Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 20-year-old Aashra

Dear 20-year-old Aashra,

 Right now, you feel alone, confused and lost. You’re calling friends and family that are hundreds of kilometres from where you are, trying to navigate through the situation you’ve found yourself in. Beads of sweat and tears roll down your skin as you huddle in a claustrophobic room with no windows and no working fan and I know you’re wondering how you ended up in such an unwelcoming and unforgiving environment. 

You’ve gotten this far and don’t forget; you’re leaving very soon. I want to assure you that you’ve made all the right decisions and you have stood up for yourself in a professional and respectable way. Eventually, you’ll be proud of yourself and grateful for the community that will support you as you piece yourself back together. You’ve been made to feel like you’re not smart or built for this field and unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to shake those feelings for a long time. But, you’ll move forward to be a stronger person, a passionate conservationist that shows compassion and understanding.

That message is for my present solace, strength and the sun shining through a beautiful orange glow over my tapping fingers and a gearing mind. I’m looking back at the internship I tried to complete a few years ago one hot summer in India and I find the words spilling out of my brain in crashing waves. I had spent the previous summer in the mountains of North India, tracking down snow leopards and meeting local villagers (experts at navigating through the treacherous landscape) who led us through a terrain I can’t fathom describing. With such wonderful memories of budding research and conservation, I found myself in East India a year later, in a much different ecosystem, tracking another wild cat. 

I was interning with a smaller organisation, working under two researchers in a remote village of fishermen and farmers. I was meant to spend 2 months with them, setting up camera traps across the landscape and counting how many individuals of the species of interest we could find. The area was heavily threatened by human encroachment, pollution and some poaching. The local people and their livelihoods were being pushed out to make way for richer individuals and businesses, an increasingly common phenomenon these days. It was my first exposure to a more complicated network of stakeholders and interests and I was interested in understanding how these researchers and conservationists were manoeuvring through it to protect the wildlife there.

My female boss, Reeva, and I, accompanied by local fishermen, spent the first two weeks wading through vast expanses of brackish waters and tall walls of aquatic vegetation. These were the few good days I had in my time there. With a hot sun beating down on our backs, the cool waters climbing up our calves and splashing across our cheeks gave relief and exhilarating bliss. 

I also had the chance to interact with local fisherman and their families and was exposed to a culture much different from my own. This was one of the best parts of my time spent there. We went to different cultural and religious events around the village that I can still remember clearly. One such event was a celebratory lunch thrown by a fisherman’s family. They were celebrating their daughter getting her first period. Although they didn’t say it, I believe it represented a culture of celebrating fertility and a way of letting other families know that their daughter would soon be eligible for marriage. Finding little windows into other people’s lives is an incredible aspect of fieldwork that is frequently forgotten. And so these were the moments I held onto when the red flags began popping up soon after I arrived. 

The internship started out awkward. I soon realized that my male boss, Parag, held a very angel-like role in the work Reeva was doing. I frequently saw him conversing and entertaining himself with the locals which he claimed was an essential part of keeping good relations with the people for the work they wanted to do, although he rarely participated in the actual fieldwork or writing work that Reeva was doing. There was an eccentric spark to him that I tried to appreciate because every now and then, he’d introduce an interesting idea for conservation work. 

But he spoke erratically, and struggled to find words or piece sentences together. He was also excruciatingly thin. Many a time, he refused dinner. I doubt I ever saw him without a lit cigarette. This was my first encounter with an alcoholic and that’s why I didn’t clock the signs. Two weeks into my time with them, he travelled to another city for work. Unable to control himself without the support of Reeva, he relapsed and called me on the phone one night. He was slurring his words and asked me if I had spotted any interesting birds that day. He complained that Reeva wasn’t talking to him and I became very uncomfortable, having known him only for a little over two weeks. When I went to Reeva about this, she calmly told me to cut the call and not worry about it. She told me he does this whenever he is alone and that he insults her when he’s drunk. A few more calls came my way through the internship and I would hang up on him. But it became concerning that the borders of professionalism were crossed so quickly and without a second thought. Surely, Reeva saw how an old man drunk-dialling a 20-year-old girl in the middle of the night should not be allowed. 

Smaller issues came up over time as well. After a week of engaging conversations and stimulating lessons, I was left to fend for myself. I woke up early almost every day to complete a set of repetitive tasks in the field while Reeva stayed back to write research papers that were apparently long overdue. I was asked to start my own personal research project and so I decided to study the vocal repertoire of Purple Swamphens, a very common bird in the area that I noticed had a varied set of calls. However, with no internet connection in such a remote location, I struggled to do any reading to prepare for my project. Feeling out of my depth, I went to Reeva with the issue and requested support. She guffawed and implied that I should figure it out myself without the support of prior reading or her expertise. It made me wonder why I had come for this internship if not to learn from her. I could conduct an independent study in my own time!

Despite this, I would cycle every day, at dawn, to a field station to make observations and collect data for my project in a remote area that, I slowly realised, had a reputation for being unsafe. This didn’t seem to bother my boss and so I didn’t let it bother me until one particular morning. I found myself sitting atop of a watch tower built for bird watchers, as I had the many previous mornings. I was surrounded by shallow, rippling waters that hosted birds of a wide variety. Watching them, I realized I was now following their schedule. They were up early for feeding and I was starting to feel hungry. Behind me was a long dirt road, the one I had ridden a bicycle too large for my tiny body on. My only companions at that hour were the birds and the three pups and their aggressive mother huddled asleep nearby. As I rummaged through my bag for a snack, I saw a motorbike steadily rumbling down the same dirt path I had followed. I stiffened but I forced myself to slump and slightly hide myself. It didn’t work. The two men spotted me and parked at the watch tower. I heard them climbing the stairs to where I was sat and a feeling of helplessness came over me. As they rounded the top and I was finally face to face with them, I saw two very curious faces peering at me. They unintentionally blocked the staircase, my only exit point, as they began asking me questions in Hindi. 

“Where are you from?” 
“Why are you here so early the morning?” 
“Where are you staying?” 

The more we talked, the more nervous I became. I didn’t know whether to be friendly or hold back. I was trying to strategize the quickest way out of that watch tower. One of the men had a ghastly, wide smile on his face that I will never forget. They may not have intended it, but they made me feel so unsafe. I quickly said that my boss wanted me home soon. They watched me as I packed up my belongings and I uneasily sliced past them through to the staircase. My hands were shaking as I was unlocked my bicycle and I heaved as I rode away. I had a few more experiences like this but when I told Reeva, I was simply asked to be careful. The homeowners of the house we were living at showed more concern for my safety than my bosses and this deeply alarmed me. 

All these problems eventually led to me going to Reeva around the 18th day of what was supposed to be a two- month internship. I told her that I wasn’t able to adjust to the working lifestyle here. While I tried not to attack her personally, I stated that the drunk calls from Parag at night and her not taking any sort of action to protect a young girl or sustain a professional relationship, were the primary reasons that I was handing in my 1 weeks’ notice. At first, she seemed understanding. She apologised that she didn’t correct Parag’s actions and promised to do this the second he returned. She revealed that she herself was aware that the handling of the internship was unprofessional and simply said to email her my notice.

The coming days were horrendous. Reeva stopped talking to me and stopped involving me in any fieldwork taking place. She insisted that I stay home and write a report on my learnings from the past few weeks. She gave me an impromptu but cold lesson in species distribution modelling and didn’t let me speak. I was completely ostracized from whatever I had come to do. We were in a village that didn’t speak Hindi (my second language) and hence, I found her to be my only source of conversation. There was no one to speak to and I felt extremely lonely. I was crying to myself and my people on the phone every day. 
When Parag did return, I was called to the bedroom they were sharing and asked to discuss my point of view. Parag simply replied, “I thought we were comrades. And that’s why I felt comfortable enough to call you like that”. He then apologised and we considered the matter closed. However, I still insisted that I would like to leave soon. Reeva detested that. She sent me an email instead of speaking to me, simply to make a point that she was trying to be professional, and put plainly, ripped into me. She claimed that she was disappointed that I had not brought my laptop and that I was unable to complete a research project. She summarised that she was unhappy with almost all aspects of my performance whereas I had never gotten any feedback of this nature in the 3 weeks I spent with her. It was clear that she held a grudge towards me for standing my ground and essentially, confronting an independent researcher’s way of working. 

And this is where you are, younger but resilient Aashra. You don’t feel very smart and you don’t like that you need to defend yourself against someone capable of turning ugly so quickly. You didn’t expect to face such a situation with a respected conservationist in the field and the difference in your statuses is forcing you to question whether you’re in the wrong here. And least of all, you didn’t expect an older woman, taking responsibility for another younger woman, to turn so hateful and to isolate you from human contact the way she did. You’re questioning yourself right now and you will do so for a few months. You’re going to question whether this field is for you and that’s where I’d like to come in. 

You didn’t learn what to do from the internship. You learned what not to do and saw qualities in people that you will soon vow to never see in yourself. Your future self has just completed a Master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation and plans to take that back home to India and do good work with good people. And she hopes that this eases your mind a bit. You’ve always considered yourself to be a very independent person. You’re aware that it’s you that usually picks yourself up when times get rough but if I could give you any advice, it’s that you should reach out to your friends and family. They helped you through the past few weeks and they’re going to help you for the years to come. 

You won’t remember this instance a few years after you leave that horrid place. But I want to encourage you to hold on to it as a symbol of your strength. A token for you to nurture as you experience the years to come. The morning you left for home was the first morning Reeva chose to wake up early and leave before your departure for field work. Instead of seeing you off, she left you a letter. The letter didn’t hold an apology but simply expressed remorse that the internship had turned so sideways for the both of you. It ended with her asking you to not let your experience with the organisation tarnish your memory of the beautiful ecosystem you had spent your summer at. Present me loves that you didn’t hold on to that letter. Instead, as a symbol of disgust and anger, you left the letter on the same table you found it. You wanted Reeva to retrieve and acknowledge the cowardice and pettiness with which she handled her intern. 

Looking back now, I’m proud of myself. I’m proud because I managed to get through 23 days of a horrible internship. I’m mostly proud because I feel no anger now, only pity and hope. I feel pity because I think those two bosses had just lost their way a bit. I feel hope that I never turn into someone like that, but a conservationist that always accepts her mistakes and learns from them, no matter who is pointing them out. 

Stay strong and always youthful, Aashra. 

 Lots of love, 
23-year-old Aashra

Written by Aashra @aashra.iype
Illustrated by Daisy Buckle @naturalcuriositystudio

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