UP CLOSE – Bidisha Singha
NEHA SINHA’s Wild and Wilful is a testimony of her conservation efforts throughout the country.
Even today, as our world faces serious environmental concerns, Nature or wildlife conservation is not a domain that most Indians would like to tread. In fact, there are very few people working for these voiceless species who share the planet with us. Wildlife conservator Neha Sinha is one such dynamic crusader who has been trying to change the entire narrative in favour of wild animals. Her debut book – Wild and Wilful, is a major step in that direction — as it relates the story of 15 Indian species that deserve all our respect, our time and our understanding.
Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us a bit about yourself, your journey into this field and how and when it all started.
I have always been fascinated by Nature. I climbed trees, ate mud, and picked up beetles in the garden. I loved making stories about the animals I saw around me – mongoose, Red-vented bulbul, house sparrow, common grass yellow butterfly. I started my professional career as a reporter with The Indian Express. That’s because after Nature and animals, writing was a serious love for me. I didn’t want to be a creative writer straightaway — I wanted what I called ‘dirt under my nails’ – a really good grounding into how the world worked. It was an amazing learning experience – I learned how to analyse things, understand governance, and write in a certain style. But, one day, I realised all my stories on environment were negative – tiger poaching, the polluted Yamuna river, wetlands being claimed for housing projects. I thought: ‘Am I always going to be a harbinger of bad news? Is there an intervention I can make?’ And I quit my lucrative job to do a Masters in biodiversity science at Oxford University. I then returned to India and started working full time in conservation. And in my field, a lot of my effort is in changing the narrative in favour of wild animals and their ecological needs.
How is your new book — Wild and Wilful, different from any other book on the wild?
Wild and Wilful is written in a literary non-fiction style. This means that while the book is solidly non-fiction, it’s written in a literary style. I have also tried to maintain a good writing quality – so I am not just trying to tell the story of Nature, I am also trying to write a book that tries to set a personal standard for Nature and non-fiction writing.
Besides, the book includes both common species (like tiger butterflies and rhesus macaques) and endangered species (tigers, elephants, White-bellied herons); they are all important. The book breaks away from the creation of any hierarchy between species.
Wild animals are now trying to survive in a world that is slowly but surely encroaching into their spaces, and people are clearly blaming them for the conflicts. Is there a way out of this predicament?
At the heart of the book, I have put forth the needs of the animals, and their behaviour, so we can understand them better. For example, I tell the story of Ganga, an elephant from North Bengal, and Laden from Assam. I show how elephants are not able to cross railway lines, and that people chasing them with fire or drums leads them to these railway lines.
We need a plan that not only addresses the grievances that people have with wild animals – such as elephants eating crops, but also takes these animals into account. For example, there is no need to make golf courses in Kaziranga’s ‘no development zones’. And we now need to make bypasses for railway lines through forests.
Your book also focusses on the North-East — the Amur falcons and the elephants here. What made you pick their stories?
My father is from Assam. I have a spiritual connect and an inherent curiosity about Assam. I find North-East India to be culturally superior to the rest of India. I love the respect women are given here, and the fact that people have cultures and languages that are completely endemic. Also, Assam is the Northeastern State with the most intact wildlife – it has less of a hunting culture than the other NE states.
Nagaland, meanwhile, is a karmabhoomi for me — I have worked on the Amur falcon conservation programme since 2013, primarily around the Doyang Reservoir, and with eco-clubs in Bongkolong, Ahthibung, Lilien and Intanki.
You have been all over the country, seen the wildlife, and engaged with conservators. Any particular conservation story that has remained with you over the years?
The Amur falcon conservation story is very special because the people of Nagaland decided they wanted to be known as something different from hunters of wild animals.
I think the civil society and the individuals trying to save elephants in Assam are also special — they have to take on mining, oil exploration, deforestation, daily human-wildlife conflict. Assam has a very difficult livelihood question — there are so many difficulties in conservation; yet, students stood up for Dehing Patkai during the pandemic. The State has rhinos, leopards, tigers, dolphins. It’s inspiring.
Has your gender ever been a deterrent in this conservation journey of yours?
Yes. This is a field where logistics are a very big challenge. You go to places where you don’t see anyone, let alone women. A small thing like carrying money, running out of batteries, etc., can become a security question. You wonder sometimes if it is worth it — you are constantly thinking of logistics and frankly, no one should have to have this kind of risk. I once had a car accident in a place known as the Badlands of Chambal, with my legs paralysed. It is your will that takes you through.
The other factor is that apart from field work, I also work on environmental policy. Everyone in the room is decades older, and is usually male. People are either very surprised or they try to talk over me. I get a lot of suspicion and a fair amount of discrimination, especially because some of the talk is seen as ‘anti-development’. The answer, I think, is to work harder, keep going, and mentor more women to go into new fields.