The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected, human and non-human alike. This was the theme for our seventh and final week of coursework in Kotagiri. Finally, for the first time since the start of the program in January, I felt I was in my element. The curriculum presented familiar ecological principles with a unique Keystone spin that gave me a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for the human dimensions of ecology and conservation and provided a glimpse into the ways that the Keystone students perceive ecological relationships and conservation challenges. Some activities included tracing a model of an ecosystem network with colored powder and a fascinating Skype lecture from Tamara Ticktin about the theory of social-ecological systems. In this framework, human and ecological systems are presented as separate but linked through a specific set of feedbacks. The expansion of conservation theory to include human systems is a critical step but also complicates management significantly. When working with two complex, dynamic, interrelated systems, how can one determine which elements of each system to target? There is no clear-cut answer, but it is clear that a holistic approach addressing both systems is needed.
By far the greatest highlights of the week were our field trip to Banagudi Sacred Grove and the small-group field ecology exercises we carried out in place of our usual Wednesday field trip. Stepping from ordinary Nilgiri tea plantations and farmlands into the dense cover of the Banagudi Grove felt like falling into another world. We were met by an entirely new chorus of birds and dense, green vegetation teeming with wildlife. Wyatt and I saw a pair of elusive Black-and-orange Flycatchers and no less than four Indiangiant squirrels. While in the grove, we were asked to observe with all of our senses and take note of invasive plant species we saw. While the grove initially appears pristine to an outside observer, it is clearly not exempt from human influence. Still, I am very impressed by how well the community has been able to protect their grove, and my experience there gives me great hope for the potential of community-based conservation schemes. I only wish I could have stayed there longer!
Our Wednesday field exercisesincluded joining the Keystone gaur monitoring team on their daily rounds around Kotagiri, vegetation surveys in Longwood Shola, ethnoecological household interviews, and streamside ecological restoration work. I worked with the gaur team, and I was thrilled. I had originally hoped to assist with gaur monitoring for my research project, and I was deeply disappointed when I learned that was not an option. Working with the gaur team even for a day didn’t remedy this disappointment but at least helped to satiate my wildlife ecologist’s cravings. I learned about their protocols for tracking, counting, and behavioral observations and how to determine the age and sex of gaur from appearance. Rising early to track gaur through misty tea plantations and shola patches was nothing short of magical and will certainly remain among my fondest memories from the program.
One of the greatest lessons I have had to learn in the NFLC so far is how to be flexible and cope with frustration. Almost nothing has gone as I anticipated, and every day is filled with unexpected challenges and minor irritations. I’m slowly learning how to stay in the moment and “go with the flow”, but it isn’t easy. The program has pushed me to grow in ways that I never expected and in ways that I think only time will allow me to truly appreciate.