Widely travelled and an explorer by nature, Harsha Jayaramaiah has had a varied range of wilderness experiences through his career, which includes working at a wildlife rescue centre as a student, leading nature programmes for kids, working as a naturalist at wildlife lodges, and later becoming a naturalist trainer. Born and brought up in Bangalore, Harsha was amongst the few who were drawn to wilderness more than the ever-increasing glamour of the city. In the wild, he most enjoys identifying and understanding the behaviour of all sorts of wildlife, be it mammals, birds, reptiles or insects. He began freelance guiding to be able to work in a variety of habitats and geographies. Presently, he guides in South & South-East Asia, Tanzania, and Brazil.
Harsha’s cheerful and caring nature along with his knowledge and eagerness to explore makes him a sought-after naturalist and trainer. He is an accomplished photographer who has contributed photographs to various wildlife books, and has even worked as a cameraman in wildlife films. In collaboration with NGOs and lodges, he conducts naturalist training programmes for youth around the country.
Harsha Jayaramaiah has been interviewed here by Payal Mehta.
1) How did you get interested in wildlife? Was there a single moment of realisation?
Since childhood, I have been interested in animals and birds. During my school days, we had a chapter on Dr. Salim Ali, and I happened to get a copy of his ‘Book of Indian Birds’ in our library. I also read other publications by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). All this led me to begin bird-watching. When I was in grade 7, I retained my school library’s bird book for a whole year, despite several notices! And I kept going through its colourful plates of birds. I guess somewhere during this time, I realised that nothing fascinated me more.
During my 11th and 12th grades, I started to volunteer and work at People for Animals (PFA), rescuing urban wildlife, and just after that, I got involved with Kids for Tigers (KFT) by Sanctuary Asia. Through this time, I learnt more about wildlife and was increasingly gripped. Working at PFA gave me a deeper understanding of the animals we looked after. I could observe their behaviour closely and extensively even though they were not in the wild.
2) Did anyone inspire you in your journey? If yes, tell us more about them.
I was inspired by quite a few people. My father, a professor of history, took me along on his archaeology field-trips, and out for walks into agricultural fields during our visits to our village; he shared his childhood stories, which fascinated me. Dr. Salim Ali’s work is of course an inspiration. As are many members of ‘Birdwatcher’s Field Club of Bangalore’, Usha Ramaiah (Kids For Tigers), friends from ‘People For Animals’, Karthikeyan Srinivasan, and Sarath CR. Also people like Krupakar and Senani, and a few more with whom I had brief but very impressionable interactions just as I was starting out as a naturalist. Every step of the way, there was someone who inspired me and whom I learnt from. Jim Corbett books too were a big inspiration for me, and they are even today.
3) Tell us about your foray into filming. How was that experience?
It has been only a short foray into wildlife filming. I have assisted for a few documentary series for NatGeo and BBC, in Western Ghats and Central India. The best part about filming is that, by virtue of the job, it allows you lots of quiet time with each subject and habitat you want to film. Sometimes it takes you to tourism hotspots and sometimes to places where no travellers ever go. I have enjoyed being a part of film-making and would love to do more.
My best experience was when my wife Payal and I were filming in Ladakh, where we spent many days watching the behaviour of different wildlife, in freezing cold temperatures most of the time! Imagine spending days at a stretch with a congregation of over 300 Tibetan Wild Ass (all females, with young ones) and watching the dominant stud defending this large group. We used to watch him chase away any competing males that dared approach. He’d chase them so fast and so far, until they became tiny specs in the distance within minutes.
Another time in the Trans-Himalayas, we trekked for hours with local horsemen, looking for Himalayan Wolves in a remote area where there’s not a single other soul or even sound. After many hours, we finally found the wolves, but they were very far away. We were quite disheartened after all that effort, when all of a sudden, the silence of the valley broke with the reverberating sound of synchronous howls of the pack – it was hair-raising! We didn’t get any desired footage that day, but came back overjoyed though exhausted.
Another experience was filming primates and apes in Assam – we would follow small families of Hoolock Gibbons in villages, which had small tea gardens. We would jump or crawl through fences from one garden to another to catch up with gibbons, and the local villagers were so welcoming and hospitable.
We had many memorable days filming marmots, Snow Leopards, Upland Buzzards, Black-necked Cranes, Long-tailed and Stumped-tailed Macaques, Indian Rhinos, hornbills and what not…I can go on and on.
4) We all have a sense of the role a wildlife guide plays when guiding in their local area or country. But how does one be of value as a guide in countries one hasn’t lived in or even visited much?
Guiding is the same anywhere in the world – there is a lot of preparation before any trip, be it local or foreign. We read up notes and information: not just on natural history and wildlife, but also latest conservation efforts, history, culture, demographics, etc. Strong natural-history knowledge helps one make sense of the wilderness, no matter where you are. However, over and above everything, one has to have basic guiding skills, be humble, and have the enthusiasm to learn new things.
Being a tour leader is not about knowing everything, but about working with and respecting local guides. They make most of the work easy. You let them shine. If they are shy, push them to open up, instead of trying to show what you know. That way, they get their due credit and you get to learn so much from them.
Guiding is as much about managing guests and their expectations as it is about wildlife interpretation. And about being there to answer their questions and address any issues, no matter where in the world you are guiding. Lastly, you have to read your guests, be friendly, and be honest about what you know and what you don’t, about the place you are visiting.
5) What according to you are the most important qualities a good naturalist must have?
Humility, presence of mind, good communication, and storytelling skills. It’s easy for a guide to start thinking that they are the star of the experience; it’s a false idea. These travels and journeys are not about the guide. While there is no doubt that a good guide can enhance a travel experience immensely, the holiday still belongs to the guest, the wildlife, and the destination. Guests have often spent many months of planning and preparation before they arrive, and we have to bear that in mind.
6) Though neck-deep in the commercial industry of tourism, do you think guides have any role to play in conservation?
Definitely! Guests believe in their guides, so giving the right information about local conservation issues will spread correct awareness. We often use mealtimes or long commutes to talk about conservation successes and challenges in the region we are in. Our guests are wildlife lovers, which is why they are on a trip with us; they want to hear these stories. Guides are a very effective bridge between scientists and the common man. Scientists across India are collecting amazing data that is helping in taking conservation efforts forward in the right direction. As guides, we have the ability, knowledge and the opportunity to convey interesting and updated information to a very receptive audience!
Many of our guests, and even the travel companies we work with, are very conscientious and contribute regularly and significantly to various causes. One couple who has repeatedly travelled with me even asked me to recommend a genuine local organisation they could include in their will.
As a guide, you are also in a position to influence the carbon footprint of your trip. We are constantly striving towards more eco-friendly trips. We have led many trips that are nearly 100% disposable-plastic free and with every flight carbon compensated.
Another thing guides can do actively is contribute to citizen science. It’s a huge part they can play without much effort.
7) You and your wife lived in Bhutan for a couple of years. How was the experience of learning about a different ecosystem and species? Are there any conservation practices that have worked well for them?
Bhutan is a beautiful country – the landscape, people, birds, and food are fantastic. Thanks to Payal’s job, we lived at 7000 feet surrounded by pine forests, with all-new birds to watch. As the whole country is mountainous, driving through different elevations shows the transition from pine to oak forests, with patches of rhododendron and magnolia, hosting different birds and mammals.
Bhutan has set aside nearly 50% of the country as protected areas and has vowed to keep it thus forever. Their Black-necked Crane project at Phobjika Valley is a very successful story, where sometimes more than 300 cranes winter. People in the valley respect these birds, and all electric lines are underground so that the birds don’t get electrocuted. It’s a great sight to see small flocks of these birds feeding in the agricultural fields right next to houses.
8) Which is your favourite national park or habitat?
Having had an opportunity to work in so many different habitats, it is really difficult to name one! Bandipur is where I first worked as a naturalist with Jungle Lodges & Resorts. It gave me a great opportunity to walk through the forests around the Gopal Swamy Betta area with an old forest guard who was fantastically experienced in tracking animals. Rumour was that he was an ex-Veerappan informer. And at the same time, I learnt a lot from an assistant of film-makers Kruparkar and Senani, about wild dogs and their behaviour. So walking in those forests with such veterans gave me immense pleasure and invaluable field experience.
One day, I was tracking with the old forest guard. He saw fresh prints of a monitor lizard. Very excitedly, he started tracking, and reached some clumps of grass. As he parted the grass to look, I saw him jump a few feet off the ground in shock, shouting “monit…aaa… …pythonnn!” He had stumbled upon a huge python there, which had just swallowed the monitor lizard he was tracking.
I still remember another day on one of our treks, when we stopped to hear alarm calls. Soon, an alarmed herd of four-horned antelopes came running down a hill towards us. We were in their way, and they saw us. Before I could think of what to do next, without hesitation, with utmost grace and strength, they effortlessly jumped right over us, one after the other, while I continued to stand there frozen and amazed.
In those days, the forests of Bandipur had very little Lantana, and the understorey of trees was carpeted with beautiful short grasses. Of course, I would end up with a crazy number of ticks after each walk, and would reek of the smell of Dettol for weeks. I bagged lots of ‘lifer’ birds, as Bandipur had habitats from scrub forests to moist-evergreen patches on top of the hills.
Later, I spent a few years at Kanha National Park, and watched the magic of the Sal forests as seasons went by. It’s also where I met my wife Payal. It is an equal contender for my favourite national park.
9) You have been conducting training programmes for budding naturalists around the country. How has that experience been for you?
Every single training program has taught us many new things, especially when training individuals from the local communities living in and around forests. Their observations and depth of knowledge are fascinating. Also, seeing wilderness through the eyes of those new to wildlife rekindles new curiosities and questions in our minds. We now call our training programmes ‘Naturalist Learning Programme’ instead of ‘Naturalist Training Programme’. Every person involved in these programmes goes back having learnt new things.