Learning From The Locals
PhD researcher Sanjeeta Sharma pays gratitude to the many wonderful people she encountered during her fieldwork in India and Nepal.
Photo: Sanjeeta Sharma.
Blessed are those who are presented with the opportunity to work in close association with nature. As a student of ecological sciences, I have had incredible wild experiences that reiterate this fact. While following the trails of Bhutiya caravans in the alpine meadows of the Uttarakhand Himalaya, splashing across meandering rivers while tracking gharials in Nepal, and following elephants in the forests of Karnataka, I have not just studied wildlife but also had the opportunity to form bonds with people from all walks of life. It is a seldom-acknowledged fact that behind the many wild experiences that researchers treasure, lies the help and assistance of people who never really get their due, except in the last slide of our academic presentations. Yet, when I turn the pages of my field diaries, I am flooded with memories of strangers who welcomed me into their midst.
As a part of my PhD, I was provided with a wonderful chance to understand the stress physiology of one of the most magnificent and intelligent mammals to walk our planet – the Asian elephant, in the forests of Bandipur and Nagarahole. When in the field, I would accord human names to the wild elephants in order to build a connection with them. It also helped my tribal tracker brothers to identify the animals accurately. During this time, I witnessed many effervescent moments in the company of these gentle giants. I watched tuskless makhnas come into musth, newborn calves struggle to their feet, herds mourn their dead, and individuals like Vinayaka, an old, gentle tusker with a very charismatic personality, enthrall many spectators. Vinayaka’s long tusks were magnificent. They would touch the ground, with his trunk draped over them, while he ambled through the backwaters of the Kabini.
This article, though, is not a compendium of my wild encounters, but an ode to the people whose presence enriched my fieldwork. Directly or indirectly, the local communities in all my field sites played a key role in my growth. In most scientific journals and papers, we tend to acknowledge those who intellectually aid us in articulating our ideas, but we overlook those who help transform these ideas into realities in the field.
Photo: Shubhi Malik.
In the Meadows of the Bhutiyas
Yon, those green meadows,
Where the wild flowers adorn–
The shadow of mighty Nanda Devi…
This old woman packs her bag,
And brings that love
In those crumbs of bread…
Whom shall i thank?”
In July 2009, my colleague and I, under the aegis of the Wildlife Institute of India, took up the task of recording baseline information on the avian and butterfly diversity in the Auli and Gorson bugyals (or high altitude meadows) of Uttarakhand. Upon reaching the Garson bugyal, we encountered a group of Bhutiyas. They greeted us with tea, and besides informing us of the local names of the endemic birds, they also helped us understand the flowering pattern of various herbs. I couldn’t help but marvel at the reverence they held for the forests, their resilience in preserving nature and their hospitable spirit.
Photo: WWF Nepal.
A Lama Brother in Nepal
“When Rapti silently,
Steals the charisma…
And spreads over Chitwan,
Who will not fall in love–
In March 2011, along with a team of wildlife technicians and biologists, we conducted a gharial monitoring project for the World Wide Fund for Nature—Nepal (WWF). It was then that I became acquainted with an exceptional man of indigenous knowledge.
With his cheerful demeanour and curious questions, Harka Man Lama inspired me throughout my fieldwork. Our day-long surveys to find the elusive gharials on the banks of the Rapti, Narayani and Trishuli rivers were fuelled by Harka dai’s stories. He once reminisced about how a valiant fight with a captive elephant and his narrow escape from death, took him to a country he had never heard of – ‘Amerika’ (America). Clothed in his self-customized, pug-marked jacket, Lama readily imparted his traditional knowledge to me. From showing me the nests of bustards and explaining their ecology to helping me identify Greater Adjutants and the flocks of birds along the river, his lack of formal education had not dampened his quest for knowledge. He might not be as renowned as many other conservationists in Nepal and beyond – but to me – he is and will always remain a role model. From him I learnt that not all knowledge is limited to textbooks, it is in fact all around us, waiting to be absorbed.
Photo: Sanjeeta Sharma.
Krishna anna’s Karnataka
“Your heart that glitters,
Between the two lush green beauties,
Quenches the thirsts of soul-wanderers!
How humble, you can be–
Mere words are insufficient to describe the magnanimity of the tribals of Karnataka. Here in these forests, I met my supervisor’s tracker Krishna anna, a man of wild instinct and uninhibited passion, who had worked alongside elephants for 25 years.
Known for his extensive understanding of elephant behaviour and movement, Krishna anna had had no academic training. Yet he could effortlessly track elephant trails stretching across paddy fields and locate elephant hotspots without disturbing the herd. An inherently sensitive tracker, he would acknowledge individual elephants’ temperaments, knowing exactly when to leave them be and not intrude. Back at the basecamp, Krishna anna would narrate riveting stories, while I in turn taught him all I could about cameras and other little technological skills. A simple salutation is not enough for all the contributions he made for my research, as well as for countless others like me.
Photo: Sanjeeta Sharma.
Unparalleled Hospitality in Hassan
“When they greet you
With their souls,
And share that few joy–
Left in them.
Hiding what pricks their hearts,
With that smile.
Such humble, are the people–
My research in Karnataka demanded travel through two major national parks and a place known as Hassan. Hassan is a district trapped in the tug-of-war between conflict and conservation. The locals of Hassan have been struggling to make peace with elephants raiding their crops. Working in a scenario, where one half of the people were extremely tolerant towards these giant intruders while the others were downright hostile, required great perseverance. People often mistook me for a forest official and came hurtling and crying towards me with their complaints. Explaining the agenda of my research to the locals was a herculean task, and it was agonizing to see the land on which they toiled get repeatedly ravaged by elephants.
Once I got a call from a villager saying that his farm had been raided. Upon reaching the spot, I observed that the paddy field had not been raided, but had in fact been trampled by elephants on their journey to a forest patch in the vicinity. However, for Lokesh anna, the owner of the land, the damage had been done.
As my tracker and I took off in search of the elephants, I could not help but think of the crestfallen farmer. After four hours, we discovered that the elephants had crossed another hillock. On our way back through the ruined paddy field, I saw the silhouette of a man in the distance, beckoning to us. It was Lokesh anna. He invited us to his home where he then served us breakfast. I could not believe that the man who had been lamenting his ransacked land just a few hours ago was now serving us akki roti and paliya. I was touched by his generosity.
An Ode to the Unsung
Almost all researchers who travel through India’s wilderness and interact with local communities harbour the same gratitude as I. Had there been no support from the likes of Krishna anna or the local communities in Hassan, it would have been impossible for me to conduct my research.
The people who we meet during our adventures, our interactions with them, related or unrelated to our study, matter. Their insights, support and company widen our horizons in invaluable ways. This article, is in acknowledgement of the trackers, drivers and innumerable locals who welcomed me and fuelled my thirst for knowledge.
Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel is a PhD student at the Center for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She is working to understand the stress physiology of wild Asian elephants in Karnataka. She writes poetry and draws cartoons in her spare time.
Author: Sanjeeta Sharma.