A course to bring alive the hidden naturalist in you

“There is a naturalist in each one of us,” says Priya Venkatesh, the Founder-Director of The Naturalist School (TNS), a Bengaluru-based social enterprise offering long and short-term courses for anyone curious about the natural world.

Priya explains the rationale behind the initiative, which taps into the idea of multi-modal intelligence in humans. “One of them is the naturalist intelligence,” says Priya. She also believes that all human beings have an “innate ability” to connect with nature.

 Priya Venkatesh
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Bringing alive the naturalist in us is bringing alive the curiosity within us, says Priya, who believes in the power of wonder when it comes to interacting with nature. The vision of the organisation’s Naturalist Centre of Excellence (NCOE), which is all set to launch India’s first Certified Naturalist Course (CNAT) on May 25, taps into this inherent curiosity about nature and aims to create a cohort of naturalists who will become “storytellers, weaving narratives that resonate in the hearts of listeners, igniting a spark of wonder and a sense of responsibility towards the Earth.”

The 750-hour-long course, recognised by the Ministry of Skill Development (MSDE), is accredited by the National Council of Vocational Education and Training (NCVET) and was developed in partnership with the Tourism and Hospitality Skills Council (THSC). It intends to offer a multidimensional learning experience about the living world as well as has a vocational goal.

Some of the modules which will form part of the course include a study of Indian biodiversity, learning how to create interpretive nature experiences, nature photography, an introduction to forest laws and working on participants’ communication skills. “The NCOE course isn’t just about training naturalists. It is about nurturing a generation of storytellers who can bridge the gap between humans and the environment, ensuring a future where both can flourish,” she says. 

A centre for naturalists

In 1983, the Mexican architect and environmentalist Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin coined the word “ecotourism” which he defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Since then, the ecotourism industry has grown massively with the global ecotourism market size projected to grow from $260.76 billion in 2024 to $759.93 billion by 2032, at a CAGR of 14.31% during the forecast period, according to the market research organisation, Fortune Business Insights. 

While India still occupies only a small fraction of the industry, it is a fast-expanding one as a March 24 report by The Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), KPMG and the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI), indicates. The eco-tourism sector here is expected to grow at 15.7% between 2019 and 2027 to reach $4.55 billion. This is not particularly surprising given that the country hosts some of the most diverse habitats in the world. “From deserts, glaciers, freshwater bodies, plateaus—you name it and we have it,” says Priya.

Nature guides.
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Surge in eco tourism

This, in turn, means that there are a lot of untapped opportunities in this country for nature guides and naturalists. Already, as Priya points out, there has been a surge of eco-lodges and eco-resorts in the country, which hire naturalists, people whose job role involves interpreting nature for other people.

“Over the last 20-25 years, this role has evolved nicely,” she says. While most Indian naturalists are self-taught, globalisation and influences from other countries have helped them pick up new skills, refine existing knowledge and keep abreast of the latest learnings, she believes. “India has had this fortune of having more and more self-made naturalists,” she says. 

But this is a tiny percentage of the country’s potential, Priya says. She would also like to see India as a place where people from all over the world get trained in natural history. “The country is so rich that anyone coming here could have a fantastic immersive experience.”

Additionally, the country’s forests are home to many communities that have always lived off them. Therefore, they possess a deep knowledge of their forests and how to live sustainable lives. Priya feels that they could benefit enormously if they also have some naturalist training. This could make them stakeholders in the practice of ecotourism and help them become more financially self-reliant. “They can earn a livelihood by showcasing their land to guests,” she says. And yes, this pride in their biodiversity can also alter their relationship with the forests – for the better. “Some of our participants have told us that they have stopped hunting because they want to show these birds to these guests.”

Formal study programme

TNS, which was established in 2021, grew out of a need for a formal study programme that enabled people to acquire theoretical knowledge as well as hands-on experience in wildlife and nature interpretation. “I started out wanting to get some professional recognition for nature guides and naturalists,” says Priya, who worked with the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to design the curriculum. “When we realised that there were no accredited training providers, we started The Naturalist School,” she says. 

The offerings of the programme include week-long capacity-building courses for local communities, workshops on fungi, birding and citizen science and a 200-hour-long nature guide course, all of which help one develop a better appreciation for the natural world. 

Suchi Govindarajan, who attended the nature guide course, shares her experience at TNS, one that she describes as deeply immersive. “I have been working in wildlife photography for a while and doing some nature writing, but haven’t had much time to devote to nature. That is why I thought I’d do the course,” says the Bengaluru-based writer. “It was not just learning about everything from insects to birds to trees, but there were a lot of activities,” says Suchi, who now conducts nature walks in and around the city. Not only did the course bring her closer to the subjects she was learning about and help her handle people better, but it taught her “how to showcase nature or tell stories in an interesting manner.” 

As influencers

Priya, who thinks of naturalists as influencers, believes they can drive the conservation narrative by telling the right stories. “To do justice to the role, one needs to personally connect with nature; you can interpret nature well only if you have connected,” she says. TNS hopes to facilitate this by providing a safe, powerful learning space that helps foster this connection. “We are doing our bit to create more appreciation for biodiversity amongst citizens in India and to educate the already-initiated to walk into the wilderness and allow nature to emerge rather than visit forests only in anticipation,” she says. 

To learn more, log into https://naturalist.school/.

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