She is a city girl who loves the wild. A childhood fascination for beetles, lizards and mongoose (and anything with four limbs or more) and early education that encouraged creativity laid the foundation for Neha Sinha treading a path taken by very few women. She is a wildlife conservationist. From being a journalist who reported on environmental issues to traversing the dense forests of Central and North Eastern India, Malaysia and Philippines, this INLAKS scholar now has one mission in life. To be the change. She wants to conserve wildlife and influence policy makers about the hazards of environmental degradation. Neha Sinha talks with Poorvi Gupta on this fascinating journey and how she defied many gender stereotypes and perceptions along the course of it.
The nature baby
I had a happy childhood in Delhi. I grew up in a house with a big garden, which I believe really shaped my consciousness towards nature. In that garden, I would watch birds build yearly nests, track bugs, beetles, lizards, mongoose, and several varieties of roses and lilies.
I am also fascinated by the engineering present in nature. The symmetry in the petals of a flower, the way modern helicopters are inspired by dragonflies, submarines inspired by ships—all of this is not just beautiful, it is also impeccable design. The perfect marriage of beauty and utility. I also do a lot of Fine Art and the palette of Nature is certainly a big inspiration for my water colours and drawings.
Unconsciously, nature from very early taught me that this world is not just about people and our immediate needs—but really a shared space with pretty fantastic ecosystems and interesting creatures. It also put an emphasis on creativity and imagination, because my play-time was outdoors and not with a video game.
My parents put me in a non-formal school, Shiv Niketan, a little place in Lutyen’s Delhi (now shifted, and now called the Elisabeth Gauba school) for which I am very grateful. We had no heavy bags, classes with just five students each, and a huge emphasis on creativity. It was normal for us to draw, write poetry and go to the terrace to play almost every day, and the school was firm but very gentle. Sort of the ideal combination between head and heart.
Turning point: The journalist turns conservationist
I was hired straight from college into Indian Express, where I served as a Senior Reporter and covered a whole range of issues, from bomb-blasts, riots, development, to environment. Five years of reporting was a formative time for me. It taught me the invaluable skill of not just accepting facts, but also questioning intelligently.
However, one day I realised all my stories about the Environment were negative: tigers being poached, pollution in rivers, wetlands getting filled up with concrete and a blind eye being turned towards it all. Both at the policy and implementation level, there were huge gaping holes. Science didn’t find its way into policy. For instance, wetlands were being parcelled off for housing only because the municipality thought the area was only kichad (mud), and not even commissioning scientists to understand the drainage and ecology of the area. I asked myself if I was always going to be a communicator of bad news, or if I could change the news.
I wanted to do this properly, and study conservation science. I was interested not just in conservation biology but also law, governance, and politics. I found only one degree that had all of this—the University of Oxford. I applied for an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, and it was literally the only place I applied to. I got in, quit my job, won the INLAKS scholarship, and went to study science for the first time in my life, having otherwise been a social science disciple.
Even a Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, said working with women in science has challenges because “women keep crying”
Going down paths few dare to venture
One of the coolest parts of my job is going to places which many people don’t know about or cannot go to. I have travelled and spent time in the Central Indian forests, which have towering Sal trees—also the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book; to windswept islands in Sunderbans; tropical forests in Malaysia, marine parks in Philippines; and each year, parts of Nagaland and the North East.
The animals lead lives of tenderness, secrecy and ferocity.
I run a community conservation programme in Nagaland, working closely with the community to save Amur Falcons. These people eat things we don’t, know every inch of the forest, have very strong tribe loyalties, and are incredibly strong. Almost everywhere I travel I meet people living with Nature—whether it is the Van Gujjars of North India, the Lothas and Angamis of Nagaland, the Todas of Nilgiris, the Soligas of Karnataka, the Nicobarese—I find these are all people incredibly tuned in to Nature. They have these sensory perceptions that people in the cities have forgotten. For example, the Angamis can climb a rock face and bring down a honey-comb from a sheer cliff, the Soligas know exactly when their sacred trees will flower.
Finally, the animals. Though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, I have walked into a tiger, been chased by rhinos and elephants, and also witnessed rare, tender moments in nature. A little bird feeding its chicks, a massive wild elephant bathing her calf in a hill stream, a weaver bird making an urn-shaped nest, a loris screeching into the night. The animals lead lives of tenderness, secrecy and ferocity. It’s a study in contrasts, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Being a woman on the job
It is hard.
First of all, comes the realisation that working in India, especially in fields that are unconventional, is difficult because of discriminations based on age and gender, which are very common. I hear silly things like “don’t go in the forest you will become dark”, “you can’t do this,” etc. I usually laugh at those things.
But there are more serious things such as men actually believing that you do not have the ability to do something, or them questioning your motives. Especially in policy and decision-making circles. They think you’re there as a passing fad, that your interest is somehow momentary and questionable. Even a Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, said working with women in science has challenges because “women keep crying”.
My challenges were to break barriers and yet emerge as confident and capable; in several rural parts of India support staff are men, and these are men who are not comfortable talking to women. So field assistants, volunteers, community leaders, drivers, etc have refused to talk to me and I have had to find ingenious ways of making them communicate and cooperate.
Donald Trump says climate change is a myth invented by the Chinese to sell Chinese goods
Wildlife Conservation needs more women
I’m really happy to note that there are more and more women entering this field. As seniors, we have some inspirational women who took on this field when it was not fashionable. Belinda Wright is an inspiration for me. She works in trying to stop wildlife poaching, which is impossibly difficult for anyone, and certainly harder for a woman. There are women like Divya Mudappa, working on rainforest restoration in South India, grappling with an ever-increasing number of stakeholders.
The idea is to reach as many constituencies as possible; because different target groups understand the environment differently. Donald Trump says climate change is a myth invented by the Chinese to sell Chinese goods, while a local politician will disagree because he sees what’s going on in front of him, but a politician in Delhi may not want to do anything at all.
Advice for women choosing out-of-the-ordinary field of work
If you want to do something, do it. Once you know the direction you want to take, don’t let your parents, neighbours and co-workers tell you otherwise. You will have problems and questions aimed at you, but it’s your life and you own it first.
The second is a boring piece of advice, but is essential. Figure out some way of being financially secure. It doesn’t matter just how great your boyfriend is, do it for yourself.
Finally, work very hard and make sure you indulge yourself. I feel all interesting people have one crazy hobby: whether it’s collecting old books, gramophones, vinyls, whatever. Cultivate something which you do just for the pleasure of it. And when the gossip gets to you, make sure your answer is your own hard work and not becoming a gossip-monger yourself!