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“The most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us.” Indian Proverb
My name is Melissa Wheeler and I am 29 years old. I might come across as an unlikely volunteer candidate, but I was one of the fortunate few who have had the opportunity to volunteer with WWF-India. I graduated in French from Bristol University in 2003. Beyond my experience in journalism, PR, advertising and travel writing, the most connection I had with wildlife – other than generally preferring animals to humans! – was having the fortune of having travelled extensively; having been on safari in Zimbabwe and in South Africa; reading about wildlife issues and sponsoring a WWF panda!
However, I have always been passionate about the environment and wildlife and I am never happier than when in the presence of animals. My love of travel has brought me close to wildlife and such experiences have influenced me a great deal. Like many young people today, wildlife documentaries have inspired me and had me dreaming about ‘getting out there’ and becoming involved in such work. I have always had an urge to get involved in any project that works towards harmonising human-wildlife relations, especially those tackling the illegal use of animal products on the black-market.
Feeding a flower - given to me by one of Mr Ram Pratab's sons - to this very cute kid
Firstly, I would say that you must be 100% sure that a) you are comfortable with your host country OR b) that you really are as adaptable, intrepid and thick-skinned as you think you are. The passion you have for the work you will be doing and the privileged opportunity you will have been given must be such that it overrides any ‘adjustment’ issues you may have to living in India (and there are quite a few!).
Fortunately for me, I satisfied the criteria for a) – having spent 6 months in India and Nepal previously and been painfully ‘initiated’ in the culture – so the fact that it would be untruthful of me to say that I could have survived the experience on account of b) – being adaptable and thick-skinned – meant that I found that side of things far easier than I might have done.
I would give any future volunteers the benefit of a lesson I drew from my own experience on one point which, while it may seem obvious to some, can easily be forgotten when you are caught up in the excitement preceding the trip. It is only natural to have visualised the sort of work you will doing and the issues you will be researching and writing up before you set off. This is a dream opportunity and thus you will have dreams and expectations. I suggest you set them aside. As my brother frequently advises me – ‘Manage your expectations’. Manage your expectations diligently and you are sure to have them exceeded. Something i discovered quite early on in the project – and I say this at my own expense – was that much of the valuable work carried out by this huge international organisation involves dry and dreary data!! Some of the most valuable advice I received while at WWF-India came from Samir Sinha, the head of TRAFFIC and would serve equally well for any future volunteer: “there are lots of interesting stories and fascinating facts that you will come across in your work here; we are surrounded by them all the time. But if we paid attention to them regardless of their relevance, we would not get the work done. The truth is that a great deal of the most valuable work involves dull and dreary data and that’s what helps us to progress.”
It is this rigorous research and painstaking scrutiny to detail which makes WWF one of the most powerful and active NGOs in the world and arguably the most effective in the field of wildlife. All progress stems from data and every new discovery, policy implemented or destruction halted is the result of research and facts, facts, facts.....cross-examined and checked for accuracy and checked again. For the better part of your time with WWF-India, your direct involvement with wildlife will be limited to being entertained by the cheeky but irresistibly cute palm squirrels dancing around you as you lunch on the roof terrace of the Godrej building as hawk-eagles circle the thermals overhead. As occupational pastimes, I wholeheartedly recommend both. For a volunteer eager to jump in and get involved with such an awesome organisation, it can be hard to maintain a focus on what might seem to be mind-numbing data or dull and heavy documents; think of them as you might think of the caterpillar in relation to the butterfly. If you are prepared to get your teeth into all this then you are guaranteed the experience of a lifetime which will make every document read, graph plotted and percentage calculated worth its weight in gold!
"Manage your expectations diligently and you are sure to have them exceeded "
This report, done as part of my 3-month volunteer assignment, does not necessarily reflect the views of WWF-India or TRAFFIC India.
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On the back of my WWF experience, I have made the decision to do a post-graduate course in marketing and PR with a view to then applying this to an organisation or cause which follows the values I would like to promote.