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War And Peace In The Himalaya

War And Peace In The Himalaya

As primate ecologist Himani Nautiyal comes to the end of a year-long study on the central Himalayan langur in the Mandal valley, she shares her notes on conflict mitigation and communities in this Himalayan paradise.

Sometimes, an individual researcher can make an actual change in the field of conservation, just like a small ripple can transform itself into powerful wave, demonstrating an unimaginable raw force of nature. In India, several researchers are working on different species to understand their ecology and save critical habitats. But truly, how many of them think about the people who are sharing that habitat with these animals and facing problems because of them. Blaming the ‘locals’ for human-wildlife conflict solves very little, it’s important to understand why they do what they do and under the circumstances behind human actions. Therefore, it is better to have scientifically planned studies investigating the issues behind the problem and then suggest ways to minimize them. When we start framing our study in a certain area, we typically include different factors like the animals we want to work on, and the habitat they are living in, but we  tend to neglect the humans, yes ‘the local people’ who are dependent on the forest for their basic needs. The local people living in or around a forest alongside wildlife have a great impact on the overall biodiversity of a particular area. Why then, don’t we consider humans, the forest and animals together as one integrated entity? Is it too challenging to consider human beings as an integral part of an ecosystem? I know you must be thinking that it’s too tough to study both humans and wildlife in a short period of time. It’s difficult, but believe me, it’s not impossible. This is the story of what I learnt in my study area in the Indian Himalaya.

Monkeying Around In Mandal Valley

I spent one year in the beautiful Mandal valley, situated in the lap of the Garhwal Himalaya.  The valley is blessed by the extreme beauty of these mountains, and seems to have been carefully handcrafted by the universal creator with the sole objective of creating something so beautiful that it can’t be explained in words. Here, I started working on the least studied species of langur, the central Himalayan langur Semnopithecus schistaceus. I am possibly the first person to delve into the details of the ecology of this primate, and I studied them in different habitats, one of which was a village where langurs frequently raided crops. When I studied this langur troop, I realized that it’s crucial to know what people think about the langur and how they are affected by their crop raiding. With this motivation, I did a survey across the entire valley, which includes six villages and 215 households. I asked them a few basic questions about the problems they face with langurs and what they think about them, to better understand how this conflict influences their view on wildlife. I asked about their socioeconomic status, to better understand just how deeply their lives are impacted by crop raiding. I was surprised to learn that all those surveyed were in agreement that crop raiding by langurs is a relatively recent phenomenon, starting between 10 to 15 years ago.

Through my survey, I found that the people of Mandal valley are educated, but with few employment opportunities in the mountains.  This increases their dependency on natural resources. During the survey, one lady, a widow, admitted that she poisoned six langurs because they were destroying her orchard, the only source of income to pay the school fees of her son studying in the city. Situations liked this pose a dilemma. What should be done?  Do we ignore the incident and continue with our research at the cost of losing a few more langurs every year? Or do we report this lady to the Forest Department, charge her under the Wildlife Protection Act and let her son suffer alone?

As a researcher and conservationist, I wanted to identify the factors fueling this conflict and then develop solutions to address it.

An Answer In Oak

As I interacted with the villagers of Mandal valley and studied the langurs who share natural resources with them, I discovered that oak Quercus leucotrichophoru was a key factor in the increasing conflict. To learn more, I delved into all available literature on the subject and found oak to be the ‘Kalpavriksha’ of the Garhwal Himalaya. Oak is the dominant species in the region, and local people living in remote villages are dependent on this tree for fuel, livestock fodder and as material to make agricultural equipment. Remote sensing shows that the forest cover surrounding villages in the Garhwal Himalaya has been degrading rapidly over the past few years. So here is the big question, how is this related to the increase in crop raiding by langurs?  As a primatologist, I have studied the feeding ecology of the langurs that live near the villages in Mandal valley. I found that the oak is the only tree used by the langurs as a sleeping site, and they use only particular oak trees within their home range for this, habitually using the same sites night after night.  Occasionally they will also sleep up on the cliffs, but they will use no other tree species to sleep in. Oak acorns are also a very important source of food in winter when the langurs deliver their young, and therefore are in need of a good diet to nurse their babies. A reduction of oak trees in the surrounding forests attracts them towards the village in search of trees for food and sleeping sites. They have started using the oak trees which are inside the village, and this leads them to a nutritious and easy food resource – crops from the agricultural fields. Availability of sleeping trees and abundant food in the form of crops works like a magnet – attracting langurs to villages.

Trees For Peace

As researchers, we are the ones who best know the habits of our study species. And with increasing engagement with local communities, we also learn about their basic needs and the problems they face due to wildlife conflict. Instead of excluding the locals from research, I feel that engaging with them and understanding their perspective can yield positive results. There’s no doubt that the forest degradation that is driving the langurs to villages is spurred by humans, but humans can also resolve this conflict. Rather than just criticize communities for poor resource management, it will be mutually beneficial to both wildlife and people if researchers outline solutions to peaceful co-existence.

Sometimes, just planting a few trees that are important to the lives of our study species can make a big difference. Like in the case of Mandal valley, I found that the Himalayan Cherry Prunus cerasoides is a favourite food of the langurs. Unfortunately, there are only five or six of these trees inside their territory. The best solution seems to be to work with the local community to restore the langurs’ wild habitat to its past glory. The communities are the guardians of these forests, and once they understand the benefits of restoration ecology, I am certain that they will partner with us on conservation initiatives. I have already started to apply this strategy at my field site, with the assistance of my villager friends, to try and effectively mitigate the conflict they are facing with langurs. Ultimately, as humans, we have the prime responsibility of conserving the resources we need and restoring the nature that we destroy.

So, this is the story of my one year study in Mandal valley.  Of course, to identify and realize long term goals for the successful conservation of this fragile ecosystem, I want to learn much more about the langurs and the interface with the human population. I hope, one day to be the ‘metamorphosing ripple’ in the Garhwal Himalaya for its long term conservation.

Himani Nautiyal is interested in the behavioural ecology of primates and human-non human primate interconnections in the higher Himalayan regions and is a Research Associate with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISc, Bangalore. 

Read more: From The Hills Of The Himalayan Langur

Author: Himani Nautiyal, Sanctuary Asia, April, 2016.


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