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Two Days At YETI

Two Days At YETI

A student of Delhi University’s Gargi College, and a young conservationist, Vaishali Rawat shares her notes from the two days she spent at the Young Ecologists Talk and Interact Conference 2016.

B.C. Choudhury addressing the audience.
Photo: YETI 2016.

This year’s YETI (Young Ecologists Talk and Interact) conference was held from the 17th-20th of January at Amity University, Noida. The venue was an entire state away, considering I live in Gurgaon, Haryana, but it was an event that I couldn’t miss.

The first day of the conference had a line up of speakers from a variety of backgrounds: writers, scientists, forest officers, conservationists and researchers. For budding ecologists, students or simply individuals interested in India’s natural history, YETI provides a platform to listen to speakers and try to understand the kind of work that is going on in this still developing field in India, as well as a platform to strike up collaborations with like minded individuals.

The event was kick-started with a talk by wildlife conservationist, writer and trustee of Bagh Foundation, Prerna Singh Bindra, who began by sharing with the room full of young ecologists and scientists, a brief perspective on the history of nature conservation in the world, including the legacies of Rachel Carson, Dr George Schaller, and of course Indira Gandhi. Her talk was peppered with instances from her recent field visit to the elephant forests of Odisha, the Athgarh Forest Division, and remarkable stories of the relationship between its forest guards and elephants. Graphic images of wildlife as roadkill then shocked the audience, as she provided some much needed perspective on existing hostility in the nation’s dialogue on environmental concerns as roadblocks to ‘development’.

Working for nature conservation can often be grim, thankless and tiring with the odds very rarely in your favour. The next talk by Vivek Menon, ‘Conservation is the art of the possible’ began on an optimistic note, reminding us why we should pursue conservation anyway, and more importantly, how to go about it. A conservation biologist with a passion for elephants, he walked the audience through the success stories that he has witnessed and participated in, through his career. Working with the Nyishi tribals in Arunachal to protect their precious Hornbills, with Bodo tribals in Assam to conserve Manas, with religious communities in Gujarat to conserve the Whale Shark; and with villages in Nagaland to protect the migratory Amur Falcon. His talk was a narration of the various ways in which the goal of conservation has been achieved by working with varying stakeholders of different cultural, social and religious backgrounds, and ongoing efforts to get crucial landscapes notified. “We fought for the protected areas, but your generation’s battles will be to save the unprotected ones” He later remarked to me, over tea.

At noon, after words of advice and encouragement from the experts and informal interactions with them, it was time for the student participants to hold the floor. Researchers and students from across the country were each allotted fifteen minutes to share their presentations on the theme ‘Diversity & Distribution’. Ecologists from various corners of India presented their findings on the natural ecosystems they had studied. The talks ranged from observations in Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya, to speciation along the Western Ghats, to the urban ecosystem at Christ University Campus in Bangalore!

Later in the afternoon, Dr. N.P.S Chauhan shared his experience of researching wildlife for over 30 years. Having spent a significant part of his career studying human-wildlife conflict, Dr. Chauhan’s talk mainly focussed on various kinds of interactions that occur in areas that human settlements and wildlife co-exist (Elephants in Buxa-Mahananda; tigers in Rajaji, Corbett, Dudhwa; to name a few), and the process of formulating mitigation strategies in conflict areas. An interactive Q and A session followed, largely with questions about the design and formulation of mitigation strategies specific to each case. Dr. Chauhan stressed on the need for people on the ground to consider the opinion of experts while formulating mitigation strategies, and reiterated that the inputs of locals may be more helpful than one assumes. He recollected his work in Corbett’s buffer zone, where an effective local strategy to keep elephants away from crops is the use of a dummy camel in the fields!

Next in line, four hour and half long workshops were simultaneously held for students on issues ranging from bird sampling and bird conservation in non-protected areas, to specialised workshops for sample collection in fieldwork and molecular genetic analysis. Having recently visited the newly notified protected areas of North Kumaon, Uttarakhand, I decided to sit in for Neha Sinha’s workshop on conservation of non-protected areas of India, where she talked about her experiences, working in various non-protected areas across the country, and the difficulties that arise in trying to get them protected and notified.

The next panel on relationships between foresters and researchers captured the attention of the room. The panelists included Ravi Chellam, Executive Director of Greenpeace, K Ramesh, scientist at WII, J.C Kala, who has served as Director General of Forests, Jagdish Kishwan, Former Additional Director General, Wildlife, Government of India, and Samir Sinha, Field Director, Corbett Tiger Reserve. Setting the tone for the discussion, Samir Sinha began the conversation by highlighting the fact that he was the only serving forester speaking at the conference, which goes to show the large disconnect that exists between Forest Officers and researchers. Discussions revolved around the bitter-sweet relationship that has existed between foresters and researchers for decades, and the need for each to understand the mandate of the other followed. The panel, with three determined foresters and two opinionated scientists on it, in a room full of young, ecologists and researchers, was anything but dull!

The Ethics Panel at YETI 2016 conference. Photo: YETI 2016.

Day two of the conference began with a talk by Professor B.C. Choudhury (just BC to colleagues!), who presented a brief history of his career, starting with reptile conservation, and gradually moving on to Sarus Cranes, otters and marine turtles. A scientist by profession, BC insists (refreshingly, might I add!) that research in wildlife science needs to complement conservation too. He stressed on the need to share one’s research with an audience beyond the academic community, and the importance of training young minds to carry forward the cause, ending with 10 ‘commandments’ or words of advice for the audience.

After several talks from those who have spent their lives studying the wilds, talk by Dr. Tanu Jindal’s tackled an issue that’s closer to home for most: urban groundwater management. Dr. Jindal, who has extensive research experience in surface and ground water, shared her research on groundwater contamination in Delhi, as well as some agricultural areas of the country. Presence of toxins in our groundwater and food sources by pesticides and pollutants is an issue that everyone is aware of, but Dr. Jindal’s talk was an eye opener. Information about the amount of bacterial and heavy metal contamination that has percolated into our water sources made for a worried and surprised audience. Several listeners questioned her about her research: some curious, some sceptical and others interested in her ongoing projects on groundwater quality in Antarctica.

Post lunch, students once again held the floor for ‘Speed Talk’ sessions that covered a wide variety of topics ranging from the wild fishing cat population in Andhra Pradesh, to stress responses of leopards and tigers kept in zoos, to seabird behaviour in the Lakshadweep islands. While the presenters informally interacted with other students, and researchers explaining their research through poster presentations, I waited my turn and managed to squeeze in a fruitful interaction with the last two presenters before it was time for the next talk.

The last and most interactive panel for the day was on ethics in ecological research. What followed was more of an informal conversation between anyone who wanted to contribute, some of whom just happened to be sitting on a stage, namely Tara Gandhi, Dr. Indrani Chandrasekharan, Jay Mazoomdar, Dr. Suhel Quader and Dr. B.C. Choudhury. Beginning the conversation, Mr. Mazoomdar remarked that working as a researcher is easy, but as a conservationist, is harder; in research there’s no moral pressure to report any problems that may or may not make the research goals harder to achieve. Dr. Chandrasekharan asked the audience’s opinions: “What do the young researchers think is considered ‘Ethical’?” while Ms. Gandhi moderated the conversation that covered a wide variety of ethical conundrums that ecologists come across: conservation of a species versus an individual; rules that should be followed while working in natural landscapes; the amount of disturbance caused to a subject – plant or animal- while it’s being studied.  Dr. Quader remarked that any lingering ethical concerns often get brushed under the carpet, being considered an unnecessary hassle; this needs to be avoided, and these are the questions that need to keep us, as students, awake at night. Dr. Choudhury added that ecologists face similar conundrums every day, and that it’s crucial for a healthy discussion to occur between all parties involved for a solution to be reached. The consensus was that there can never be a blanket solution to ethical concerns, for they vary according to the case, but it’s crucial to talk about these issues so we become more thoughtful researchers and better citizens.

It’s interesting to note that the audience was the most interactive on a panel about ethics in ecological research: an issue that I feel isn’t talked about in this community nearly enough and one that is often viewed as a hurdle. But the fact that these questions continue to linger in the minds of young ecologists seems to be a positive step in that direction!

Author: Vaishali Rawat.


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