Woman from Chennai loves challenges in Gir

Woman from Chennai loves challenges in Gir

She looks like a girl next-door. Not many would believe that Meena Venkatraman is doing research on lions as a part of her chosen professional routine. Many a time, she spends more time on observing the four-legged beasts than human beings!

Born and brought up in Chennai, this research scholar opted for a career in wildlife science. “A city such as Chennai is the ideal place for being initiated and becoming sensitive to environment and related issues.  So, it comes as no surprise that I was drawn towards this field. 

Motivated by my friends sharing same interest, I joined a course in ecology for my post-graduation in Pondicherry University,” Meena recollects.

“From the early days of my career till date, I have the full support and encouragement of my family,” she says. This is remarkable as her family members had no link with forests or wildlife and have been city-based for over two generations.

 While her father was from banking profession, her brother opted for an engineering degree and now works for an MNC. Her mother, who passed away recently, had backed her to the hilt.

After doing research in Mudumalai and Palani hills landscape in Tamil Nadu, Meena went on to do active field-based research leading to a PhD. As luck would have it, she got an opportunity to pursue her passion at the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India where she completed her thesis titled “Reproductive strategy and behaviour of male Asiatic lions” under guidance of leading researchers Y V Jhala and Ravi Chellam.

For nearly a decade, Meena has been studying the behaviour of endemic lions in the Gir forest, which is considered as the world’s last refuge for the Asiatic lion.  Lion tracking involves waking up before dawn, locating, following and observing lions through the day. 

According to Meena, lions are social animals and her study looked at social behaviour in detail, particularly with respect to male lions. Lions are territorial animals and males have to be constantly alert to keep their association with females or they will be replaced by other males. She also studied these patterns in detail along with their ranging (movement) diet and among others.

She says that for a woman it is not that easy to undertake field-based wildlife research since it carries several challe­nges, including living alone in a village, far away from the comforts of a home, adjusting to the language and culture of the place and physical endurance of walking for long hours in the forest tracking lions throughout the day and sometimes even at night.

“There was, of course, the challenge of working on a large carnivore. It was easy for me to win the love and acceptance of the people in the little village of Sasan Gir. Since I loved the challenges of jungle life and lion tracking I did not mind the hard work of jungle life. Only on completion of my study, when I look back I realise the nature of the tough work I did,” she said.

For Meena, every day in the field is filled with surprises with many new things to learn. However, the researcher had some difficult encounters with the beast, especially when she came across mating pairs or lionesses with cubs.

 “I recall an incident during the filming of BBC documentary one day, where a scene was to be shot with lions in the backdrop. My team of trackers went in different directions to comb the area to locate lion prides. Luckily, the forest department staff located a lioness with two cubs that I used to also follow and observe and showed us the spot where it was conveniently located for capturing on camera,” Meena said.

Meena expected that the lioness would follow its routine and go to the stream to drink water and then go for a hunt. What followed was scary.

“The lioness had taken the path where I was. The crew was a few feet behind me. Those were tense moments when a lioness and two curious cubs were within leaping distance. I froze and at the same time drew my stick closer to defend myself. The lioness looked menacingly for some time and then walked away without attacking and carried on her activities of drinking water and hunting for the day,” she recalled.

She quipped: “I imagine that the lioness recognised me as the harmless prying researcher!!! The relief on my face is very well captured in the film.”

After the incident, Meena felt even more reassured that wild animals avoid attacking and killing unless their safety is provoked. Now the focus of her research has shifted to human-lion conflict issues outside the Gir forest or protected area. “I am also aiming to be seriously engaged in the conservation of lions in the country,” she said. 

“At the end of a dedicated work, all the respect and popularity is attributed to merely being a woman and the good work is often overlooked. So, women in any profession have to constantly create their own milestones and keep pushing the boundaries for better achievement,” she said.

Being the only free-ranging population of about 400 lions, the continued survival of lions is not only of national but also of global concern.