Please tell us about yourself

I met Menaka, freelance naturalist, at Singinawa Jungle Lodge during a visit to the Kanha National Park. She struck me as a fiercely independent woman who could defend her turf in a male-dominated field of work just as easily as let her hair down when not doing that.

(Read about what to do at Kanha here and about sighting a tiger here).

Let’s peep into the world of Menaka Bapuji, a naturalist by choice and designer by profession.

Original Link:

https://pixelvoyages.com/2017/12/21/meet-menaka-bapuji-freelance-naturalist-designer/

1. What or who inspired and helped you to take up an offbeat and unconventional career as a  naturalist? Could you give us some background on your qualifications?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in designing from the National Institute of Fashion Technology and I own a design studio called Varnuyathe in Chennai. I also love wildlife so I decided to follow both my passions by freelancing as a naturalist.

As far as inspiration for the latter goes, it definitely was wildlife itself. Right from the time I was a child, I’ve taken a liking to animals and birds. As I grew up, I felt the urge to spend more and more time in the wilderness.

So while in college, I started coaxing my dad to take us to some forest or the other during our family holidays and on one such occasion, we finally saw a leopard – most unexpectedly, in a tea estate in Valparai. Ever since it’s become an addiction.

It’d be quite pointless trying to explain the emotions that run through you when you unexpectedly see an animal in the wild. Until today, each time I see any of these beautiful creatures in the wild, the feeling remains the same. And just the feeling of being surrounded by woods, rivers, and sounds of nature is a constant inspiration.

Dangers, yes! There are times that I by myself or with a bunch of others have walked into bears, elephants, leopards and even a tiger. But the only time I felt most threatened was when I once walked into a lone, massive boar with my guests at one of the national parks.

I’ll be ever obliged to Hashim Tyabji for giving me the opportunity to work at Forsyth Lodge, a property he used to own in Satpura National Park. That’s where my life as a naturalist began.

I visited the lodge through a friend who was working for him and I was very tempted by his job. So I chose to give up my career in the design industry to pursue this. I’d barely met Hashim a couple of times before but he accepted and I trained under David Raju, a TOFT Award Winner.

I must also say that being a naturalist in India doesn’t stop with spending time in the wilderness and knowing natural history, especially when you work for a wildlife lodge. You need to be a great host.

Although most of us Indians are quite hospitable by nature, it was Rishi Sharma the then manager at the lodge I worked for at Satpura, who helped mould me into becoming a warm host.

2. For how many years have you been doing this and where have you worked?

I’ve been volunteering with wildlife associations for censuses etc. since 2011.  I started working in Satpura in 2014 and in 2016, I shifted to work with Singinawa Jungle Lodge in Kanha National Park. I will be freelancing again with Forsyth at the end of this month.

3. I know you drive a jeep as well as any of the guys around so what was your childhood like? Were you known as a tom-boy?

I am quite a bit of a tom-boy. I always had more guys as friends so always only compared and competed with them. I learned to ride a bike when I was 13, an auto at 14 and a car by 15.

Having said that, most women today do know to drive and ride and are constantly making an effort to learn and be better at it, while I made my efforts to learn to change a puncture first before I started taking the car out.

I am a completely cut straight, no drama kind of a person. What you see is what you get. I think that’s also why I enjoy the forest so much. It’s as raw and real as it can get.

I am quite a bit of a tom-boy. I always had more guys as friends so always only compared and competed with them. I learned to ride a bike when I was 13, an auto at 14 and a car by 15.

4. You told me that India doesn’t have professional courses for naturalists. What is your advice for those who want to become naturalists – what should they read and what should they do to equip themselves for the job? Also, how much can they earn?

There are no professional or diploma courses in India as formal education to become a naturalist, or rather a wildlife guide. The only course that is offered is by Taj Safaris. They have an annual training program, but the ones who finish this course have to join Taj with a 2-year bond.

However, if you are not looking at guiding and want to do a biology/zoology centric course there are several universities for that. Then there is The Wildlife Institute of India that offers courses in Wildlife Management, Wildlife Sciences, etc. One can also join them for research on an ongoing or proposed project but based on whether the qualification requirements are met.

One of the best ways to learn is to train under someone good, someone who is already on the job. Having said that, you also need to sincerely go on walks and drives alone and refer field guides to educate yourself about the new birds or plants that you come across. And trust me, there is always something new you’d find or experience every single time.

Most courses abroad concentrate on training you only on their local flora and fauna which doesn’t help much if you want to work in a different country. However the basics of guest relations etc. would be common, which in my opinion you can learn in India as well by just training with a good lodge. You can check this website  just to get an idea of the kind of courses in Africa.

You should also know that the salary can range anywhere from 10,000 rupees (INR) to a lac per month, depending on your experience, the company/lodge you work for etc.

5. What has been your most entertaining or interesting experience on the field? Have you ever faced any danger and if yes, how did you tackle it?

If I have to tell you about interesting experiences, the list would just never end. I personally enjoy spending time just sitting and watching the conceptions of nature. It really amuses me – from birds and wasps building their nests to bears digging the ground for food.

But langurs entertain me the most. They’re always in troops and they are always up to no good, especially the tiny infants – so curious, innocent and full of energy! They never cease to entertain you.

Dangers, yes! There are times that I by myself or with a bunch of others have walked into bears, elephants, leopards and even a tiger. But the only time I felt most threatened was when I once walked into a lone, massive boar with my guests at one of the national parks. He was busy feeding on a deer carcass when we bumped into him and he was taken just as taken aback as we were. And out of an instinct to protect himself, he charged at us.

I have to accept that for a second I thought that that was my end. I had two little boys with me and I felt the need to protect them more than anything. The park guide was carrying a long stick, an air horn, and some pepper spray -that was our only hope. It definitely would have scared the animal away.

I don’t know what the boar was thinking, but luckily for us, he stopped after several steps and vanished into the thickets. The horn and the spray remain unused. Thank god for that! Never have I ever felt more threatened. But in the end, I’m glad we didn’t have to hurt the animal. After all, we were in his territory.

6. How do customers react to you – do they treat you any different on account of you being a woman? Do they bond with you better or there is an initial prejudice?

I cannot generalize but the majority has treated me differently though mostly in a positive sense. Most people feel the need to be extremely polite and on their best behaviour because I’m a woman. Ha, ha!

On a more serious note, 9 out of 10 people first find it hard to believe that an Indian woman would be their naturalist while I’m sure at least 6 out of 10 wish they had a male naturalist instead. But after the first drive and perhaps a meal, they’ll always be okay.

And this is a question that every single guest of mine asks me after. I’m sure this is a question that is thrown at each woman in this field by every person who knows what you do.

One of the best ways to learn is to train under someone good, someone who is already on the job. Having said that, you also need to sincerely go on walks and drives alone and refer field guides to educate yourself about the new birds or plants that you come across. And trust me, there is always something new you’d find or experience every single time.

Although this is a field that you’ll really have to rough it out in, there are more and more women every season and they are all just brilliant! Times are changing indeed, more women are literally out there following their heart and our society is starting to accept and appreciate this.

However, when it comes to bonding with guests, your gender has no role to play really. It comes down to the kind of person you are. I can proudly say that I and most of my colleagues and friends from this industry have built bonds good enough to have translated into genuine friendships that have now lasted years. That’s a big advantage of the job – you get to meet so many like-minded people.

The only discrimination that I really have felt is with a few of the local park guides -in Kanha especially. But I don’t think it’d be fair to blame them for it because they belong to a sector where their exposure is limited. They too are evolving.

7. You must be meeting quite a few people on the job as a naturalist. Who is the most interesting person you’ve met?

I must say a couple from the United States of America – both scientists in their late seventies. I think it was their 27th trip to India, but their first time in Satpura. Having researched the behaviour of Rhesus Macaque for over 35 years and different tribal groups in India for over 20 years, their stay of 3 nights was just not enough to listen to all their interesting stories.

We also hosted a British couple who had spent many years in Iran and Iraq researching the fauna and flora there. But the most interesting of all is Hashim Tyabji – he’s a great story teller. From just one paw impression, he’d build such an engrossing story around the animal that you’d feel like you’ve seen the animal in flesh and blood. He can make even mundane facts seem fascinating.

Although this is a field that you’ll really have to rough it out in, there are more and more women every season and they are all just brilliant! Times are changing indeed, more women are literally out there following their heart and our society is starting to accept and appreciate this.

8. Which is your favourite place to travel to and why?

I love travelling to the hills. Any hill, anywhere! Almost all of them are rich with fauna and flora and that’s probably why I love doing that. There is something about the woods, the breeze whispering through trees and the birds chirping all day long. The monsoon is the most beautiful, lush and pure. The sound of the rain is just priceless – it brings so much peace of mind.

There’s also something about the people who live in the hills. They seem so modest and hospitable and they all respect nature. Probably because they grow up surrounded by it they feel more a part of it than someone from the city does.

There’s also something about the people who live in the hills. They seem so modest and hospitable and they all respect nature. Probably because they grow up surrounded by it they feel more a part of it than someone from the city does.

9. What do you do during the time national parks are shut in India?

I work in my design studio and my beliefs guide me here too. At Varnuyathe, we try to discover processes that release less harmful chemicals and use more natural materials – for example, we use fibers like hemp, aloe vera, and even beechwood.

Read the article on Varnuyathe that appeared in the daily Hindu here

I also travel, making sure to visit at least one new state or country every year and learn about a few new mammals and birds. I love photography as well, just like most other naturalists. So that keeps me busy as well.

I volunteer with a couple of NGOs, spending time teaching orphans and the underprivileged, distributing food to the homeless, etc. And of course, I catch up with friends and family and life in the city.

10. Have you put your knowledge and experiences as a naturalist into a book yet?

I haven’t written one myself but just helped with a few species of birds and butterflies for a book called “Field guide to the wildlife of Central India” written by Surya Ramachandran and David Raju. They were both colleagues of mine, so I chipped in during my free time. It wasn’t anything big really.