Malaika Vaz has always loved going on adventures.
Growing up in Saligao, Goa, right next to the ocean, the 22-year-old Bengaluru-based wildlife presenter and filmmaker, was invariably outdoors. “I think growing up in a coastal town definitely influenced how I felt about adventure. I had this need to do slightly dangerous things sometimes, spend time in the outdoors and just be around nature. I was always that child who would go hang out at the beach. Then I started windsurfing which led to scuba diving which led to filmmaking. It kind of flowed,” she says.
Malaika already has a long list of achievements to her credit that include being the youngest person (around 15 or 16 years old) to be part of an expedition to the Arctic and Antarctica, being a national-level windsurfer, PADI divemaster, recreational Cessna pilot, and being awarded a National Geographic Explorer grant.
Getting to this place in her life, involved some unconventional decisions such as not going to college.
She says, “I joined college to study political science but soon left to start working as a wildlife researcher at Felis Creations. I would say it is hard and I wouldn’t advocate not going to college because everyone has a different path. But if you can find an educational opportunity that is equal to college, then it is worth it. For me, that was working with some of the most amazing wildlife filmmakers and learning every single day.”
Speaking on the sidelines of a recent pre-event for the Echoes of Earth Festival to be held in December, Malaika says that filmmaking is what she does full time now. “After I became a wildlife researcher, I applied for the National Geographic Explorer grant.
I am working on a three-part series with the grant, Living with Predators, on how Asiatic lions, leopards and tigers in India have been protected by tribal communities. Previously, there was this notion of tribal communities as almost the enemies of conservation. I wanted to shift that narrative and say that these communities when given the right tools and when empowered are the best protectors and the best ambassadors of the wild.
“Last year, I worked with Discovery Channel and Animal Planet on a series called On the Brink, on lesser known and endangered species. It came out of the fact that when you watch TV, you usually only see tigers, elephants or rhinos. What about all the incredible small animals that we have in India; we have so much biodiversity. So, the aim of the series was to shine a light on lesser known animals such as the purple frog, slender loris, the Himalayan black bear and the great Indian bustard.
“So, bringing out these science stories and working with researchers is something I really care about because the scientists on the ground do amazing work on a daily basis. My job as a filmmaker is to get their story or their message out.”
A young woman who has been in the news lately, as much for her activism on climate change as the criticism lobbed at her, is 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Malaika says, “She is amazing. I think the people who have been criticising her need to get out of their bubble and do something. She is a fiery young person and is changing things so much that it is changing the conversation on climate change and the environmental movement.
“I think that besides Greta there are many other young conservationists who don’t get the same publicity. It is about spotlighting young voices, like from the Amazon or Indian tribal communities.”
She adds, “My generation is definitely one that wants to see more stories coming through. We don’t just want to see pretty places and pretty animals. We want to understand what is happening to those places and what threats these animals are facing. Policymakers, researchers, students and filmmakers need to get together and act.”