As concrete jungles slowly replace real ones, humans have all but lost their instinct to recognise various types of plants for food or medicine, their ability to track animals, or the basic techniques to survive outdoors. In such a time, a career as a naturalist can seem like an adventure. The main task of a naturalist is to introduce guests in a national park or a forest reserve to the hidden stories of nature that inexperienced eyes cannot see.
“People have always fascinated me, especially the storytellers and those who tell with their real-life experiences. Such encounters that wove me into their timeless stories inspired me to be a naturalist — a real-life storyteller in the wilderness,” says Vineith Mahadev, Head Naturalist at Forsyth Lodge.
Trekking the Western Ghats since he was nine earned Vineith the nickname ‘Malabaricus’ which means “belonging to the Western Ghats”. While still perusing his engineering degree, he joined an adventure company and started to lead groups into the ghats.
The naturalist with a flair for theatre and storytelling later worked in Nagarhole and Kabini and learned the scientific approach to conservation from several naturalists, locals and researchers.
As a kid, Vineith played a lot of puzzle games, and pored over the spot-the-difference on the Hindu weekly. Being a naturalist involved tracking and anticipation of animal behaviour, or deciphering signs and spotting animals in their camouflage. This allowed Vineith to indulge his knack for puzzle-solving, but with the added perk of a salary.
Saee Gundwar, another naturalist at Forsyth Lodge had been passionate about the environment since she was a kid and has backpacked and road tripped her way across India as well as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and the UK.
She ping ponged across the arts, business and science streams, and after finishing her master’s course in Environment Management from Sydney, she ended up worked for wildlife conservation in Thailand and Australia.
“That was a dry approach to nature I felt; it needed to be experienced and felt, you need to immerse yourself in nature to try to understand it. That’s how I am here at Forsyth Lodge,” she says.
Being a naturalist is an outdoor career and not many women venture beyond ‘allowed’ borders, though the numbers are rising with breaking barriers.
Most people are supportive of women pursuing an unusual career. But being the only woman around who works in a field dominated by men means you are usually under watch.
“Sometimes, guests find it surprising to find a woman naturalist, but I feel that is just a mental block that people have. It is true that sometimes men make the erroneous assumption that a woman working in the field in a remote area will have loose morals and every action is scrutinized,” says Saee.
Head Naturalist Animesh Manna was always interested in wildlife, specially smaller fauna like insects, so much so that he is known as the local “dragonfly man”.
Armed with a degree in geography from Calcutta University, he soon found himself working in the Sunderbans in Bengal, and later, in the Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
Having worked in different bio-diversity surveys with the West Bengal Forest Department and as a bird expert on an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) project with Karnataka Road Development Authority, Animesh has his hands on the pulse of current conservation issues.
What does a naturalist’s job involve?
A naturalist hosts and guides guests through a National Park and spends most of his or her time outdoors, learning about the animals, the flora, grasses, mosses, insects, amphibians, reptiles — everything that lives there, explains Naturalist and General Manager at Forsyth Lodge, Deepanker Mukherji.
The naturalist interacts with both the guests as well as the local driver and guide from the park, and co-ordinates with other departments of the Lodge and the forest department.
For Saee, a naturalist’s job is “turning a guest’s visit into the best possible experience by making the forest, the lodge and the environment and all its components relatable and tangible.”
As a naturalist, everything — the guests, the weather, wildlife sighting, the food, and the landscapes — teaches you something, and can be turned into a story.
“The naturalist will answer visitors questions, provide information about the park and its surrounding areas, help identify flora and fauna for guests, show them the beauty of the jungle around them, and point out significant historic, scientific and natural features of the forests, parks and sites around,” explains Deepanker.
Naturalists are also an important part of the conservation effort made by the parks as they are involved in its safe keeping.
“They work closely with the forest department in some places, for example in Satpura, they assist in the training of local guides, surveys, and park initiatives,” he says.
A few naturalists work closely with scientific community, and could be busy with surveys, publishing scientific papers, books and articles, says Vineith.
Moreover, a more senior naturalist may also have to spend a certain amount of time doing paperwork — budgeting, creating presentations and brochures, and corresponding with potential resources in other parts of the country, Deepanker adds.
What skills do you need to become a naturalist?
Vineith Mahadev says observation and interpretation are the top skills every naturalist needs. He notes that what India needs now is quality training for existing naturalists rather than a larger number of naturalists.
“There is really only one thing you need to be and that is passionate. If you have the passion, you can learn, mould and grow into whatever you want to be,” says Saee.
Animesh adds to that — patience. Tracking and spotting animals takes time and tremendous patience. So does a lot of field trips to understand nature and of course, studying.
Other skills that come handy are driving skills, communication skills and knowing about animal tracking.
What kind of educational background or training do you need to be a naturalist?
“You don’t need any particular education background to be a naturalist but it will be good if you have a basic knowledge of bio-science as you have to learn about flora and fauna,” says Animesh.
“The naturalist training process is basically about training your mind on how to observe and how to ask questions. Learning is a process that occurs over time I think,” says Saee.
Training as a naturalist is mostly about de-learning various opinionated subjects and conventional understanding of management, explains Vineith.
It is about helping naturalists “understand nature through what is happening now and here than what has been written down by someone-somewhere,” he says.
“Personally I prefer someone who has not been to schools especially to those that makes them into assembly line products for the greater economical society,” says Vineith.
What kind of jobs are out there for a naturalist?
A lot of forest lodges now employ naturalists to give a different sort of experience to their guest.
“A naturalist can work his or her way up from an intern, to a junior naturalist, to a senior naturalist to even a manager of a lodge. A naturalist can stay associated with a lodge, or freelance, leading his or her own groups to different parks in the country or the world,” says Deepanker.
In India, there are also other employment opportunities for naturalists apart from forest lodgeswhich they can select depending on the type of forest or habitat they will be comfortable working and learning in.
“There are tour companies an experienced naturalist can freelance for and join a group who will be touring a series of wildlife parks,” says Vineith.
As a freelance naturalist, you can join school camps and workshops. If you have good photography skills, you can use it as a freelance naturalist to conduct photography learning tours and lead the same, he says.
“And working as a research associate with ongoing researches that involves fieldwork is another opportunity to either get employed or volunteer for,” he adds.
What kind of salary do naturalists get? What are the career growth prospects?
“The salary structure of a naturalist depends entirely on the kind of park the naturalist is working at, and the kinds of lodges they choose to work at. There is nothing concrete as far as this goes,” says Deepanker.
“What sort of activities the lodges cater to, and of course experience and skills matter as well. It is usually quite a small number of naturalists, with almost everybody knowing one another,” says Vineith.
Salaries can range from Rs 10,000 per month for a junior level naturalist, to the highest of Rs 75,000 though that is quite rare.
“Personally I don’t find hierarchical growth would fit to jobs such as this where you learn a lot on the job; its growing through what you are going through,” says Vineith.
The tourism sector in India and abroad is growing and so is the tourist’s interest in wildlife. So, being a naturalist has good job prospects.
Why do we need naturalists?
Climate change is well upon us and the world is slowly waking up to the need for awareness and conservation of the environment. However, conservation efforts still move much slower than we need it to.
Speaking about how wildlife conservation practices are treated in India and abroad, Saee says, “In so many ways they are different, as with the science involved and the funds that are raised but in so many ways they are the same, with respect to government hurdles, bureaucracy and the general disregard from common people.”
With extreme temperatures raising alarms across various countries, people need to move towards conservative practices to reduce carbon footprint. But the awareness cannot increase unless we can connect with the problems faced by the environment.
This is where naturalists need to step in to initiative and keep on a running dialogue about nature to fastrack conversation practices.