International Day Of Forests: Celebrating the wilderness

Two naturalists share their experiences from the jungle

Sangita S Mani and Jocelyn Panjikaran explain why they will not trade their jobs for anything in the wide world

“One does not need to have any ‘background’ at all for this,” Sangita S Mani assures me, when we hastily catch up before the network disappears as she enters a forest. The 36-year-old naturalist is from Bengaluru. “I grew up in a city that was beautiful and green and, during vacations, I would visit my grandfather in the Nilgiris.”

Still, she did go the corporate way. But eight years later in 2007, she swapped concrete jungles for the real thing and enrolled with Taj Safaris to be trained as a naturalist.

Sangita has been a naturalist at the Baghvan Jungle Lodge in Pench National Park for two years, Mahua Kothi in Bandhavgarh National Park, and is presently at the Banjaar Tola Tented Camp in Kanha National Park. “You need a mind that is inquisitive, wondering and ready to learn. You must be willing to be taken by surprise,” she says.

Sangita accompanies guests on treks and walks inside the jungles and says it is exhilarating. “My job is like being on a paid holiday! What could be better than being surrounded by trees, animals and birds. Besides, I meet like-minded guests who love forests too. We have enriching conversations and the learning never stops.” Sangita says she is always reading. “Whether it is on orchids or wild dogs, I do my homework. Our guests are well-informed and I have to be updated,” she adds.

She has had her share of guests who expected her to conjure up a tiger on demand, she laughs. And sometimes she is able to do just that. “More often than not, I arrive with my guests at a spot only to be told, ‘abhi abhi andar gaya’ (he went in just now!).” And then, once, it happened: they came upon a big male tiger at a waterhole. “But that wasn’t all. A pack of 32 wild dogs surrounded the tiger and took turns to snap at his legs. The tiger let out a mighty roar and the dogs scattered, but regrouped again. With another growl, the tiger slipped into the jungle.”

Besides guests signing up purely with the intention of spotting tigers, there are those who are equally thrilled to observe bats or insects or ferns. “One guest was on a quest to spot dung beetles! You never know what can come up,” she says amused, adding that ever since she joined, no two safaris have been the same.

Agrees Jocelyn Panjikaran, the 33-year-old naturalist at the Taj property on Havelock Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “I may have been on the same walk a thousand times, yet, on every outing, I see something new!” Her enthusiasm is infectious even on the unclear phone line. “I am always excited here, always happy,” she continues. Jocelyn has lived on the islands for nearly eight years. “I came here from Panchgani in Maharashtra and fell in love with the ocean and the forests. It is a biodiversity hotspot. Every rock here is teeming with life. I couldn’t bear to go back to my bank job,” she laughs.

At the start of her love affair with the Andamans, Jocelyn worked with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET). She was an Administrative Officer for the Centre for Island Ecology, where her interest in the environment deepened. “I learnt to dive. Marine life is so rich here.”

“The vegetation is very different from what guests may have seen in mainland India. We explore mangroves (there is an ongoing mangrove restoration project), investigate orchids, of which there are more than 29 endemic varieties, bird-watch... The property is on erstwhile areca nut and coconut plantations and it is normal to spot 20-30 species of birds right there.”

Jocelyn enjoys teaching. “Only if people see the beauty in something will they want to safeguard it. I like to help people ‘see’. As a naturalist, there may be times when I see some things that the others may miss.” The naturalist’s work does not end with pointing out flora and fauna, she says. “We work with farmers, local craftspeople and forest dwellers. We have set up a medicinal herb garden; an organic vegetable and fruit farm; and are on a tree/sapling planting drive with guests doing the honours.”

Along with her team, she has cleaned beaches. (They have cleared 8,400 kilograms of plastic from the beach). “To see people realise the impact of a carelessly chucked bottle on a fragile environment is immensely satisfying,” she declares.

Children are her favourite Nature walk buddies, as she never knows what to expect from them. “They ask the most unexpected questions and often I have to tell them that I will get back to them with the right answer the following day. Grown-ups want to see everything! But usually, once I point out interesting features and creatures, they enjoy themselves.”

One of her most memorable experiences happened on a stormy day. “The seas were rough and we were snorkelling. We couldn’t see much as the waters were turbulent.” But things changed dramatically when they came upon a fever of stingrays! “Some of the guests actually teared up.”

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 1:30:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/two-naturalists-share-their-experiences-from-the-jungle/article26588958.ece

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