Vidya Venkatesh is a director at Last Wilderness Foundation and has a special interest in butterflies. She has also traveled various parts of India and shares a deep concern for conservation issues and contributes her services for the cause on every given opportunity. (Profile by NCCI coordinator Amrita Neelakantan)
What drew you to work with Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) and when did you join? After working for the corporate world for more than a decade, I took the leap and quit my job in 2010. I was in search of an opportunity which would allow me to work in the field of wildlife conservation. During the short stint of 1 year with Sanctuary Asia, one of my ex-bosses from Citigroup had recommended to meet Nikhil Nagle (Founder of LWF), who was also with Citigroup and had recently quit and started a Wildlife NGO. As one would say, I was just lucky to find my dream job! My passion for travel, wildlife & Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve – it all came true! So the next thing I know is I’ve joined LWF in 2011
Over the last ten years of your work what have been some of the high points? The best part of my work is that I’ve had extended families at every location that I’ve worked. This allows me to immerse myself into their local culture and traditions, which is of keen interest to me. Many of their cultural activities and traditional habits have also helped me to arrive at solutions for that particular landscape. Also, knowing the Pardhi community has been one of the highlights of my life. I have learnt so much from them. I’m humbled that they have accepted me to be a part of their family and have entrusted me to be one amongst them.
The other high point that I would like to share is the advantage of being a woman in this field. It is easy to break ice with the females in the community and work with them. Having ‘Ek chai ki pyaali’ (a single cup of tea) with them can break any barriers. This has also proven to be a very important tool for me since in most rural areas, I’ve seen women being the biggest influencers within a community. They’ve helped us to bring about a change.
And last but not the least, my experience with working with the Forest Department personnel have been fantastic! I’ve come across some of the most dedicated officers on-field and off-field who are not just committed to doing their jobs but are willing to go that extra mile to make a bigger difference. It’s great to work with such officers when they’re personally determined to bring about a change. Examples like the Kanha Tiger Reserve running the Bhoorsingh Public School & a dedicated women’s canteen, Panna Tiger Reserve supporting the Pardhi hostels and many more such live examples have shown results through support received from the communities.
“I’ve know Vidya (V) for over a decade. Vidya is a fantastic team partner as she is very professional and passionate about conservation issues. She was a crucial part of the Mumbaikars for SGNP project because of her professional way of working with people. Her always smiling countenance makes it a pleasure to work with.” ~ Dr. Vidya Athreya
What are some challenges that you still see in your work with communities? Working with communities is like playing the game of Blind Cricket. You never know what’s going to hit you next! One of the biggest challenges I see is that there is no set formula or steps that one can follow while working with communities (however, that is also the most interesting part!). Each community is different from the other in their own way, even though they may coexist in the same geographical landscape. For example, the Baigas of Central India are very different from the Pardhis of Central India. To add to this, the Baigas near the Mukki range are also different from the Baigas living around the Khatia range, though both the villages are a part of the Kanha Tiger Reserve.
We cannot work with any 2 communities with the same mindset.
Another challenge (read as ‘interesting part’) in working with communities is that, the same problem across different landscapes may need different solutions, based on the communities living in that landscape. Hence, the challenges of reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch (read as knowing your community better) will always be there while working with communities.
Also, working with communities needs a long-term commitment, especially if you are looking at making a difference on ground.
If a person was to see your path over the course of your life – what were the indications that this is where you would find your purpose? Was there a pivotal moment when things crystallized? It was not a straight road for me to get to this point of taking up the role at LWF. Though I was aware of my passion in wildlife, I didn’t know what exactly was my “calling” within the domain of wildlife. I had volunteered with many organizations like WWF, BNHS, SPROUTS etc. while I was still in my corporate job, and had also traveled to many forests across India. These volunteering opportunities helped me build my knowledge & strengths while also helping me to realize my shortfalls in the field of wildlife. I had also explored a few career options prior to LWF. The first one was of a tour operator whereby I, along with 2 other friends, started a tour company, which we managed to run for about 2-2.5 years. During this stint, I realized that I was not happy just to travel to different Protected Areas without contributing anything back to wildlife. Post this I explored the role of an Environment Educator, whereby I visited urban schools to conduct outreach programmes, nature trails for city schools etc. This experience made me realize that I couldn’t connect with just the city forests. I was looking for something more, where I could visit the dense forests in rural India.
Hence, like I’d mentioned earlier, it was a dream-come-true moment for me when I was offered the job at LWF. My passion for wildlife, my love for traveling and my favorite Tiger Reserve – Bandhavgarh…. all of it just fell into place, at the same time! Hence, I just knew that there couldn’t be anything better than this for me.
Walking the tightrope of protecting the wild while being compassionate towards the people who live in these regions – what is the one piece of advice you would give someone working in the same interdisciplinary and application oriented space? Not as an advice, but I can surely share my approach. I believe in collecting information and studying the situation on ground before getting into a planning stage. This is sometimes challenging as many research projects happening in a local geography don’t add to the required necessary data for the local management. Once I have all the information from the past work, it becomes easier to plan. Hence, I believe that collaborations between the researchers, local management and conservationists is the need of the hour.