When Sangita Iyer received the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the then president, Sri Pranab Mukherjee, in 2017, she set an example not only for the people of her hometown Palakkad, Kerala but also for the people of India.
A Bachelor’s in Biology & Ecology, Masters in Environmental Education & Communications, and a Diploma in Broadcast Journalism, Sangita’s love for elephants began when she was only three years old. “I used to visit this amazing temple back in Kerala with my grandparents where I had bonded with a bull elephant,” Sangita reminisced. But, soon, she had to move to Canada for her higher studies, and that’s when life took over — things changed and the childhood memories faded.
Sangita has worked as a broadcaster for 11 years before making a transition into documentary and film-making. She has also been an environmental & health reporter and an anchorwoman for primetime news. “I transitioned because I felt there is a need to educate people about nature and environment using films — because sights, sounds, and images have a profound impact on people’s mind and it can change their attitude, their perspective as well,” Sangita highlights the need to get into film-making while sharing about her early career life.
“When I returned to India in 2013, I got reconnected with the elephants,” Sangita further continued. “I was here to attend my father’s first death anniversary. I also visited a few temples along with a conservationist friend and I was utterly shattered and devastated to see the plight of our precious majestic elephants that were being exploited for profit — that too behind the veil of religion! Our religion — Hinduism, in particular — teaches us ahimsa, compassion, love, and empathy. I felt horrible about seeing the misinterpretation and misrepresentation being conducted in the name of religion.”
Sangita strongly believes that we need to protect these sentient beings as they are ecologically sensitive and much needed for our own survival. In fact, the survival of many species depends on the survival of elephants. “It’s heartbreaking to see how elephants are treated in India — in a country where they are considered as the embodiment of Lord Ganesha. How come the general public is not seeing the suffering of these elephants? — the tears flowing down their face and the blood oozing out of their ankles,” she says in a choked voice.
Sangita believes that she was divinely guided to take up this mission — and work for this noble cause. There was a chain of synchronistic events that happened to bring her all through this. There is a dire need to create awareness, and thus, she also produced a film called ‘Gods in Shackles’. It’s been seven years since she started her mission to save the elephants and create awareness among the general public. She also started a non-profit organization called ‘Voice for Asian Elephants Society’ which conducts several projects and programs to support her cause.
Sangita says that the condition of animals and wildlife in India is dire and desperate and one of the major reasons, which she stresses enough times, is the growing population. “More humans means more development and more destruction. And of course, whatever we do to the earth is going to return to haunt us,” she says.
On asking if she holds any regret, she said that the only regret she holds is not starting this movement much earlier — probably some 20 years back when things started to deteriorate. And now that she is giving her every inch to this cause, she believes that there is no other way than naming and shaming the people who are making it worse for the animals and wildlife as a whole.
“What is happening to the wildlife — our non-humans brothers and sisters — is a projection of what’s happening with humanity at large. This is a plain misuse of knowledge for personal gain, and people need to acknowledge this truth. We are projecting our own suffering, and we need to deal with it,” Sangita continues as she believes this is the only way to sustain.
On talking about the future plans, she mentions her docuseries which is being made for the National Geographic Society and will be released by November. Her book, ‘Unshackled: How Elephants Guided My Life-Changing Odyssey’ is also going to be published by the end of this year.
Sangita plans to return back to India soon and focus on engaging the villagers and youth and empowering them to protect and preserve their mesmerizing natural world? After all, the young people hold the future of the planet in their hands, and we need to equip them with the best possible tool — education!
While talking about how the aspiring social workers and entrepreneurs can do better for their cause, she says, “the only way forward is to collaborate. Each of us is highly skilled and capable of doing things. We just need to take a step back and reflect and use our skills. Nobody is helpless — don’t undermine yourself!”
Sangita invites the government to acknowledge the issue and take action on that. “Elephants thrive in a matriarchal society — women are the future of our planet. We must not suppress them. We need to balance the development and the protection of our nature and wildlife simultaneously. That’s how we can sustain,” Sangita ends it with a note to the readers hoping that they will get influenced and act on the issues.
On August 12, 2012, the inaugural World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. It asks you to experience elephants in non-exploitive and sustainable environments where elephants can thrive under care and protection.