Welcome to my office,” says Arpita Dutta. As lines go, this one is not particularly original. Except that we are sitting in an open-topped Jeep at the entrance to the Chitwan National Park, in Nepal, which, as it happens, is Dutta’s office: the place she visits every day.
Dutta, 33, is an amazing woman. Born and raised in West Bengal, she has worked in forests all her life. She has done research on the Sundarbans and currently works at Taj Safaris’ newly opened Meghauli Serai lodge, in Nepal (disclosure: I was a guest at the soft opening of the lodge).
Like all good naturalists, Dutta sees things that are invisible to us. Not just large mammals camouflaged in the distance; not even large raptors such as a Crested Serpent Eagle; but a nuthatch, a tiny bird, climbing down the side of a tree and paddyfield pipits that merge with the paddy fields. She teaches me about the damselfly, an aquamarine insect that hovers like a jewel. She gets excited (“like she has won a lottery,” as one guest said) when she spots a Savanna Nightjar that is camouflaged in the grass.
“Clients ask how I can be so enthusiastic about each drive,” says Dutta. “They ask if I am new at my job. But the jungle speaks a different tongue each day, and I have learnt to listen and understand.”
Naturalists are a distinct subspecies: children of the forest, more at home in the wild. There are few women in the field—Payal Mehta and Ratna Singh are legends. Wildlife and the jungle don’t lend themselves to family life is the explanation usually offered. Women naturalists end up marrying their colleagues; shifting to the corporate world; or living away from their spouses. Dutta’s husband is a herpetologist based in West Bengal. She is based in Nepal. They have no children yet.
If your child loves nature, would you encourage him or her to be a naturalist? I am not sure that I would—it is an answer and assumption that will change during the course of this column, you’ll see. I would say, “No,” for all the usual “safety” reasons. Nature isn’t lucrative. Not like banking or technology. It doesn’t have the cachet of entrepreneurship or design. It isn’t particularly family friendly. How to find good schools while living close to the jungle?
Here is the thing though. Naturalists are among the happiest people/professionals I have met. They laugh a lot and have an air of calm and peace around them. This applies to naturalists who are doing the research they love in the grasslands, mountains or forests; but it applies also to those who work in safari lodges with demanding clients and employers. They get out in the bush and become energized.
For a long time, I thought I was romanticizing things; making much of a job that had all the usual stresses. But I have come to believe that I am not wrong in my assessment. Some professions are more conducive to happiness—being a naturalist is one of them. Part of it has to do with spending days and nights outdoors—enveloped by the sun and wind; breathing unpolluted air; and peering through green foliage. Studies show that being in nature reduces hyperactivity in children and hypertension in adults. Being surrounded by trees, rivers, grasslands, mammals, birds, bees and reptiles can add years to your life; and life to your years.
If I had a child who engages with the natural world in a fairly consistent fashion, I would not hesitate to encourage him to be a naturalist. Or a researcher, field worker or conservation biologist. Recently, Uma Ramakrishnan, the “tiger detective”, became the first Indian to win the US’ prestigious Parker/Gentry award for conservation biology. Ramakrishnan, a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, now on a Fulbright scholarship to Stanford University, US, studied the genetic matter in tiger poop to figure out patterns and movements.
Naturalists don’t engage so intensely in one type of phenomenon. Their job is broader. It involves a different kind of seeing: diffused enough to see the jungle and specific enough to spot a hummingbird.
“I have the best job in the world,” says Pradip Mahato, a Nepalese who has been a naturalist for close to 20 years. He should know about the challenges of marrying family life with the naturalist profession. His wife lives in a town nearby, and he has raised his two sons while being engaged with nature.
Mahato takes me on a walk one morning. We are following the call of a black francolin. Along the way, we see mynahs, starlings and pied bushchat—common birds, ones that he has probably seen thousands of times. But still he pauses, takes out his Olympus binoculars and checks them out. “Wow! Look at that. It just caught a dragonfly,” he says with a pleased sigh. Circle of life, dearies, is what he sees. Connected is how he feels.
I am a recent convert. I wasn’t one of those children who spent hours peering at nature photos or reading National Geographic magazines. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a birder, I would have laughed in your face. A pair of binoculars on an idle afternoon began my sojourn, and now, I am deep into it. Nature seduces and pulls you in. You begin with birds and then begin noticing butterflies, spiders (or arachnids, as the naturalists prefer to call them), insects and frogs. The old cliche that everything is connected is totally visible when you engage with any aspect of nature or wildlife. The sad thing is that Salim Ali’s 10-volume Handbook Of The Birds Of India And Pakistan is hard to find. “It is like gold. If you find it, buy all 10 volumes because it not only teaches you to identify using markings but also behaviours,” says Dutta. “How do I know which type of tree green warblers prefer? How do I know the hunting patterns of shikras? From Ali.” The other source is the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) collection of books, which—also hard to find—are excellent.
Technology can help. I have apps that teach me how to identify bird calls. Recently, a friend forwarded me the link (http://dceaglecam.org/) to a live camera placed above an eagle’s nest in Washington, DC. It is riveting.
I think I will send it to Dutta and Mahato.
Shoba Narayan is watching eagle babies sleep as she writes this. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org