Millennials who are saving the planet one cause, one species at a time
Three environmentalists tell us why they love what they do and why the planet needs more people to be interested in its well-being
The business of saving the earth may not bring in mega bucks, but it brings a little something extra that no other profession offers: spending weeks living in remote villages tracking mountain goats, interacting with policymakers to save a species or a rainforest, taking on the battle with big businesses or even making films and writing books for children. We speak to three people in the field about their roles. Edited excerpts.
Research fellow and lawyer, Delhi
It can be an unequal fight in the environmental courts , but that has never deterred Shibani Ghosh, 34, lawyer cum researcher, who has taken on adversaries ranging from the mining companies to the Government of India. She chose to specialize in environmental law, because she was interested in the subject since her school days. “A lot of our cases run on passion,” she says.
The journey: A Rhodes Scholar, with a bachelors degree from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (2006), followed by masters in Law and Environmental Change and Management (2008) from the University of Oxford , Ghosh worked as a research assistant at the Environmental Change Institute, before returning to India to work with Shailesh Gandhi of the Central Information Commission as legal consultant. In 2010, she joined Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and works as a research fellow now. She was associated with the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), a New Delhi-based environmental law firm and now practices independently.
Challenges: The ability to keep the faith in the system. “I’m involved in a case to protect elephants in captivity. It’s a legally sound premise but we have been in court for four years and not much is happening,” she says. It can be disheartening. Also, “a lot of courtroom litigating work is highly inefficient time-wise”.
Skills needed: Be patient, articulate, informed, and develop an ability to draft legal briefs well. “You have to ensure that the judge grasps the problem,” she says.
For a career in environment: “You don’t have to study environmental science. People from related fields like sociology, geography, can also contribute,” she says. One way to start is to volunteer or intern with advocacy groups.
A moment of pride: Editing a forthcoming volume of key principles of Indian Environmental Jurisprudence.
Money matters: It depends on which side you are fighting for. Lawyers who argue from the side of the business can get paid a few thousands to over a lakh per hearing. Public interest clients like non-profits pay consolidated amounts which could be as little as ₹15,000 to fight a case that could go on for five years. A research fellow at a think tank can be paid between ₹15-25 lakh per annum.
Conservation scientist, Bengaluru
My father is a wildlife scientist and conservationist, and he would take me along with him to the forests. I loved it, but I also saw the ugly side of conservation battles,” says Krithi Karanth, 39. Nonetheless, as a teenager, Karanth had decided that she would work for the environment. “I get to do so many different things, things I would never have imagined I’d do. I co-authored a children’s book with artist Raghava K.K. featuring Indian animals. We will give these free to children who live on the edges of the wildlife parks,” she says
The journey: After dual degrees in geography and environmental science from the University of Florida (2001), Karanth completed her masters in environmental science at Yale (2003). She went on to obtain a doctorate in environmental science and policy from Duke University (2008). She worked at Columbia University as postdoctoral research fellow (2009-2012). She is currently associate conservation scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society, New York; chief conservation scientist at Bengaluru-based Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) and adjunct faculty at Duke University. She also serves on the editorial board of several conservation related journals.
Challenges: “To really effect change, you need to work with the government and be taken seriously by policy makers . Some bureaucrats are very receptive, but in general there is scepticism about scientists working in this field,” she says.
Skills needed: Be well-informed about new research. “Get yourself out in the field, whether to watch birds, talk to people or set camera traps. To be effective as a conservationist, you need to be able to collaborate with everyone,” she says.
For a career in environment: “People think you need to study biology to be in conservation but you can contribute by being good at math, statistics, geography, economics,” she says. Volunteer, even for short term, before opting for a masters degree in these disciplines.
A moment of pride: As a scientist, having your research paper cited or having a policy change because of your research is always gratifying. “I am most proud of Wild Seve—a direct intervention which assisted half a million people in 600 villages in Karnataka. There is high human-wildlife conflict here and compensation is hard to claim. Our field agents assist in filing of claims and quick disbursal of government compensation,” she says.
Money matters: As a researcher with a master’s degree, salaries are in the range of ₹7-10 lakh. But there is a big jump to ₹15-20 lakh per annum once you have a PhD and are seen capable of leading a research.
As a former researcher, I use photography and storytelling to communicate,” says Prasenjeet Yadav, 29. Yadav spent his early years in the jungles outside Nagpur, where his father has a farm. He decided to study ecology and biology because he always wanted to know why things happened the way they did on the farm. “I love that I get to see the world. One day I’m sitting in with local herders in a hut in Mongolia, another day I’m somewhere the Philippines talking about the local birds.”
The journey: After a masters in biotechnology from Hislop College Nagpur (2010), Yadav moved to the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, to work as a researcher in molecular ecology. In 2013, he decided to turn photographer and has, since, worked with a number of organizations.
Challenges: “It’s a struggle to get permits and permissions to shoot. Getting funding is tough too,” he says.
Skills needed: You need to be able to put together not just one good shot but a series of pictures. “You have to create such strong images that you trigger people’s emotion and their curiosity. For this, you have to be willing to work 20 hours a day for six months at a time,” he explains.
For a career in environment: “My father always told me, find a way to make yourself useful and eventually people will pay for it,” he says. Volunteer your time in developing skill sets, whether in research, education or communication. Don’t quit your day job till you are really sure this is what you want to do.
A moment of pride: “I have got many awards for my picture of a meteorite, but the pictures I am proudest of are the ones of mountain goats and snow leopards. I spent months setting up camera traps, and lived in the remotest of villages to get these images,” he says.
Money matters: As a freelance photographer it’s possible you will have to work without pay for a while. “Most research grants have money to support people while they are in the field, so I spent all my time in the field. I paid tax for the first time this year.”
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