Spiritual values can augment bat conservation

field notes | Dr. V. Mahandran | 12.1

My work on bats often takes me to faraway locations with exotic tropical vistas. On one such field trip, in June 09, 2013, I was exploring the Kuthumkal cave system, situated in Idukki district of Kerala, India. This extensive cave systemonce served as the roost for many thousands of the Indian fulvous fruit bats,Rousettus leschenaulti. Sadly, as of this day, only a few hundred individuals remain due to frequent cave vandalism and wanton slaughtering of bats for bushmeat consumption. Furthermore, this adds to significant littering in and around the caves. Previously, I had heard stories of bats being consumed by locals in the belief that it cures asthma.

Group of Indian fulvous bats (Rousettus leschenaultii) killed by vandals in the Kuthumkal cave, Idukki, Kerala

However, visiting the caves and witnessing these events and the aftermath for me was a truly harrowing experience. Their modus operandi was simple. A group of individuals would enter the cave and block potential bat escape routes with thorny acacia branches. Many of them were carrying country-made rifles using which they would shoot the roosting bats. I observed them consuming the bushmeat along with liquor (Fig. 1 and 2). I interacted with them and tried in vain to convince them to leave the bats alone. The horrible memories of this incident would be etched in my mind for years to come, filling me with disgust at the mere recollection.

Feeling utterly helpless, I finally found a ray of hope in a quaint corner of Tamil Nadu,where cave-dwelling bats are actively conserved by the locals because their spirituality is centred around the belief that bats are the messengers of the deity, Lord Muthaiyan, and hence sacred. Amongst visions of vandalized caves full of blood and dead bats, this ‘cave-temple’ was a breath of fresh air.This cave-temple roost with ~3050 bats is located in Hogenakkal forest. Devotees visit the cave temple and it appeared to me that neither human presence nor religious practices like burning of camphor and/or ringing of bells pose any disturbance to roosting bats (Fig. 3).

Location of killing and processing the bats for bushmeat consumption by vandals

The cave-temple has existed for more than 90 years wherein humans have not just coexisted peacefully with the bats, but even protected them, as a consequence of their spiritual values. Communal roosts located at caves and mines seem to be the most vulnerable ecosystems as they are generally not covered under any the standard protected area networks. Anthropogenic activities have been reported as major factors affecting bat populations across the globe. Hence, conservation of bats, which are significant pollinators and dispersers of fruiting trees, along with their roosting habitats is of critical importance. It is in fact likely that certain traditional beliefs and practices of worship can augment conservation of bats and their roosting habitats. This exemplary cave-temple of Hogenakkal may be regarded as a kind of sacred grove providing a safe haven for these rapidly disappearing flying mammals.

Written by: Dr. V. Mahandran, Postdoctoral Fellow, Behavioural Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, Punjab, E-mail: m16.mahi@gmail.com

Photographs by: Dr. V. Mahandran

Postcards from a distant island

Meenakshi Poti| 11.3| Field Notes

Lakshadweep left this marine researcher captivated, both underwater and over land;
Meenakshi Poti

For four months last year, I had the opportunity to live on the islands of Lakshadweep. Imagine,
from walking between throngs of people in the shadow of concrete towers, I was transported to a
place with turquoise water as far as my eye could see, coconut tree skylines and a handful of
people I would get to know by name.

Today, thousands of miles away from that wondrous abode where the sea, the sky and the
inhabitants seemed to care for me like I was one of their own – my bond with the islands has
only grown stronger.
Lakshadweep is India’s smallest union territory, located in the Arabian Sea. It is an archipelago
of 36 islands — 12 atolls, three reefs, five submerged banks and ten completely uninhabited
islands. Before my time there, I had never been to an island before. I applied for a research
permit, and two months later, I boarded a ship from the port of Kochi. It took two days to reach
the Agatti and Kalpeni islands, where the population is a mere ten thousand.

I was there to study the foraging habits of endangered green turtles – a species that is relatively
under-studied compared to Olive Ridleys and Leatherback sea turtle populations in India. Green
turtles are the only herbivorous sea turtles. They feed predominantly on seagrass found in the
shallower parts of the sea.
In fact, the region around the Lakshadweep islands supports the largest population of green
turtles in the Indian subcontinent. But the situation here is quite complex. Fishermen blame the
decline in their catch on these foraging turtles. They believe that fish stocks have fallen because
the seagrass meadows – which act as fish nurseries – have been overgrazed. This has led to an
increase in fisher-turtle conflicts in the recent past.

 

My focus was on studying how the decline of seagrass in the lagoons would influence the turtles’
diet. I mapped the seagrass distribution across the Agatti and Kalpeni lagoons, and sought to
understand how their diets shifted in areas where the seagrass densities were low. An
understanding of the green turtle foraging ecology is integral to their conservation, because of
their endangered status.
Every day in Lakshadweep, I would wake up early, as it gets uncomfortably hot after sunrise.
But for me, it wasn’t only the heat that urged me awake, it was the excitement to get to my
‘office’ and observe foraging green turtles over seagrass meadows, busy fish over the reefs, rays
flying by and an occasional shark. I would speed down the narrow streets of Agatti on my
dilapidated Ladybird cycle, with my research equipment – snorkel, mask, flippers, weights,
GoPro, and makeshift writing pad – sticking out of the front basket.

Weaving past bunches of busy hens and galloping goats, I would arrive at Jaffer’s house. Jaffer
played the role of friend, boatman, chef and island newspaper. I hired his boat, Nihla Fathima for
my work in the lagoons. She was a high-tech, swanky thing, with great speakers (I often heard
Coldplay and Dire Straits while Jaffer was cleaning his boat).

My dives involved taking counts of seagrass in the lagoon – quite a challenging task as it
involved laying transects and plots all across the lagoon. Each plot would take me a minimum of
three hours to finish, as I would “duck dive” to the base of the lagoon to take seagrass counts by
laying down small subplots made out of PVC pipes. Despite the rigour and intensity of
snorkeling for close to six hours every day, I enjoyed my fieldwork thoroughly.
After I surfaced from my dives, I would have lengthy conversations with the rest of the boat
crew – mostly in broken Malayalam, hand signals and my facial expressions – which would
leave them endlessly amused. All of them were involved in pole-line tuna fishing, but they
would make some forays out on the water for tourists too.

They would lay out a plate of khaddi (assorted snacks) for me after I surfaced from a dive, with
fresh lemon juice, kattan chaiya (black tea) or tender coconut water. Sometimes, Jaffer would
make delicious fish biryani while I worked underwater. (Although I went there as a vegetarian, I had no choice but to switch to a fish and chicken diet as vegetables, shipped from the mainland,
are not very easy to get a hold of. Once, we spotted carrots in the local store after several weeks,
but they refused to sell it to us as these were “advance booked carrots”.)
After long days out on the water, I would spend the evenings on the beach, chatting with the
women and children, with a cup of kattan chaiya in hand. The women of Lakshadweep are quite
reserved and are not allowed to swim in the azure waters that surround them because of their
religious beliefs. They were always curious about what I saw underwater, and would imagine the
marine wildlife in their backyard through my stories and descriptions. Later, when I was alone, I
would reflect on the stories that were exchanged with wonder.

There were so many special moments I wanted to share with my family and friends back at
home. But throughout my time on the islands, I had very limited internet and network coverage.
I’m not too talented at photography, so I documented whatever I could through art. I decided to
make postcards to send to people back home. This way, I would remember the features of the
organisms I was seeing or the landscape I was living in vividly.

Each postcard took me around a week to make, because I would usually be exhausted after
fieldwork. The first set of postcards never made it to my friends – I was so disappointed. So I
decided to write inland letters instead. I sent letters to some friends and my family. Funnily,
some of them reached long after I returned from the islands! As for those handmade postcards, I
feared losing even more somewhere over the sea, so I handed them over in person, once I got
home.


I can easily say that some of my closest friends now, I made in Lakshadweep. Even though I
haven’t been back for a year, I still receive messages from the locals to enquire about me and my
family. And of course, I still paint, write and dream of Lakshadweep.
To read more about sea turtle and marine conservation projects, visit www.dakshin.org

This article was originally featured in Nature inFocus

Quest to find an elusive snail

Fieldnotes | Anisha Jayadevan | 9.1

A morning at Shaktikulam harbour

I will remember the smell of fishing harbours for a long time to come.

It threatens to overwhelm at first. Then, it jostles for competition with other sensory assaults: shouts of fishermen auctioning their fish and people declaring their bids; loud colours of saris, lungis and fishing trawlers; the cries of fishermen on their boats passing crates of fish to each other and the ‘thud!’ as the crate lands on the floor of the harbour, hundreds of people busily doing things. My thoughts are interrupted, suddenly- a group of fishermen obscure my view and hastily tell me to move out of the way as they haul a large yellow-fin tuna away from their boats. The floor of the harbour is wet, parts of it speckled with fishscales that glimmer dimly. The wetness clings to my sandals.

I am with Bharti DK, a PhD student of the Indian Institute of Science and Sajan John, a researcher with nuggets of wisdom about everything under the sun and the sea. Bharti’s quest to find an elusive, unassuming marine animal has brought us to the fishing harbours of Kerala. She wants to find out how this animal disperses and how such dispersal might shape its populations.

Bharti holds a shell in her hand, a conical shell with spirals and a delicate minaret. It is the former home to a snail called Conus, one of the species that she is interested in. Conus is usually found ten metres into the sea and sometimes caught as by-catch by the fishermen. “Have you seen this shell?” we ask the fishermen.

Some of them peer curiously at us from their boats and ask us what we are there for.

They point us in the direction of heaps of fish and other marine life they are not interested in. There are people sorting these heaps. Fish that can be sold go in one pile, the rest go in another. A few of these people enthusiastically look for Conus, throwing us any shell that vaguely resembles it. For a short while, our quest becomes their quest. I am easily distracted. Above us, the sky is a blur. There are crows, brahminy kites and egrets circling the boats. Every now and again, one of them swoops and steals a fish from the boats. Sometimes a fight breaks out between the birds as they pilfer each other’s catch.

We prod the heaps of marine refuse with a stick, looking for Conus. Some of the heaps still writhe with life. Hermit crabs stumble out in a daze. Sajan points out some beautiful creatures called sand dollars. They are flat and round and fit in the palm of my hand. I look closer and notice patterns of petals etched on them. I quickly pocket them to add to the growing hoard of nature’s treasures in my room, little knowing that the pretty creatures would gently fill my bag with a putrid odour and metamorphose into a brown, unrecognisable slush.

An auction of rays in progress

In one of the harbours, a big, burly fisherman followed by an entourage of his colleagues, towers over us and asks us what we want. Sajan explains at length. The fisherman disappears into his cabin and comes out holding a shell. It is a species of Conus called Textile Cone which looks like porcelain etched with fine zigzag lines. However, like most other shells we found, its inhabitant is absent.

Back in her laboratory in Bangalore, Bharti will extract DNA from Conus snails from different locations. From its DNA, she will be able to understand the genetics of each population, and find out how related populations are to each other. Some Conus species travel long distances as larva, while others are sedentary. Bharti wants to find out why this is so, what it is about each species that determines how far its young travel. She will use the genetic relatedness of populations to estimate how far a species’ larva travels. The logic is simple : the further the larvae travel, the more will be the genetic relatedness of separated populations.

The fishermen sometimes ask us to come aboard their boats where fish are still being sorted. Picking our way across boats, we see fishermen lolling on their sides, tired from their sojourn at sea. Some of these boats have spent many days at sea, going as far as Pakistan. Not bothering to get up or shift from their reclining positions, the fishermen ask us what we want, and pass around the Conus shell that we show them. Often they make us run in circles: fishermen of the smaller fishing boats tell us to go to trawlers; the men of the trawlers send us back to the small fishing boats.

This has been the general routine in the six fishing harbours we have gone to from Thiruvanathapuram to Kozhikode. Each time we near the harbour our driver announces, “The smell has come!” We don our hats, roll up our pants and let ourselves be enveloped by the bustling masses of people.

The harbours are intriguing with all their activity, but it is sad that my first introduction to many beautiful creatures of the sea is when they are lying lifeless on the harbour floor. Here are marlins with their enormous, jagged fins which look like they jumped straight out of someone’s imagination; here lie eagle rays with little heart-shaped depressions on their bellies; sharks that look sinister even in death; pearly-white, translucent squid oozing out their black ink; plump yellow-fin tunas—their tiny yellow fins contrasting sharply with the grey of their bodies.

Fishermen scraping barnacles off their boats

Before the fishermen return in their technicolor boats when the sun’s rays are still only an hour old, the harbour is in a lull. Then, in a few hours, the activity in the harbour touches fever-pitch and then lapses again into a sleepy restfulness. People from big hotels, exporters and fishmongers arrive at the scene and wait for the arrival of the fishing boats. Some of them form little knots and watch the sea. A few fishermen sit by their boats and mend their fishing nets as the sun rises over the harbour. Once the boats dock, a flurry of activity ensues. Boats are cleaned; barnacles scraped off; smaller fish sorted out; bigger fish bodily dragged out of boats, pulled through a mass of humanity and then auctioned. As soon as a new load of fish is brought to the harbour, a crowd of people surround it and an auction starts without preamble. Once done, the crowd dissolves and forms at another site.

We stand out amidst the throng. The fishermen allow us to interrupt them to ask them about the shell.

“Have you seen this shell?” We ask over and over again. “Do you know where we can find it?”

After this frenzy of activity the pulse of the harbour slows. Fishermen laze in their boats, tell each other about the day’s happenings and catch a few snatches of sleep. Some gather for a game of cards in the shade of the harbour.

As we come away from the harbour, I am reminded of the fishing markets in Asterix comics, always bustling with activity and incident. We learn towards the end of our quest, that there is a separate fishing season just for Conus and other ornamental shells, and we had come at the wrong time. That may be another chapter in Bharti’s quest. As for me, I am content with the opportunity this quest allowed me, to peek into the lives of fishermen, entwined as they are with those of the fish in the ocean.

Anisha Jayadevan is doing her MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, deliriousdandelion@gmail.com.

Photographs: Anisha Jayadevan

 

Looking Beyond Acknowledgements

field assistant | Soumya Prasad | 3.1

Over the past 30 years of scientific enquiries, field biology in India has relied upon a variety of people from various backgrounds, cultures, and regions. A good team of field assistants is a core part of every field biology research project. Not only would it have been impossible to work in these remote regions without the active participation of local field assistants, but it also would have meant losing out on the unique insights into our research subjects that are gained through field assistants on several occasions. Even a brief glance at the mountain of ecological literature would bring home this point through the glowing tributes to field assistants which make up the bulk of acknowledgement sections of theses, reports and papers alike.

Occasionally, some contributions by field assistants are reflected in products of these research projects. The British naturalist, Edgar Layard, named a new flycatcher Muscicapa muttui, after his Tamil cook, Muttu (Beolens and Watkins 2003). Aparajita Datta, who works on hornbills, and conservation issues in north-eastern India, included her field assistant, Japang Pansa, as a co-author in a paper that reported the discovery of the leaf deer in India (Datta et al. 2003). Similarly, Manish Chandi, a researcher based in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, has included his assistants as co-authors in project reports. Yet, like Chandi, many field biologists feel that they want to give back something more to their assistants and to their communities than just salaries and acknowledgements.

This sentiment has been echoed across the board by researchers working with various institutions and communities, in every part of this sub-continent. Most researchers would admit that there is a big gap between what researchers gain from their field assistants and what they are able to give back to them. Still, after over three decades of active field research by Indian nationals within India, we haven’t formalised ways in which to acknowledge such contributions.

Bomma and Krishna have probably had the longest careers as field assistants in India

Two ‘Betta Kurumba’ tribals from Mudumalai – Bomma and Krishna – have been assisting field biologists for nearly four decades; these two men have probably had the longest careers as field assistants in India. They started off working with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) projects in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. They have now been with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for the last two decades and continue to actively participate in field research at Mudumalai even today, well after both of them have become grandfathers and are in their 50s. They are excellent naturalists, a treasure trove of knowledge on Mudumalai’s flora and fauna and experts at the implementation of various field research techniques. Bomma’s caring nature and sense of humour, and Krishna’s excellent field tracking skills have accompanied many field biologists on their quests in these forests. Their work has contributed to over a dozen doctorates and several masters dissertations from this dry forest landscape.

Bomma and Krishna are rare exceptions to the general rule. Most field projects have 3-5 year tenures after which field assistants have to find other means of livelihood. Some get back to farming, others work as labourers, a few find employment with the Forest Department. Very few of them manage to get another opportunity to work with field research projects again. At the end of a field project, concerned researchers attempt to help find jobs for these assistants or help them financially in some manner, often from their own meagre resources. Projects seldom budget such expenditure and very rarely do research institutions provide provident fund, gratuity or insurance benefits for field assistants. To put it crudely, research projects use local field assistants and then dump them rather unceremoniously. There are indeed few formal institutionalised norms for dealing with this issue. One exemplary attempt to address some of these concerns at an institutional level has been the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) field assistants’ fund (see box).

Most field assistants are inclined towards natural history and their research subjects after having spent the prime of their life in field research, and often find it difficult to pursue other professions. We must realize that we are losing a case for conservation here when trained people – who could be valuable resources for the local Forest Department or other conservation and research projects – end up as farm or industrial labourers. Several research teams across the country have come to this very conclusion independently and have engaged their field assistants in innovative, mutually beneficial arrangements where the local assistants have become the centre point of conservation attempts in these landscapes. For example, Akhi Nathany from the Lisu tribe of Arunachal Pradesh is the co-ordinator of the NCF field base at Namdapha National Park. Akhi who used to hunt extensively in the past got hooked to natural history while working with field biologists who came to Namdapha. Today, Akhi uses his immense knowledge about the forest and its inhabitants to educate his fellow villagers about the need for wildlife conservation.

This issue of Current Conservation carries several examples of novel initiatives that involve field assistants in promoting conservation, while also providing them with a livelihood. In many of these cases, field assistants were trained for other Bomma and Krishna are rare exceptions to the general rule. Most field projects have 3-5 year tenures after which field assistants have to find other means of livelihood. Some get back to farming, others work as labourers, a few find employment with the Forest Department. Very few of them manage to get another opportunity to work with field research projects again. At the end of a field project, concerned researchers attempt to help find jobs for these assistants or help them financially in some manner, additional skills that were required for carrying out awareness or sensitisation campaigns (Dorje, Turtle Boys, Irulas), conservation education at local schools (Dorje), and additional language skills useful for eco-tourism (Mangu). However, given the diversity of people and their landscapes, it is hard to draw generalisations, and there are many lessons to be learnt by taking a closer look at some of the attempts to engage with local communities outlined here.

Information about field assistants, their field and language skills, and contact details already exists within the informal wildlife grapevine. It is high time that this information is organised and made available to a larger network of people and institutions involved in Indian wildlife conservation and research. We hope the articles in this issue prompt institutions and people involved in field research in this country to pursue this actively and generate a database on field assistants that can be accessed by researchers across the country. We also need to pressurise our institutions towards working out a unified policy at an institutional level with respect to providing insurance, provident fund or gratuity to local staff. Awards that recognise the contributions of field assistants along the lines of the Sanctuary awards for wildlife biologists and conservationists also need to be created. We also urge people to initiate group discussions on this topic in research seminars to invoke wider participation and networking on these issues.

The indigenous knowledge and skills of local field assistants need to be recognised, and it is time we started looking beyond acknowledgements.

References:

Datta, A., J. Pansa, M.D. Madhusudan and C. Mishra. 2003. Discovery of the leaf deer Muntiacus putaoensis in Arunachal Pradesh: an addition to the large mammals of India. Current Science 84: 454-458.

Beolens, B. and M. Watkins. 2003. Whose bird? Common bird names and the people they commemorate. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Soumya Prasad (soumya@ces.iisc.ernet.in) is a PhD student at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. Ambika Aiyadurai (a.aiyadurai@ucl.ac.uk) is at the Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK.

Mountain Men

field assistants | Meera Anna Oommen |  3.1

The remote and poorly accessible Kedarnath, Badarinath and other ancient shrines located high up in the Garhwal Himalaya are some of Hinduism’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Religious tourism offers some employment opportunities for people living in the region – as porters, horsemen, and workers in the small restaurants and hotels that spring up seasonally to accommodate a large number of pilgrims. The climbers and tourists who visit the region for its spectacular panoramic views of the peaks such as Kamet, Chaukhamba, Bandar Poonch and Nanda Devi have also been a source of income for the local people in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions. Gyan Singh belonged to Ransi, a small village in the Rudraprayag District of Garhwal. He was a shepherd most of his life and had, as a result, an in-depth knowledge of the valleys and wildlife in the region. Although his patch of land and livestock provided him with a source of livelihood, he supplemented his income as a porter based at Gaurikund, the hamlet at the beginning of the Kedarnath trail. During summer, when the trail to the temple was snow-free, the large numbers of devotees visiting the shrine were willing to pay considerable amounts of money to men who carried them or their luggage. Wooden palanquins borne by porters are still a popular mode of transport for pilgrims unable to trek in the tough mountain terrain.   

Our association with Gyan Singh started in 1996 when we began our field surveys with the Wildlife Institute of India in Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary. Our project aimed to identify potential areas for conserving biological diversity in the Western Himalaya and the trans-Himalaya. Kedarnath, on account of its wide variety of habitat types, remoteness and large elevational extent was an ideal site for detailed explorations on species diversity patterns which formed the focus of the study. After one of our initial surveys to the area surrounding the Madhyamaheshwar temple, we camped at the inspection bungalow at Akhtauli near Ransi. Although there were a number of porters who were familiar with the temple trails, our search for men who knew the surrounding wildlife sanctuary and who were willing to risk a trek out to the higher valleys in late autumn and unpredictable weather had few takes from villages near the road ahead. Finally, with the help of a forest guard (Ganga Singh) and field assistant Kalyan Singh Bisht (an article about his brother Vikram Singh Bisht by Suresh Kumar, appears in this issue) we were introduced to Gyan Singh and Trilok Singh from Ransi. This team guided us in our surveys through the valleys of Dhauli, Mandani and Kham. Thus began a close association which lasted over five years.

In spite of his taciturn nature and a curious disability (a part of one foot was chewed off during a tussle with a Himalayan black bear which raided his shed, and the other was affected by filariasis), Gyan Singh became the backbone of all field surveys. Stoic and unflappable, his knowledge of trails, campsites, and odeyars (large rock overhangs where one could take shelter or tents could be pitched) was phenomenal as was his adeptness at spotting wildlife, predicting the weather and finding running water when everything around was frozen or dry. However, what truly set him apart from the younger men was his uncanny ability to casually chart out courses where no paths existed and in places where he had never been before.

He also knew most of the shepherds who camped in the region, and this often helped us in establishing better associations with them.

What he did not like was the drudgery and monotony of laying vegetation plots and during the time we spent counting plants, he would make himself useful by looking for indirect evidence of wildlife within the plots or collecting edible ferns. While sampling in the alpine meadows he was particularly prone to abandon work and disappear looking for chaura (Angelica sp.) which is a prized flavouring agent. This shortcoming we were willing to forgive since the dinner he prepared would be sumptuous. At the same time, his long years as a shepherd meant that his knowledge of the vernacular names and local uses of plants was considerable and on several occasions, he was responsible for resolving issues related to species identification. His self-confessed fondness for wild meat (he curbed his appetites during this period) was also instrumental in our sightings of the endangered chir pheasant (Catreus wallichi) as well as in various wildlife sightings ranging from leopards and musk deer to lammergeiers and numerous rare birds. To make up for his own illiteracy and lack of enthusiasm for data collection, he introduced us to two young men from his village – Umed Singh and Birender Singh. These two quick learners, along with Kalyan Singh, helped us establish and maintain over five hundred vegetation and bird plots and numerous quadrats along the considerable sampling gradient which ranged from over 1200 metres in the subtropical zone to alpine meadows and scrub which occurred above 4000 metres. Since bird diversity was to be sampled during different seasons, this meant marking and maintaining the plots at regular intervals to enable revisits.

While the field surveys involved walking from dawn to dusk on most days and the sampling entailed very hard work in the plots on a similar schedule, the added responsibility of cooking, carrying provisions, shifting and establishing camp frequently meant that on most days there was hardly a break for the men. Additional responsibilities included striking bargains for old sheep with neighbouring shepherds when provisions ran low, returning runaway Bhutia dogs (Tibetan mastiffs accompanying local shepherds) to their rightful owners, building makeshift bridges across torrential streams and rescuing researchers who fell in (we later found that the undisturbed slopes that we were seeking for sampling remained undisturbed for a reason) and nursing others from periodic bouts of high altitude sickness and giardiasis. On the odd occasion when sampling was concluded early or we had an off day at the base camp, cricket was the preferred form of sport and entertainment. The team also included our driver Jagdish who was good at the game and took it upon himself to train the rest. However, all this was contingent on the availability of level ground and often we resorted to idleness which was most enjoyable. While the younger men were quick to pick up the game, Gyan Singh struggled to keep up and found it difficult to bowl even once without falling down at the end of his run-up. However, his ability to keep wickets and his late-blooming batting skills earned him some points and he was christened Ian Healy (after the Queensland cricketer) by Jagdish and some of the children from nearby cattle camps.

For a team of individuals who started work unaccustomed to data collection or long spells away from their families, they showed remarkable commitment and enthusiasm and it was soon clear that they were motivated by much more than the modest salaries they received. In fact, most of these men could get by without regular employment as they owned land and livestock. By the end of the project period, Umed Singh could correctly identify most woody plant species in the study area by both local as well as Latin names, while Birender could visually estimate the girths of trees to the nearest 10 cm or so. As the project neared completion, we explored options to establish a long-term monitoring research programme that would also provide a source of employment to the team, but the costs were prohibitive and as students our options to raise money were limited. Umed Singh went on to work on a similar project with Rashid Raza in Askot Wildlife Sanctuary while Gyan Singh and Birender Singh stayed back in their village at Ransi. Kalyan Singh, who was the youngest member of the team married a girl from a village near Ransi and fulfilled his long-held dream of starting a provision shop in Ghat, his remote and inaccessible village in Chamoli District.

To conclude, we share the same sentiment as the other contributors to this special section. While most of us have been happy to acknowledge the contributions of individuals and certain communities, we feel it is time to develop formal institutional norms for developing long-term partnerships that benefit both researchers and field assistants. In addition to basic commitments such as steady incomes and insurance, it is also important to provide recognition on institutional websites and conservation related publications. Field assistants and informers also play a critical role as vital links between their own communities and researchers, often creating opportunities for furthering mutually beneficial partnerships.

Meera Anna Oommen (meera.anna@ gmail.com) is at the Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India.

Meera Anna Oommen (along with Rashid H. Raza) worked with the Wildlife Institute of India on a project that aimed to identify potential areas for conservation of biodiversity in the Indian Himalaya. The field surveys for this project were conducted in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir and the Garhwal Himalaya in Uttaranchal. Gyan Singh, Umed Singh, Birender Singh and Kalyan Singh were members of the team in Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary in Uttaranchal where extensive field studies were conducted.