Escaping the concrete jungle

By: | Published: May 15, 2016 6:03 AM

Meet people who have quit corporate jobs to live in the lap of nature as naturalists

ON THE face of it, Nikita Khamparia could be mistaken for any 25-year-old city girl. She is chirpy, loves colourful clothes and swears by online shopping. The only thing that sets her apart is that her usual hangout zones aren’t malls, discos, pubs, movie theatres or restaurants. Instead, she prefers to hang out in the jungle with wild animals for company.

So much so that she left behind a secure, well-paying job at HSBC to make a career out it. “My passion for wildlife started when I was in class VI. We were working on ‘Save the Tiger’ project and would make bulletin boards, posters, etc. Before that, I always thought Shere Khan was the bad guy,” laughs Khamparia, a naturalist at Banjaar Tola, a jungle safari lodge near Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, adding, “But, unfortunately, I didn’t know how to make a career out of it. In 2010, I met an old school friend who was working as a naturalist at Kanha National Park. I was intrigued by all his wildlife experiences and stories.”

She applied for training as a naturalist and when selected, dumped her job to make the jungle her home. Previously she would listen to a lot of music, but then realised that she couldn’t hear the sounds of the jungle—vital for any naturalist—so gave it up completely.

Then there is Narayana, who prefers to be called Nara. This 34-year-old left behind a flourishing and ‘well-paying’ landscaping business in Bengaluru some 10 years back to answer the call of the wild. A naturalist for over a decade now, Nara comes from a family of agriculturalists in Kabini village, near Nagarhole in Mysore, Karnataka.

“As a child, I used to walk 5 km to school everyday since there were no transport facilities available. I wanted to be close to nature, but couldn’t figure out how. I pursued a course in tourism and hospitality from Madurai (Tamil Nadu) and started a landscaping business with a friend in Bengaluru. I was earning really well, but my heart wasn’t in it. Soon, I quit and came to Kanha,” says Nara, adding that a typical day in his life starts at 4 am—when he packs his bag, which has a bird book, field guide, mammal guide, amphibian book, butterfly book, camera, two pairs of binoculars, compass, Swiss knife, insect repellent wipes, etc—and ends around midnight when he allocates game drives for the next day before hitting the bed.

So how exactly can one become a naturalist? “You don’t require any diploma or degree. Vacancies are usually posted on Facebook and in newspapers. You just need to send your resume, highlighting how much you have travelled, what you have done towards the aspiration of being a naturalist, etc,” says Shreenidhi KJ, another naturalist.

Nara adds, “Trainees come and say they want to do this because they love wildlife. That’s wrong. To be a good naturalist, you need to love people. You will be there as their friend, caretaker, confidant, guide, driver, etc. If you don’t like people, you can never do this. Plus, it’s difficult to be away from friends and family, so think twice before applying.”

It’s a tough job for sure, but what is the most challenging bit of it? “When there is a tiger spotting in the jungle, everybody goes crazy and in the rush, safari vehicles sometimes bang into each other. But whenever I bang into one, everybody seems to remember,” says Khamparia, adding that sometimes she misses female company.

“There are many challenges,” says Nara. “Tiger-centric guests are one. Also, a lot of domestic tourists come without basic awareness. They ask us, ‘Where is zebra? Where is giraffe?’ Another time, this couple came from Bengaluru with their 12-year-old son, who didn’t know anything. He asked me to show him the rice tree! He didn’t even know where milk comes from. He thought it just comes from a factory,” says Nara, who calls Kanha National Park his ‘office’. “Another big concern is the government shrinking the tourism zone in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. This has repercussions on many levels and livelihoods.”

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