Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 17-year-old Gargi

Dear 17-year-old Gargi,

 I know you are hurt and disappointed that you did not get admitted to a Veterinary School. Your long dream of becoming a Vet was shattered the day you walked out of the University of your choice. Your father, equally disappointed consoled you by saying how other opportunities are waiting for you. You did not agree! Did you? How would you? You always wanted to become a vet as you loved being around animals. But let me tell you, father was correct. There is something more exciting waiting for you. The field of Wildlife Conservation. Something that you always wanted to do but never knew about it. You thought the only way to get closer to animals and to know them was to become a veterinarian. Turns out you shall choose to become a wildlife biologist someday and your work will give you immense satisfaction that I’m sure you wouldn’t have experienced in any other field. 

It is alright to be confused even after choosing a particular field or a subject. You are born with a curious attitude wanting to understand the mechanisms that shaped the interactions in nature. Do you remember running after snakes to see where they disappear? Obviously, you couldn’t outrun a Rat snake to find its home. Your childhood was shaped by fables that depicted certain animals in a form or character and you grew up wanting to explore their secret lives. What if I tell you that you will get to visit forests and habitats that look like a fairyland with magical creatures. Does that make you feel better? The current path of Zoology that you chose is a vast subject and you have a lot to explore. Being a soft-hearted and emotional person, you will have days of low where you shall be stuck in a loop of “What if?”. Although no one will tell you this, it’s completely normal to question everything around you. In fact, I would say do not bottle up those emotions. Instead, lay them out in front of anyone who you feel is ready to listen to you. The society that you grew up as a part of is a patriarchal one and the field of wildlife conservation is male-dominated like many others. It will not be an easy path but it will definitely be a fulfilling one. You shall become an inspiration for little girls around you and some others who will secretly admire your passion. 
In this letter, I shall walk you through some incidents that might seem like disappointment or failure. There shall also be days when you will end up crying alone in your room. But just like a wave, there will be crests and troughs. You need to focus on yourself and the things that fill your heart with content. Mind you, do not neglect the troughs. They are a vital part of your growth process. It is going to take time to realise and figure out what exactly is it that you want to do and will you get a fair chance when you do. You are a strong-headed girl who somewhere within knew what she wanted to do but due to some hurdles couldn’t achieve it. But like I said, you have a long journey ahead of you and the next 15 years of your life are going to be like an Indian Thali with multiple dishes served to taste but only a few to finish. I’m going to divide this letter chronologically into incidents that broke you and some that made you into what you will be at the age of 28. This is a growth process that has made me realise the importance of self-love and care. We as conservationists forget how important it is to conserve ourselves to be able to have better mental health and peaceful life.

You are the happiest that you landed a job at your dream organisation after just having finished your first masters. There is a wave of excitement and happiness that wouldn’t let you sleep as you thought your dream had finally come true. How I wish this was true. A fairy-tale job where everyone respected you as a fresher, helped you develop your skills and appreciated your punctuality and hard work. Although ideally, this is how it should be, we live in a competitive world. Everyone has unknowingly taken part in a race that ends only after a person gets old or dies. During your tenure, you will come across people with different temperaments, tolerance and capabilities. Some of them will play an important role (indirectly) in shaping your career while some with their sceptical views and hurtful comments will disappoint you. As someone interested in studying wetlands birds, you are promised by the head officer an internship that deals with bird migration studies. Once again, the excitement of a young girl full of passion will be suppressed only to realise that the promise was in the air and nothing concrete. And the sad part is that this is just at the beginning of your career.

Let me share an incident that made you feel so low that you ended up asking for sick leave to recover from the feeling of being neglected. The fieldwork started quite early in the morning and as usual, you arrived fifteen minutes early than the time of departure. The field vehicle consisted of a driver and three other researchers along with yourself. Almost thirty minutes late, you are standing all alone on the train platform waiting for someone from the team to show up. Anger and disappointment are slowly seeping in as your precious time is getting wasted due to somebody else’s carelessness. After about forty-five minutes or so, the driver and two others arrive exactly at the same time. It was as if they had coordinated well before their arrival. And even after being late, they do not apologise and instead make fun of you for arriving early. There is a sense of neglect throughout the day during fieldwork and it made you feel unwanted. And this neglect continued for quite a while where you tried hard to be a part of the team and get recognised. As someone who cares about her work, you are deeply disappointed by the loose work ethics and hurtful gestures shown by your colleagues over the next few months. 

As a part of an Indian society, where things have been set with a patriarchal point of view, a girl who had her principles set and a voice of her own, was not seen as “ideal”. Don’t worry, I still don’t understand what that term means. What is being an ideal girl or a lady! I have only heard about gases being ideal. The disappointment of not being accepted in a group of people who seem cool to hang out with is real. But that’s only until you realise your true potential and discover how wonderful it is to spend time with yourself. There is a fine line between loneliness and choosing to be alone. For a long time, you shall feel lonely but there will be a point where being with yourself and doing things you love will be the most precious achievement. Having said this, I do not recommend becoming an anti-social person and avoiding people or situations. There will be events when you shall meet like-minded people and become a part of a community who are working towards a similar aim in life. 

After a few years of quitting two jobs, you will land a fantastic opportunity to work inside a Tiger Reserve where you will be doing everything you ever dreamt of. You shall have a small bamboo hut to yourself, a jeep that you will be driving inside the forest and hanging out with the local tribals listening to their spooky stories and folktales from the villagers. It was a perfect chance for you to revive yourself from the previous trauma of working in green-washing organisations that did not meet your standards of conservation. 

Working and managing a project by yourself will give you a sense of independence and will expose your potential in becoming a researcher. As a hard-working person, you shall have no difficulty in managing your daily fieldwork, preparing food, driving and washing clothes in a river. After a few months, your principal investigator (PI), a strong-headed woman with unrealistic ambitions will start manipulating you for her work. This might come as a shock to you as women in this field are expected to support and encourage each other due to the troubles they have faced or face while working with men in conservation. Turns out quite a few women who have made their place in this community do not like competition. The insecurity of someone else taking over or excelling scares them every day. It is clear that your physical health is not a priority as you are made to work on Sundays and had no time for rest. Every day calls and doubt from your principal investigator start making you feel worse about yourself hence degrading your mental health. Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness, mental health is not considered important in our society and when someone undergoes episodes of depression and anxiety, they are termed as short-tempered and rude. 

Just a month before you quit the project, your ten years old dog passed away due to unexamined tumorous growth inside his body. As there is no phone or internet network inside the forest, the news reaches you after three days of him passing away and this breaks you to the core. You cry for days and request your principal investigator for leave which obviously will be denied. To quote her,
“I understand it’s painful. Even my cat died a few years ago. But we can’t become emotional and get distracted. The work you are doing is of great importance and such things will keep happening. Keep him in your heart and move on”.

These words are as painful as the news and the feeling of not being able to see your dog just once before he was buried forever was hurting. The only advice I shall give you in such situations is “WALK AWAY”. There is no work that is more important than your mental health. I understand your passion for conservation keeps you going but testing yourself and your limits is only going to make it worse. Instead, take a step back, clear your mind, take a break and then decide what to do. It is not necessary to have a dream job or work on a project that seems cool. Conservation is not just working towards safeguarding wildlife but also protecting yourself. It is often expected that being a conservationist you are made up of iron and the expectations are sky rocketing. Do not fall victim to such ideas. Conservationists are humans and our profession is as important as any others. 

You have been strong Gargi and I’m proud of you for what you have become. A few incidents did break your confidence but you did not give up. I shall now tell you about the experience you will have in the UK and how it made you feel so different from the past incidents in India. In 2019, you shall get admitted to Manchester Metropolitan University to pursue your Masters in Zoo Conservation Biology. Having received a Vice-chancellor’s scholarship from the university will be the icing on the cake. Moving to a different country all by yourself without any help will be overwhelming at the start. But girl, you will do great! You will make friends from different countries, work at a restaurant, meet some amazing people, score well in your assignments and finally bag a placement at one of the leading organisations working for wetland conservation. 

Amidst all this, you will live through one of the longest pandemics that occurred in the history of your time on this planet. A pandemic of a virus called COVID-19! March 2020 will be the month when your whole life will change as you shall be locked up in your room, nowhere to go, ghost towns and empty shops. You will get news in two months that your mother tested positive for COVID and that she has been rushed to the hospital. You will have no contact with her for days. Overthinking and crying every day until you get the news on the fifth day from the hospital that she is doing alright will put you in a position where you never felt so helpless. But you know what? The pandemic will not stop you and you will extend your stay in the UK by one year. Are you not already proud of yourself? Two years all by yourself in a different country with no relatives or family to help. In that one year, you will become a director of an organisation, finish your placement, write up a dissertation and publish a lead authorship paper in a peer-reviewed journal. You see, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. The only lesson the pandemic has to offer is to take care of yourself and keep moving. It’s a wave that shall subside and you can see the other side clearly. A few years back you never thought you could analyse data and write research articles. But today you have overcome your writer’s block, imposter syndrome and started contributing towards research articles, short notes and articles in magazines. I will definitely give you a pat on the back as you deserve it. 

The path that you have chosen is like a difficult terrain where you need to take pit stops, relax and move forward. Giving up was never an option and shall never be. You are born with compassion and empathy towards animals and hence you chose to become a conservationist. There will be days when you shall be filled with self-doubt and the career choice you made. People from your college might earn five times more than you but somewhere inside you know that the satisfaction you get is ten times more. Don’t think your work is small or the results are not as expected. Tigers and Elephants are seen as an important part of the forest but, don’t forget that the role of an insect in an ecosystem is as important as others. Making a difference is challenging but self-care and motivation are the keys to unlocking future achievements. You are going to do great and trust me when I say this- “You are unique”. Someday you shall become a conservationist who shall not just conserve wildlife but also other budding naturalists and conservationists who would need your help and support to grow and feel safe. 

28-year-old Gargi 

Written by Gargi @pied_starling

Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio


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