Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilder of Urban India Ep # 3

#HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Show notes (edited)

 

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #3. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

Lalitha Krishnan: When my daughter went to college in Haryana a few years ago, she was dismayed. “Amma, there are no trees here,” she said. Things changed subsequently; but it makes me especially thrilled today to have as my guest, a rewilder who specializes in rewilding landscapes.

I’m speaking to Vijay Dhasmana, a well-known rewilder of ‘IAmGurgaon’ fame, who has been hugely instrumental and successful in rewilding around 400 acres of wasteland (that’s approx. 300 times the size of a football field). This site is part of the Aravalli range on the edge of a millennium city, Gurgaon, near New Delhi.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation podcast Vijay. It’s so very inspiring to read about your work and hear a positive conservation story in India’s urban landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: Thank you Lalitha. Thank you for inviting me to your podcast.

Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely my pleasure. Just the scale of the ‘IAmGurgaon’ (IAG) project sounds monumental. It’s been a long and I’m sure a very interesting journey for you but not devoid of some rocky roadblocks. Could you first draw us a geological picture of the Aravalli landscape and tell us how you started on the project?

Very interesting that you use the word rocky roadblocks. Well, this place that we have been rewilding or working on for the past nine years is a rocky, hilly outcrop of the Aravallis. Aravallis, as you know, are the oldest fold mountains in the world, perhaps; much older than the Himalayas. And, they extend from Delhi all the way to Gujarat. Some geologists believe that when the Indian plate met the Tibetan plate, the Aravallis are/were under the Tibetan plate. That makes them really long range.

This 400 acres that you’re talking about which is the Aravalli Biodiversity Park where we’ve been working on to create a forest is sitting on the northern edge of the Aravallis. The Aravalli is quite diverse in its flora and fauna. It has a great value in terms of, checking the desertification that is happening on the western side. You can see the pile-up of sand on the south-western side of the Aravallis and the plant community is also rich and diverse. As you go to the south of the Aravallis, the forests become richer, the moisture regime is higher, rainfall is higher… the hills are higher. Just imagine Mt Abu, which is quite a remarkable forest. In Udaipur and beyond or Mt Abu, you get much more rain than you do in Jaipur or Delhi or Gurgaon, Haryana, where the northern Aravallis sit. So, the landscape in the southern Aravallis is much richer compared to what it is in the northern Aravallis. What you’re sitting on is a hilly outcrop. The rocks that you see is mostly quartzite rock which is formed after sandstone is metamorphosed. The top layer is that, mostly in the northern Aravalli. The park is sitting on quartzite rock, which is perhaps 1.2 billion or 700 million years old. That is the age of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. It must have gone through huge changes in this large geological timescale. When we look into rewilding, it’s important what timescale we look into. When we approached this land for rewilding, we had to negotiate in terms of what we are doing. I hope I helped create that geological picture?

Lalitha Krishnan: This is way more than I knew. Thank you. You were going to talk about how you were approached you to do the project.

Vijay Dhasmana: I have worked very closely with someone called Pradip Krishen— the man who wrote Trees of Delhi and then Jungle Trees of Central India—who was in his previous avatar, a filmmaker. He has been a mentor and a friend on this journey and has influenced me a lot. We used to work together in Sunder nursery, which was an Aga Khan Trust project. After that project was over for us, Pradip called me one day and said, “There’s a citizen’s group which is very keen on working on some landscape. Would you be interested?” So, that’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’. They contacted me and invited me to visit the site.

And when I reached there, the site was in a really, really, sad state. It was a barren landscape, mostly a barren landscape with no soil; gravel all around and few patches of Prosopis juliflora, the alien invasive species brought in around the late 19th century and propagated all over India in the 21st century. So there were few patches of that. When I got to know more about the land, read about it and saw the site more intensely, I got to know it was a mining site. There were eight stone crushers. The rocks were quarried and brought to these stone crushers where they were crushed and then sold to Gurgaon. You can imagine a picture where all these mines were being dug and Gurgaon was raising its towers. In my head, that was the visual picture for me.

That’s how I got connected with ‘IAmGurgaon’ and I tried to understand their vision. Their vision, at that time, was to just plant. They had a campaign called ‘Million Trees Gurgaon’. I questioned them further, “What do you mean a million trees?” I am not a great fan of this number game you know…Million, trillion trees. It might be good for catching attention but I believe in substantial change in smaller habitats rather than just this number game of millions and billions. So I dissuaded them to not talk about a million trees. The landscape is not going to take a million trees anyway. It’s a super group of people with the right intent. They were all ready to question, understand, discuss…all of that.

Lalitha Krishnan: When people talk of rewilding” or restoring or beautifying the community—which seems to be the common parlance but may not necessarily mean the same thing— what do they mean? Can you explain what rewilding is?

Vijay Dhasmana: This term is relatively new. And it is a convenient term because you know scientists use various kinds of terminology. But, in landscape terms, I think rewilding fits pretty well, where it’s also self-explanatory. Rewilding. Wilderness is the approach to the landscape treatment. Essentially what rewilding means is any fissured land, any landscape damaged due to human activity is restored to what one thinks—after referring to enough documentation, visiting forests and landscapes around then—and then imitating from nature and recreating those landscapes which were damaged. That, in a nutshell, is what rewilding is.

It means that you make a list of plants…list.., there might be microhabitats, microclimates that can create a little larger landscapes of plant communities. In the case of northern Aravalli, for instance, the hill slopes are dominated by a tree called Anogeisus pendula that is called Dhau. In the valleys, you won’t see much of Dhau where there is high moisture. It is taken over by Kaim or Mitragyna parvifolia. So, every plant has a niche where they grow and their association where they grow. To understand all of that, then imitate and recreate it in a fissured landscape is what I’d say is rewilding.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re an advocate for native species. That’s what you’re talking about. What’s wrong with planting ornamental tree species in your neighbourhood?

Vijay Dhasmana: I don’t see any reason why ornamental plants shouldn’t be planted. ‘Ornamental’ is a feature-oriented approach where a native tree can be ornamental. Of course like for instance Amaltas is a forest tree of the Aravallis. In the large Indian landscape, it is a forest tree but used ornamentally now. So ornamental is not worrying for our neighbourhoods… as long as they are native. As long as they are from our landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is truly native?

Nativity is a very debated topic because they are many advocates for defining nativity and there are many advocates who don’t believe in nativity. Largely, nativity is that millions of years of evolution happened since flowering plants came to be. The plant kingdom has a kind of a symbiotic relationship with the animal kingdom, …you see that from what Darwin has studied. In this millions of years of evolution or togetherness, there is huge interdependence. Species have evolved with time. When we bring in a plant from a different landscape firstly, where are we bringing it from? For e.g., a plant, which belongs in the Himalaya or from the higher reaches of the Himalaya is native to India. But it may not work in if you plant it in Delhi; therefore it is not native to the Delhi landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about a plant from Delhi in Haryana or Gujarat or…?

Vijay Dhasmana: If it’s from Haryana, it’s part of the Aravallis but it’s about the needs of the plant. What kind of climate it needs, what moisture regime it needs. With the whole intervention of the landscape community and the horticulture community, there has been a movement of plants all over the world. People have moved plants for food, for ornamental purposes and even for rewilding.

Delhi Ridge which was planted up in the 20th century was one of the earliest, leading rewilding projects in India. So, Prosopis juliflora and many other species were brought in by the British to rewild the ridge. They didn’t want to see a barren hill behind their might built landscape. They wanted greenery and so they planted this alien invasive species called Prosopis juliflora. This plant is called Bavalia in Rajasthan which means ‘mad one’ because it just does not allow other things to grow. Very few things grow under it and it propagates itself profusely. It is a very successful species so everyone was in awe of this species. What it did it did was at the cost of the local biodiversity. Nothing was eating it. No pest was attacking it. When you say, a pest is attacking, it’s a relationship with an insect and a plant. If no bugs are eating its leaves, it means something is wrong…food is being taken away yeah?

So ornamental is not a problem, exotic is a problem, alien invasives are big problems like our Lantana camara which is a big nuisance in all our national parks and sanctuaries. In terms of planting our landscapes with exotic species or species that don’t belong to that landscape is like keeping a Himalayan bear confined in a Delhi zoo and try and provide the climate there. That’s exactly what we do when we bring in exotics from different landscapes. We put excess water in them; we nurture them and make them grow. So, they are heavy in terms of maintenance. Many species are not so heavy on maintenance if you bring them from the right climate. But if you bring them from exotic climates—like water-loving plants or plants that need more moisture planted onto a rocky ridge, they are going to suffer. Or you have to provide alternatives like keep feeding water to the plant.

Also, the relationship is not there- when you plant trees for only one species ie humans. It is pleasing to the eyes but is it doing that ecological function? Are the birds pollinating it? Or are the insects pollinating it? Is it part of the whole cycle? That has to be understood. That has to be appreciated and used in the landscape. I can go on and on…

Lalitha Krishnan: I know and that’s lovely but I’ll come back to your million trees. You did say that’s what they (IAG) had in mind initially and that’s changed but what was the purpose in your mind? What did you think when you started with the project?

Interesting. When the groups IAmGurgaon approached me, they were very keen on native plants. Because they had met Pradip and Pradip had advocated native plants. They held on to it and said, “We want to plant native plants”. In the journey after that, we all went to forests. We went to Mangarbani, we went to other landscapes in the Aravalli and understood the forests.

What was I thinking? I was initially playing along. After understanding what was in their minds, I realized what was sustainable and not sustainable. What is the vision we should lend to this place? Gurgaon, which creates the impression of a great city, has come up at a great cost. It has been spreading its wings all over the Aravallis. The whole urbanization has kind of eaten up our natural landscapes. Somehow, it felt that the vision for this place should be that we bring in—in order to celebrate the forests of Aravalli—we bring in the forest of Aravalli into the city. That was what excited the team and me: to work toward bringing the rich Aravalli forests into the city.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s amazing that you compiled a list of 200 missing native species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, and grasses. How did you go about that? Missing species? And then you managed to source seeds for a landscape that was ripped bare by mining and stone crushing and what have you. It all sounds so challenging.

Vijay Dhasmana:: It was a challenge but let me tell you, it’s not rocket science. I haven’t got any academic training in rewilding or even in plants for that matter. It is simply common sense. It’s not rocket science. What it definitely needs is understanding where to look. In the case of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, we had records of forest-kinds recorded during British times. After that, in the 60s, there is someone called Maheshwari, who came out with the Flora of Delhi. So, there are books that talk about flora that exist in different landscapes. You pick up from there and do the groundwork and say, these are the species Parker is talking about or Maheswari is talking about or somebody else is talking about. Then you go around the landscape and see the species you can make out. Then you compile your list…the candidate lists for the landscape.

The bigger challenge is to source them. When IAmGurgaon was starting the first public planting, the plants were from Punjab. It was a big learning for us. The plants which came were not the plants that were committed by the person providing them to us. There was a complete lack of understanding. Most of the trade happens in local names. Local names are quite deceptive many a time. So the plants that came were not exactly the plants we wanted. I gave a proposal to IAmGurgaon to create a nursery. We will get 20-25 maximum species from forest nurseries. As far as going to Ahmedabad, Udaipur, and Jodhpur, we would get only 20-30 species. But if we have to fulfill this vision of creating the forest we will have to create our own nursery. That’s where we began our journey of creating our own nursery.

Lalitha Krishnan: You started this project in 2011. When did you start planting?

Vijay Dhasmana: In 2011 we did a little bit of planting. We could source a little bit at the end of the monsoon season. We were able to source some plants from Jodhpur and some plants from Udaipur. I made trips to Jodhpur and Udaipur to pick up some plants. So, we were able to plant in 2011. The nursery was also started in 2011. We were lucky we got some support on a yearly basis. The first year we were only able to grow close to 35 species. In the second year, we went on to 58 odd species, then 85, then 130, and then, 160. It’s an interesting journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sounds like raising a family.

Vijay Dhasmana: Absolutely.

Lalitha Krishnan: What was your strategy for landscaping with these species from different landscapes? I know you’re experienced but was it easy? Did you have to do a lot of research? How did you fund or manage irrigation on such a large scale?

Vijay Dhasmana: I’ll tell you the details. Firstly, when we made the list, we also bounced it with people, like Pradip for instance. He reviewed the list and said, “Oh perfect. This species should be there not here…” He gave his comments on it. Once we had made our species list, it was important… As I told you, I took my team to different forests in the Aravallis. That was the time to look at the landscape and learn from it. Where is the plant growing? How is it growing? What is the nature of its association? And that is essential, where the gardening element of rewilding comes in. You have to imitate the best that is available you know, in terms of succession….the best of the forests even if you travel in the northern Aravalli. Like in Sariska, for instance. The top canopy would be of Boswellia serrata and its companion species. That is called Salai or local Frankincense. At the top of the hills, on the brow or steepest slope of the hill, you will find this Indian Frankincense. Then there would be some associates. In some of the Aravalli hills, you’ll get Lannea coromandelica or Sterculia urens, the Ghost tree, you know, which is quite common in the Indian peninsula? And there are many other species. On the steep slopes where the runoff is very high, you will find Anogeissus pendula or Dhau tree. In the valley, the composition is different which is dominated by plants that love more moisture and has a thicker canopy. So, there are these niches where different plants grow. There are generalists also…there are specialists also. Like Dhau is a specialist. There are generalists, which grow on the slopes but also grow in the valleys.

Lalitha Krishnan: I like that term.

Vijay Dhasmana:Then there are plants that are colonizers, plants that don’t like competition…

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re talking about plants right? Not people?

Vijay Dhasmana: (laughing) Not people. Plants. And it’s so fascinating to look into the plant world from this lens you know…how plants behave. Basically, making these notes/observations and imitating them in the landscape, was what we did in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So wherever we got the opportunity of planting a Frankincense forest, we created that. The obvious choice…it’s too small a landscape to create very many pockets of diversity but we did plan it out so, on a few hills we’ll plant Boswellia or Indian Frankincense forests. A few hills we’d leave it as a Dhau forest. These rocky cliffs we want to showcase certain plants that are otherwise not seen. Like Ghost tree coming out of cut rock faces (cut) by mining and they became fabulously successful. We got a Rock-loving fig is also covering some of the rocky cliffs that you see in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

So, it was imagination, it was imitation, it was a little bit of playing around with the species and the diversity but never going beyond the niches that we had observed.

Valleys have different characters but valleys have a set of species, you know. You never planted a species, which loves valleys in the hilltops. That’s how we got it done and it was fairly successful, I would say. Let me tell you: no one is growing Anogeissus pendula or even Indian Frankincense. When we planted them in 2012, they were 6-8 inches. The first thing we noticed was that they were eaten up within a couple of days because Nilgai loved all the native plants that we planted. With the exception of Adusa, every other plant was eaten by the Nilgai and cattle that used to graze in the park.

We had to build up strategies on how to protect what we were planting. Today we know we can plant a six-foot tall plant. It was a big challenge then. The landscape does not transform if you plant six inch or eight inch or a foot long plants on a rocky outcrop. It will take some time. The plant will invest all its energy into its root system-to find the right cracks where there is moisture and sustain itself to survive. That’s the strategy of plants in a rocky habitat. It won’t throw its energy into growing big until its root zones are secures and anchored well. From 2011-12 to 2015, people used to question us. “What are you doing? We don’t see anything at all.” But from 2015 onwards suddenly there was a jump in the plants and their response to monsoon. You saw a huge growth in the plants. In 2015, we got a sense of forests. All we had planted during those years began to show. It was a great moment of delight.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you very briefly tell me how you funded the project?

Vijay Dhasmana: The two founders, Latika Thukral, Swanzal Kak are from Gurgaon—all the people were from Gurgaon—Latika, is an ex-banker, Swanzal, is a practicing architect. They have a big network in Gurgaon. They had a model plan where you plant a tree and pay us for the tree. You can come and pant a tree and they were charging money for that. They convinced their family members, familiar corporates to come and plant. Individuals and groups supported the first year. When word went around that IAmGurgaon is planting and you could pay and plant—you could also plant without paying, as there were many days, which were kept for public planting which were not ‘paid’ planting. So, it caught on with the corporate world of Gurgaon. There was a commissioner called Sudhir Rajpal who gave the idea of involving corporates in rewilding this place. IAmGurgaon took that idea very seriously and took that idea in a different direction. In an innovative direction. As of today, we got an amazing 50+ corporates coming and planting at the park.

One of the benefits was that we were between Gurgaon and Delhi. We were in a prime spot. Visibility was very high. IAmGurgaon is very good at engaging the volunteers. When the corporate employees would come and plant IAmGurgaon would engage with them and tell them what we’re doing. Everybody who came to plant was affected by this. They would realize they were making a difference. Next year onwards, it became very, very easy for funding.

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess people and corporates too perhaps, took pride in what they were doing together and could see what was happening to their community. That’s positive.

Vijay Dhasmana: That’s right. Very positive.

Lalitha Krishnan: But that wasn’t always the case right? When you started the IAG project proposal started as a Biodiversity Park, water conservation zone and recreational area in 2011. In 2012, a plan was officially put in place to convert the park into City forest. Am I right? They have until 2020 to implement these plans. But then in 2013, there was the talk of creating a wellness centre and spa inside the park. How did you keep the project from derailing? More importantly, how did you keep your sanity?

Vijay Dhasmana: I think this is a very important question and it’s very important your audience listens to this.

I’ve had the experience of working with conservation organizations before. For us, MoU s or Memorandum of Understanding with a government agency or whomever you were working with was very, very important. But when I came and joined the initiative of IAmGurgaon, I learnt very soon that they don’t have a MoU. They were all in kindness and good intent that they were planting without having a MoU with the government. I pushed IAmGurgaon to have a MoU in place.

It was very interesting and sweet also. They believed that they are not doing anything wrong and therefore there should be no issue… they are doing something important for the city and why the need for a MoU? As I said before, it’s a very vibrant and open group; they looked in it, pushed for a MoU. We finally got a MoU in 2012 that we should create a forest showcasing the flora of the Aravallis and make it into a water recharging zone and educational place.

That got ratified by the municipal corporation of Gurgaon but you know the municipal corporation of Gurgaon is an interesting place. It’s run by the Commissioner. Of course, it has a council but the main person who leads it is a Commissioner who is mostly an IAS officer. And, it depends on how he is perceiving that place? A lot of energy went into educating the Commissioners who came in. Their buying-in was very important for the vision of the park. So yeah, while it was envisioned as an Aravalli forest, showcasing the flora of the Aravallis, there would be…the mayor at one point went to Singapore and was very fascinated by the night safari there and came back and said, Why can’t we start a night safari here?” Another time, one Commissioner suggested, “Oh this is such a barren landscape… Why not create a crocodile park here?” Another time, another person suggested, “why not create a health spa?” All that was happening because the plants were not showing up. As I told you before, they were very young when they were planted and the landscape was a very harsh rocky landscape. Things changed from2015 onwards. In the last three years, we have been getting a good response from the municipal corporation where they now see this place is getting good visibility and is doing well. In fact, the forest Dept. got a study done through IUCN and they applauded the work done in the park.

Lalitha Krishnan: That is my next question. What has the transformation been like ecologically speaking? Would you speak about that?

Vijay Dhasmana: Sure, let me you tell you, the difficult things were not just these you know: What is the head of the organization thinking or what are the influential people talking about? It was also about the locals around. Traditionally, or in the past, this was the common land of a Nathurpur village. While the village had sold its land and people were getting richer—I often say this you know, people who were grazing in the park are now bringing their dogs for a walk—that was a huge transformation for not all of them of course but many of them getting richer by selling the land in Nathupur village. There was a huge grazing pressure in the park but not from the Nathupur village. People were coming from Rajasthan or sending cattle from various other villages. It was a big track of land, which was open for all. So cattle grazing was one big issue. We had to negotiate with the villagers and say, “OK, let’s divide the park into two halves. One half we want to strictly protect. The second half is open to grazing. We had different strategies but it came about after a lot of negotiations, a lot of questioning, and a lot of interactions with the villagers. When we divided the park into two halves, the first half started showing improvement and the second half was of course not doing so well. With time, things have changed. People have started appreciating it and we were able to convince them that cattle grazing is not condusive. Delhi built a wall. Cattle coming from Delhi were stopped.

Then, grass cutting. There were three villages that used to come and cut grass here. Again, we had to negotiate with them to cut from on half and not from the other half. They would often ask, “What is wrong with us cutting grass? The grass is not a desirable thing. We’re not cutting your trees.” So you had to go through the path of educating them that grasses are important and it’s not easy to convince someone who has been doing it for many many, years how grasses can be important for a park. Those were important challenges.

 There was a challenge of perception. There was a media campaign which was against the work we had done, consistently reporting, “nothing is happening, nothing is happening”. No one would come to you and say, “show us what you’ve done.” They would just report that nothing is happening. That was a big challenge for us. I think the physical act of rewilding was the easiest..in retrospect. All these human problems were much bigger. This huge real estate stake on the land… Haryana govt., as you know, has been very reluctant in declaring or protecting the Aravallis. There is huge real estate pressure. All that was playing around in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park and in the larger Aravalli landscape. I think I highlighted the problems broadly.

Irrigation was a challenge but the good thing about irrigation is that when you plant native species in the right niches, then, you don’t have to irrigate them too much. We irrigate only when it is extremely necessary and we don’t irrigate them after the third year. Lately, we realized that certain species don’t need irrigation for more than one year. It’s self-sustaining then. The growth will be reduced but that’s better for the plant. As I told you before, the plants are investing all their energy into the root zone. When they are comfortable, they will become big.

We also tried many other strategies. Seed ball was one. It’s now a very popular methodology for rewilding. For us, seed balls were not so successful because we get 600mm rains and most of this rain comes in three showers. Therefore the moisture regime never builds for seeds to germinate on their own. We experimented in various places with seed balls. We got some germination. We also figured out some species that were doing well compared to other species. Lately what we tried was scratching the surface. Most of the surface here is gravelly. You scratch the surface, put in the seed and cover it up. Like tilling. We got a huge response from that. Trees, shrubs; all of them responded very well to this. The challenge was you’re not going to irrigate it so how was it going to take the harsh winter, how was it going to take the harsh summer? To my surprise, I am very delighted to share with you that all the little saplings that germinated in the last monsoon went through the phase of severe winter and severe summer without any irrigation and survived. There must have been many, which died, but there is a huge percentage, which is surviving also. So, it could be there is a learning there. If you put the right seeds in the landscape, you will get more desirable results.

Lalitha Krishnan: Very briefly, again could you tell me about the transformation of the park now and, also, who are the stakeholders of the Biodiversity Park now? From being a barren land it’s now used by so many people. So, I want to know what’s happening.

Vijay Dhasmana: We have managed to add 200 species. But as we explore the Aravallis further, we see more species and we get more greedy and a little more ambitious. What rewilding has done is … I think, in 2016 a few birders came to the park. They were quite impressed with the bird population in the park. Many of them had been visiting this place but in 2016, there was a surge of bird diversity and populations. If you know about ebird- the portal where you record bird sightings in a particular site, close to 176 species were reported in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. So let me tell you there is no perennial water body. It’s a very dry landscape. It has grasses—We have more than 40 species of grasses there—and it is an open forest. This kind of forest and the number of species ie 176 is very good… amongst the best in this kind of habitat.

 We are conducting a study. JNU researchers are conducting a study and they are reporting back about bird populations and diversity. They are doing a comparative study with an unrestored site and their reports are showing how restoration work in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park has been immensely useful for the bird diversity and population.

Lalitha Krishnan; This shows that it is a healthy park now.

Vijay Dhasmana: Yes, it’s a healthy habitat now. We’ve also created vegetation plots and are trying to observe the growth of plants in those plots and making notes of them. This may culminate in a study where we can say rewilding Aravalli landscape should be done in this particular or that particular way. This big undergoing study will hopefully in five years time show us what we did right or what should be the protocol or module.

Our education programmes are underway. That’s another area of intervention that we’re going to work on more seriously and actively.

In terms of animal biodiversity, we have nilgai, jackals, porcupine, jungle cats, and mongooses, monitor lizards, many kinds of reptiles-snakes of many kinds… It’s a thriving place for insect populations. People point to me, “this leaf is eaten.” I smile back and tell them, “someone’s stomach got full.” It’s just the attitude you have to shift: insects are not pests. This is an inclusive system, not an exclusive system. In terms of biodiversity, we are hoping more species will be recorded. We will conduct more surveys in the coming years.

I have to tell you an anecdotal story. I got a call from the DFO last year. He said, “There is a leopard reported in the park and we are sending a rescue team.” They send the rescue team that was stationed there for a whole day. We have gardeners or mallis who are out on the landscape the whole day and they have found so sign of any leopard. Now, this perception is created that it is becoming a forest. So, that’s a nice story for us

Lalitha Krishnan: True. There’s nothing like a “leopard” (story) to keep bad elements away.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s a very safe park. MCG has been very supportive of this place and its vision. They have provided guards for this place and they visit themselves. Municipal Cooperation of Gurgaon is the main stakeholders of the park. The land belongs to the MCG. The neutral stakeholders are the corporates who have funded it in very many ways. There are 1000+ employees who have come and planted. We have planted one lakh plants in this landscape. Many people and children have come. Close to 60 schools have come and planted in the park on a year-year basis. All these are stakeholders. There are regular walkers in the park who swear by its wilderness.

Lalitha Krishnan: How wonderful for you to hear that they swear by the wilderness.

Vijay Dhasmana: There are some people who report, “There is nothing there. It’s just a jungle”. It’s also attitude. But even calling it a jungle is a compliment. Then we had various ministers to forest officials come to this place to see the work we have done. That has worked.

Lalitha Krishnan: I don’t know if you’ve partly answered this question but in your article, ‘Creating Aravalli biodiversity park, Gurgaon’ you begin by saying, “There’s’ a lot to take away from well-intended mistakes we made” So can you share your takeaway from that experience?

Vijay Dhasmana: To start with, planting right. For instance, planting. There is a big momentum at this stage in the country from the Satguru rally. There are several organizations that are swearing of planting trees everywhere. So, the intention is right which is to overcome the pressure we have created. It’s very intentioned. But it’s a mistake because you shouldn’t just plant. You should plant right. It’s not the number game. It’s the creating of habitats. If you are planting all the trees on the riverbed, it is a mistake. If you are planting trees or shrubs that are not suitable for Ladakh, then it’s a mistake.

For instance, there is the whole movement to convert the desert into woodland. You can argue about which is better but what is has to be understood and appreciated is that there is rich diversity in the desert. There is a huge movement to cover all our grasslands—the remaining of our grasslands—into woodlands. One often forgets that if you want to protect the tiger, the prey base is from the grasslands, not the woodland. In a nutshell, what I am trying to say is, intentions may be right but if the whole understanding is not there, it’s a mistake.

Our mistakes were some of these such as just planting to creating habitats which were a transformation for us. Then, appreciating the involvement of citizens. You don’t want to alienate the local community. They should be participants in the whole venture and you cannot ignore that. It will fight back.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re done with IAG right? What projects are you currently working on now?

Vijay Dhasmana: Aravalli Biodiversity park is not done yet. In terms of rewilding, yes, we have to conduct many more studies in the park. We are working on citizen’s interactions which means programmes with the citizens and children. That’s another area. Interpretation is another big area we want to work on. So we’re not done, done yet.

I am also part of another project of IAG, which is to rewild a 5k bund which was created by the British to protect the villages from flash floods. With urbanization, it has been all encroached upon and lost their meaning. Everything on the upstream side or high on the slopes has been urbanized. The Forest Dept. gave this project to IAG to create a corridor forest at a stretch of 5.2 k. We are working on rewilding that stretch and we’re almost done.

One of the very important projects for me to learn on is in Jaipur. Here we are not creating woodland, we are not creating a jungle but we are creating a jungle of sand dunes. So, this is not a woodland. We are creating grasslands and scrublands close to 300 acres in Jaipur. This land is sanctuary abutting Nahargarh sanctuary and the idea is to celebrate the plant community that you find on a dune. These are old dunes that are very settled sand dunes and are not shifting sand dunes. But their flower community is very different. So, we are rewilding with a different intent, which is to create a scrubland and grassland depicting the flora of those sand dunes. I am working on those projects.

Lalitha Krishnan: It all sounds huge and amazing and very promising. I am so grateful. My next question was if you had to do it all over again would you? But you are doing it again in a new landscape.

Vijay Dhasmana: It’s very interesting. Every time you take up a project like this, it’s a new journey. Of course, you have learned a lot like nursery creation and plants…there is a new movement now. More and more people are asking for native plants. You can see that forest nurseries have also increased and are growing native plants. So sourcing plants have become easier. At least, some species have become easier than others. So yes, every project is new and I think one has to appreciate and get excited about it. I get very iffy at the start of the project. It’s a sweet combination of the ability to do it and the nervousness of doing it. Yeah, it is exciting.

Lalitha Krishnan: Could you mind sharing a conservation term or scientific word that you think is significant? Or something you like or you think is significant for you?

Vijay Dhasmana: Haven’t we done this? Rewilding?

Lalitha Krishnan: Actually, it is.

Vijay Dhasmana: Rewilding is important as a vocabulary because it has its own direction. It has its own momentum. Rewilding. It’s not an ornamental garden path but re wilding which is all-inclusive. It’s inclusive of the plant community, animals, insects, birds, higher plants, lower plants –all of that. So I think it is a sweet word.

Lalitha Krishnan: It is a sweet word and it’s a nice word for everyone to know. Especially, in an urban landscape. It’s been such an interesting and educational talk. Thank you so much. I wish there were more people like you inspiring more people like us.

Vijay Dhasmana: If we can rewild all the gardens we have, it will give a different meaning to city life and spaces.

Thank you so much for inviting me. I feel privileged to share the small story of Aravalli Biodiversity Park and the people there doing incredible work in terms of protecting and saving the forests and forest species. We are doing a little bit in the urban landscapes.

Lalitha Krishnan:. It’s huge. It’s not little.

——————————————

Lalitha Krishnan:. I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Stay tuned for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation.

If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents

Read articles by Vijay Dhasmana:

Aravallis – Land Art BDP article (1)

LA-48 V-Dhasmana Arvali-Biodiversity-Park

Vijay can be contacted at:vijay.dhasmana@gmail.com

 


Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salvador Lyngdoh: Wolf Biologist from the Himalayas. Ep # 2

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Show notes. (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re listening to Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #2. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for exciting interviews and inspiring stories that keep you connected to our natural world.

My guest on Ep #2 is a man I first heard of in a high altitude Himalayan desert in Himachal Pradesh. A place, called Spiti. His name is Salvador Lyngdoh, I went to Spiti to look for wolves. Every time I asked the locals where I could spot a wolf, the name Salvador cropped up. Everyone knew Salvador as the man who collars wolves. I saw my wolf but I finally caught up with elusive Salvador at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun -very close to Landour, which is home of this podcast.

As you may have gathered, Salvador Lyngdoh is a scientist.  His work focuses on conservation of large carnivores in the Indian Himalayas. He is also involved with local communities and in assessing the socio-economic dependence and conflict in the region pertaining to large carnivores particularly wolves. He is also studying the interaction between traditional herder communities and wild ungulates in the region. He also teaches and trains various target groups at the WII. I have to warn you… this was a Skype interview.

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Salvador.  I am so happy you made the time, –many times today– to talk to me. Thank you.

Salvador Lyngdoh: Yeah…

Lalitha Krishnan: Salvador could you briefly tell us about your current project at Wildlife Institute of India? You also mentioned that you research carnivores in Arunachal Pradesh. Could you also tell us a little bit about that?

Salvador Lyngdoh: I joined the wildlife Institute around 10 years back as a student and I started my first project on large carnivores particularly the Asiatic wild dog –that was way back in 2009. We tried to understand the conservation status of the wild dogs in Arunachal Pradesh –how the species was distributed, and what kind of conflicts and threats the species faced in that part.

As you know the wild dog, is also an endangered species and it is estimated that less than 2500 mature individuals of wild dogs exist out there in the wild. Not much is known about the species- their distribution and strength. I started with that work initially and then on (I) moved on to another piece of work, which was in the highlands of Spiti – the trans-Himalayan part where I got introduced to wolves. With my senior colleague, Dr. Bilal, we started looking at wolves and tried to understand wolves in that landscape. During that course (of time), I have been trying to do some other work -some studies on snow leopards, some studies on clouded leopards as well. My work has been mostly in the Himalayan states. I’m particularly interested in carnivores in the Himalayas and looking at the ecology, the kinds of conservation threats and understanding more about these carnivores in human-dominated landscapes.

Lalitha Krishnan:: I don’t know how many people have even heard about these wild dogs in Arunachal Pradesh.  Is it the same ‘dhole,’ that you get in Karnataka or is it a different wild dog?

Salvador Lyngdoh: In fact, this is the same species of dhole. Dholes are very well distributed all throughout South East Asia and also much of Asia and even in the northern latitudes as well. It is actually, the same species of Dhole that is there in the southern part and central part of India. But at the sub-species level, some variation or differences in terms of its coat colour or those kinds of minor aspects exist. But on a large level, in biological science, we always recognize things at the species level. At the species level, it is the same dhole that is there down south, in central India or Arunachal Pradesh or in the Malayan peninsula or even in the higher latitudes, that is parts of Russia and parts of Tibet, and all of that.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great to know. I was thinking we should come back to start talking about wolves. One rarely sees wolves in India. As a public, we hardly know anything about them except for those the big bad wolf myths that we have been fed in fairytales etc. Would you tell us about the wolves species in general, the ancestry and about the species that exist in India or all of Asia?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolf in India is a very unique species. I’ll first start from where wolves are in the world. The wolf is probably the only terrestrial animal that has the largest distribution around in the northern hemisphere of the world. You cannot think of a single place where the wolf has not been distributed. Wolves are everywhere. Over the last century or so, wolves have been extirpated or have been eliminated or been persecuted heavily in many parts of Europe, the Americas, and in Asia as well.

What is unique to the wolf of the Indian part and of the Himalayan part, – extending it to China and Tibet, is that these wolves are of very ancient lineages. These wolves are much older than other wolves that are there in the world. So, when we look at that, these wolves have a very unique lineage and they have been well accustomed to this ecological setting that is there in India and the Himalayas. That way these wolves are unique.

We have two sub-species of wolves that exist in India – one is the Indian wolf, sometimes called the ‘Planes’ wolf’ which is there in the Deccan plateau, and (found) much south and also towards the East (it) was reported until parts of Bihar and West Bengal also. The other subspecies of the wolf is the Himalayan wolf, which is found largely in the high altitude regions. The Himalayan wolf is sometimes also confused with the Tibetan wolf, which is there in large in parts of Tibet and is also synonymous or confused also with the Mongolian wolf. But there is a lot of debate about the status of these wolves. Biologists and taxonomists like to delineate everything by species or that concept. But these species of wolves are continuously being debated about because of the unique habitat they have adapted to and because of their ancient sort of lineage that they have. They have often been proposed as a separate species – not as the same holarctic wolves that we say are in Eurasia or North America. These other wolves are much recent in time than our Indian wolves and Himalayan wolves. In that way, these wolves are much older but, lesser known, than the other wolves around the world. Wolves have been extensively researched and yet extensively persecuted as well in many parts of the world.  But in the Indian context, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of understanding wolf ecology and in terms of conservation of wolves as well.

Lalitha Krishnan: So evolutionarily speaking we’re saying the wolf has existed for a very long time but in the same breath, we’re s saying we don’t know enough about it. What could be the reason for that in our part of the world?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The reason we know less about the wolves in (our) world is that we have not looked at wolves in that context as we have looked for other species- for example, tigers or leopards or other charismatic species. Or even snow leopards which share the same landscape in the region. So, there is very little interest in wolves or understanding wolves in these parts.  Secondly, as you said, in the beginning, wolves are always considered as being a species that is always there. Often it is considered as a pest, often it is demonized and there are a lot of antagonistic views about wolves –these are some of the reasons not much attention has been paid to wolves.

Over the last few years, we started to realize that the populations of these wolves are declining. We didn’t know of the uniqueness of these wolves until 10 or 15 years back when some studies were conducted by researchers.  We came to realize that these wolves were uniquely placed in that whole evolutionary space. That’s when we also realized, that some more effort needs to be put into studying and conserving the wolf species. In the long run, we should not lose a species that we did not even realize existed or we need to take care of.

Lalitha Krishnan: You mentioned earlier, you’ve travelled across the trans-Himalaya and actually radio-collared wolves.  How does that even happen? How do you get close to a wolf? And what have we learned about wolves after radio-collaring them?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolf is such an interesting species. If you look at the wolf, it’s hard to imagine human civilization without the wolf. It’s from a very close relative of the wolf that we have the domestic dog. (It’s because of the dog that human civilization exists). The dog has done so much for us. It’s something like that drove this research in the beginning.

When you want to do scientific research, –when you want to go and study wolves in that particular landscape– there are a bunch of tools and a bunch of methods and equipment by which you can do that. An interesting way we can do this kind of study is if we can see how these wolves move and use their space. With the advancement of technology now, we can do that by fitting them with a radio collar of certain radio frequencies. With the advent of GPS technologies and satellites, we can get timely movements and know how these animals move.

That way you can understand the movements of these animals very closely. That led us to actually try to locate wolves, to find out where they are and to capture them and fit them with a radio collar. Once you do that, you get a lot of information on how far they move, how fast they move. What they do during the summer.  What they do during the winter. When you get that kind of information, you can understand how to prioritize your landscapes and try to see which landscape or which part of the landscape these wolves are usually dependent on or stay on for a longer time and understand about their seasonal movements. All of that gives you better insights on how to conserve the species. Also, it helps you work with field level managers suggest the areas that they need to prioritize. You can tell them which areas are crucial for the survival of the species, its prey and to some extent, limit conflict.

You were talking of how the wolf has a negative connotation on many peoples’ minds. This is because of conflicts that happen because of large carnivores like wolves. They prey on livestock- sheep, and goat. That is why people have negative views towards them and in retaliation, many of them go out and kill wolves. If you can understand how they move, where they move, and prioritize those landscapes, in the long run, you can provide alternative measures by which you can reduce the conflicts at least.

Lalitha Krishnan: When you radio-collar a wolf are you in theory radio collaring the whole pack? Since wolves move in packs, I was wondering if by radio-collaring you get any indication of the population size… apart from their movements that is?

Salvador Lyngdoh: The wolves like you said are pack-living animals. That means they move in groups and the groups can vary from 2-3-4 and even 14 sometimes. In that landscape, I have seen up to 14 wolves also. When you actually radio-collar a wolf and track its movements it is often assumed that these are the movements of the pack in that area. It can be an indicator of how big the territory or size of the home range of the wolves is but it cannot conclusively tell you about the population. For that, you have to survey through other techniques and means that are available. It can certainly tell you for e.g. that if the wolves are travelling through a very, very large area then that means there’s very low availability of food resources for them. Hence, they may be moving over large spans of an area. But if they tend to move in a closer or smaller area, then you can say to some extent, that the resources they need are available in that area. In the case of the Himalayan wolf — as you know, the Himalayan landscape is a very harsh landscape. In that area, which is also a cold desert, it’s also a landscape where there is low prey density of prey and where low human density tends to be low. When you look at the whole context or ecology of that place, you can say that it can only support so much. Wolves in that area do move over large areas – often 20-30 kms. in one day. The population I would say, from our observation, is low in that area; just judging by how much the wolves move. But, we really don’t know how many wolves or packs or wolves are there in that huge area.

Lalitha Krishnan: It sounds like a lot of work – collaring and monitoring wolves. Do you know if wolves in countries around us are also being collared around Asia?

Salvador Lyngdoh: In Asia, there are wolves that are being collared for studies in parts of Iran and those parts. There are wolves, which have been collared in parts of Mongolia. In India, we’d have previous studies on Indian wolves in parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat –we’ve had wolves collared there also.  Even in UP, there were studies where wolves have been collared. In the context of the Himalayan wolf, this is probably the first study where we are trying to understand the ecology of these wolves in these landscapes.

In terms of wolf research by and large in the Asian context—if you want to ask that question also—we have limited studies in terms of wolf research but we have many studies in the Asian context on the many different aspects of large carnivores and their prey. But in terms of wolf research, we may have very limited studies.

Lalitha Krishnan: I read the article you wrote; ‘The Secret Lives Of Himalayan Wolves’ where you talk about Leika and Kunzum, the wolves that you radio-collared. What was that like? It sounds like such a personal experience…such an unusual experience.

Salvador Lyngdoh: Leika was the first wolf that we had collared in a small village in Spiti valley. The collaring itself was a very difficult exercise because wolves are so clever and so intelligent. You can understand why people love them also and for the same reason hate them. They are very intelligent, they have a very strong sense of everything-of smell-and they gauge things very well.  Collaring wolves has been very difficult but at the same time, it has been very fulfilling just to catch a wolf in that particular landscape because the landscape itself has been very harsh. You have a lot of physiological limitations as well when you work in that landscape. We would put our traps and baits, and we would wait and try for several days to catch a wolf. At the heart of it, we must also be very careful and be very concerned—as we were at that very point of time—that the ultimate goal is that the animal should never be harmed. If it is done at a high risk to the animal, then the operation itself is meaningless. We were very concerned about these risk factors. Keeping all these things in mind, you had a series of traps laid, you had to have your team ready…you had to have your veterinarians ready so that as soon as you do that operation you get the animal, you put a radio-collar on it and then let it go.  That was a good experience in trying to catch wolves. Once you collared the animal, it was up and ready to go. We had a lot of information that came from the animal. To our surprise—we never knew so many things about these animals. These animals move so far. They move so close to human habitation but very often, they also go really far. This information would not have been possible without technology. That’s the beautiful thing about technology and GPS Telemetry is that if you didn’t have this technology then you probably wouldn’t be able to track that animal or you wouldn’t be able to understand the kind of movements these animals make and how it uses its landscape in that context. With the aid of technology, we could understand a lot of things about these wolves.

I had spent two seasons trying to catch the previous animal (Leika). Similarly, we had collared Kunzum, another female wolf. We went and laid our traps and the next day, lo and behold, we caught a wolf, a very curious wolf that too (Kunsum). Both animals gave us a lot of information. Recently we also managed to catch another wolf for our study. Both the earlier wolves were female wolves and we wanted to also understand how the male wolf moves. We had caught a beautiful male wolf, which helped us understand better, how male wolves move in that landscape.

Lalitha Krishnan: I wanted to ask about the conservation status of the wolf. Why is not listed as an Endangered Species?

Salvador Lyngdoh: There is an international organization called IUCN the International Union for Conservation of Nature by which the wolf is listed as a Least Concern (LC) species because it is well distributed throughout the world. If you look at its status in the world, it’s not listed as an endangered, but, by Indian law, the wolf is protected as a Schedule I species, which puts it at the same list or hierarchy as species like the tiger or the dhole. So, by Indian law, the wolf is supposed to be protected or supposed to be a Schedule I Species.

If you really want to understand the conservation status of the wolves in India, I would say the wolves in India are facing a lot of threats. I think they are declining every day. Their populations are probably declining. Why? This, in fact, needs to be investigated. We need to understand more about wolf populations and conservation threats around the species and also its prey.

Lalitha Krishnan: Have you seen the wolves in the Deccan plateau that we were talking about earlier?

Salvador Lyngdoh: Yeah, In fact, my colleague Dr. Bilal (Habib) and I have an ongoing study also in Maharashtra where we are trying to understand the movements and dispersal of wolves. I have sighted wolves from the central Indian part a couple of times. In that landscape as well, wolves are very unique and very different from the wolves we find up in the Himalayas. In the Himalayas, it’s cold and it’s a harsh terrain so the wolves are well adapted to that. All of those things make the wolf in that particular landscape a very unique wolf – a different wolf altogether. It is sometimes also called the ‘golden wolf’ because it looks golden.

The central Indian wolf, if you look at it, is a wolf that is well adapted to semi-arid conditions or hot conditions and forest conditions to some extent. That wolf is a lean, thin wolf with slender legs. That wolf is mostly grey or darker in colour.

These wolves look different; they’re each, uniquely adapted to the landscape that they represent and each of them has their role in their different landscapes –one in the central Indian part and one in the Himalayan part.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much Salvador. You’ve enlightened us so much about wolves. Is there anything more you’d like to add?

Salvador Lyngdoh: I’d like to share my thoughts on the conservation of species in the environment of the Himalayan context. Over the years in the Himalayas, I have seen a lot of developmental activities…. tourism is booming, infrastructure is coming up… Obviously, even the population or the inhabitants or people who are living there are also gradually getting used to new things. The economy is growing and some of them are changing their lifestyle—there is a lot of change and shift in lifestyles in these particular areas.

In the long run, especially in the Himalayas, if we want to conserve or want to sustain or retain the beauty of the Himalayas, then we need to think deeper into how we can maintain and sustain these landscapes. One good indicator of maintaining and sustaining these landscapes is wildlife. If you have wildlife that is still there and available in these landscapes then that is the best indicator that the landscape is still intact. Once the wildlife is gone from that particular landscape then you can understand a lot of change has happened. If you go to a city you will never see such wildlife and you know that the landscape has changed. The more natural it is or pristine it is, the only way to gauge it/save it is to conserve and try to get your cues from wildlife. Species like the wolf species or species like the snow leopard and many prey species and bird species are good indicators of those aspects.  In fact, this has been proven is many studies which have been conducted in the Americas where restoring wolf populations in a particular park has actually changed the entire ecosystem. This is the story about Yellowstone where direct linkages were found between the wolf presence in that particular park and ecosystem health. Because of the wolves in that particular park, the prey was not overgrazing; because they were not overgrazing—because their population was regulated— the vegetation was able to grow. Because the vegetation was able to grow well, it regulated the soil. Because the soil was being regulated, erosion was reduced. When erosion was reduced, the rivers were clean. Once the rivers were clean, the salmon were doing well. So all of these things are very interconnected. There’s a cascading effect when you look at large carnivore conservation or apex predator conservation. So we need to look at the Himalayas as a very delicate system. It’s often called the Third Pole. We need to understand that what makes that system stable and what sustains that system is the kind of assemblage or these biotic—when I say biotic, I mean, plant species and animal species all combined—and the abiotic—climate and whatever physical conditions combined—make that system very unique.  That way wildlife is a good indicator and wildlife health is a good indicator of an ecosystem or an environment that is good and is healthy at that point in time.

Lalitha Krishnan: Salvador what you said is so significant about taking our cues from wildlife. We’re nearly reaching the end of this episode and as is the tradition—a two-episode long tradition—I request you to share a conservation word or term that you like or you think our listeners might find interesting.

Salvador Lyngdoh: A scientific term that I really like is: ‘keystone’. It’s like the keystone in a house…for an arch. If you have an arch, you have a keystone there. The keystone holds together a lot of things in an arch… if you have a bridge or something. The keystone is the stone that holds together the structure of the bridge. If you remove the keystone the whole bridge and arch collapse. That is one thing –that certain species or elements are keystones for conserving- many things revolve around that. Many things are also connected because of that. For e.g. you have fig species which are keystone species. A lot of animals and birds depend on the fig species.

Sometimes they are also called ‘framework species’- ‘Framework’ as they build the framework for everything. If you have these species in the beginning, then what happens is, ultimately the natural flow come in and it attracts a lot of animals and dispersers…those who feed on it ultimately disperse seeds. That’s how they act as a framework and support the entire framework also.

Keystone is one word I really like when you try to understand ecology in that sense. Sometimes keystone species can be called framework species.

Another term like that which I really like is ‘Trophic cascade’. We were talking of Yellowstone wolves and how they have a cascading effect. At the top level, you have these predators that regulate the prey population …the elk and the moose. In the Indian case for e.g. you have tigers that as top predators regulate a lot of the prey in the ecosystem. That way they control a part of the forest health as well by preventing the prey population from going over the carrying capacity as we call it. That way we try to understand how everything is connected with each other. I’ve given you three words. Keystone, framework and trophic cascade.

Lalitha Krishnan: Those are great words and maybe in our next interview—which we’re sure to have—you can give us three more. Thank you so much Salvador for an amazing and enlightening talk.

Salvador Lyngdoh: You’re welcome Lalitha.

The end.

Lalitha Krishnan:(It’s been a real pleasure and I sincerely hope to have Salvador Lyngdoh on Heart of Conservation podcast again. There are so many more questions I have about wolf conservation.)

If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents

Contact Salvador Lyngdoh:salvadorlyngdoh@gmail.com

Salvador Lyngdoh’s Research gate profile: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Salvador_Lyngdohresearch gate 

Read Salvador Lyngdoh’s Sanctuary Asia’s article on wolves here: http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10694-the-secret-lives-of-himalayan-wolves.html

An article on wolves by Lalitha Krishnan

http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10800-on-the-wolf-trail-lahaul-spiti-to-lower-saxony.html


Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: the only Sherpa Person with a Ph.D. in Anthropology Studying the Sherpa People and Climate Change #1

Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast

Show Notes (edited):                                                                                                                          Dr. Pasang Sherpa:                                                                                                                      Episode #1

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I am speaking to Dr. Pasang Sherpa, a young and passionate cultural anthropologist, from Nepal. She is the only Sherpa with Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas. We are at the Hanifl Centre for Outdoor Education and Environmental Study, in Landour, Uttarakhand, India. Dr. Sherpa is here in the capacity of Professor for Pitt in the Himalaya study abroad programme.

 Her research areas include human dimensions of climate change, indigenous people, and development in the Himalaya. She has worked as a lecturer in the department of anthropology at Penn State University from 2013 till 2015and is currently serving as co-director of Nepal Studies Initiative (NSI) at the University of Washington.

I’ll start with the basic question: What made you pursue cultural anthropology?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I was born and raised in Kathmandu. Growing up I was always fascinated by the differences in my grandmother’ s lifetime, then my mother’s lifetime then mine. I was always interested in learning more about the Sherpa culture and wanted to know how my grandmother lived in village herding cows, farming potatoes and my mother as a young bride came to Kathmandu. Then looking at my own life how I was attending English medium schools and speaking Nepali and not having not having any Sherpa friends actually. So, all of that fuelled my interest in the Sherpa culture and I felt that cultural anthropology would be the right academic discipline for me to learn more.

The Sherpa people are often misunderstood or misrepresented? As a Sherpa would you, agree?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: Yes absolutely. Many people think when they use the word Sherpa, they think it means a trusted guide… and that is how a lot of people use it. Including the assistants to policymakers at important policy meetings like the G8 summit. There’s actually a meeting called Sherpa Meeting for the G8 Summit. The word is also used to mean porters and high altitude guides which is how these occupations are being referred to. But the word ‘Sherpa’ actually comes from the Sherpa language ‘Sherwa’ which means ‘People from the east’ and it is a word that describes our ethnic group.

In your website, you mention being based out of Kathmandu during your Masters and completing a thesis on the Indigenous people of Nepal. Thereon your study progressed to the climate change in the Himalaya. Could you tell us what fuelled your interest in the environment and about that progression?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: In 2008 when I was working on my Masters’ thesis–this was the time when Nepal was becoming a new Nepal as in abolishing the royal Hindu kingdom– people were very excited about rights and equality and freedom of everyone in the country. That led me to look more into social inclusion and indigenous movements.

But then for my Ph.D. what I quickly realized was instead of taking a more national broad view and trying to understand it in that way it was more important for me as an anthropologist to be more specific to a location, a site, and an issue. And, because at that time I was the only Sherpa person studying Sherpa culture–and I think I still am the only Sherpa Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas–it was very important for me to understand what the Sherpas were facing. I come from the Mt. Everest region.

By 2009 when I was starting my Ph.D. programme, in the Everest region, we were hearing a lot about the potential glacial lake outburst flood. This was quite scary actually because if the glacial lake—which was what the scientists and researchers were talking about—if it would flood and if it had flooded my mother’s village would be wiped out. So, this was something very personal to me also. As the first anthropologist from the region but also as somebody who is concerned about my homeland, it was very important for me to look at the climate change aspect of the Sherpa people.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The most challenging part of my research has just been who I am actually. Surprisingly. When I began my work, I thought as a Sherpa person, as a Nepali woman it would be easy for me to meet people, collect information and data and all of that but what I quickly found out again as I was doing my fieldwork as a Nepali woman – and I do look young–if I look young now imagine 10 years ago– many people would just dismiss me as a young woman or not find me as important of a person to talk to. I think those things affected my research but in a different way, opened new ways to be creative about my fieldwork approaches. For example, most of the Sherpa research on Sherpa people previously were focused on men; also men who are very powerful. But most of my work, looking at Sherpa perceptions of climate change in the Everest region and also how various institutions have responded to climate change effects, I ended up looking at people who were previously ignored. Villages, that were not very popular and not very easy to reach for researchers and scientists-which is why they were being ignored.

I also was able to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my aunt, helping her cook meals for tourists and clean. I was not a good cleaner nor a good cook but I tried my best but I think it did open more opportunities for me to listen to actual farmers who go to the fields and who work day and night with potatoes, cabbage and whatever they were growing at that time. And also, I was able to meet with herders–who are very few now–in the Everest region. So in a way, me being a native Sherpa woman in Nepal opened new doors and helped advance Sherpa studies in that sense but on the other hand, it was also extremely difficult for me to work as a female researcher. Not just in the Everest region but more so when I was in Kathmandu, trying to meet with high-level officials. So that was my experience.

You partly answered my next question…which is how difficult is it to be a woman researcher? I understand your point about people not take you seriously or thinking that you’re too young. I wonder if this is typical across Asia or it’s the same story the world over. Also, are there a lot of women researchers out there? 

Dr. Pesang Sherpa: It’s very interesting, to me – everything is interesting because I love learning and knowing. Being a researcher here in South Asia and a young professional in the US has been very interesting. I think India is different because I am only beginning here and I have been meeting people in different capacities as professionals. So not speaking of my India experience but focusing on my Nepal experience, I definitely experienced what a lot of women researchers do – being dismissed and that just comes with the territory. Also, cases of sexual harassment while in the field, it’s a given. You just have to deal with it as a woman researcher.

 That being said, there are quite a few women researchers in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’. In fact, most of my mentors in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’ are females. But, looking at native Himalayan people, there are extremely few women researchers. I wish more people would become professional researchers. There are very inspiring young, youth leaders in the field of environment and conservation so I think in the next ten years we will see more females leading conservation and environmental work in the Himalayas.

You work must have taken to you to exotic and lesser know regions. Is there one experience that stands outs for you?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The thing that comes to mind happened a few years ago. The Everest region is very popular. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Now, in 2018, I think it’s a well-established tourist destination so it’s very easy to have a comfortable time in the Everest region. I want to talk about my experience in west (Nepal), which a lot of people consider remote and rural. Again, ‘remote’ is just a perception. What do you consider rural?

That being said, I remember this one time when we had walked for 16 hours. Some of my colleagues and I wanted to look at old trading routes of northwestern Nepali people going to Tibet. We wanted to see what the route was like…how they travelled and all of that. At around 6:00 pm our vehicle broke down in a flat area with no trees, no shelter or house or anything for kilometers. We had to cross two rivers with no bridge. We’re talking of crossing glacial rivers and icy cold water coming at high speed. We tried to fix the vehicle but it wasn’t happening. Eventually, we gave up and as a group decided to walk. I don’t remember the actual distance but our camp was 17 k away. I do remember—and this is the only time, I’ve done something like this—because there was no bridge, the water was cold and coming at high speed, we had to form a human chain to cross the river. Firstly, we took our clothes off as we didn’t want to get wet and cold. It would be impossible to walk in the night with wet clothes on. We would get sick. So the best idea for us was to take our clothes off, form a human chain and cross the river. And we did that twice. Mind you, we had no food. We were hungry, it was cold, it was windy so I started collecting horse and yak dung to burn in case we needed to start a fire. That was my brilliant idea. We kept on walking. I think some of my friends may have gotten altitude sickness. Another colleague and I were the first to reach the first herder’s hut at 10:00 pm. Luckily it didn’t rain that night and also there was a full moon. We were very lucky with that. Everyone at the herder’s hut was asleep so we had to wake them. I was so grateful to them for giving me butter tea that warmed my body. That experience always stands out for me. We reached the camp at 2:00 am. We got good food and I really enjoyed that dal bath.

Why is what you do you important? In the sense, how does it or will it translate it for ordinary citizens?

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: One thing I have always been very conscious about is making sure of the way I speak, the way I use my professional experience and to present myself in a very relatable and accessible way. What I mean by this is that I try to stay away from theoretical jargons and big academic ideas—not because I think they aren’t important but because I want to be more relatable to the everyday ordinary person outside academia.

I am an academic person and I do continue to pursue academic work and I do continue to write literature but on the other hand, I also actively and consciously, in my day to day life, try to be relatable.

Earlier we were talking about my Master’s research, which was looking at indigenous issues and indigenous concerns in Nepal. Secondly, for my Ph.D. work and postdoctoral work I was looking at climate change and just environmental changes and how it was affecting the people in the mountains. All of these research questions actually come from the experiences of everyday Himalayan people. I am not going after the big, new, theoretical perspective or idea. I am not pursuing those theoretical ideas from within anthropology, the discipline, but rather I find my research questions from the local people or from local experiences. This is why I was led to looking at climate change–which is not something I started with– but later became very important to me just because that is where I am coming from and those are the issues are matter to me as a person.

Dr. Sherpa, where are you at in terms of your own goals?

Dr. Pesang Sherpa: After I finished my education, I worked as a lecturer for two years at Penn State University. I really wanted to be back in the mountains and do more research and so I joined the new school as a postdoctoral fellow and that is where I was able to visit a lot of places in the India, Nepal and the Chinese area some people know as the Kailash sacred landscapes. That is where I spent my most recent time.

In terms of what’s next for me, I am exploring ways to connect to people in different ways. Not just as an academic person but also as a researcher whose work involves what’s relevant to the Himalayan people. I am trying to think more about sustainability and climate change adaptation from the perspective of local people. This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would like to do next. Some of the things, I think, might be very helpful and useful in bringing my research findings to the local communities would be using a different medium. That is why I am so excited about this podcast experience.

I want to start a blog and share some of my research findings immediately. The first thing I would be sharing would be my research findings and work on the Sherpa diaspora. Along with Jim Fisher–another senior anthropologist who studied the Sherpas in the 1960s and built the school where my mother attended–I spent the last few years looking at the Sherpa communities in New York, Colorado

Seattle, India, Nepal trying to understand what Sherpa culture is actually. What Sherpa is and what do we mean by it? Because we’re no longer just in Nepal. The first blog that will come out next year would be focused on that project.

Dr. Sherpa do you have a favourite conservation word or term with us. help us improve our conservation vocabulary.

Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I don’t think it’s my favourite word necessarily but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s the word ‘Anthropocene’. The word ‘Anthropocene’ comes from the ancient Greek word: ‘antropose’ meaning human and ‘cene’ meaning recent. This is referring to the geological epoch and talking about current times when human activity is dominating the earth’s systems. The reason I’m interested in that is that I am spending a lot of time thinking about the Himalayas and why it is scared for us Himalayan people.

I’m also trying to connect this notion of sacred Himalaya with the ways people are thinking globally in terms of anthropocine, the new geological epoch. To me, this is interesting because,  first of all in the Himalayas, nature, and human have always lived together. I don’t think humans are perceived as more important or above the natural world, which is the case for the western way of thinking where humans are considered above nature and control nature. From those ways of human nature relationship, I wonder what and how we can think about ‘Anthropocene’ and how it might be relevant to the Himalaya we know. So I‘m also wondering if it’s relevant. On the other hand, living on this planet-if, we consider ourselves global citizens-it might be important for us to think about what ‘Anthropocene’ is and where the conversations about the Himalayas fit in these larger global discussions of this new geological epoch. So those are the kind of questions that are in my head these days. That’s my word contribution to you.

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Sherpa’s work visit: http://www.pasangysherpa.com/If you think of someone interesting whose story should be shared write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com

Birdsong by hillside residents


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