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Bamboo pit viper (Trimeresurus gramineus) is a venomous species of snake found in India. This individual was photographed in 2018 from northern Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India. (Sneha Dharwadkar)

The Wild Calls. Am I Listening?

Being a female herpetologist in India

What kind of a person would you be by the time you are thirty years old?

Like most children in India, I thought I had my roadmap to life ready. After finishing school, I would join a medical college and then go on to become a psychiatrist. I would dream of tending to the mental health of my clients and addressing their troubles. I had seen my uncle do this. It felt like he was giving them back their control. I wanted to do the same.

But life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans, and predictably, after 12th grade, I couldn’t go to medical college as had been my dream since almost 4th grade, but enrolled in a program in Environment Science. I’ll admit that it was entirely my fault: I didn’t really study as seriously as I should have in my 11th and 12th grades as all Indian students were supposed to, despite all college admissions depending on the grades you attain in 12th grade.

During my Bachelor’s degree, I started volunteering for a local NGO heavily involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals, especially snakes and crocodiles. I am a city kid and was (un)privileged to live in a concrete city. Yet, the place I grew up had exceptionally ample biodiversity and quite often snakes get into people’s homes. Apart from that, in the monsoons, the Vishwamitri, teeming with crocodiles, overflows and often the crocs enter the houses of people living on the banks of the river in search of shelter.

Snehal was fairly well known, but whenever Sneha turned up to rescue snakes or even crocodiles, she would receive stares and awed murmurs.

The NGO was run by a lady. Incidentally, her name is pretty similar to mine- Snehal. I was completely new to this world of animals. As a kid, I was always very fond of animals and my parents often found me with puppies, kittens, lambs or playing with the cows in the neighbourhood. (The stereotype of cows roaming in the streets of India is true, by the way). But I was completely new to the world of wild animals and after a few months there, I realised I was meant to do this!

Snehal was fairly well known, but whenever Sneha turned up to rescue snakes or even crocodiles, she would receive stares and awed murmurs. Folks obviously appreciate my effort but they are simply awestruck to see a girl catching snakes and crocodiles. They would admire me for following in the footsteps of Snehal. Motivated and very determined, I went on to do my Master’s in Wildlife Biology, focusing mainly on herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.


Black Pond Turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) is a commonly found freshwater turtle in India. This individual seems to have a healed shell which once must have been cracked. Turtles often get hit by vehicles while crossing the road and get injured. This individual was photographed in 2019 from northern Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India. (Sneha Dhadwarkar)

Alas, the world outside that city was very different.

In India, all popular herpetologists are men. Even though many women became and have gone on to become successful wildlife biologists and ecologists, there were hardly any female herpetologists of note. I got to attend a few National conferences but still, I would meet only a handful of women herpetologists as compared to men. The herpetology workshops and programs were mostly run by men and the most resourceful persons were -- surprise, surprise -- men.

Since I was the only girl in my Master’s program, to say that it was challenging would be an understatement. My college was located in a rural village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where I lived in the college hostel. There were separate hostels for boys and girls, each situated inside the college campus. According to the college and hostel rules, girls weren’t allowed to go out of the college campus. They weren’t allowed mobile phones. There were dress codes for women in the college as well as in the hostel. There would be restrictions on everything for girls while the boys had no such ‘rules or regulations’. This unfair treatment kept stinging me and yet the hostel was the cheapest option and I was a poor student. The boys of my class would go out on night surveys for herps while I would have to be locked in my hostel by 6 PM. To go out of the college campus, as a girl, I would require a gate pass signed by a hostel warden which would give me 2 hours of ‘f