Tag Archives: conservation

Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

Why Mizoram must revive, not eradicate, jhum

There is something extraordinary about the cheraw (bamboo dance) performed during Chapchar Kut. The dance is unique, elegant, and spectacular, but it carries a deeper connection to the land and lives of the people, particularly to the remarkable practice of shifting agriculture (or jhum) which subtly encapsulates the dance of the bamboos themselves on the mountains of Mizoram.

I first watched the grand cheraw performance at the Assam Rifles stadium in Aizawl in Mizoram’s Gospel Centenary year. Although the state had seen great transformations in religion, traditions and economy over the last century, the cheraw itself had been retained as a deeper marker of culture.

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut in Mizoram's gospel centenary year (1995)

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut following Mizoram’s gospel centenary year (24 February 1995).

Two decades later, in 2014, I watched the cheraw performed again in the same stadium by Mizo boys and girls decked in bright traditional dresses patterned with bamboo-like designs on clothing and headgear.

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

To the clacking beat of the bamboo held by the boys at their feet, the girls gracefully stepped and danced as if nothing had changed across the years. Yet, in the surrounding countryside, much had.

The government had been continually trying to eliminate jhum and replace it with monoculture plantations such as teak, rubber, and oil palm. This attempt to eradicate jhum goes against the grain of ecology, agriculture, and culture of Mizoram. Consider these four reasons.

Jhum helps retains forest cover

First, foresters claim jhum causes loss of forest cover. Scientists have instead pointed out the loss is only temporary and that too in small patches that are cleared. This contrasts sharply with the permanent loss of extensive forest cover when jhum is replaced by other land uses such as settled agriculture and monoculture plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak. Plantations such as oil palm and rubber that directly cause deforestation are being promoted by the state government. This accounts for over 20,000 hectares of forest loss in Mizoram in just the last few years.

Jhum does lead to a change in the type of forest cover. As soon as cultivation is over and the fields are rested, forests very rapidly regenerate on jhum fallows. Dense bamboo forests, especially mautak (Melocanna baccifera), and secondary forests with trees rapidly cover the jhum landscape. For every hectare cultivated, at least 5 to 10 hectares are left regenerating. This forest cover is still superior to plantations of a single species such as oil palm and rubber that are not forest at all.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Jhum supports biodiversity in the landscape

Second, biologists report  jhum areas have fewer plant and animal species than mature rainforests. But they also point out the wider jhum landscape supports more biodiversity than terraced agriculture, oil palm, tea, and rubber plantations.

Wildlife scientists, including myself, have underscored the need to protect mature rainforests. Mizoram  has done a creditable job in protecting such forests in the core zones of many wildlife reserves such as Dampa, Murlen, and Ngengpui. In the surrounding landscape, however, the dense bamboo and secondary forests created by jhum are better for biodiversity conservation than any of the artificial monocultures being planted. This must be acknowledged.

A sustainable, organic farming system

Third, from an agricultural point of view, jhum is unfairly labelled as an unproductive system. Comparing yields per hectare of specific crops (such as rice) in jhum with other ‘modern’ agricultural systems, fails to consider many benefits of jhum. Jhum is a multiple-crop system that raises diverse food and cash crops, conserves indigenous seeds and varieties, and promotes household food security. Also, while cultivation may last a single year, farmers gain resources over many years from fields and regenerating forests: fuelwood, perennial crops, bamboo and bamboo shoots, mushrooms and forest foods, housing materials and timber. A fair comparison with other systems of farming would take into account the returns to farmers over the entire jhum cycle (and not just yields per hectare at a single harvest). Agricultural scientists today believe jhum is a sustainable farming system that can be refined rather than replaced.

It is the stated policy of the Central Government and Indian states like Sikkim and Kerala to transform conventional agriculture towards organic farming. This is a progressive trend. For Mizoram, the first state to enact organic farming legislation, it is doubly ironic that the authorities are trying to eradicate this remarkable organic farming system (jhum) instead of capitalising on having a head start. The state’s attempt to eradicate jhum is regressive from the perspectives of current scientific understanding of agroecology and government policy.

The dance of the future

Finally, the cheraw at Chapchar Kut subtly and intricately epitomises cultural connections and values. The  group dance celebrates the spirit of community that Mizoram is famous for and embodied in tlawmngaihna, the bamboo attests the connection to forest and land (ram), and the circular dance within the bounds of the bamboo seemingly reflects the rotational system of jhum cultivation itself. But today, as oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is being replaced by one dependent on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests.

What will happen then, in future, to the dance of the bamboos? I imagine Mizo boys and girls assembling at the Assam Rifles Grounds in Aizawl for the dance. But the boys are not holding bamboo culms at the feet of the girls any more: they are at the gates in dark suits selling tickets, collecting cash. The girls, clad in monotonous green dresses patterned with spikes and needles, stand in the sun, alone, their arms aloft, their palms open and fingers splayed wide, their eyes staring, unblinking at the fierce sun. The feet of the girls are fixed to the earth and don’t move. And through the gates, the spectators trickle in, to see the Mizos perform the oil palm dance.

One hopes that such a dance is never performed, that such a day never comes.

This article first appeared in the Chapchar Kut special issue of The Frontier Despatch, 4 March 2016.

Writing about the environment: a letter

Road to Perdition, a piece by Neha Sinha and myself published in the July issue of Fountain Ink, triggered a response from Aasheesh Pittie: a handwritten letter that he has posted here on his blog. Aasheesh critiques our piece for not being emphatic or dramatic enough, given the drastic, unprecedented, and barely-regulated assault on India’s environment now underway. He raises vital concerns on how we write about the environment and hoped his letter would begin a dialogue. In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead, here is the letter I wrote in response. Do read his letter first before reading on. And add your thoughts and comments!

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The other invisible hand

One of the perils of ignoring the environment is the consequent failure to notice that the environment never ignores you. Healthy environments support human health and flourishing even as conservation secures natural resources and livelihoods. On the flip side, environmental degradation rebounds as economic losses, while pollution strikes at the heart of public health. Can one afford to ignore the environment when it affects both economy and health?

This global question now confronts India, as a developing nation surging ahead towards its predicted destiny as the world’s third largest economy by 2030. In its pursuit of a neo-liberal growth model, focused on indices such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country has accorded lower priority to public health and environment (in the last national budget, the already low financial allocations for these sectors were slashed further by 20% and 25%, respectively). The growth model presumes that social benefits will accrue via the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces, possibly mediated by increased public revenues and spending following economic growth. Meanwhile, environmental conservation remains predicated on creation of regulations and reserves, while public health is contingent on access to clinics and care. Governance systems consider economy, ecology, and health as different domains, ignoring their inescapable connections.

India cannot afford to let this situation continue longer. The country confronts unprecedented air and water pollution and environmental contamination and degradation. Connections among health, economy, and environment revealed by recent research needs to urgently inform policy and praxis.

Smog in the skies of Delhi, India

Smog in the skies over New Delhi, India (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Pollution, health, and economy

Take the recent air pollution crisis in the national capital, New Delhi. Implicated in serious lung, respiratory, and other diseases affecting its citizens including over 2 million schoolchildren, the crisis exemplifies a country-wide malaise. Over 660 million people, half of India’s population, live in areas where fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, reducing life expectancy by an estimated 3.2 years on average.

In 2011, PM2.5 and other atmospheric emissions from 111 coal-fired power plants across India resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and over 20 million asthma cases. The economic cost to the public and the government was estimated at US$ 3.2 – 4.6 billion. Agriculture, too, is seriously affected. Climate and air pollution impact (due to ozone and black carbon) has reduced average wheat crop yields across India in 2010 by up to 36%, with yield loss up to 50% in some densely populated states.

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Indoor air pollution due to use of inefficient biomass-based cookstoves is another serious health issue. In India, it causes over one million deaths and affects the health of over 400 million people, particularly women and children.

Similar concerns, connecting health, ecology, and economy, arise in water pollution and over-dependence on chemicals in industrial agriculture. The Central Ground Water Board reported recently that over half of India’s districts suffered groundwater contamination, including with heavy metals above permissible levels in 113 districts across 15 states. Along rivers, about two thirds of the water courses are polluted, with nearly 275 of 290 monitored rivers having highly polluted stretches. Water pollution does not only cause water-borne diseases and other direct health impacts, it can negatively affect diet and livelihoods due to the loss of fish and aquatic resources, contamination of soils and loss of agricultural productivity downstream of industrial and mining sites.

A 2013 World Bank study estimated that the financial and social costs of environmental degradation in India amounted to about US$ 80 billion or 5.7% of the country’s GDP. Of this, outdoor air pollution accounted for 29%, followed by indoor air pollution (23%), cropland degradation (19%), water supply and sanitation (14%), and pasture and forest degradation (15%).

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India's most polluted industrial clusters (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India’s most polluted industrial clusters located in Chhattisgarh District (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Environment, climate change, and public health

How environment affects public health is often difficult to trace, but connections are evident and significant. A 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) study attributed 24% of the disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23% of all deaths (premature mortality) worldwide to environmental factors. The burden of environment-mediated disease and mortality is also higher in developing countries. Further, a large part of this is due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In 2014, the WHO country profile for India noted that 60% of the 9.8 million human deaths were due to NCDs. The four big killers—cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes—account for 48% of all deaths and 80% of deaths due to NCDs. NCDs are a global problem—causing 68% of 56 million global deaths in 2012—that disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries. Cardiovascular and respiratory health suffers due to air pollution, while cancers and hormonal disruption are known to occur due to many pollutants in the environment.

Scientists predict that the health situation will worsen under ongoing climate change. Increasing incidence of NCDs, besides other effects such as rise in vector-borne diseases and injuries due to climate extremes, is likely. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with very high confidence that climate change will exacerbate existing health problems over the next few decades.

The economic fallout will also be high. One study estimated that India’s GDP in 2004 would have been 4% – 10% higher if NCDs were completely eliminated, while a 2014 report estimates that India stands to lose over US$ 4.58 trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to NCDs. Economic policies that alter occupation, mobility, and diet can exacerbate these problems, such as when lifestyles become more sedentary or livelihoods change from rural or forest-based occupations to working in polluted industrial areas as wage labour. The health – environment – economy connect has become a vital concern in recent debates such as over mining in forests where forest-dependent communities live, land acquisition of farms for industry and infrastructure, and reducing pollution from coal and shifting to renewables.

Expansion of mining in a Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources, and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Expansion of mining in the Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Health in all, for all

As research findings accumulate, the connections between environment, health, and economy grow stronger. This has many implications for policy. For instance, health impact assessments must become a mandatory part of environmental and social impact assessments in industrial and development projects. The GDP-centric measurement of progress should make way for more holistic indices that include progress in health and environmental protection. Instead of viewing environment as a ‘hindrance’ or public health as a ‘burden’, economic policy must consider these integral to human development, and provide higher financial outlays. Finally, India’s draft National Health Policy 2015 recognises the need to integrate environmental and social determinants of health across all sectors, in keeping with the ‘Health in All’ approach, but concrete actions required in individual sectors are yet to be identified.

Ultimately, human lives and livelihoods, health and resources derive from the natural environment: humans are a part of nature. The environment is, in that sense, the other invisible hand that leads to a cleaner and safer, more alive and inspiring world where people can live and flourish. Environmental health subsumes and is connected to human health, just as the health of one’s body subsumes and is connected to the health of one’s heart.

(This post first appeared here in the International Health Policies Blog.)

Select references

  1. Greenstone, M., Nilekani, J., Pande, R., Ryan, N., Sudarshan, A., and Sugathan, A. 2015. Lower pollution, longer lives: life expectancy gains if India reduced particulate matter pollution. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 40–46.
  2. Guha, R. 2014. The other illiteracy: the Indian road to unsustainability. The Telegraph 9 August 2014.
  3. Pradyumna, A. 2015. Health aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment process in India. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 57–64.
  4. Prüss-Üstün, A., and Corvalán, C. 2006. Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. World Health Organisation, Geneva.
  5. World Bank. 2013. India: Diagnostic assessment of select environmental challenges an analysis of physical and monetary losses of environmental health and natural resources (in Three Volumes). World Bank Report No. 70004-IN.

Fieldwork: In clouded leopard country with Peter Matthiessen

Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.

Peter Matthiessen is no more.

It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.

Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.

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Bookshelf (Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan)

How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.

Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.

Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.

And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.

I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?

But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?

And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.

Dampatlang watchtower, 2014

Dampatlang watchtower (2013)

Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014

At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.

ChawrpialtlangForests

At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.

It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.

Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.

Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?

Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.

I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.

Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?

Bamboo watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014

Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.

The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.

Pathlawi_forest

Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.

Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.

Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?

The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.

Tuichar cave (2014)

Tuichar cave (Photo: Bhagyashree Ingle)

Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014

After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?

The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.

Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.

At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.

Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.

I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.

The walk that spun the world

Vermont_landscape

It starts as a walk in a forest in Vermont, which takes me, strangely enough, into the high Himalaya. On a balmy July afternoon, with hesitant clouds massing out west, I set out on foot down the road that passes through the village of Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I leave behind the public library and the silent church whose spire towers over the open meadow of the commons and the white clapboard houses in the village. Ahead, the forest appears, flushed green and dense and dark from summer rains. Open fields, loon lakes, and lush farms adorn the landscape, but it is the tranquil forest that entices me in. Almost involuntarily, I am drawn into the woods, up the winding trail that disappears into darkness.

On the trail, the dark, wet earth carries the tread of tyres and the stamp of boots overlaid by tracks of deer and spoor of weasel. The imprints attest a land that the animals share with people. Shafts of evening sun brighten the canopy with amber light, but little reaches down into the shaded undergrowth. Much is still hidden from my eyes.

Vermont forest trail

* * *

I pause where the tracks of the deer swerve into the forest. The print is now no more than a suggestion. I follow, stepping off the trail into the trees. The ground feels soft underfoot, matted by pine leaves and litter, sprigs of tiny grasses, a coterie of creepers, mounds of moss. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the undergrowth, saplings of red and sugar maples jostle basswood and hemlock in the eternal clamour for light.

In a gap, a tree stump stands testimony to logging—not the rampant clear-cutting of a more reckless past, but a mindful selection of a woodsman. The forest is still used by people. If the trail and bootprints are not evidence enough, the pails and pipes strapped to trees reveal the touch of people tapping the syrupy sweetness of maples. And further down, a stack of logs waits beside the trail to be hauled and hewn into canoe or board or burned for warmth in kitchen and hearth.

Inside forest VT

As I look up at trees that stand tall without being colossal, I sense the passage of decades rather than centuries. Yet, this land has witnessed a great flux of trees over the ages. As ice-age glaciers retreated around 11,000 years ago, forests appeared on the open lands. In the warmer world that followed, vast tracts of forest arose, in which native Americans lived and hunted for thousands of years. Colonial settler populations surged from the 1760s and in the ensuing decades clear-felled millions of acres of forests for timber and to open land for farms in New England. By the 1850s, around three-fourths of Vermont was open land: farms and sheep pastures bounded by long walls of stacked stone slabs. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, the tide in people and land turned, as civil war and migration whittled the settlers and rested the farms, bringing a great resurgence of trees to clothe the landscape. Today, forests once again cover over three-fourths of Vermont. In the forests, assisted by conservation efforts, resident wildlife species such as moose, grouse, beaver, and marten are staging a comeback in a propitious rewilding of the New England landscape.

Vermont_forest

Stone wall VermontFrom where I stand, the river on which the timbers were once floated, like giant rafts of huge logs spanning bank to bank, is distant and hidden. Nearby, a moss-felted, lichen-blotched stone wall of an old farm crumbles into a linear tumulus weaving through trees.

The land still carries the marks of history. If I could read the rings in the recumbent trees or discern the trajectory of the resurgent landscape, I would understand better the revival of forest on exploited lands. Perhaps then, I would also perceive what it was that brought respite and respect for trees, in this momentous transformation in America’s environmental history. In 1864, at the cusp of that great turnaround from clear-cuts and farms to forest, as the nation underwent the upheavals of civil war and the civil rights movement, Vermonter George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action appeared, a book that was to deeply influence the conservation movement. Now, a century and a half later, embracing the insights from environmental history, conservationists are better placed to resolve the “great question” with which Marsh concluded his book: the question as to “whether man is of nature or above her”.

If nothing else, the tracks on the trail suggest the human footprint can now be a soft one, too.

* * *

Looking at deer tracks, I ponder over my own journey. I have travelled from India to Vermont to join a workshop on writing about the natural world. Here, I know, I am a stranger still. Yet, that is not what I feel in the forest. Watchful, wistful, I meander through tall conifers, modest maples, beech, and ash. Taking a turn, my walk through the trees becomes a trek through stately forests of conifers, ash, and oak on great mountains. In a forest above a landscape of farm terraces and pastures, I am walking in the Garhwal Himalaya.

Uttarakhand_Himalaya

Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

It is a landscape and people with a special place in India’s environmental history. For over a century, the colonial British government, followed by Indian foresters, exploited these Himalayan forests, taking timber and tapping pines, for products ranging from bats and boards to resin and railway crossties. Even as the State felled forests for commercial and industrial uses, it restricted access of local people to trees and forests for livelihood needs. In 1970, severe erosion and floods raised concerns about the widespread impacts of deforestation. Three years later, near the village of Mandal, government authorities curtailed access of local people to ash trees but allotted felling permits for the same trees to Symonds, a sports goods company. This drew the simmering tensions to a point of taut confrontation and more than a century of resistance boiled over into a new movement of non-violent action: Chipko. By the act of hugging trees marked for felling, supported by sustained protests, villagers, including groups of women, saved forests and livelihoods from being destroyed by logging. As the Chipko movement spread and captured public imagination and attention, it triggered regulations that restricted deforestation, safeguarding forests on the mountain slopes.

The Chipko movement inspired a generation of environmentalists in India and elsewhere. The peaceful resistance of Chipko, signifying the gentle, human act of hugging, signified a new environmentalism, an environmentalism of the poor rejecting overexploitation by industry, a renewal of people’s connections to land, reaffirming the human place in nature.

Himalayan_landscape

Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

I come to a halt before an ash tree. I gaze at the grey-toned bark, at the rising ridges and falling furrows on the rough surface, at the trunk soaring up into a canopy flaming in evening light. Now, the soughing shiver of broadleaved trees, the sibilant whispers of conifers, and the incessant keening of mosquitoes become all too familiar. Now, too, the strange songs of vireo and chickadee and warbler are transmuted into known voices of yuhina and tit and flycatcher. Spruce becomes kail, cedar becomes divine deodar. Raven remains raven. Suddenly, I am struck by a sense of belonging, as if the ash and cedar are to me what the ash and deodar are to people in the Himalaya, the forest a space for solace, succour, and veneration.

Now, I am in India and it is the Vermont forest that has travelled around the world, and not me.

How green is your tea?

(With Divya Mudappa in Business Line, BLink magazine special issue on animals, 27 Sep 2014)

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

You could have imagined you were on a forest trail. Fifty metres away, the dark hulk of a solitary bull gaur, over five feet tall at the shoulder with taut muscles and thick, curving horns, looks up from the swampy valley where he stands in his white-stockinged legs. Eyes locked with gaur, your ears pick up the harsh bark of a great hornbill resounding through the cool mountain air from a patch of tall trees on the hill slope beyond. As you skirt the gaur and walk quietly down the trail, stepping past fresh scat of a sloth bear and dropped quills of a porcupine, a stripe-necked mongoose darts across, a flash of crimson bright against background green. The green is not the multi-hued mosaic of a real forest, but a more uniform smear of a monoculture. Row upon row of neatly pruned metre-high bushes range away in tight lines, punctuated by well-spaced and heavily-lopped silver oak trees. In the mountains of the Western Ghats, at the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, you are walking through a large tea plantation.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

Tea plantations often get bad press from environmentalists as ‘green deserts‘. As a form of intensive production based on keeping large estates under a single crop, tea plantations tend to support far fewer wild species than comparable areas under native forests. Still, when one takes a broader perspective, tea estates, too, can play a role in wildlife conservation. Recent field studies show that by modifying conventional land-use practices and protecting some neglected parts of the tea estate landscape these plantations can help conserve wild species. They also illustrate how important it has become to widen the scope of conservation into the countryside outside wildlife protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries.

Read on here… or from magazine pages below.

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