.” The jungle terrain may be rough but Ratna’s had a fairly smooth ride so far. She’s had many ‘wow’ moments and some not so interesting experiences or even scary ones too. “Once in Panna I was walking the distance from the staff village to the guest area which is a kilometre. It was 1 am in the morning and I went without a torch. It was pitch-dark. Suddenly I heard a leopard jump. I was shaking and fighting the urge to run. I waited and after a while I heard footsteps on dry leaves and was relieved as the leopard was walking off!”
Besides the safaris she works in, Ratna has also seen some of the other national parks of the country like Dachigam (Kashmir), Ranthambore (Rajasthan), Dudhwa (Uttar Pradesh) and Kaziranga (Assam). “It was exciting to see a wild bear at Dachigam eating wild apples and pears!”
Ratna is so steeped in wild life now that she says “I don’t know any other life. I have got a plot of land at Kanha to settle after retirement. People in the forest areas have real time for each other. Her hobbies include reading and photography.
Ratna zealously pursues her passion for nature and wildlife. She says “I like to think of myself as a PR person for wild life. Ratna exemplifies that and more!