They Said I Wouldn’t Survive in the Field: Ratna Singh, Naturalist

Ever been told you couldn’t do something because it’s a “man’s job”? It’s time to shut the haters. For Women’s Day, we present you stories about women who’re acing conventionally male-dominated jobs and smashing ‘StreeOtypes’ along the way!

Coming face to face with a leopard, check. Living with a rat snake on the roof, check. Encountering two tigers while fixing a flat tire, check. For Ratna Singh, the gutsy naturalist and one of the first Indian women to do so, these are things from a bucket list of a life lived truly with passion.

Known as a legend in the field of naturalists and animal safari experts, Ratna was the only girl in the first batch of a professional naturalist training school in the country. Today, she works with the nation’s forest department to train naturalists and has taught over 500.

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Treading the Jungle Path

A soft-spoken and genteel being quite in contrast to the wild streak that has led her to pursue a career in the jungles, Ratna was always outdoorsy. The classrooms stifled her, even though she was good in academics. She got educated in a boarding school and played judo and basketball till the nationals. But it was the innumerable vacations she took as a child in the family village at Khairaha, Madhya Pradesh, that was next to the hills and a dense jungle, that brought out her passion for the wilderness early.

In the first of its kind naturalist training programme by the Tajsafaris in 2006, Ratna found herself at the periphery of the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, a region very close to her ‘home’. Being the only girl in the course, she got a room all too herself but that is where any and all privilege ended.

Ratna turned out to be a natural.

What she learnt in the next few months was the unique art of being a naturalist - knowing animal tracks, sounds and behaviour, identifying the flora and fauna and driving and maintaining a safari vehicle. As naturalists take their guests to the forests for long hours, she was also taught first aid. Social and hosting skills were assessed as evenings are spent providing food, drink and tales to the guests. Ratna turned out to be a natural.

At a time when such professions were unheard of, much less approved of, Ratna had a family that was all about letting her do what she liked and excelled at, rather than try and talk her into a more conventional or better paid career.

"When I joined the field, I was doing it for no other reason than to have a chance to live in the gorgeous wilderness. Over time, I realised that naturalists have a brilliant opportunity to contribute towards community and conservation too."

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Today, Ratna works with the forest department to train guides as per the national park requirements and has trained across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chitwan in Nepal.

An Oddity

Initially, a woman in the forests was an oddity.

"People did say I wouldn’t survive in the field. Strangely a few meant it rather kindly, others patronisingly. I don’t remember retorting but just decided that I’d give it my best shot."

In her fabulous and much written about career, Ratna has come across an interesting realisation - she dressed like the other men, stayed fit and put in the hours and was referred to as ‘sir’ many times. But being so close to the men in her area of work, she built wonderful friendships and a sense of belonging to a clan, something an urban work environment could never have provided.

Ratna believes more and more women can and should come into her field, especially because “the job entails social skills and women do tend to have more empathy and a smart efficiency about them.”

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Building Livelihoods

The animal expert can recall a lot of laurels and hardships but her greatest blessing is to be associated with the jungles, even so many years later.

"It is an honour to be trusted to train people by the forest department. All the guides that work in the country’s national parks live in the vicinity of those parks. Many of them are from families that were relocated from inside the national parks. So I contribute towards empowering those people, those women to have livelihoods. It’s of value in the wilderness areas, where avenues for livelihoods are limited."

Ratna selects girls and boys who are keen and live on the periphery of the jungle.

Now, once a year, she runs her own training sessions where she selects girls and boys who are keen and live on the periphery of the jungle. She has trained over 50 women by now.

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While Delhi is the city she chooses to live in when not inside a jungle, her heart forever lies among the trees and animals. Ratna who has climbed a machan to give this interview, shares,

"I walk about in the early morning or late evenings. I am mindful of not intruding on an animal’s space, but I am never frightened. The big cities tend to put me on an edge though, probably because of the difference in the pace of life. Jungle living is more intimate. And of course, there are the real perks of clean air, peace and plenty of space."

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)

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