20 July 2022

India to Aotearoa: Ash’s passion for conservation finds a new home


Ash Muralidhar loves the New Zealand bush. It is a place she feels confident and connected. It’s also an environment she is passionate about protecting.

Given that she grew up in the Indian city of Hyderabad, population almost seven million people, and didn’t experience a forest until the age of 12, it might seem to be an unlikely transition. But Ash has long understood the value of conservation in an over-burdened world and was drawn to study wildlife management in New Zealand by the opportunities it offered.

“I thought it would be an exceptional environment in which to study and that I would be working with unique species which really excited me.”

Already qualified with a Bachelor’s degree, Ash came to the University of Otago in 2015 to study for her post-graduate Diploma in Wildlife Management and followed that up with a Master’s in Zoology, researching how animal behaviour changes in different environments.

“I looked at sanctuaries like Orokonui Ecosanctuary (Dunedin) and Rotokare Scenic Reserve (Taranaki) and assessed how the protection they offered affects the anti-predator behaviour of native birds. They essentially forgot what predators were like inside the sanctuary, meaning that if they ever leave, they are more vulnerable to predators than they would otherwise be.”

Leading education initiatives

Since graduating, Ash has been working as an environmental educator at Rotokare, a 230-hectare fenced reserve near Stratford. “Rotokare is a community-owned conservation site and sanctuary that is a safe haven from pests for native birds, insects, animals, and plants.”

She has led education initiatives which instil the principles of conservation in young people, teaching them about the land, the native species, and the importance of looking after our wildlife. Although she heads to Wellington soon to start a new chapter in her life, Ash says she has thoroughly enjoyed working at Rotokare.

“I like being in the bush, I like teaching my community, I like interacting with kids and seeing how their perspectives change. I have absolutely loved my job,” she says. “The staff, volunteers, stakeholders, they’ve been my family.”

Ash has built a strong relationship with the mana whenua of Rotokare, Ngāti Tupaia. “I have worked with representatives to ensure we are delivering education programmes in the te ao Māori context. Coming from another culturally heavy indigenous background, I understood the importance of preserving and promoting their way of thinking and understanding their sense of spirituality.

“I didn’t initially realise how much it aligned with my personal feelings for the environment but the more I studied and spoke to Māori the more I felt like their perspective aligned with the Gaia hypothesis, the scientific proposition that the earth is a living, breathing self-regulating system with a life and spirit of its own.”

She has worked hard to teach herself te reo Māori and to understand and accurately communicate the history of Rotokare.

New Zealand was the right decision

All this feels like a long way from her old life in India. Ash admits to a serious dose of culture shock in her first year at Otago. She struggled with the peer pressure to drink and needed to find her own niche where she could be herself. She built connections with the music community and spent considerable time volunteering, which she recommends to any international students.

“You get to understand life in New Zealand from conversations you have while volunteering. It also allows you to be a part of something bigger than university, to be actively contributing and giving back to the community.

Ash says travelling overseas for education broadens your horizons and allows you to explore who you are without the judgement you might face at home. “It doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing yourself. I already had a good idea of who I was and what I wanted to be. I just wanted to see if it could work in the right environment.”

After a visit home in 2017, Ash knew she made the right decision to come to New Zealand for further study.

Future students should be “open to everything”, she says. “Let your inhibitions go and allow yourself to make mistakes. And never be ashamed of where you are from.”

Now on the Pathway to Residency, Ash is looking forward to new opportunities in conservation. “My heart is in conservation education and it’s what I’m going to be doing in some shape or form.”

“When it comes to issues of biodiversity, sustainability, and climate change, we need to inspire the next generation and get more people from all backgrounds working on the ground to create change.”

Ash with Rotokare Education team

*Photo at top of page: Ash with Rotokare Youth Ambassadors, among winners of the 2021 Taranaki Regional Council Environmental Awards

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