Through the Glass Ceiling
Malavika Karlekar
WOMEN IN THE WILD: STORIES OF INDIA’S MOST BRILLIANT WOMEN WILDLIFE BIOLOGISTS by Edited by Anita Mani Juggernaut, New Delhi, 2023, 271 pp., INR 499.00
June 2024, volume 48, No 6

The subtitle to this slim volume, Stories of India’s Most Brilliant Women Wildlife Biologists sets the stage for the ten accounts that follow. Written by journalists, environmentalists, conservationists, wildlife historians, biologists and birders, styles vary as do experiences. Anita Mani’s pithy introduction reminds us of the occupational hazards of editing a collection: it was important to `profile biologists who worked in diverse landscapes, a range worthy of our subcontinental status’ (p. 4). Thus, we journey with these intrepid women from the Himalayas to the Western Ghats, from Ranchi to Nashik, on land and on water, using all modes of conveyance and of course, Shanks’ pony. Only a couple of the dramatis personae represented are no longer around.

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Perhaps one of the most riveting accounts is Raza Kazmi’s reconstruction of the life of Jamal Ara whom he terms `The First Lady of Indian Ornithology’. In a field dominated by `birdmen’, it was not surprising that this pioneering woman was easily forgotten, until Kazmi serendipitously chanced upon her daughter, Madhuca Singh. An unhappy marriage, abandonment and then being taken care of by her cousin, Sami Ahmed, an Indian Forest Service officer, changed Jamal Ara’s life as well as that of her daughter’s. She developed an interest in birds, and under the able tutelage of another forest officer’s wife, Mrs. Augier, honed her English skills.

An assiduous taker of field notes, it was not long before Jamal Ara started contributing articles on the birdlife in the Singhbhum area in present-day Jharkhand to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) journal. Of particular interest is her domestication of birding, as she wrote on birdlife around the homes she lived in. Soon, in 1948, she started hosting special shows about the natural world on All India Radio’s Patna and Ranchi stations. Kazmi writes, `Jamal Ara, unsurprisingly perhaps, was among the first generation of Indian conservationists. Most importantly, in those days, she was the only spokesperson for Bihar’s imperiled wildernesses’ (p. 33).

In `Turtle Girl’, Zai Whitaker introduces us to J Vijaya (Viji), who during her brief life made a mark at the Madras Snake Park, working among chelonians—turtles and tortoises. In 1982, she had `re-found’ the Cochin Forest cane turtle, her informants being the Kadars, a hunter-gatherer tribe. She set up home in a riverside cave with a tribesman and his family. Whitaker visited her and provides the reader with an engaging account of Viji’s work, her encounters, discoveries and writings: `the mysterious nesting of the Indian flapshell turtle’ that needed rain for its eggs to hatch; coming face-to-face with elephants in the Silent Valley and then publishing several papers based on her fieldwork. Whitaker concludes that during her all too brief life—Viji died mysteriously in 1989, a victim of schizophrenia—she had proved that `women could be incredible field biologists, bringing in gender-linked qualities and sensitivities much needed in the field’
(p. 75).

For over forty years, Usha Ganguli-Lachungpa has traversed the remotest parts of Sikkim, writes Teresa Rehman in `An Ocean to Sky Expedition’, putting into operation her skills learnt at the BNHS, ringing birds and identifying them. If Ganguli-Lachungpa was one of the first women in wildlife biology, several decades later Vidya Athreya (`Unlocking the Secret Lives of Leopards’) was quite intrepid in carrying out field research among leopards, using radio collars. She told her interlocutor Ananda Banerjee that it was a revelation to know about how large tracts of rural India sustain a number of wild animals, including leopards. As we know, there are recent reports from urban areas of leopards wandering into homes. If translocation proved not to be an answer, what could be done to reduce human-animal conflict? Vidya has spent much of her working life on trying to change mindsets, reducing fear and anxiety, convincing communities that an animal needs space. However difficult this might sound, tracking devices have indeed helped, as a forest officer in Himachal commented in, ‘how leopards can live in proximity with humans without conflict’ (p. 113).

A book on wildlife conservation would not be complete without a look at women’s relationships with trees—recall the Chipko movement —and that’s what Neha Sinha and Shweta Taneja do by introducing the reader to Ghazala Shahabuddin (`The Oaks call Her Home’) and Divya Mudappa (`The Canopy Crusader’). Going well beyond the life of trees, we journey with these experts, discovering the ecology and the bird life of large swathes of the country all the way from north India to the Western Ghats. Rewilding is a significant buzz word, one that more of us need to be conscious of as not only flora but animals and birds are threatened by mindless deforestation.
The recent capture (December 2023) of a juvenile tigress and subsequent DNA-based confirmation that she was indeed the killer of three women in the Bhimtal area of Nainital district in Uttarakhand made a close reading of Prerna Singh Bindra’s `India’s Wildlife Detective’ particularly fascinating. Uma Ramakrishnan’s assertion that animal turd, which for the wildlife biologist is `almost like gold’, led her with colleagues across the length of the country through forests and protected areas, collecting samples that could even include saliva scraped from prey.

Nandini Velho was fortunate enough to continue living in her ancestral Goa home, and then working her way to studying the flying squirrels and hornbills of Arunachal Pradesh. In `Speaking for the Sparrow’, Anita Mani looks at Nandini’s work on comparing community protected forests and later, designing a Nature Interpretation Centre at Tippi (Arunachal Pradesh). Empathy and connectivity are her forte, helping meld understanding nature with people, be they eager students or naysayers. In an environment where vegans, vegetarians and hardline carnivores are increasingly locking horns on social media and in public, Divya Karnad’s work on making fish-eating sustainable is interesting. Before that, she was an intrepid researcher at Rushikulya in Odisha, observing the endangered sea turtles on dark beaches. It was not always easy—if not downright dangerous. One night, writes Anita Mani, in `Like a Fish to Water’, Divya encountered a group of drunks who aggressively said `What are you doing here? You’re protecting these turtles at our expense.’ If this brought home to a shaken Divya the human-animal conflict, it also led her to human geography, to understand better the angst of the fisherfolk as `until then I’d only been trained to think of wildlife’ (p. 213).

Purva Variyar’s `Breaking New Ground’, with interesting vignettes of a few more enterprising young women, is an appropriate one with which to end this slim volume. These women are `an emerging league’, empowered to take on `expanding opportunities, unique specializations, evolving approaches in field research and use of newer technology to advance science’ (p. 228). One hopes that more such life stories, equally compellingly narrated, will soon follow. Such narratives are not only revelatory for armchair readers but also need to be a part of educational and awareness-raising programmes. These are sorely needed in a country where acrimony and conflicting binaries abound in discussions on human, animal and wildlife interactions that are nowhere near resolved.

Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studiesand Curator ofRe-presenting Indian Women: A Visual Documentary, 1875-1947and of the annual calendar based on archivalphotographs of women, all at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.T