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.

Thukwaa

field assistants | Rauf Ali | 3.1

It is impossible to know where to begin in situations like these; it feels as if I almost knew Ravi Sankaran all my life. It must have been after the mid80s that we met. An incident comes to mind immediately. There was a seminar at Topslip, in the Indira Gandhi National Park. It wasn’t very inspiring. People were waiting for the clock to strike 5; a ride around the park had been promised. I hunted down Ravi to check whether he was coming. “Of course not! I do this for a living, why should I do it when I’m on vacation”? Now, why haven’t the rest of us realised this?

Ravi Sankaran at the Chalisek boat landing

Ravi started work with the Lesser Florican – a bird of open grasslands. This continued almost to the present, with Ravi having to grow a large moustache before going to Rajasthan and Gujarat every year. This research led to major initiatives in conserving this heavily hunted species, involving active partnerships with villagers and Forest Departments. Ravi always insisted on spending a lot of time with local residents explaining sustainable use to them, and this was the first such effort, and possibly the first-time village communities had been made active partners in a bird conservation programme. This was followed by a major study on the Nicobar Megapode and then the edible-nest swiftlet, which is still ongoing. We used to say that he started with the ‘birds people ate’, went on to the ‘birds whose eggs people ate’, people ate’! Then he was involved in an ornithological survey of the Nanda Devi National Park. He did a short stint on the Narcondam Hornbill, where his major recommendation was that goats on the island be eradicated, and which was immediately acted upon by the Department of Environment and Forests of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Due to the rapport, he had developed with the Forest Department, the traditional suspicion of researchers had disappeared by the time the rest of us began working in the Andamans, and it is difficult to think of another area where researchers and the Forest Department work in such close collaboration. Finally, there was the Nagaland initiative, which I am unfortunately not familiar with.

Our Andaman association started formally in December 2000, when we met in Mayabunder. Ravi and I often remembered the New Year’s Eve in 2000 which consisted of eight men going on a boat to Aves Island with an equal number of whisky bottles. This was followed by some fairly intense snorkelling at dawn. On return to the Karen village where we were staying, the mood there seemed much lighter. The Karens had believed that the world was supposed to have ended the previous night and was rather agitated at their padre that this had not happened.

The swiftlet project, easily the best ‘conservation for development’ project of its kind in the country until it fell afoul of well-meaning but ignorant environmentalists, had just started. The logistics of it, however, were a nightmare. If the cave was unattended even for 15 minutes over a weeks’ period, people would rush in, grab nests and run out. The value of each nest made it lucrative for people to watch the guards (in hiding) for long periods of time, just waiting for the break in concentration from the protection squad. It was obvious that the only way it could work was if the people looking after the caves had a long-term economic stake in the birds.

Unfortunately, there was a second school of thought. Put the species on the protected list and all will be taken care of. However, in this case, the nests are being harvested, akin to honey being taken from a hive (in this case, rejected honey would be a more appropriate analogy). As soon as the species is put on the protected list, its products also become protected. End of the conservation program, and it is shocking that even eight years later the Ministry of Environment and Forests is loath to reverse its decision. Meanwhile, the status quo has somehow been maintained, largely because of Ravi’s refusal to give up, and the interest and funding provided by the Forest Department.

The first camp for Ravi’s swiftlet project was on Interview Island. As luck would have it, Dr Alok Saxena, the Chief Wildlife Warden, had asked me to do a status report on the elephants of Interview Island. We found that this ‘uninhabited’ island had a population of about 10 primary school dropouts and 2 Ph.D.s in 2001. For the elephant study, we had built an elaborate network of machans all over Interview Island. Unfortunately, the elephants would only come there at night, and we didn’t have the equipment to photograph them. Like all good plans, this was tossed out of the window, and we took the help of Karen trackers who learned to identify individual elephants during the survey.

Ravi Sankaran, with field assistant, returning from Chalisek

Ravi was a regular visitor at ANET, where I was based for the next few years. His visits were always a mix of very intense science and very intense alcohol consumption. J.C. Daniel, in one of his monthly newsletters as the Secretary of the BNHS, called us the “two mavericks of Indian wildlife biology”, or some such thing. We argued one evening about who was getting complimented and who insulted.

We worked together after the 2004 tsunami when he came to spend a few weeks in Pondicherry to prepare the maps for his tsunami report. We decided that we had to do a project together there. We came up with a project on the preparation of and marketing virgin coconut oil, that was traditionally used by the Nicobaris. In May 2007, we spent a week in the Nicobars working on a prototype. It took another year to get funding, and then I had problems getting a tribal pass. The reason for this is still not clear. On January 15 this year I called Ravi to tell him that I was returning the funds to the Department of Science and Technology since I didn’t see the tribal pass happening. He told me to fight it out. I am now sitting at the ANET dining table in Wandoor, where we have spent many great, and many totally forgettable evenings together, waiting for my flight to the Nicobars tomorrow.

My organisation, FERAL, had organised a seminar on coastal management after the tsunami, in August last year. By this time, Ravi had been induced to come onto our Research Advisory Board, and we had decided that he would handle the tough job of chairing the final discussion. How do you run a seminar where half of them are from the Forest Department and the other half researchers, and still stop the fur flying? As it turned out it was one of the best seminars I have ever attended, with a lot of serious science being spoken and taken note of.

How does one end the eulogy of a friend – one of the most challenging, exasperating, fun, provocative and plainly stark raving mad persons I’ve had the privilege to know? Rewind to the one-minute silence in his homage at the BNHS 125th anniversary conference in Bangalore a few weeks ago. The projection booth operator, on seeing everyone stand up, hit the button for the national anthem. Through most of that minute, we were treated to the antics of the organisers trying to get him to switch it off. Ravi was laughing the hardest, I’m sure.

Rauf Ali (rauf@feralindia.org) is at the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy & Learning, Pondicherry, India.

Image Credits: Rauf Ali

The Best Snake Hunters in the World

field assistant | Romulus Whitaker | 3.1

A Brief History

Sometime in the early 1900s, a German fancy leather trader came to India to look for snake skins. We may never know how he found out about the hunting prowess of the Irulas of Chengalpattu District but he very quickly organised what was to become one of the largest snake slaughters the world has ever known. Using middlemen, often Muslim livestock hide dealers, our German friend started a trade that eventually snowballed into the killing of over 10 million cobras, rat snakes, pythons and Russell’s vipers per year. And then it wasn’t just the Irulas – soon tribal hunters all over the country got into the act, but none had the finesse and expertise of the Irulas.

The trade was out of control and probably not sustainable for long. Luckily the combination of local and international outcry killed the bulk of the snakeskin industry with the ban on exports in 1976, but that put about 5000 Irulas out of a job and hard times followed. In 1978, with 12 Irula friends, I registered for a Cooperative Society for Snake Catchers. This was to let the Irulas continue to catch snakes, but only for the venom and then the snakes had to be released.

How they do it

I first met the Irulas in 1969 when I was on a snake collection trip to Madras for Haffkine Institute, then the biggest producer of antivenom serum. The late photojournalist, Harry Miller had written about the snake hunting art of the Irulas in the Indian Express and he introduced me to Arjun, who blew my mind with his casual skill. From that moment on I had found my peer group – I instantly like their reserved, calm attitude and deeply admired their vast store of wild knowledge. Over the next 34 years, I went on innumerable snake hunts and learned much.

One of the first bits of Irula “magic” they taught me was how to recognise the alarm cry of the babblers, mynahs and palm squirrels when they spot a snake. Very useful, especially after the rains make the bushes dense and snakes are hard to see. I learned how to collect “stick honey” from the small bees that harvest flower nectar every April and how to eat live termites without getting my lips and tongue bitten. Next, they tried to teach me how to find snakes by their tracks but decades later, I’m still a rank novice. In a harsh, hot land like India many snakes spend a good part of their lives underground – either hunting, eating and digesting rats or just tiding over the burning daylight hours. The Irulas specialise in finding the rat holes, termite mounds and other places snakes stay in, and that is like real magic. 

An average snake hunt

Last July my partner Janaki and I went snake hunting with Kali, a longtime Irula friend. He was catching the “Big Four” venomous snakes: cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper for venom extraction. We started with the cobra and headed straight to the boundary of a rice field where mole rat (Bandicoota bengalensis) burrows abounded. Scarcely noticing crab holes and rat holes with rat tracks or fresh diggings, Kali homed in on one with a slight smoothness, a shiny bit of compressed dry earth on the bottom edge. He peered in, dug a few licks with his short crowbar and showed us a very obvious snake track impressed on the softer earth deeper down. No root system to hamper work, Kali dug a wide access into the hole swiftly and carefully. Careful so not to cut the snake. After digging a while, occasionally peering in, Kali takes a thin, springy, green stick and gently pushes it into the hole about a foot. The stick mysteriously pushes back out an inch. Kali smiles and pushes his elbow to mimic the snake’s coil as it pushes against the stick. Now he knows he can safely dig a foot more without harming the snake. In a few short moments, the cobra is visible; it’s obviously a female because she’s with her 20 or so eggs! She is carefully removed and bagged; the eggs are collected for incubation back at the Irula venom centre.

Over the next few days, our Irula pals took us first to Russell’s viper territory, dense hedgerows of spiny Agave plants and we pulled out two adult and six baby Russell’s (the babies for release in a safe place). Then we went after kraits, the clues this time being a shed skin and a fresh scat. Digging out this elusive snake of the night was more difficult – the large male had found a hole in the root system of a neem tree. But again, no problem for the Irulas; finding the last of the Big Four venomous snakes of India was a snap. We spent the morning peering down into the rough bark of palmyra trees and found several of the tiny but dangerous vipers tightly coiled and well hidden. Again, the Irulas knew where to look: according to the species and the season.

When my son Nikhil and I wrote up the rough data of the 5 day hunt for a scientific note we found that we had slowly and carefully hunted about 3 km per day and caught a total of 55 snakes, including a bunch of rat snakes, water snakes, striped keelbacks and sand boas just to measure and release. We also recorded 158 shed skins of 11 species of snakes and started formulating ideas of how to use shed skins to study status and distribution. After all, it’s quite easy to identify a snake from the shed skin.

But the Irula knowledge goes far beyond the world of serpents. Being big consumers of the tasty field rats that abound in our rice fields, the Irulas have worked out rat finding and capture techniques that puts pussycats to shame. A hunter-gatherer can’t waste precious time and energy digging up a vacant burrow by small signs like tracks, dung, fresh digging and even the presence of rat lice. They are so good at rat catching that the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology gave the Irula Cooperative a grant of Rs. 10 lakhs to do a pilot project of rodent control by direct capture. During the 20-month period, the Irulas captured over 400,000 rats, probably saving at least 12 tonnes of grain and other crops, without using a drop of a deadly pesticide. Unfortunately, the project was never taken to its logical conclusion: make rodent control in India a labour intensive operation that would employ lakhs of tribal people. As usual, the big industries (the pesticide producer) run the show and the Government bows to big bucks, never mind how dangerous and ineffective these rodenticides really are.

The Irula Cooperative is one of the most financially successful cooperatives in India, but it would be wonderful to see the Irulas’ other talents being fully utilised for the good of the country and to make a living for them too. Rodent control, crocodile farming, technical assistance to field biologists are just some of the many things the Irulas are expert at. The Coop’s sister organisation, the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, has helped Irula women get recognition as herbal and the tree planting experts. They have planted lakhs of trees since they started in 1986 and the future looks a lot brighter for these great people described in recent Government texts as ‘most primitive’ and as having the lowest per capita income in the country.

The Irula literacy rate is dismally low and few of their kids finish more than a couple of years of school. On the other hand, their knowledge of nature far surpasses most college graduates or even professors – now that’s food for thought!

This brief introduction to the field people I admire most in India would not be complete without mentioning the two non-Irulas who act as the catalysts in the success of the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative and the Irula Women’s’ Society: S. Dravidamani and K. Krishnan. 

Romulus Whitaker (kingcobra@gmail. com) is the Managing Trustee of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, & Director of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, India.

Turtle Boys

field assistant | Kartik Shanker | 3.1

I first visited the mass nesting beaches of olive ridley turtles in Gahirmatha, Orissa in 1997. We were a large group of international participants in a sea turtle workshop in Bhubaneshwar. We were hosted for two days by Bivash Pandav, a young sea turtle biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India. On Babu Bali or Long Wheeler Island, Bivash had his field camp with a team of dedicated field assistant, boatman and cook. Two years later, I returned as a post-doctoral fellow with the Wildlife Institute of India, to initiate a project on sea turtle genetics, and spent several weeks at the camp. This time, I got to know the team a lot better. There was Madhu, the cook, and majordomo of the camp. The boatman (Subash) and the rest of the team (Kalia, Siria and Sahadev) were proficient ‘turtle fishers’. Bivash wanted to work on mating pairs, and they had devised a triangular net with which they scooped the mating turtles out of the water. In three years, they tagged nearly 1700 mating pairs from the offshore waters of Gahirmatha. They also tagged several thousand turtles on the nesting beach. Without his dedicated band of followers, little would have been possible.

Later that season, I visited Bivash’s camp at the Devi river mouth. There, a young schoolboy named Bichitrananda Biswal (Bichi) was trying to impress upon Bivash his interest in sea turtle conservation. Along with Tuku, Tulu and Bishnu, Bichi kept track of the dead turtles that were getting washed ashore the Devi coast in large numbers and helped Bivash in tagging turtles during an arribada that took place near the Devi river mouth in March 1997. After working at his camp for three seasons, Bichi kept his interest in turtles alive, working for Operation Kachhapa and the Forest Department. Eventually, he would start his own NGO, Sea Turtle Action Programme (STAP). Today, STAP is a part of collective sea turtle conservation projects in Orissa, and Bichi an active participant. Turtles still continue to die in large numbers along the coast of the Devi river, and Bichi still continues to keep track of them, keeping the issue alive.

Further south, a similar band of turtle followers were initiated into tagging and counting rituals at Rushikulya. This mass nesting beach was only discovered in 1994, during one of Bivash’s surveys of the Orissa coast. Rabindranath Sahu was the fiery leader of this group. After working for Bivash, some of the boys worked briefly for Operation Kachhapa. During the mid-2000s, they assisted Basudev Tripathy with his fieldwork for his PhD and in turn, Basu helped them get a grant to build an interpretation centre and start their group, the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee (RSTPC).

One of the major problems in Rushikulya is light pollution from a nearby highway, aquaculture farms and a chemical factory. Each year, when hatchlings emerged after mass nesting (millions at a time), most would be disoriented and end up in the vegetation behind the beach. Rescue missions were organised involving local volunteers, but hundreds of thousands of hatchlings still died, and even those that were rescued were probably weakened, soon to be devoured. While the biologists – Jack Frazier and Bivash amongst others – posed the idea of a barrier, and suggested the use of empty cement bags, one of the members of the group, Damburu, then came up with the idea of using a fence made of fishing nets, behind the mass nesting area. With funding from WWF and other agencies, for years, this barrier served to prevent hatchlings from straying away from the beach and getting killed. Today, members of the RSTPC run the interpretation centre at Rushikulya, participate in state conservation activities, spread awareness in local schools and assist researchers who work on sea turtle biology at the site, in addition to their own ongoing monitoring.

Many of them continue to work on research projects as field assistants. Ganapati helped Divya with her Masters dissertation and continues to work on our projects. Suresh, who is the latest to conduct Doctoral research on ridleys in Orissa, has a dedicated group of field assistants, including Damburu, Shanker, Surendra, Madhu and Kedar. His boatman, Sri Ramalu, has now worked for several years in turtle projects. Despite being hearing and speech impaired, he is gifted with an acute sense of sight and does not miss even a single surfacing turtle in the featureless seascape. His ability to get the boat through the river mouths where the breakers come crashing down, and manoeuvring through rough seas nonstop for six to seven hours are invaluable. Without his enthusiasm, hard work and skills, all the offshore studies would be much the poorer.

For all those who helped with sea turtle projects along the Orissa coast over the years, the projects have been a significant source of income even though the activity is only seasonal. With fish catch declining over the years, many other local fishermen now eagerly look forward to working in turtle projects. Some of them even want to work without pay in order to gain experience so as to get included in the future.

From retired residents on the coast of North Carolina, to indigenous communities in the Torres Strait, sea turtles have attracted an incredible variety of dedicated conservationists and volunteers across the world. In India, students, fishing communities and animal activists have all become involved in sea turtle conservation across the coast, some for more than twenty years. The groups in Orissa had a different origin, working as field assistants in sea turtle research projects. They have helped with three Doctoral (Bivash, Basu, Suresh), several Masters dissertations (Karthik Ram, Basu, Divya, Murali) and several research and conservation projects. Together, the projects have involved the monitoring of nesting beaches, offshore distributions, arribada census, hatching success, tagging, genetics, and satellite telemetry, covering a fair range of research that is carried out on sea turtles. And now, these field assistants turned conservationists have a significant role to play in the conservation of these animals and their coastal and marine habitats, not just in Orissa, but across India.

Kartik Shanker (kshanker@ces.iisc.ernet. in) is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, & a Trustee of Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India.