Meet Steffi the lady Steve Irwin of India

Steffi's "Snake Walk with the Irulas" helps participants understand co-existence besides experiencing Cobras or Vipers up close.

Chennai’s Steffi John is fondly called the Lady Steve Irwin of India. Visitors to the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust would not miss the 30-year-old Zoo Education Officer and her passion in the company of crocodiles, snakes and a range of other reptiles. 

Steffi teaches about reptiles and raises awareness on conservation to visitors to the zoo including children and students. Her series of programmes are a super hit among wildlife lovers. 

The popular “Be a Zoo Keeper” programme, for instance, gives participants a close encounter with reptiles. During the guided tour, she arranges “reptile encounters”. She explains holding Dwarf Caiman or turtles and other reptiles. Children love it as she explains a crocodile’s basic anatomy like their ears, nostrils, webbed feet and hard scales. There are special feeding sessions and at the curatorial department they also get to learn on measuring a snake.

Children love Steffi's teaching as she explains  holding reptiles like Dwarf Caiman or snakes or Green Iguana.
Children love Steffi's teaching as she explains holding reptiles like Dwarf Caiman or snakes or Green Iguana.

She would also be seen with snakes around her neck. There are also other fascinating programmes like “Snake Walk with the Irulas” and “Meeting Irulas” in which participants get to “see real Russel’s Viper or Cobras and learn from Irulas who have a close relationship with snakes” she says. “These also raise awareness on co-existence, what they can do and what they should not” she explains. Steffi tweaks and tailors these programmes according to every individual groups’ profile or specific interests. She says “These programmes help visitors understand that reptiles and animals are not just cute but also a huge responsibility to take care”.

In a first of its kind in any Indian zoo, Steffi has introduced virtual reality technology in the zoo, to enhance the experience of zoo education and zoo visit. The VR gear transports visitors to a whole new world and level of understanding. “They can experience animals up close. Imagine Asian Water Monitor flicking its tongue right to your face. I can even pause the video and show the fork tongue they have and talk about it. The idea is in the long term this would trigger empathy among children and may be a few would want to make animal conservation their career or animal husbandry or pursue animal research for the betterment of wildlife “. 

The virtual reality Steffi has introduced at Chennai Crocodile Bank takes zoo to schools and  enhances  the zoo education experience.
The virtual reality Steffi has introduced at Chennai Crocodile Bank takes zoo to schools and enhances the zoo education experience.
The lady from Madurai has a passion to offer zoo education for children in government schools. So Steffi also takes the VR technology to government schools so those students too who often don’t get these travel opportunities get to experience and learn. She says “With virtual reality we take the zoo to government schools”. Each VR gear costs Rs 35000. The zoo has 5 gears. They would get 10 more kits soon. “We are raising funds to have at least 20 so more users can experience this simultaneously” says Steffi.
 
While the pandemic had made the zoo out of bounds for visitors, she had arranged a series of virtual programmes, webinars engaging wildlife enthusiasts virtually. Though the crocodile bank had lost revenue amid the lockdown many had sponsored feeding and overheads by adopting several enclosures in the zoo.
 
Last year Steffi was also elected as representative of zoo educators in South Asia. Inspired by Steve Irwin himself, Steffi graduated in Zoology from Bishop Heber College in Trichy  and pursued her master’s in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at  Scotland’s Napier University. She had also studied a semester at the Appalanchan State University in the US as part of her BSc programme.
 
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