Women in industry is a current and pressing topic of concern that has been tossed around for the past few decades. With the residual effects of International Women’s Day on our heels, we reached out to Dr. Deepani Jayantha, known as Dee, a woman professional renowned for being a committed conservationist, and a veterinarian who has been working closely on the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka for about a decade.
Dee engaged with us in a most enlightening conversation about women in conservation, and how young girls can be the future of wildlife and environmental conservation and make a real impact, not only locally, but globally as well.
She recently collaborated with the Centre For Environmental Justice in conducting a survey to document the human-elephant conflict in North Western Province, and also organised the National Symposium on Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka held on Friday, 19 March.
To give a brief introduction to Dee’s journey in conservation, she has her humble beginnings as a youth who naturally developed an interest in nature and its components at a young age, showing a curiosity in the plants that grew in her backyard to the birds who visited her garden.
It can be noted that the turning point in her life was when she first joined the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA), where she was introduced to like-minded youth, people studying wild animals and their ecosystems – they discussed environmental issues of the time, and were lucky enough to work with both wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists, gradually getting the exposure to biodiversity conservation of the country.
She was then selected to study at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of Peradeniya, towards the end of which she had the opportunity to work closely with captive elephants and the Department of Wildlife Conservation as a veterinary internee. She shared that while she was studying in the faculty, they did not have much opportunity to study wild species in detail, having just only a few lectures on elephants; however later working with the Clinical Department of the Faculty she was able to expand her horizons.
In discussing her foray into wildlife and conservation, it is evident that while Dee has been working closely on the human-elephant conflict, she is in fact a general conservationist noting that she understands that everything is interconnected: “If there is no habitat then what good is fixing the human elephant conflict?”
While life’s winding road has led her to where she is today, there are many youth just realising their interest in wildlife and the environment, who are rearing their heads in interest and in need of guidance and direction. We asked Dee to share with us her particular experience in pursuing her interests, how the Lankan system supported her, and if interested youth similar to herself, perhaps with their wide eyed enthusiasm, could pick up a little something as they approach their future.
Encouraging youth to get involved
Commenting from her own experience a couple of decades ago, she can say that there was definitely a lot of pushback for women to succeed in their careers, adding that there wasn’t nearly as much opportunity and exposure as students today are afforded.
However, she noted that there is forever a competition and the persistent rat race that students engage in, which takes away from the purity of passionate pursuits. She did state however that syllabi nowadays tend to be far broader and more inclusive, and even in the veterinary faculty, it is far more diverse now.
It would appear that in order to get one’s foot in the door, what you need to have is a burning passion and interest. You must want it bad enough, have the commitment and integrity. Dee shared that she often gets this question from many students, and really, all she can share is that you must put in the work.
You must simply do your research, it is after all your future, so do the legwork – read up on the field, compare opportunities, speak with senior professionals and teachers in the field, and decide whether you are ready to ride the rough tide if you chose the particular path. There’s an abundance of knowledge to be had and shared. “Visualise your future,” she stresses.
In terms of opportunity however, it is clear that Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot, there’s much research interest here within our island. There are many experts, and for young girls, she was particularly encouraged that there are many women conservationists, working on whales and elephants to lichens – probably not as many as there should be, but there are those who are willing to help a fellow woman to get their foot in the door. There is a plethora of knowledge, and where there’s knowledge and information, there’s opportunity to be had.
Considering the times that we are in, there are many prospects, more movements and conservation groups, and notable and active engagement in a diverse set of platforms, particularly on social media.
Dee personally noted however that she may not be the norm, as she herself is somewhat out of the norm in her lifestyle. She is not family-oriented, and has always maintained a headstrong personality, marching very much to the beat of her own drum. However, she encourages young women to bravely pursue their interest as long as they show enough curiosity in it to educate themselves.
Speaking of passionate youth, we had to speak to Dee about the recent Ecocide demonstration held on 19 March at Viharamahadevi Park, and the controversy in stifled expression of the collective of youth environmentalists.
Sharing her take on the matter, she stated that while protests are personally not her choice of activism – she prefers to stick within the space of scientific data, research, and education – she said it is admirable when the youth are capable of deciding where they should be in the global conversation without getting unnecessarily tangled and sidetracked by various political manipulations.
With Sri Lanka in particular, being a politically immature nation, it is hugely impressive when youth show their capacity to engage in political conversation. By political, she does not mean party politics, but the global conversations that must be had on the environment, conservation, climate, technology, gender, etc.
She did however share that, when youth are raising their voices to protect our environment, their voices should not be subdued; they should be appreciated and encouraged instead. “If our youth is interested in protecting the environment, then I would certainly give them my support,” she said, adding that if the authorities must resist, then how they should do it is by showing them alternatives.
We should not simply say “No,” said Dee, stating that there is an epidemic in our culture where we simply say no to our youth without showing them the alternative options available. If you must resist, then simply show them how they can go about achieving their goal in the proper manner, and in this scenario, where the protestors’ mural was taken down, a better solution would have been to provide them with a space and different opportunity to actualise their cause.
However it is recognisable that this level of youth engagement is only ever present in the urban areas, with the main cities nurturing such youth, whereas the youth in rural areas in tucked-away corners of the island are often left out of this conversation, which has led Dee herself to make efforts to work and educate such youth.
Sexism in the workplace and the struggle for women
In our conversation, Dee was vocal of her struggles as a woman in conservation, and as someone who has had to experience the levels of sexism a woman is put though in her upward climb in an industry that is lead primarily by male voices, she shared with us a few notable instances where she has had to fight harder simply because she was a woman.
She shared that she personally experienced sexism early in her career, which has left her feeling that the industry did her wrong and it was entirely unfair by a young professional. However Dee stated that despite the early setbacks, she has managed to deal with the adversities that came her way, and now, she would much rather support the young women who are finding their way, and help them face challenges and speak their truth.
The work in progress
Dee is the Country Representative of Elemotion Foundation, which works to help support Asian elephants and the people connected to them. She is currently involved in multiple projects, including her collaboration with the International Ranger Federation/Thin Green Line Foundation, where she acquires financial support for the families of wildlife protectors of Sri Lanka who have lost their lives in the field fighting for wildlife. She shared that while it is absolutely unfortunate, she feels that it is possibly the least she could do, providing for the families of their comrades whom they’ve lost.
As for her work with Elemotion Foundation, she shared that while it is a small organisation, she feels that she is better off working with smaller organisations who are able to provide more immediate and tangible results. She said that while they do not have a large staff, they manage with youth volunteers and dedication. Conservation doesn’t always need big money. Small yet well-planned budgets can fill the gaps of conservation needs in the country.
Concerned about the welfare of captive and wild elephants, through the Elemotion Foundation, Dee engages with communities, raising awareness on elephant conservation and welfare, and helping wildlife rangers with their field training, patrol needs, and welfare requirements.
What can the general public do to help?
On a closing note, we asked Dee how the average individual, unaware of any of the nuances of ecosystems and conservation, can contribute to the work that they are doing, and she shared that one of the best things that a lay person can do is being self-aware.
She suggested that we as a collective educate ourselves about the matters of the world and our environment. You must be prepared with this knowledge because the fact of the matter is you are a part of a network where we’re all interconnected, and what affects our ecosystems will eventually have its effect on you.
She also said that while she herself has adopted a simplistic and minimalist lifestyle, and while it may be at the extreme end for some, it could be advantageous for people to pick up minimalism, and incorporate a lifestyle that produces less waste and one that is less indulgent.
Most importantly, she noted, it is imperative that one shows their children the importance of leading a life that is not wasteful and cultivates an interest in the environment and in protecting it.