Say hello to Dr. Latika Nath—a wildlife conservationist, a keen researcher, an ardent traveller, a passionate photographer, but most importantly, ‘Tiger Princess of India’. Her love for wild animals, tribal communities and the environment drew her to get a doctorate on tiger conservation from the University of Oxford. She has spent 25 years of her life roughing it out in the wilds to better the environmental conditions. She talks to us about her journey, her travel experiences, and her new coffee table book, Omo—Where Time Stood Still. By Sushmita Srivastav
1) From going to Oxford University under the famous biologist David Macdonald to becoming India’s first woman wildlife biologist with a doctorate on tigers, how has the journey been?
Getting to work under Prof. David Macdonald has changed my life. His command over the field of conservation biology and the team of people at WILDCru enabled me to understand the science of wildlife conservation and this has been crucial in influencing my career since. The first five years of my doctorate and the film were incredible years with the world recognising my work and dedication to the cause of tiger conservation. I also used the doctorate to prove my ability to work in the field under harsh conditions and silence critics who had maintained purely on my physical appearance that as a city-bred girl I would not be able to match the work of most male conservationists in the jungles.
2) And how does it feel to be called the ‘Tiger Princess’? What inspired you to work for the conservation of tigers?
Being the “Tiger princess of India” is a great honour and responsibility. Not only does this continuously remind me of my commitment to the cause of wildlife conservation but also ensures that I always conduct myself as a role model to so many young people who have seen and read about my work. My work has always been a passion for me and it is perhaps the complete immersion in the cause that makes me go the extra mile.
Tiger conservation was the subject of my doctoral thesis but in the years that followed, I have worked on many species. Tigers will always be a special focus for me. The majesty of this charismatic mega cat has entranced people from across the globe, making this probably one of the best-recognised animals on this planet. The conservation of entire ecosystems and watersheds is covered by the umbrella of the term tiger conservation.
3) Your second coffee table book, Omo — Where Time Stood Still is out. Tell us about it.
I visited Ethiopia in 2017 and went to the Omo valley. The people of the valley fascinated me. It was like a lost world where people lived in a time warp. Faced with the sudden intrusion of modern civilisation and its development projects, the very foundations of the life of these people has gone into turmoil. Cultural dilution or even extinction of the age-old lifestyle of these people seems imminent, and I wanted to record as much of their lives and culture as I could. This resulted in several visits to the valley where I photographed 10 tribes extensively. The database of over 60,000 images resulted in a five-volume series on the tribes of the Omo valley – a place where time stood still.
4) Tell us about the major challenges you faced in your career.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced is the fact that people judge me on my appearance rather than my work. Being a woman in a male-dominated field has also made me have to work harder than most of my male colleagues to prove the same point.
It is a bastion of a very male-dominated, orthodox, self-appointed experts. Therefore often my diligent academic research fell on deaf ears because people were unwilling to accept new emerging facts and logic based on current trends and research. I have an intellectual thought process that has been developed after serious academic research, which has taught me to question the status quo at all times. It is difficult for me to just confirm, just because of past practices or the fear of trying something new.
It bothers me that every second person you meet today feels that a few visits to a national park will enable them to become a “conservationist and environmentalist” and proclaim themselves to be experts. There has to be something that allows professional ecologists and biologists to safeguard their position. Just like somebody cannot become a lawyer, architect or medical doctor without undergoing intensive training, ecologists and biologists need to be recognised for their academic and professional qualifications.
5) Have you lived and worked closely with many tribal communities in India too for the conservation of wildlife? Share with us the experience.
Working with tribal communities for the conservation of wildlife and its habitat is a life-changing experience. The tribal people of our country have an incredibly intimate knowledge and understanding of the balance of things in nature. With patience, perseverance and an open mind, you can learn to see the forest through their eyes and understand how man is changing the delicate balance of things in the wild. Combining modern techniques with traditional knowledge leads to getting their cooperation and guidance for wildlife conservation.
6) Is conservation scene better in foreign countries? If yes, which country, and what can we learn from them?
Well, every country has something that they have done well in and something that we can learn from. There are examples of some European countries that are focusing on tackling climate change, plastic pollution and using alternate energy. Singapore and Israel can teach us so much about water management. Some African countries have done a huge amount of work on wildlife conservation with community involvement. Nepal has done groundbreaking work on tiger and rhino conservation, and Bhutan on controlled high-end minimal impact tourism.
7) As an ardent traveller and photographer, what do you think of conscious travelling, and what do you do to follow the same?
I try to select the eco-friendliest hotels whenever I can. When visiting wildlife areas I normally research the lodges and pick the ones with the greatest commitment to conservation and working with the indigenous people of the area.
More importantly, all wildlife lodges that I have created in the past, and the ones that I am creating now, are very green and with minimal footprints on the earth. Forest restoration, habitat creation, water conservation, plastic free, waste recycling, green energy, and organic farming have all been a part of every design.
8) Your favourite eco-friendly destination and hotel across the world?
I loved the lodge and conservation experiences offered by Laikipia Wilderness Camp, Kenya and Steve Curry. This was a wonderful experience of living in the bush with some amazing wildlife encounters.
I also like the Inkaterra lodges in Peru. World-class lodges that focus on conserving the environment, preserving the native cultures, and developing sustainable tourism in Peru.
9) Destinations listed on your bucket list?
Siberia for tigers, Iran for the Asiatic Cheetah, Galapagos for being a wildlife mecca, Egypt for the culture and the pyramids, Greece for its history, culture and food, Antarctica and the Arctic.
10) What are the best places to spot tigers here in India and abroad?
We are fortunate to have the largest living population of wild tigers in the world in India. With time and patience, you can see the great cats in many parts of the country. However, this is a wild animal in its natural habitat. There are no guarantees of a sighting. Chances are higher in tiger reserves with established tourism. The better known Tiger Reserves like Corbett, Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Tadoba, Nagarhole, Kaziranga and Satpura all offer excellent chances of a sighting.
Nepal too has a sizeable tiger population and is the country that offers the greatest opportunities for tiger sighting after India.
Russia and South-East Asia have tigers but the snow and vegetation make it more difficult to find the animals in the wild.
11) Tell us about your most memorable wildlife experience.
Innumerable encounters have been memorable. Every great cat meeting is incredible. Elephant family time is magical. Seeing a predator in action is breathtaking every time.
I will never tire of meeting animals. Long hours with them has taught me to almost read their thought processes and I can spend long meditative hours watching their behaviour.
12) On the occasion of World Wildlife Day, name one thing that you would like the Indian travellers to start following from today.
I would like Indian travellers to be open to experiencing the jungle for more than a tiger. Learning to be more thoughtful and considerate; to learn to leave the jungles pristine and unpolluted and to understand the privilege of being in these sacred spaces.