Meet Cara Tejpal

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 32 No. 11, November 2012

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Age considers, youth ventures" - a line that is exemplified in the actions and contributions of Cara Tejpal. Still only in her early twenties, she has become a fairly well-known name in wildlife conservation and volunteering circles, using her intelligence and compassion for wildlife to achieve far more than her youthful years suggest. Apart from being an independent journalist for Tehelka magazine, Cara spends every waking moment exploring the many faceted ecosystems that sustain us. Her volunteer work is vast, encompassing a cornucopia of challenges and opportunities that have added to her immense skill set. Bittu Sahgal speaks with Sanctuary's Young Naturalist 2012 winner about her work, her inspirations and her plan for a new India.

When did Cara Tejpal realise that her life was to be given over to the defense of nature?

The question makes my life and career choice sound very dramatic and self-sacrificing. It isn't. The thought of doing something that doesn't involve animals has never crossed my mind. I adore wildlife, I love the outdoors, and the rare moments of self-realisation I have experienced have been in places of unspoiled nature. Isn't it only natural to want to protect what you love? I haven't given over my life; I've taken charge of it! I do exactly what I want, travel widely and meet incredible people. I do sometimes set myself difficult tasks and find myself in challenging situations but these are choices that I make and stand by. So, there was no one moment when I realised I was going to be a conservationist and certainly there is no sense of sacrifice. I love what I do and have a good time doing it.

And Vasant Valley School? Did the institution further cement your resolve?

Vasant Valley is a great school but like most academic institutions in this country their level of engagement with the outdoors and the environment was average at best. There were individual teachers at school who encouraged me and it was in school that I was introduced to Kids for Tigers that allowed me to imagine a life working in and for the wilds.

Cara Tejpals passion for wildlife and nature was triggered at an early age. In her words: “There was no one moment where I realised I was going to be a conservationist and certainly there is no sense of sacrifice. I love what I do and have a good time doing it.
Courtesy: Cara Tejpal.

Tell me about Hampshire College; all those courses in terrestrial ecology and animal language and cognition. Did they prove useful?

Hampshire was a turning point in my life. It is this tiny radical college where every student is actively engaged in issues of politics, gender, human rights, sustainability and a plethora of other topics that I didn't even know I should or could have an opinion on.

The coursework I did in my years there was an integral eye-opener to the science of conservation. As a liberal arts student and someone who was terrified of science in school, I suddenly found professors and courses that were relevant to my interests. Learning to read scientific papers, argue my point in an empirical manner and understand the basics of animal cognition and wildlife management have held me in good stead.

In addition, the study abroad option gave me the chance to work at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey for a semester. For a girl who spent all her teenage years devouring Gerald Durrell books, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

That said, after spending almost three years in the U.S., I decided to forego my degree and come back to India. At this point my learning had stagnated; I was excelling in my classes but was no longer excited by them. My focus has always been and will always be on conservation in South Asia, and the North American centric syllabus was something I had had enough of. I was nervous opting out of college and inviting the stigma that comes with lacking a degree but two years down the line I can say that it was the best decision I could have taken!

What made you opt for an internship in Jairam Ramesh's office at the MoEF? And did that experience leave you with hope or cynicism?

The internship at the MoEF was something that fell into my lap unexpectedly. Having been involved with the wildlife community from my early teens meant I had, and have, several friends much older than me and working with large conservation organisations. I was at a friend's 30th birthday party and she mentioned the internship opening. I jumped at the chance, sent across my application and was accepted.

Like the majority of young people in India, I had the tendency to malign both politicians and the political system. Working in the Minister's office changed that. The people I had the privilege to work with were smart, committed and well informed. The experience gave me hope and made me understand just how much impact the right person in the right place can have. A person can spend his or her entire life fighting to protect a small parcel of forestland but a politician decides the fate of entire landscapes in a one-hour meeting. The pressures on the MoEF from every other Ministry is enormous, I would say it is the toughest portfolio to hold, but also one of the most important.

My biggest take-away from the internship was that politics is something that all conservationists must engage with and attempt to understand. I may not agree with every decision that was taken by the Minister but I am grateful for the insight into the political machinery that the internship gave me.

Seen here volunteering in Elephant Haven, Cara says: “I see contempt from a large section of the conservation fraternity towards people interested in animal rights and welfare but I for one dont believe that the two are mutually exclusive of each other.
Courtesy: Cara Tejpal.

Cara, what is it exactly that young people want from the generation that today sits at the planet's steering wheel? What would you ask for if you were given a magic wand?

Clarity and leadership. The generation that sits at the planet's steering wheel today seems to have neither. As young conservationists in the 21st century we are assaulted with more information, arguments and petty rivalries than we could ever process. I'm not asking to inherit a perfect planet but at least one that can be salvaged and that is still beautiful. So, to put it briefly, I would ask for clarity of vision, and responsible, active leadership from those at the helm.

And as far as its impact is concerned, is India any better than, say, the U.S.A.?

This is one game that I am reluctant to play. Every country struggles with its own set of problems and pitting the levels of our incompetency against one another won't help solve any of them. The outcome of this ‘whos-doing-what has kept the world in indecision and paralysis. Everybody is reluctant to make the first move on issues of climate justice and conservation without first seeing what their neighbours are doing. That's something we've all seen in the myriad conferences the world hosts.

I know your father is the man behind Tehelka, but what turned you into such a prolific writer? The Agarwood Trail, Red Sanders, threats to plants from the Indian Army... you have notched up an enviable list of published articles.

Writing is something that I had to be pushed into and for many years I actively rejected any notion of pursuing journalism. I was hesitant to write because I know I'll always be compared to my father and was uncomfortable to report for Tehelka because of what others would say. Finally, it was just overwhelming guilt that pushed me over the edge. To have an agency and not use it is a grave injustice to yourself and the world.

Once I started reporting on conservation issues, I realised it was a liberating exercise. It's an avenue that can have a powerful impact and I am very proud of some of my stories that have led to policy changes and catalysed action. Journalism also sits very well with my temperament. I'm someone who gets bored easily, writing allows me to affect change, explore new topics, stay engaged and not get scattered.

The Gerry Martin Project (TGMP); was it a special interest in herps or the fact that working with Gerry got you into the outdoors?

I want to say it was a special interest in herps, but put any animal in front of me and I'll display an equal amount of awe and fascination. Working with Gerry is very much about a chance to be outdoors as well as to learn more about animals. I would perhaps tentatively call myself a ‘conservationist but definitely not a ‘naturalist. TGMP is exposing me to a lot of elements of biology and ecology and in return I hope I bring some value to the organisation. It's a small, committed group with clear vision and it's great to be a part of the team.

And advocacy, campaigning, conservation battles... are these to dominate your existence in the years to come? What about your start with Friendicoes, Wildlife SOS and other animal rights groups? Is that part of your life behind you?

Like I said before, I love all animals and I have strong opinions about a lot of animal rights issues. My year at Wildlife SOS gave me an unbelievable wealth of experience. I was only 17 at the time but was given responsibility and respect, two things that I was craving. As for Friendicoes, I don't think my association with that organisation will ever falter. To date, I foster orphaned and abused animals when I'm in Delhi, help with fundraising and write for the website. When I crib about conservation work my friends at the shelter always joke that I miss cleaning up after sick puppies and begging for funds!

I see contempt from a large section of the conservation fraternity towards people interested in animal rights and welfare but I, for one, don't believe that the two are mutually exclusive. My interest in animal welfare is however, a personal endeavour. My career will be in wildlife conservation and you have elucidated the role I see for myself very clearly. Advocacy, campaigning and conservation battles are arenas where I feel I could have influence and as long as I get to travel and see this country's amazing biodiversity, I don't mind how much hard work it is.

Watching the hatching of olive Ridley turtles was on Caras top ‘Things To Do Before I Die list and after years of dreaming, she made it to the Odisha (Rushikulya) coast. She encourages everyone to go and witness the mass nesting (arribada) and hatching, not as ignorant tourists, but informed volunteers.
Courtesy: Cara Tejpal.

What is the state of the biodiversity in the Northeast today? Are locals even minimally aware of the threat from dams?

Earlier this year I spent a month in the Northeast volunteering with Aaranyak. One night, I was sitting by the cooking fire at our base camp after returning from an arduous trek. Our host, an Idu Mishmi lady we called nani, had brewed rice beer and several men were stopping by at the hut for a drink before moving onward. I started talking to one man - both of us speaking equally broken Hindi - about wildlife in the area. When I asked him about tigers this is what he said, “Bagh! Yahan pey duniya bhar key bagh hain. Jitna maarna chahtey ho maaro, aur phir bhi kuch bacch jayeyga. (Tigers! Here there are so many tigers. Kill as many as you want and you will still be left with some.)"

That really shook me. The wildlife is still there but it's shy and receding. For days we'd been hiking through grassland and jungle and while we saw signs of wildlife it was often in the form of the aftermath of a hunt. Hornbill beaks and wild pig tusks were commonplace. Sitting in a city, it's easy to say that everyone should give up hunting but only once you're actually in the field do you realise just how deeply ingrained and valued hunting is in many tribal societies. While dams and poaching dominate our own discourse about the Northeast, I found very few locals engaged in this particular strain of conversation. But that could well be because I was interacting with only a few individuals!

The Northeast is almost unbearably beautiful, the whooping calls of the Hoolock gibbons and the beat of hornbill wings awaken some very primal emotion in me. Being there, I also understood why these states and people feel forgotten by the Centre. They are. Despite having lived abroad for months at a time, I've never felt more distant from home than during the few days when I was in Arunachal. As conservationists, it's important that we create space for dialogue and treat people with respect if we want to work there. There are big problems and there's a lot to be done but it cant be achieved through bullying. That won't make us any better than those who mine the land and tear down virgin forests.

I hope to go back in the near future.

Is the threat of climate change being exaggerated?

I'm not as well versed in the climate change debate, as I ought to be. But as any parent would say for their ailing child and any child for their ailing parent - I'd prefer to err on the side of caution. Even if it were exaggerated, the action we would take to mitigate it would only leave the planet a more beautiful place.

My gut tells me, no, the threat isn't exaggerated. A quick glance at the rate at which we're plowing through natural resources, changing landscapes, extinguishing species, at the spiking instances of erratic weather - these are the alarm calls that tell us that we as a species are doing something wrong.

Tell me about George Schaller.

Growing up in a city but being obsessed with the wilds meant I found solace in books. Though I read a vast quantity of literature through the years, I was only introduced to the work of George Schaller when I was 19. Then, suddenly, I found his name popping up everywhere - in the works of Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Alan Rabinowitz, Peter Mathiesen… the list was endless. It seemed a legend lived amongst us but few knew of him.

Then in 2011, I had the opportunity to intern with Panthera and had a chance to meet George. The reality of this person is what really blows you away. For someone who has pioneered the most seminal studies of wildlife in the world and beyond that, single-handedly been responsible for protecting thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in a dozen different countries, George is incredibly humble. He displays absolutely no sense of entitlement and treats everyone equally, even the lowly intern.

I think what every conservationist, no, every person, should learn from George is the worth of persistence, compassion and self-belief. I respect him immensely not just as a scientist or a conservationist but also as a good person.

Is Cara Tejpal hopeful for tomorrow?

Very honestly, it depends on the day. In essence, I am an optimistic person but some days the news is so bleak that you can't imagine there is any salvation. There are certain images that haunt me at all times, one I saw as a young girl - an elephant slaughtered and with her legs cut off, the other more recently in the pages of your magazine - the rhino, still alive but with its horn sliced away. When I think of these things, I'm filled with despair at the brutality our society fosters.

Most days though, I am hopeful. I've had the privilege of knowing and working with some of the country's best conservationists and when you know these people you're compelled to believe. India is beautiful beyond measure and as long as there are wildernesses to escape to, I am hopeful.

(First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 6, December 2012)

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