The call of the ocean lured WWF-SASSI Manager Pavitray Pillay at an early age, but the prospect of a career that had anything to do with marine sciences couldn’t have been further from her traditional Indian family’s minds.
As a child growing up in Pretoria in the 1980s, she would pore over the second-hand National Geographic magazines and old encyclopedia Britannica’s her father would bring home who was a fruit and vegetable vendor.
“I would cut out pictures of dolphins and whales and stick these in collages. I remember thinking, it’s so far removed from my reality. I couldn’t fathom how this diver was able to explore a world I was so captivated by, yet had never been anywhere near,” says Pavs.
Not one to let a little reality get in the way, however, Pavs announced she wanted to pursue a B.Sc. degree instead of the ‘financially solid’ career path of doctor, lawyer, teacher or chartered accountant any good Indian family expected at the time.
“I remember my father asking, but ‘how will you get a job’? He couldn’t see how science could be a vocation. My very conservative aunts also assured me I could always come back, and they wouldn’t think of me as a failure. Mercifully, my father conceded, saying: ‘Go and study science and when you’re done that, you’re probably going to end up working in a bank, but at least you’ll have done what you wanted to do.” And so she did.
After her B.Sc. degree, Pavs ended up in Cape Town and fell into the natural fit the universe had steered her towards against all odds – the marine sciences. She worked in government, in academia and for an UN-funded programme in Angola, Namibia and South Africa, all before her journey brought her to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF- SA).
Every step that Pavs has taken on her journey in the marine sciences has brought her a step closer to the purpose she had as a child, leafing through those old National Geographics. “I don’t fit the model of a marine scientist or a conservationist or what was then the stereotype of an Indian woman. But all I remember thinking is that I wanted to take all this amazing science I learned and shift people, move people the way I felt moved by those National Geographics.”
It was a mission that gained impetus when her well-researched beautifully leather-bound master’s thesis failed to captivate her father. “I was so proud of it. But, he literally ran his hand over the gold lettering and said: ‘beautiful leather cover’ without showing any intention of reading it because he didn’t even understand the title.
“It soon became clear it had more value to him as a coffee cup holder and I realised I needed to change tack here because this environment that I loved so much was in trouble and if my own father wasn’t willing to crack my thesis open because the science wasn’t accessible, who was I going to change?”
Scientists and academics may be brilliant at what they do, but they have a reputation of being poor communicators and are terrible at translating the science to the public. Pavs set her sights on changing that in her role at WWF.
“I never thought I would get to work at an organisation like WWF which has brought together all the things I’m so passionate about – the environment, the ocean, its resources, what it gives us, and protecting what sustains us. I realised to save and safeguard this environment I so love, I needed to change the behaviour of the people who were using it. And SASSI became that pivotal place where I could do that, where I could start making an impact.”
But making that impact, says Pavs, goes beyond simply saying ‘Save the Fish’. “There are those who are reliant on that environment, reliant for their livelihoods, for a source of food. So, you can’t simply have a preservationist attitude towards this environment. Rather, if we are to use the resource, we must do so responsibly and sustainably.”
Pavs has spent her life knocking down palaces of fear and going for it.
Perhaps inspired by her courageous grandmother who was Mahatma Gandhi’s adopted daughter and the Mrs. Pillay Nelson Mandela mentioned in his book “Long Walk to Freedom”. Perhaps because, beyond her own expectations, she said yes to a wild-haired yoga teacher in the Namibian desert and learned how to fold herself into a pretzel and teach others to do the same. Perhaps because she was always willing to step up to the plate, swing the bat and see where the ball lands.
It’s this attitude of less doubts, more do’s that has paved many pathways leading up to the legacy she wants to leave; that of a safe protected marine environment people respect.
“We’re part of the Earth, we’re of the Earth. We’re not outside of it and we’ve lost our connection to it, but we need to rebuild and own it. It starts with us.”