Shailendra Singh is currently being investigated by Wildlife Conservation Society — India for a recent allegation of sexual harassment. But the other allegations against him date back over 10 years.IUCN news #MeToo Thursday, March 23, 2023 –
by Bahar Dutt
“I was 21 years old, enthusiastic, unafraid of hard work. I was working with the Turtle Survival Alliance India project. [Shailendra Singh] forced himself upon me on multiple occasions… He is one of the reasons I gave up on my childhood dream of working with herps,” said Person A, one of the women who has accused a top wildlife conservationist in India, Shailendra Singh, of sexual assault. Shailendra Singh was recently removed as director of Turtle Survival Alliance — India, a group that was formerly a part of the international NGO Turtle Survival Alliance, but is now a project under an Indian wildlife group called Wildlife Conservation Society — India (WCS). Several women came out with allegations against Shailendra Singh in reply to an Instagram post recently. TNM has learned that the conservationist is currently being investigated for sexual harassment by an internal committee of WCS on the basis of a complaint filed by another woman around two weeks back.
However, the allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse against Shailendra Singh date back at least 10 years. Speaking to this reporter, three survivors (referred to as Person A, Person B, and Person C in this article) recounted their experiences, revealing a pattern of predatory behaviour by Shailendra Singh. All three survivors were invited under the guise of work to private spaces controlled by him.
Women in wildlife conservation typically work in remote, isolated areas, in field conditions where toilets are not available, sometimes not even separate rooms, and it’s common for a woman to find herself in an all-male team. This is the first time that #MeToo allegations have been made in the wildlife conservation sector in the country and all four allegations are against one person. Shailendra Singh is a top wildlife conservationist in India, and won the Behler Turtle Conservation Award in 2021 — considered the “Nobel Prize” of turtle conservation and biology, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Alleged predatory behaviour by Shailendra Singh
Person A worked with TSA for three years. “It has been 8 years since I quit TSA, but the director’s abuse has haunted me every day,” she said. “Shailendra Singh asked me to relocate to Lucknow,” Person A said, as she recounted two specific instances of sexual assault. “I was invited to spend the night in his house. After dinner, we put a mattress on the floor in the hall for me and he was to sleep in his room. But he slept in the hall instead… I wasn’t sure what to do, and I realise now that I was frozen,” she said. Shailendra Singh then touched her inappropriately and forced her to do the same. “I shut down after that,” she said.https://d0a77667965bb20f71432e986704b7da.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html
In the second instance, Person A was travelling with Shailendra Singh and several other team members for field work at the Ghaghara River. The team was stationed at Shailendra Singh’s ancestral home during this time. “It was peak summer, and the team and I would sleep outdoors. The men slept on the terrace while I was on the ground floor in a netted tent,” she recalled. Shailendra Singh allegedly entered her tent in the night, undressed the survivor, and sexually assaulted her. “I froze again, but I was aware of what was happening to me,” Person A said.
Shashwat Sirsi, a former employee of the TSA India project who is currently pursuing his post doctorate in Texas, USA, and a confidante of Person A, recalls that she had told him about these incidents. “I remember talking to Person A about her exit from the organisation in 2015. And I remember that she faced verbal assaults, profanity, and scapegoating from the director, Shailendra Singh,” Shashwat said, “I also remember her struggles to land a job in the conservation sector thereafter. When she quit conservation and required document verification for a corporate job, Shailendra Singh accused her of falsifying her documents.”
Person B, too, was allegedly assaulted in Shailendra Singh’s house in Lucknow. The organisation provided living arrangements at their office for some employees, she said, and on one occasion when she was alone in these quarters because other employees were travelling, Shailendra Singh invited her to his home. “This was my first time living out of my city and I wasn’t comfortable staying at the office all by myself,” Person B said, “Shailendra Singh offered that I could spend the night in his place as he had an extra room. He also had a 16-17 year domestic worker living with him.” Believing it would be safe to accept the invitation since there was another person in the house, Person B agreed.
“Once I went to his place, I went to the [guest] room,” Person B said, but soon Shailendra Singh asked her to come into his bedroom to discuss work. He then asked her to sleep in the same room, and as a junior employee in the organisation, Person B was afraid to refuse. “I had no idea how to get out of that situation,” she told this reporter. In the night, Shailendra Singh allegedly molested Person B, “As I was falling asleep, he put his hand around me. I was startled and told him firmly that I was not comfortable with this. He tightened his grip around me and said, “now?” I told him again to remove his hand, when he did. But he spent the rest of the night next to me” she said. Person B then stayed up for the rest of the night in fear.
Person B shared her experience with her friend, a former employee with the TSA India project who goes by Herpomania on Instagram and was one of the people who spoke out against Shailendra Singh’s unprofessional behaviour on the social media site last week. Herpomania corroborated Person B’s account.
Person C was a research intern with the TSA India project in 2016. She rejected Shailendra Singh’s advances at a party, and as a result faced a hostile work environment for the duration of her association with TSA, she said. “At a New Year’s Eve party at his house with the entire office, Shailendra Singh who was drunk at the time, tried to grope me several times in a bedroom while he was drunk. I pushed him away and left the room,” Person C said. “For the next four months, I faced retaliation for that incident and had the worst experience working with this organisation. Shailendra Singh made no effort to support my research and had absolute disregard for my safety, despite my requests for support while working alone in rural Uttar Pradesh,” she said.
This story is corroborated by Shantanu Joshi a wildlife researcher who asked Person C why she had quit the organisation. “I first heard about the incident from her when we were talking about her experience working with TSA in 2017, and why she doesn’t collaborate with them. Hearing all the stories, I could never imagine the scale of it. I couldn’t believe how blatant and widespread the abuse was in the organisation. As a wildlife biologist I also felt really ashamed of the field and especially herpetologists in India who have never spoken against the misogynistic culture rampant among researchers,” Shantanu said.
This reporter reached out to Shailendra Singh for his response to these allegations, but he refused citing an ongoing investigation.
Inaction by TSA and WCS?
Herpomania, who has been speaking out about the experiences of survivors and other employees on social media platforms, told TNM that she had reached out to Lonnie McCaskill, who is a board member of TSA, and an advisor to the TSA India project — which is a project under WCS.
In an email reply to Herpomania on August 10, 2020, Lonnie McCaskill said, “You have approached me a couple of times about issues you have had while employed and after separating from TSA employment. You’ve also mentioned similar misbehavior towards other TSA female and male employees from leadership. I’ve tried on each occasion to follow up and tried to get this addressed but to date have not succeeded in getting the attention I feel it warrants. I know some may be hesitant to speaking with me because I’m a man, a Board member and for fear of retaliation. I’ve reached out to Susie Ellis Wildt who has been associated with the TSA from its inception about this issue for her feedback and advice.” (sic)
In another email on August 12, 2020, Lonnie McCaskill addressed several women who had come out with their experiences. “Thank you all for stepping up and speaking up! The list continues to grow and the voice is getting louder and stronger! I will continue to work on your behalf to make the changes needed. Please feel free to reach out to each other and reach out to others that you know and support them. Even the women who don’t speak up need to hear from you,” he said. However, it wasn’t until after survivors spoke out on Instagram last week that Shailendra Singh was removed as director of the TSA India project.
Herpomania said that despite knowing the truth, the organisations chose to overlook these serious incidents. The TSA leadership was aware of instances of harassment and made no effort to protect their women employees under Shailendra Singh’s supervision. This further highlights why victims do not come forward as the system continually protects and makes space for habitual and chronic abusers like Shailendra Singh to grow and thrive,” said person B, “These incidents were disappointing and sent a message that our complaints were not important enough for them and everything culminated in our fear of not coming forward publicly until we were well away from the Indian conservation circle, comparatively safer.”
In fact, TSA, the international NGO, has now distanced itself from Shailendra Singh in light of the public allegations. In a statement about the sexual harassment allegations, TSA’s chair of the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee, Heather Barrett said, “We have been following the recent social media posts and have received direct contact from one individual alleging inappropriate behavior by Dr. Singh. We take this very seriously. We understand that there is a current investigation in India, compliant with Indian laws, and we await the results and will be prepared to take appropriate action.”
The statement added, “Although the Turtle Survival Alliance does not operate in India, we have been very proud to support the important turtle conservation work in the country,” and that, “As we continue to grow, we will strive to strengthen our relationships and increase transparency and equitable treatment of employees by our worldwide partners.”
This writer reached out to TSA interim executive director Genevieve Waller to ask what actions were taken by the organisation since the allegations were shared with TSA board members by the women both verbally and on email. She replied, “If you read my bio, you can see that I joined TSA this past October. We are aware of the allegations and are taking appropriate steps to look into it. We are also monitoring the investigation in India and will be ready to take action following the results.”
When asked about the allegations, WCS directed this reporter to a statement on their website saying they cannot respond to media queries since the matter is with a committee.
Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist and conservation biologist