Sunday, March 22, 2009

Surviving surveys

Most first timers who embark on ambitious projects to survey northeast India soon discover that the skills necessary here are slightly different than in most other parts of India. Surveying here, depends less on your grasp of wildlife and ecology and more on how you handle a relentless line-up of 'spanners' in your work and a fantastic variety of colourful and motley characters. This rich variety of characters is rumored to be even more species rich than the ecological wealth of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot situated northeast India.
With my considerable experience of 'spanners' and 'characters' from previous experiences, I had already prepared myself and slipped into the 'shit happens' mode. For the curious newcomer, this is a physical and mental state that is brought on by the enlightening and tranquil-inducing acceptance of the fact that sooner or later, you are going to be, well… basically screwed. Once you accept the fact, and in fact even start looking forward to it, it can be a strangely fulfilling time for your spiritual development. Each time you listen to the news on radio, you expect a strike (bundh, if you prefer), each planned meeting with a forest department official you expect him to be out of office 'on tour', and every time you see your rucksack loaded onto the back or top of the bus, you expect it to be your last glimpse of it. But soon, all the hard work will pay off and it becomes second nature to expect the worst. When it does come finally, there is a sense of immense happiness and you are able to react to it in much the same way that a Zen monk might have.
Most forests in northeast India are under community control, so it’s a no-brainer that if you are planning to survey a lot of areas, you'll have to meet a lot of people. But some of the more pristine (very inappropriate word for most places) patches of forests are government controlled 'Protected Areas'. To do anything there, you'll have to meet the Forest Department.
Aaah! The Forest Department!
Some of the best campfire stories that I have heard from my wildlife biologist friends have not been about wildlife, but about colourful encounters with entities in the forest department. Personally, some of the best times I have had, have been with forest guards, the lowest rung in the battered old bureaucratic machine. They can be especially good drinking partners, although you need to be prepared to listen to a whole litany of grievances. Dealing with the top dogs can however be a little tricky (ranging from a game of chess to a game of Russian roulette).
The case gets even more interesting if you want to do any one of the three forbidden C's. Those are a strict no-no. Any reference to them will usually elicit a response that is more spontaneous and instinctive rather than voluntary or learned. Years of conditioning have taught them to go straight back into their carapaces at the slightest mention of the three C's - Capture, Collect and Camp.
Thou shalt not capture any animal/bird/insect
Thou shalt not collect any biological specimen may it be a plant/animal/insect/shit/tissue (a friendly warning.. Don’t ever ever say tissue)
Thou shalt not camp inside the forests of the Protected Area, no matter how large it is and how difficult areas are to access.
Yet, that’s not all. As someone said "the true source of our ignorance is this - that our knowledge can only be finite while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite"
I learnt something more about the immense swathes of ignorance that I possess. I had discovered a companion to the three C's. It was called Crowd.
A survey for the Slow Loris, a nocturnal primate would necessarily have to be conducted only at night when we would go around with torches looking for its characteristic orange eye shine.
An innumerable range of miseries ranging from rogue elephants to armed robbers and insurgents apparently awaited us if we went tramping into the forest at night.
Not Good.
The solution? Take a whole goddamned regiment of forest guards, beat officers, drivers and even the casual hanger-on. In short, a Crowd.
Not Good. Not Good at all.
As expected, the lorises just weren't biting. Can you blame it if there are eight guys, three guns, five torches, plenty of bidis and generous doses of amusement?
There it was. I had finally found my 'spanner'. Atleast the first one, that is.
Enter Zen Monk. Take a break. Speak to the motley bunch. Explain the necessity for silence. Drop a few names. Promise a pack of cigarettes to the first guy who spots a Loris.
There is a distinct improvement in the proceedings. There is some silence and even the driver has stopped fiddling with his mobile.
I switch back to 'shit happens' mode.


Karthik said...

I'm breaking the rule man... I want to say that i really like this post!
Lets do the third 'C' sometime soon!

Ragini Puri said...

Wow! As a nature/forest lover I absolutely loved the post, though I understand that it is more of a rant written under great duress! :D

Do you work for the forest department? Please share more stories about travels/travails. Thanks for sharing this post!

Ragini Puri said...

about your* travels/travails.

Dawgmatix said...

Hey Ragini,
Thanks a ton for stopping by at this blog and glad you liked it! I'm not with the forest department (Phew!) but a PhD student working on wildlife in Arunachal. I spend most of the year in field, and this blog has some of my earlier experiences in Mizoram and Garo Hills too. If you look around, you'll find plenty of travels, travails and rants ;-) I definitely recommend this