Meet the Female Safari Driver Steering the Wheel at Kanha National Park

Madhuri Thakur helps trailblaze the path for local, female safari drivers in the heart of Madhya Pradesh's wildlife.

First published at National Geographic Traveller India

POSTED ON: JUNE 3, 2020

Meet the Female Safari Driver Steering the Wheel at Kanha National Park
Madhuri Thakur (right) is one of the two female safari drivers at Kanha National Park; With lush meadows and sal trees that cradle the tiger and spotted owl (top and bottom left), Kanha is a nature lover’s delight. Photo by: Thrutheframe / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images (tiger), BGS_IMAGE/Shutterstock (owl), Sejal Mehta (guide)

Before sunrise, tourist vehicles gather outside the Mukki zone of Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, a lush mix of meadows and dense sal forest.

At the ticketing stand guides and drivers stand in loose groups, warming themselves with glasses of hot tea, while finishing the safari formalities. Two women break away from the male-dominated crowd—a Gond forest guard, Laxmi Maravi, a ‘Green Teacher’ awardee at the 2019 Sanctuary Awards, and 23-year-old Madhuri Thakur, one of the two women from the nearby Mandla district to have been employed as a safari driver in the park. As the clock strikes six a.m. activity stirs at the gate. Laxmi hurries back in line to accompany one of the safari vehicles as a forest guard, and Madhuri swings into the driver’s seat of the Gypsy she operates for Asteya Lodge—just like that, Kanha is open for business.

Driving in a national park requires an advanced set of skills: the ability to tackle the testing terrain, a strong familiarity of wildlife behaviour, and a deep understanding of the park’s geography. In Mukki, it was never considered something a woman should, could, or would want to do. However, through an initiative by the Mukki Forest Department, an automobile company began offering driving lessons to select candidates. When S.K. Khare, Assistant Director of the Mukki Zone, asked Madhuri if she’d like to attempt it, she embraced the chance to learn something new.

By that time, Khare had already helped faciliate a powerful women’s workforce at Mukki. There were six female guides, one forest guard, and 10 tribal women operating the forest canteen, all from villages within the forest buffer. After the female candidates finished their lessons, Khare reached out to everyone from Gypsy owners to field directors and forest officers, to see if there were any available employment opportunities. “Madhuri is a local woman, and we should give her a chance,” Khare reasoned. That chance came in the form of a safari driver position.

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