For India’s wildlife conservation community, it has been an eventful fortnight. A leading conservation organisation, the Turtle Survival Alliance-India, announced a change in leadership after its director was accused of sexual harassment by nine women.

The accounts first surfaced on social media. On March 16, as part of its institutional review series, an Instagram page called Women of the Wild-India invited feedback on the Turtle Survival Alliance, an initiative that focuses on tortoise and turtle conservation in the country. TSA-India operates under the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society, and receives funding support from TSA International.

Within hours of the first allegation being made online, there was an outpouring. Former women employees began to share their experiences of being sexually harassed by TSA-India’s director, Dr Shailendra Singh, an award-winning wildlife biologist who has been associated with the organisation since 2008.

Eight women went public with their accounts, one chose to remain anonymous. The allegations ranged from Singh asking women to spend the night in his room, to forcing them to be physically intimate with him, and other acts of verbal and physical harassment. Singh did not respond to Scroll’s request for comment.

Three days and 300 comments later, TSA-India announced the appointment of a new director through an Instagram post (which it later deleted). In response to questions emailed by Scroll, TSA-India said it had not received any complaints in writing, but had taken “suo moto cognizance” of the allegations made on social media and was “actively conducting” an inquiry into them. It added that it “would be a prejudice to arrive on any preconceived opinion at this moment, based on the social media trials”.

TSA-India also said: “Taking a moral step, Dr Shailendra Singh, himself stepped down from his position and is currently on leave to support free and fair inquiry.”

Responding on behalf of the Turtle Survival Alliance, interim executive editor Genevieve N Waller, Esq, said, “These accusations are deeply troubling, and I would like to express my deepest sympathies for those that have bravely shared their stories. Turtle Survival Alliance has launched an internal investigation into this matter, and I can assure you we are taking this very seriously.”

The News Minute reported that the Wildlife Conservation Society, the non-profit under which TSA functions in India, knew about the allegations against Singh since 2020. But it did not act until a furore erupted on social media.

In response to a question about this, Wildlife Conservation Society told Scroll that it “does take complaints received seriously and has established processes to investigate them and take necessary action as required under the law”. It added, “The Internal Committee is statutorily bound by confidentiality and cannot share any details on any complaint they may have received.”

For women who work in ecological conservation in India, the present controversy hasn’t come as a surprise. They say the profession is dominated by men and several organisations have a culture of casual sexism.

When women travel to remote, desolate areas like sanctuaries and national parks, in the absence of proper accommodation, they are forced to share space with male colleagues, many of them in senior, leadership positions.

The power asymmetry makes women, particularly those who are at the start of their careers, vulnerable to sexual harassment. It also reduces the chances of redressal.

“There is a pattern to this,” said a researcher working in the area of human-wildlife interaction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is mostly volunteers, interns, young early-career researchers, those who are systematically at a disadvantage that are targeted by the higher ups.”

Even though most large organisations have set up internal committees under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, women say they rarely act against offenders.

Scroll spoke to four young women about their experience of sexual harassment at conservation organisations. Barring Rawat, the others asked not to be identified by name.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters.

From casual sexism to sexual harassment

When Aradhna Kumar (name changed) began her career in 2018, she was thrilled to get a job with one of the teams of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

However, soon, there was a reality check: when Kumar and two of her female colleagues contracted urinary tract infections because of lack of hygienic water in office toilets, the team lead did not take their concerns seriously. In the past, too, he had said, “This is the problem of hiring women in the field offices”.

It did not end with sexism. The team lead, a man in his 40s, commented on the clothes and hairstyles of women in the office. “We avoided coming to the office and would go to the field at any opportunity,” Kumar recalled. But it wasn’t always possible to avoid the programme lead. Once, when one of her colleagues hesitated to go with him in the car to the field, he got extremely upset, Kumar said. “That was met with statements like you don’t want to talk to me anymore, you hate me.”

Over the one-and-a-half years that Kumar worked at the organisation, she alleged the team lead frequently told her that he was “broken” and was glad to have her in his life.

When she finally decided to leave the organisation, Kumar said the team lead repeatedly told her that he would struggle in her absence. “He made it feel like a breakup.”

Later, he sent her a message, saying: “I really think about u so many times.” Kumar has shared a screenshot of the message with Scroll.

“It took me very long to understand the number of times he would violate professional boundaries, after which I would shrink that boundary, and he would continue crossing it till it was just me, feeling completely isolated and violated,” Kumar added.

She said she did not file a complaint with the organisation because it did not have a functioning human resources department, and employees had not been informed about the existence of an internal complaints committee.

Kumar isn’t the only woman who felt harassed by the team lead.

One of her colleagues in the team began to notice administrative lapses in the office in 2018. When she raised her concerns with the head office, she alleged the programme lead began to “behave in a passive aggressive manner” with her.

He would send multiple messages, one after the other, asking her to speak with him, or reply to him, some of which were sent as late as 2 am. On many WhatsApp texts – screenshots of which were shared with Scroll – he began the conversation with an emoticon of a red chilly – he used to call her a “teekhi mirchi”, despite her asking him to desist from using the term.

In July 2020, she submitted a 12-page complaint to the head office, detailing allegations of faulty accounts, fund mismanagement, unclear roles and responsibilities, and inappropriate behaviour by the team lead. “While working to solve the current accounts issue, I have also been dealing with a lot of highly personal texts, calls and inappropriate behaviour from him,” she wrote. “Even after making it clear that I would be available to communicate with him via email, the personal messages and calls did not stop.”

She said his behaviour was “extremely disgusting, emotionally draining, and demeaning”.

Months after she submitted the 12-page complaint, WCS did not renew her contract. She said she was asked to leave without two months of salary. The team lead continued to work at WCS, and even bagged a higher position than what he held at the time Kumar and her colleague worked there.

Away from this team, other complaints of sexual harassment have surfaced at the Wildlife Conservation Society. In December 2021, when the Women of the Wild Instagram page invited reviews for the organisation, four women alleged that they had faced sexual harassment while working there, and six complained of a toxic work environment and mental harassment.

Without naming the alleged offender, an anonymous reviewer said in a comment on Instagram: “He not only forcibly tried to kiss me but also tried to force me on to one of the beds in the office where he said he just wants to cuddle and he needs that intimacy badly.” Even after she refused, he grabbed her arm, and pleaded for “5 minutes, just cuddle with me for 5 minutes.” The woman alleged she turned down the male colleague’s advances “multiple times”, including in December 2019. When she raised the matter with her manager, she alleged that she was told off.

Another anonymous user said a male employee kept “making disturbing physical advances” towards them during a party.

On its website, the Wildlife Conservation Society has acknowledged the allegations. “We are deeply concerned about the issues that have been brought to our notice and reported in social media regarding instances of misconduct by our staff,” it said in an undated statement. Expressing solidarity “with all the women who have shared their traumatic experiences of sexual harassment,” the organisation said it had “zero tolerance” towards all forms of harassment. “We are looking into all avenues of action,” it said.

But women say this acknowledgement comes too late – and they find it unconvincing.

​“Today, I have to take 17 pills a day for chronic anxiety and ADD [attention deficit disorder],” Kumar said. “The final blow to my mental health was how WCS was responding to these complaints.”

Kumar added: “What I saw there at WCS, I continued to see in several other conservation spaces where men supported men, organisations protected these perpetrators, and I decided to completely move away from this sector.”​​

Today, Kumar is a freelancer with branding and marketing consultations. “I even did a small funeral for my PhD thesis topic that I had wanted to do one day,” she told Scroll.

Representative image. Credit: Brij Vaghasiya via Pixabay.

When the founder is the harasser

If larger organisations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, which have internal complaint committees, fall short on creating a safe space for their women employees, smaller organisations tend to lack even basic redressal mechanisms, women say.

In many of these organisations, power is concentrated in the hands of the founder, who often happens to be a man. When the founder himself turns predatory, women say they have nowhere to go.

This is the situation that Radhika S, a woman in her late 20s, found herself in.

Radhika, whose real name has been withheld on request, began to work in a small non-profit organisation based in the Nilgiris in 2020. Initially, she worked with the founder online. Then, he told her that he had a two-month assignment for her, which required living in the hill town he was based in.

Eager to learn about the field, Radhika, then based in Bengaluru, decided to move. The founder assured her that accommodation would be arranged for her. Initially, he did not give her any details – later, he asked her to live with him and his parents in their house, since they were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. “I unfortunately trusted him,” Radhika said. She thought she would be safe since his parents were around.

But a month into the job, Radhika decided to leave. As she later recounted in a comment on the Women of the Wild Instagram page, which ran an institutional review of the organisation in April 2022, the founder was “controlling…who I was spending time with and not letting me leave”.

A day before her departure, she alleged, the founder had “guilt-tripped” her into a walk in the forest where he told her that he thought she would come to the hill town, live with his parents and him, and then marry him. Radhika found this inappropriate, but she froze and heard him out.

Since the organisation was small, Radhika had no avenues to complain – internal complaints committees are mandatory for organisations with 10 or more employees.

But even her public disclosure on social media made no impact – the founder continues to be at the helm of the organisation.

Lack of sensitivity

Even when offenders are punished, women say it isn’t the end of their problems.

Shivanyaa Rawat is a 29-year-old who researches natural resource management. In 2018, she was employed with an NGO that was working on ecological restoration across many states.

As part of her job as project manager, Rawat had to travel to different states every alternate month with a consultant. Typically, they would finish work by 6 pm in the office. But the consultant, Rawat’s senior, would ask her to come to his room at 9 pm to discuss work for the next day.

“During these night interactions, while he would begin the conversations with work, he would soon shift it towards uncomfortable topics like his sex life,” Rawat told Scroll.

When this pattern continued in other field visits, Rawat refused to go on a work trip with the consultant, despite tickets being booked for them. “I was repulsed by him,” she said.

Finally, she decided to report the harassment to her reporting officer, who encouraged her to file a formal complaint with the internal committee.

Within a month of the inquiry, the consultant was fired on account of sexual harassment.

However, to Rawat’s distress, since the meetings of the internal complaints committee were held in the office, word spread about her complaint. Many of her colleagues began to “throw in casual remarks”, she recalled. For instance, when minor inconveniences in the office came up for discussion, they reportedly said: ‘Looks like now [a member of the ICC] will have to camp here given that so many complaints are happening’”.

Such an attitude, Rawat said, “disregards and minimises the serious accounts that women had faced.”

“While the way the organisation responded to official complaints was efficient,” she added, “I feel that many in the office need training on the level of sensitivity needed to deal with these scenarios.”