HYDERABAD: Ratna Singh has built her life around the road less travelled: Her work as wildlife specialist for Taj Safaris entails getting up very early in the morning and driving guests staying at the lodge in a heavy vehicle into the dense forest of the park twice a day to show them the wildlife. For her, no other job comes close to the experience of living and working with nature and wildlife, and that is what gives her an adrenaline rush. Infact such is her love for animals that she is against putting them in zoos. “I’m not pro zoo. These animals should be not kept in cages and be put for public display,” says Ratna Singh.
On the recent incident where a boy was mauled to death by a white tiger after he jumped into the cage, she comments, “These wild animals, especially the white tiger which is in breeding should not be caged. In this particular incident, the tiger was not doing anything to the kid, it only attacked when people started throwing stones in a manner to save the kid.” She also adds that during her experiences roaming in the jungles, these creatures are harmless unless provoked. “It must be either low fencing or deliberate attempt to jump. I feel sorry for the life lost at the same time I fear for the white tiger. They should not be brought from the wild and kept in zoo for public display,” opines Ratna.
With a profession that requires her to be on the move constantly, even living in lodge in a rural area like Kanha without a family can be very isolating and not everyone would enjoy such a life. Ratna Singh has been doing this for the last five years now. It was not easy at first. “The selection process itself was physically demanding, and tough,” recalls Ratna. “We woke up early and were up till late at night. The weather is extreme in the jungle and keeps changing and the training is designed to test your endurance. However, I was always someone who loved to stay outdoors all my life, and have won three national gold awards in Judo which I got trained in for 13 years. I was also in the state basketball team and I love exercising, so I managed,” she shares.
Ratna tells her guests to be open-minded when they come on the safari ride with her. “The wildlife reserves are not a zoo, where one can tick off animal sightings on a list. These are animals in their natural habitat, and wild. So one must be mentally prepared to be patient and enjoy every aspect of wilderness,” she says. In her off-duty hours, she enjoys reading, exercising or listening to music. She has also been instrumental in spreading the word against hunting in spite of being from a traditional Rajput clan which has been a popular sport within the community.
Physical and biological risks present an array of challenges for wildlife experts. They are often faced with natural hazards with great frequency as a routine part of their job requirements and duties. While teaching visitors about the land and its people, as well as the wild animals that most people are there to see, Ratna also feels a good level of fitness is required. “To be a naturalist, one needs to have above average fitness levels. However, to enjoy nature and get an adrenaline rush there is no physical requirement. As long as one is able to sit for a few hours in an open vehicle, the wilderness delights everyone equally,” says Ratna, who grew up in a small village called Khairaha near Bandhavgarh National Park.
Any special must-sees that are off the beaten path? “It has to be tracking for tigers in Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks. The river Ken in Panna has crocodiles- so it’s thrilling to go on a boat ride and see the crocodiles basking on the rocky banks. A walking safari in Dachigam national park in Srinagar Kashmir is also a great thrill to watch the Himalayan black bear on foot,” says Ratna.
The many safari options can be overwhelming. Ratna summarises different categories travellers should consider before making a selection. She says, “Choose the destination keeping in mind your objective. If it is only to see animals, then go to popular parks and book twice daily safaris. For photography too, is the same concept, one must plan ahead to be inside the wilderness area as often as possible during the trip.”
For those looking to unwind or relaxing holiday, Ratna’s advice is to pick an area that gives you more options like activities for children or walking trails, pottery etc which the family can try their hand at. Food is an important aspect too. “Call and check ahead on the kind of cuisine offered - because in the jungle you could be stuck with no other dining options. Nowadays most wilderness resorts and lodges offer food for Indian and western palates,” she says.