Fighting for Tigers, Giving Animals a Voice
Prerna Singh Bindra was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
Prerna Singh Bindra is a journalist and lobbyist for conservation. She has consulted with Friends of Women's World Banking to make microfinance more accessible to rural women. She edits the conservation journal Tigerlink and received the Carl Zeiss Award for her work in wildlife conservation.
Who are your favorite female changemakers from history?
- Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring helped spark the environmental movement as we know it today. She showed the world what pesticides have poisoned our world—the presence of toxic chemicals in water and on land, in our soil and food, and its impact on other creatures of the earth.
Rachel warned about the presence of DDT in mother’s milk. She faced the wrath of the pesticide industry, but her work resulted in the banning of DDT and enactment of environment regulations.
Rachel Carson showed the world the power of the pen, and what one woman can do—to change the world.
- Dr. Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost primatologist and conservationist is my hero. She went into the jungles of Africa (Gombe National Park, Tanzania) to study wild chimpanzees in 1960. Her research and books changed the way we looked at our next of kin. She is courageous, compassionate, and a pioneer in her field.
- All those woman who fight against all the odds to stand up for their rights, such as Bhanwari Devi, who was gang raped by the upper-castes in a village in Rajasthan, India. She risked her life and faced social boycott to fight for justice and bring her rapists to book.
What are the three qualities that make a changemaker successful?
- A sense of passion and conviction. A sense of “I believe.”
It is when you believe in something that you find the courage to follow your convictions, in spite of the odds.
When I started to write—I worked for a national newspaper writing about films, shopping, fashion, and theater—about wildlife and conservation issues, the editor scoffed. “Nobody would read that stuff,” he said. “Do it in your own time, with your own resources.”
There was little room for the environment in the popular press then, but I persisted. I thought of new ways to present a story and packaged it well. I got meaty stuff: I essentially gave the editor little choice. The stories made it to page one, and the editor of a rival daily said they now had to employ an environment reporter too.
- You have to empower other people to recognize their skills and expertise, to tap it—encourage it. Knowledge is meant to be shared, not locked in or used for personal glory.
- A vision. And ways to work out things . . . any which way.
What has made you successful in your work? What specific strategies or tactics did you employ?
I haven’t—consciously—employed any particular strategies in my work. There aren’t set formulas for success except hard work and that little “extra” something that you put in.
I have some mantras I go by: I never give up. In my line of work—conservation—there are many failures. In times of despair, I liken it to that of an onco-surgeon: you do your bit, and you might delay the inevitable, but more often than not you lose the battle—the cancer of greed will ravage the forest.
Even if you lobby and campaign against a road that is cutting into tiger habitat—it may happen, but it’s a murky battle. You are up against big business and politicians—there are powerful lobbies at work.
But you don’t give up . . . you battle on. Because somewhere, sometimes, and without even knowing it, you will have made a difference. And that one success that you achieved makes it worthwhile.
For example, an issue that I raised about frontline staff not getting wages in a tiger reserve resulted—eventually—in funds being released for the reserve. I was the first journalist to go into Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa (no official had been in either) after it was attacked by Naxals, and to draw attention to it. That was followed up by the efforts of a lot of other people that resulted in the park being taken up us a special initiative by the central government. Today, despite many problems, the park has seen some positive changes.
One of my stories that focused on tourism infrastructure was the impetus for a survey around tiger reserves to study the impact of tourism on tigers and their habitat. Now there are guidelines and rules for tourism around wildlife habitats.
This is what makes it all worthwhile: the small changes that you can help make. And it’s not just a concrete action—it’s also in the way of thinking.
The cause is greater than the self.
Work with others and work as a team. Sure, there will be differences and divergent viewpoints, but strength lies in unity.
If a story makes an impact, or you can lobby successfully, it is always a collective effort—a local organization provides information, the staff provides input and acts on the ground, an NGO or an official will take your story further, a lawyer might file a PIL.
Don’t be half-hearted in your work, it gets you nowhere. Put in your best, do your best, and you cannot go wrong. You will succeed.
It’s clichéd, but it’s true: animals don’t have a voice or a vote, so I am their voice (I think from their point of view, they are my constituency). I believe that they have as much right to live, and die, in dignity as any human being does. They were born free. They should live free.
Knowing what you do now, what one thing would you have done differently in your life?
I would have written a diary—a record of my life (such as it is!). But I get lazy by the end of the day. I get tired of the battles, so I lose putting pen to paper (again!) and capturing so many of the wonderful things I did, the places I have seen, and the people I have met.
What is your superpower? Or what one superpower would you want to have?
My superpower? In Julie Andrews’ words: I have confidence in me! And in what I do.
And the set of values my family instilled in me.
The joy I feel when I am in the forest, at one with nature. Watching a tiger or an elephant calf at play. Listening to the sound of the stream, the robin singing its love song. Watching a rainbow streak across a sky, a leaf fall slowly on the forest floor, a squirrel making a nest. Ours is a beautiful world.
The superpower I want to have: a magic wand, I guess, to remove all suffering and peace in the world, etc.!
Seriously though, I pray to God to give me the strength to help make a difference; to stay positive when things are going wrong; to deal with the loss when we cannot make a difference.
What advice would you have now for your former 15-year old self?
As a 15-year-old, I did not know what direction my life would take. I didn’t have any elaborate plan. I just loved animals, and it was this emotive connection and a strong sense of injustice that I felt, on their behalf, that led me up this path.
I’m glad that I didn’t plan my life. I’m glad that I followed my heart, even though it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world.
In another sense, it would have been good if I had aspired for more, and realized the potential—the potential of what is possible with hard work and courage. This is something most girls need to know.
What advice? I don’t know—maybe to have used the opportunities I had, and not pass them over.
Maybe I would have told myself to have more fun. I was too serious a teen!
How do you envision your field to be different in 30 years? What big changes do you hope to see?
It’s just going to get more difficult. The threats to wildlife and pressures on their habitat are accelerating by the day with the rapidly expanding population and raised aspirations and lifestyles.
Let’s take India: we have a population of 1.2 billion now and it is increasing by the second—it will be 1.6 billion by 2050. India is growing, and it wants to grow faster. Environment and wildlife are the casualties in this mad pursuit of a double-digit GDP.
For growth you need power, largely to be fueled by coal. There is a constant pressure to free forests for coal. Will we be able to withstand this pressure? The axe will fall not only on the forests, but also on communities that depend on it. And on us, because our forests are the catchment of our rivers.
Conserving forests is crucial in this era of climate change. Forests play a key role in sequestering and storing carbon.
The battle is getting more complex—more difficult. How do we marry this obsession with growth to ecological concerns. It will get more polarized by the day. How do we protect wildlife and conserve resources against this onslaught?
I don’t know about 30 years—we have to counter the tide, starting yesterday.
My hope lies in the growing army of young crusaders who feel this sense of wrong in the way we treat the planet. They are the inheritors of the earth, and they are working in myriad, wondrous ways to help heal the world. A child took up odd jobs—shoe polishing and car washing included—to donate to tiger conservation. Another has set up a website to acquaint kids her age (around ten) with environmental issues, and so on.
How do you know when the time is right to act?
Any time is a good time to act. The only thing I tell myself: think before you act. But sometimes you’ve got to just act. If you think too much, you won’t take the plunge (it’s like marriage, you know—if you think hard, the downside starts showing).
Don’t wait for others to act. Don’t assume it is someone else’s responsibility—the government, NGOs—whoever. You act. Your act will be the mobilizing force.
The time to act is now: from small changes (I know someone who fought relentlessly to stop the use of pesticides and to switch to neem and other herbal alternatives in their society garden), to tackling the big issues like water conservation.
What are key elements that individuals should keep in mind as they grow as a social entrepreneur?
- Have a complete, consistent commitment to your idea, and to taking that idea forward at the right moment.
- People are the key—having the right people on board.
- Seize opportunities.
You need to invent new approaches to a problem. You need to impact the thinking of the people—plant a thought process, an idea. I felt the pressing need to connect the concerns of wildlife and conservation issues to the people, the policymakers, the politicians, and the bureaucrats. They had to be foremost in their minds—not relegated or classed as something that does not impact your life.
You must highlight issues—whether it is hacking a city’s green lungs, or a road cutting through elephant forests, or a mine pillaging tiger habitat and fertile fields—and bring them into the public domain.
I used the media to bring issues of conservation to the fore—to ensure that these issues have a wider and diverse audience. I used words to reach out; to tell stories that touch a chord. Media became my tool to build public opinion and to be part of a pressure lobby.
And you must keep innovating—exploring each and every opportunity to reach your goal. Currently, I have changed direction a bit. While I continue to write, I am working with governments and NGOs on conservation issues. My strategy has been modified a bit, but the goal remains.
What issue do you think women of the future will be working on in 50 years?
I don’t think they will be all that much different from what they are working on today. Women have come a long way, but the battle for personal freedom will continue.
I think one of the major issues that women will work on is preserving natural resources. Women are the hardest hit when natural resources are scarce. Though I am mainly talking about women in the rural landscape, in the future this scarcity is going to cross the rural-urban and the rich-poor divide. It will affect all of us—be it water or fuel.
I think we will have more women coming forward to work on these issues.
Woman is a nurturer, and I believe she will have a major role to play in healing the planet.
What have you learned from younger generations?
I learnt to take more risks. To—occasionally—throw caution to the winds; to be spontaneous.
One child taught me the import and impact of what one does. I used to write a nature column for children. It was just something I did, at times. It was merely a deadline to be met until I met this little boy who had stuck all my nature columns in his scrapbook, and would eagerly await the next one. We talked about why the sparrows were missing in his garden, why my dog followed me everywhere, and why tigers need to be saved.
I had planted a seed, and I never knew it.
What does a woman of the future look like?
More confident. More empowered. In more key leadership positions and governance.
Prerna Singh Bindra