Environmentalists, activists, biologists—these green warriors have taken a different career path. Their jobs may not pay well but for these activists, the assignments compensate in a much bigger measure. That’s the point all these people want to drive home anyway—that we don’t really need as much as we’re taking from the earth.
Ravi Chellam, 50
Lion king: Ravi got interested in conservation at a young age. (inset) Chellam (right) and his PhD supervisor A.J.T. Johnsingh with a tranquillized lion, in 1988.
Country director, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—India Program, Bangalore
How he got here: Ravi has been involved with wildlife and biodiversity research, with the purpose of conservation, since the 1980s. With a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Anbanathapuram Vahaira Charities College, Bharathidasan University, Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu, and a doctorate from Saurashtra University in Gujarat, he is a pioneer in the study of Gir lions.
“No romantic shikar-type childhood introduced me to nature. But my father used to subscribe to a lot of magazines and newspapers. I remember M. Krishnan’s column “My Country Notebook” in The Statesmane and it was a huge influence on me.”
In his early 20s, Ravi joined the Madras Naturalists’ Society and became a life member of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society). “I remember going to Gingee, a rocky and forested site about 150km from Chennai, with my friend Preston Ahimaz of WWF. It was here that I realized that my observational skills were pretty good. I could spot a bird before Preston could, even though I had no clue about its identity. This is when I felt that this was something I could do for the rest of my life.”
Eventually Ravi joined a master’s programme in 1983, after which he joined the Wildlife Institute of India to study the Asiatic lions. In early 1986, he headed to Gir for his thesis and spent the next four years in the forest, living with lions.
Ravi wrote a proposal for the translocation of lions from Gir to improve their chances of survival. “Over the years, Gir lions have thrived wonderfully. But it’s like all our eggs are in one basket. In case of any natural calamity, or any unforeseen reason, we’re risking the remarkable conservation gains over the decades by restricting it in one place. So translocation to Madhya Pradesh is imperative. But of course politics has complicated matters.”
Ravi has interesting trivia about how the behaviour of Indian lions differs from African lions. “The girls and boys tend to hang out together a lot more in Africa. The Indian male and female lions primarily come together during mating. The Indian lion is a forest animal, lives in dense foliage and hunts alone or in very small groups. The African lions live in open grasslands and hunt in much bigger groups.”
A day in the life of: I like to be up by 4-4.30am and get some work done from home, before the family wakes up. By 8.30am or so, office begins and at my level, there is little fieldwork and more organizational work. You have to think for your team, look after primary objectives, look for finances and human resources. I am constantly in touch with the public, donors, the government and other partners.” His work involves travelling for seminars, research, field visits and talks.
What the job has to offer: Sleepless nights, also plenty of excitement and intense satisfaction. “You’ve got to be very proactive. When you see how your contribution has made a difference, it’s very satisfying.”
Is education important? In Ravi’s opinion, training helps. “Conservation is not just standing in front of a bulldozer and preventing deforestation. It can also involve serious academic work and hence good education certainly goes a long way.” At the bachelor’s level, a degree in biology, zoology or life sciences is helpful, and at the master’s level, a specialized course in conservation can give one a solid foundation for the future.
Facing challenges: “It’s difficult to find enough people committed to the cause. Retaining talent is a huge task.”
Money matters: Directors of one of the bigger conservation organizations in India can expect to make about Rs 80,000 a month while at international organizations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, pay can run over Rs 1 lakh.
ON JAIRAM RAMESH:
‘He’s accessible, seeks the best available expertise and is keen on reforming the policies and institutions to make them more effective.’
Building bridges:Kohli prefers being out in the field and does not enjoy her stints in Delhi much. (inset) At a mobile biodiversity festival in Medak, Andhra Pradesh.
Kanchi Kohli, 34
Member of core team at Kalpavriksh, an NGO for environmental and social issues, New Delhi
How she got here: Kohli, a graduate in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, worked in Sirsi, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, in 1999-2000. Working among the forest-dwelling and fishing communities and looking at their livelihood issues, she realized how intrinsically people and nature were connected. “I was on a fellowship from Oxfam India Trust and working with NGOs and community groups on issues of environment and development. The district is extremely diverse, ecologically fragile and is home to a variety of communities. I was supporting the struggle against dams, ports and power plants on essentially two rivers, the Aghnashini and Sharavati. The loss of a forest or a stretch of an estuary meant loss of not only livelihoods but also the cultures people have evolved. In many ways, it is losing oneself. It made me look at environment in a much broader sense than linear notions of pollution.”
Kohli met members of Kalpavriksh at a meeting in Uttara Kannada, and when she moved to Delhi, it seemed like an organization she wanted to be associated with. Kalpavriksh is a 31-year-old environment action group based in Pune and Delhi. It was set up by students as a voluntary membership-based organization.
A day in the life of: “There is no routine at all. Some days you start at 7am and don’t finish before midnight and other days it’s relatively easy. A life like this requires a lot of self-disciplining because it depends on you how much work you take on.”
Kohli also works with the Millet Network of India (MINI)—a network of farmers, civil society groups, scientists and nutritionists. “Millets like jowar, bajra and ragi are the food of the poorest and indigenous communities and are a critical basis for nutrition, ecosystem protection and are linked to people’s cultures and traditional farming practices.” Kohli has been working with MINI in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. Her work involves research and campaigning for MINI.
While in Delhi, Kohli’s work can vary from the most mundane of report writing to the more challenging tasks of policy analysis and writing about issues in the local and national media.
What the job has to offer: “In other career options, there may be a disconnect between what you believe in and what you do with your life. For me, that disconnect is absent in this field.”
Is education important? Kohli has not studied environment or conservation formally and does not consider it a disadvantage. “There’s a flip side to it. Not being specialized, like a botanist, helps you in ways because you look at things more holistically.”
Facing challenges: “There’s often a sense of insecurity and the fund-raising challenge is huge. In the last decade, infrastructure and industrial expansion has been happening at such a rapid pace, there’s been large-scale investment in India. So the conflict points have increased drastically. And there are very few people doing nuanced work.”
Money matters: “It’s not a lucrative career option per se. Though it depends on which organization you’re working with. In small consultancies such as Kalpavriksh, the upper limits are Rs 25,000. But in an international organization, which works with much funding, it could go up to Rs 50,000.”
ON JAIRAM RAMESH:
‘It is good that he has managed to get environment-related issues on the front page but the ministry is still not touching policy at all, and that’s where long-term change can be made.’
Explorer at heart: Velho hopes that her family and friends will be able to visit her more often when she is working in the field. (inset) Crossing the Dehing river in Namdapha, Arunachal Pradesh, with other field assistants.
Nandini Velho, 25
Intern at the Union ministry of environment and forests, New Delhi
How she got here: Velho is quite thrilled about her short stint as an intern in the office of Union minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh. “I had attended a lecture by Jairam Ramesh and made up my mind to work in his office. So I sent them my resume and they got back to me. There was an interview and other screening processes, but I finally made it.”
Velho attributes her decision to take up wildlife biology as a career to being born and brought up in Goa. “As kids, our weekends and summer holidays were spent trekking and in nature walks. Beaches apart, Goa is green and abundant in wildlife, so we were forever intrigued and learning,” says Velho.
After completing her bachelor’s in life sciences from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, in 2006, Velho did a master’s programme in wildlife biology and conservation, Bangalore, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society—India Program and National Centre for Biological Sciences. As part of the programme, Velho spent a year and a half in Arunachal Pradesh. “I spent time studying the effects of logging in the Pakke tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh.”
Velho has recently been accepted for a PhD in tropical ecology with professor William Laurance, a conservation biologist. In April, she will head to James Cook University in Queensland to work with the scientist. ”I will be studying the effects of hunting in North-East India as my PhD thesis. I want to understand to what extent is hunting done for trade or sustenance, how it’s affecting the animal population, also the cultural and social aspects of it.”
A day in the life of: “There is no typical day actually. The nature of my work is such that every day is variable.” When she was in Arunachal, her day began early with a quick rice-based meal and then she would head off to the field for data collection. Evenings were spent with children from the local community, forest managers or sometimes just unwinding with apung (rice wine) with other field assistants. “After data collection, I would spend a substantial amount of time analysing and making sense of the data I had collected and writing it in the form of a manuscript for a journal.”
As part of her internship at Ramesh’s office, Velho is working on a review of conservation plans written for tiger reserves and assists in several outreach efforts. Velho is particularly happy about the work she managed to do, along with herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, on the gharial, an endangered crocodilian species in the Chambal valley.
What the job has to offer: There is a promise of meeting new people and going to new places. “I’ve spent so much time in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, I hope to explore forest areas in places like Thailand or Brazil. It’s something that you wouldn’t be able to do in other careers.”
Is education important? “If you are rooted in some science, it informs you and equips you for your work.” She believes it is not important whether your degree is from a foreign or local university as long as you do the best you can.
Facing challenges: “Dealing with people is challenging to me.” You set out to do a particular task but it doesn’t always turn out that way. There’s a difference between what you aspire and what you achieve. But at the end of the day you have to learn how to stick it out in a happy-go-lucky way. Also, usually unforeseen disasters seem out of the blue, but more often than not they are caused by lack of planning. People tend to take a lot of things for granted.
Money matters: Starting salaries are about Rs 14,000-16,000 as a junior research fellow. As a PhD student, this stipend is higher and accommodation is usually taken care of by the institution.
ON JAIRAM RAMESH:
‘It’s the promise of working with such people that inspires and motivates me and keeps me going.’