December 2019 | 731 words | 3-minute read
The seeds of Taj Safaris’ naturalist Sangita Mani’s future career were sown in her early childhood. “I loved being outdoors, surrounded by nature,” she says. “I didn’t know then that this is what I would gravitate to later in life.”
Her grandfather worked on a tea estate in the Nilgiris, a place blessed with abundant natural beauty. Sites like Bandipur, Mudumalai and Ooty were just an overnight trip away.
It was here that Sangita spent her summer vacations. Armed with a simple camera, she photographed the birds to whom she felt drawn even though she barely knew their names.
Round peg, square hole
But those were also times when such passions were not considered serious career choices. So, Sangita attained a BCom degree and stumbled into the corporate workplace. She tried her hand at human resources and recruitment, corporate communications and even marketing for a software company in Bengaluru. “But nothing felt right,” she says.
That’s when she heard of Taj Safaris. She wrote to them and was invited for their naturalists course. What followed was a long period of rigorous training, where the classroom was the jungle and the curriculum its beauty and unpredictability. The training also consisted of a personality assessment module that sought to confirm how fit the candidate was for the role.
She says, “Being a naturalist, going on safaris every day is seen as a glamourous job. But that’s just 10 percent of the job. The greater part involves interacting with guests, keeping cool under pressure, being good team players and making tough decisions when called to.”
In October 2012, Sangita became a part of the Taj Safaris family. She had found her true calling
Out in the field
As a naturalist, Sangita takes guests out on safaris or nature walks customised to their interests. The Taj Safaris team consists of the naturalist and a park tracker or spotter, who is a local resident and knows his way about the jungle. “Together we try to offer our guests the best experience possible,” she says.
Sangita has gone on competitive safaris and come away underwhelmed with those experiences, and doubly convinced about the Taj Safaris way of making the jungle come alive for guests. “We tell stories about the sights we see, and help our guests discover new things,” she says. “Often, we have guests who come in and say that they want to see a tiger. But we also tell them about birds and butterflies and fruits and flowers.”
A lot of people think that the wildlife is only about elephants, rhinos and tigers, but Sangita and the other naturalists show the guests that the jungle isn’t about one creature alone. They evoke in them a sense of awe and respect for the ecosystem and how each fragile thread in it connects to another. This gives the guests a more wholesome experience.
The extra mile
Sangita also regularly takes time out to add to her knowledge. When a guest expressed an interest in orchids, she read up on the subject so she could provide the right information.
While Sangita often goes out of her way for the guests, what is non-negotiable for her is respecting the jungle. There is a list of dos and don’ts that guests are expected to follow, and she enforces the rules. She says, “The experience of our guests would be marred if they did not follow certain ground rules.”
In a difficult situation, these rules could be lifesavers. Guests have to understand the importance of keeping a respectable distance from wildlife. Any attempt to get too close could disturb the animal. “These animals are wild creatures, especially the carnivores, and we don’t understand them as well as we think we do. It’s best not to push our limits with them,” she adds.
Sangita’s sense of responsibility for the environment has led her to volunteer in Nature Education programmes, conducted by the Kanha Park Authority in association with the Last Wilderness Foundation, Mumbai. She has also conducted awareness programmes for children from local communities on sustainable livelihood.
Over the last seven years, she has worked in several of the Taj Safaris parks, beginning with Pench, then Bandhavgarh and now Kanha. She says, “The parks are different in terms of the wildlife and vegetation, but they are all spectacular.” And it is this spectacle that she seeks to bring alive for her guests.
— Cynthia Rodrigues
Would you like to take a trip with Sangita or her colleagues? Book a Taj jungle getaway.