“A nature guide can make or break a trip,” says Bengaluru-based freelance naturalist Payal Mehta, the co-author of Handbook for Nature Guides, a Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) initiative. “There is a vast difference between what one can learn just walking through the forest and what one can learn with a nature guide,” she adds.
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In this slim 90-odd-page book, Mehta and her co-author Harsha Jayaramiah, both nature guides themselves, offer tips on being a guide that will make that trip a better experience. Illustrated by Manasa Murari and designed by Janhavi Rajan, Handbook for Nature Guides talks about understanding nature guiding, being a good guide, getting to know guests, preparing for a wildlife experience, and guiding ethics, among other things, in simple, lucid, engaging prose, easily accessible to anyone interested in becoming a nature guide.
The handbook appears to be an inevitable progression from an online course on nature guiding that NCF started during the COVID-19 pandemic, conducted by Mehta and Jayaramiah. “It was the first-ever online course for someone interested in becoming a nature guide,” says Mehta. She admits that they had reservations at first. “Becoming a naturalist is a field-based subject, and we weren’t sure we could take it online,” she says. However, the need for a course like this was obvious—there aren’t enough formal nature guiding courses in India. “You have guides in historical places where the government gives out licenses. You need to write an exam to become a cultural guide,” says Jayaramiah, adding that there is no such all-India certification for nature guides. So they went ahead with the idea and have taught five batches of wanna-be guides so far.
The scientists at NCF suggested putting all this information developed for the course in a book format, says Mehta. “There is a lot of material to learn about natural history. But it is not easy to learn guiding techniques or skills or anyone teaching you how to become a guide,” she says. “We just decided to do something that could work as an aid to our participants. It became a booklet that anyone interested in guiding can use.”
A good guide, she points out, goes far beyond introducing a tourist to natural history. “We feel the role of a guide is more than just someone showing you things and giving you information, “ says Mehta. “A good guide is also a good host, a friend in the country you visit.” A good guide also needs to realise that different guests come for a visit with different intentions, so they need to read their guests right, she adds. And yes, being ethical, aware and sensitive is non-negotiable.
A considerable chunk of the handbook, in fact, focuses on the ethics of guiding. ‘It is the biggest need of the hour,” believes Mehta. A lot of people look down on tourism because it has so many negative impacts but the apathy and indifference to the wilderness that can set in if one does not experience it is equally problematic. “Nature-based travel is extremely important,” says Mehta. “We feel that if travel is organised and carried out responsibly, the advantages of tourism will outweigh the negative impact.”
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A soft copy of Handbook for Nature Guides is available for free on the NCF website. In addition, a physical copy, priced at ₹200 for one or ₹150 each for five copies, is available at NCF’s Instamojo store.