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Truly born to be wild

Dubbed ‘The Tiger Princess’ by National Geographic and one of India’s foremost experts on tigers, Latika Nath Rana is a wildlife biologist with a PhD from Oxford

education Updated: May 08, 2012 12:20 IST
Aamit Khanna

At the tender age of six weeks I went for my first fishing trip in Kashmir. In the years that followed my memories are filled with days on the farm, in Dachigam National Park, camping trips, listening to India’s greatest conservationists discuss wildlife management, and travelling. At three, I was talking about air pollution, at seven I declared I was going to be an ecologist and never changed my mind.

I was an only child and my companions were the various animals that became a part of the family. The dogs, cats, hedgehogs, monkeys, peafowl, mongoose, and even the friendly neighbourhood elephant were all welcome at our home. My father was responsible for setting up the public health network in Haryana and we moved from Delhi tolive in a village.

For my undergraduate degree I applied to under graduate colleges in the USA but that year the University of Delhi began a course in environmental sciences. The sad thing was I never had the chance of joining one of the more famous institutions of the University – Stephen’s, LSR and the like don’t offer courses connected to the biological sciences. Ramjas College was my only choice. Three stabbing incidents, a teachers strike that was called off one day before the university declared it a null year and a schedule that made me work till late every day eventually made me shift to Maitreyi College in the South Campus. A year later, I was awarded the Chevening Award and scholarship by the British Council and I chose to study at the School of Forestry at the University of Wales, Bangor with the opportunity to learn remote sensing and GIS at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. It took a great deal of dialogue and persuasion to get permission to return to India to work on an Indian species for my master’s dissertation. I returned to work with the very newly setup Wildlife Institute of India (WII) where my focus was to study the Elephant Human Conflict in the Rajaji National Park. At this time the WII had a study on elephants and I joined the team.

I returned from the UK and applied to the Wildlife Institute of India for a research fellowship to allow me to continue my pursuit of a doctorate in conservation biology. At this time apart from the work by Dr Karanth there was no long-term study in India on the tiger. Dr HS Panwar advised me to do a detailed study on the conservation and management of tigers in India. It all seemed like a dream coming true. I drove from Delhi to Bandhavgarh alone and began work. Madhya Pradesh in the early ‘90s was a place where society was totally male dominated. Coming from the cosmopolitan world of Delhi and London, this was an eye opener. The plight of women, the lack of basic medical aid and drinking water and functioning of tribal societies sensitised me to issues that I had never dealt with first hand.

And yet, I was with my tigers living my dream. I was in the forests in the cold, in the heat, in the rain, in the day and at night. At times mine would be the only vehicle in the forest. It was hard work, but nothing could match the experience of living with tigers. I got to know every member of the tiger family intimately. My work came to the notice of the wildlife circles of India and I started to get caught in political crossfire and was targeted for the fact that I would not align myself to any factions. My abilities were judged on the basis of my looks and background and not my work. I was accused of manufacturing and fabricating data and my research permissions and grants were cancelled. My dream seemed to be disappearing and only a thin thread of hope kept it alive.

Dr Judith Pallot, a don at Christ Church came into my life and I got accepted for a doctorate at the University of Oxford. The US Fish and Wildlife Service sent someone to verify my data and check on the authenticity of my work and restored my permissions and grant. A year later, I was finally able to go back to the tigers. The work I was doing caught the attention of National Geographic and they asked permission to document my life and work. Suddenly I was the tiger princess of India.

Today, I still live and work in the field and deal with the reality of the looming threat of tiger extinction on a daily basis. It astounds me that with the amount of funds and help available India is not able to do much for its wildlife and especially tigers. Political will is lacking and like my husband, Nanda Rana, says this can be attributed to the fact that “tigers can’t vote”. Here in the field, dedication and a little money can go a long way in making big changes.

With each dead tiger one sees or every animal caught in a trap, my determination to work harder grows. I cannot imagine a world without tigers, or my country without its forests. I have a dream and each day I remind myself that dreams can come true. You just have to believe in yourself and dare to be different and walk your own path.