Book Title: Women in the Wild: Stories of India’s Most Brilliant Women Wildlife Biologists
Author: Edited by Anita Mani
One of the women biologists featured in ‘Women in the Wild’, Dr Divya Mudappa, who is one of the prime movers in regrowing the rainforest, a long-term enterprise in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, was asked to sum up her work. She described biologists engaged in conservation work as those who “fly on hope”. This is an anthology of women who do not just fly on hope, but embody it.
This unusual and unique collection, edited with panache by Anita Mani, does more than showcasing several such gifted and dedicated scholars and practitioners from across the country. It brings to light a range of initiatives from nature education in the old-world sense to working with and among resource-reliant communities.
Biology, like most natural sciences, was a male-guarded preserve far longer than the humanities. The great Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’, which played a pivotal role in raising environmental awareness, faced opprobrium for being sentimental and emotional. In India, outstanding botanist and geneticist Janaki Ammal overcame the double disadvantage of being a woman and a member of a disadvantaged community in Kerala. It is no coincidence that this book comes the same year as a major biography of the latter by Savitri Preetha Nair, titled ‘Chromosome Woman, Nomad Scientist’.
Conservation biology itself has often been described as a crisis-driven science, a branch of knowledge that seeks out how nature works in order to be able to secure it from human despoilation.
The women in this volume go a step further. Dr Divya Karnad, working with fishers on the Coromandel Coast, sums it up so well when she is quoted as saying, “I felt I needed to look not just at particular species that are threatened or endangered, but also the larger system within which they operate, the fisheries and so on.” On her work in Arunachal Pradesh, Dr Nandini Velho co-authored a book on the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary that chronicles different local people’s memories of the landscape. In such instances, the study of biology is braided with a wider engagement with culture and society, trying to remake how we think not only of nature but each other.
Others are more conventional in their method but no less path-breaking. Zai Whitaker takes us through the tragically short but remarkable life of J Vijaya of Chennai, who rediscovered the extinct forest cane turtle. Uma Ramakrishnan, the leading geneticist of the flagship animal of Asian terrestrial conservation, the tiger, broke the glass ceiling by working on an animal very much a preserve of male scholars (like big game hunting was once mostly a domain of men).
The laboratory and field work took longer to break into not only due to ‘old boy’ networks, but also the deeply-held attitudes that the sciences needed reason beyond the ability of women. This was by no means unique to India. It is a sign of the times how many doors have opened due to the determined efforts by women of both quality and integrity.
Yet, there were trailblazers in an earlier age. Raza Kazmi’s essay stands out as a gem of detective work. This writer recalls owning a battered copy of ‘Watching Birds’ by Jamal Ara, published by the National Book Trust in 1970. A self-taught pioneer naturalist par excellence, she died in obscurity in 1995 at the age of 72. When just 26, Ara wrote an essay on Bihar’s wildlife reserves. In 1956, she authored a paper on the bird diversity of the state. Kazmi labels her as a one-woman ecological survey team at a time when natural history was dominated by ex-sportsmen, former princes, and forest officials.
There are not only new insights but also new ways of seeing a coherence in the ways changes in the natural world intimately bound up with societal shifts. Dr Vidya Athreya, who now heads the India chapter of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, studied leopard movements and behaviour at Aikole near Pune and Borivili, Mumbai. Her research showed how the species has substantial range well beyond forests.
There is a growing corpus of work on the Himalayas now, much in the news due to the so-called natural disasters. Dr Ghazala Shahabuddin’s scholarship on the oak forests of Uttarakhand aims to help regenerate it. In Sikkim, Dr Usha Lachungpua engages with a range of land users to promote deeper awareness of the natural heritage.
What is clear is that there is much work entailing “swimming against the tide”. There are many glass ceilings yet to be broken. But there is the larger challenge of greater humility in face of the web of life. These are cameos written with verve and accuracy, deserving to be read, and the wider the reach, the better.