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From footnotes to the forefront: a note of gratitude to invaluable field assistants (book review)

Essential, but often unacknowledged, field work in wildlife and conservation biology in India has long been made possible by the innumerable field assistants helping researchers. A new anthology, More Than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation, pays tribute to the field assistants of Arunachal Pradesh, whose presence and work has made it possible for scientists to explore and study its biodiversity. The book includes professional and philosophical reflections of various scientists, who often forged life-long friendships with their field assistants and emphasises the importance of giving them their due recognition and credit. R.S.C. Jayaraj and Shagufta Ahmed review the book that has documented many such instances of the invaluable assistance provided by field assistants in Arunachal Pradesh

In any field-oriented research, the people in the field who have lived there for generations provide great insights, which can easily escape the notice of even a trained scientist. It is often the common beliefs, practices and customs of the indigenous communities that are validated and provided a scientific outlook by the scientists. This is true of biodiversity research as well, where the scientists try to document the unknown. What they document may be unknown to science, but they are part of the myth and stories of the indigenous people and their culture, very often brushed aside as superstition or unexplained practices of “primitive” minds.

In Northeast India, especially Arunachal Pradesh, a large part remains unexplored due to its remoteness, difficult terrain and the necessity of multiple permissions from various authorities being a state located on the international border. The cultural diversity and the multiplicity of dialects make communication difficult in remote regions. In this context, the services of the field assistants who are familiar with the terrain and people, who provide the means of communication and also necessary field assistance, become invaluable.

The book, More Than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation, edited by IIT Gandhinagar anthropologist Ambika Aiyadurai and children’s author Mamata Pandya, has documented many such instances of invaluable assistance provided by the field assistants in Arunachal Pradesh. Many researchers tend to mention this essential contribution of field assistants in the acknowledgment portion at the end of the publication and these are generally lost sight of as footnotes. The title aptly mentions that they are “more than just footnotes” and the book goes on to elaborate on the role played by various research assistants, as narrated by the scientists or the forest officers who had availed the services.

Aggerbhai aka Chungger Medo worked with conservation biologist Anirban Datta-Roy in Upper Siang District
while pursuing his PhD. They formed a lasting bond and became friends for life. Aggerbhai’s knowledge of wildlife,
farming, and cultural practices was instrumental in Datta-Roy’s thesis on traditional hunting and shifting cultivation
practices among the Adi of Upper Siang. Photo: Anirban Dutta-Roy.

United in their love of wildlife
When we read the various accounts, it is really touching to know that the scientists from outside the region and the local field assistants have formed lifelong bonds, cutting across regions and linguistic barriers, bound together only by the love of nature, and mutual respect for their cultures.  The account of Aisho Sharma Adhikarimayum, about the close relationship with his field assistant Jonti Mikhu and how his knowledge of the terrain and culture of the people helped document the wildlife of Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, and the hunting practices of the Idu Mishmi tribe is fascinating.  The study recorded the first report of a tiger at an altitude of 3630 metres above sea level, the highest in the Indian part of the Eastern Himalayas.

The account of Ambika Aiyadurai with her assistant Ajeimai Yun in recording the hunting practices of the Kman Mishmi Tribe shows how a researcher has to approach the indigenous tribes, who may be suspicious of the intentions of the scientist. Aiyadurai succeeded in gaining the confidence of the local people thanks to the efforts of Ajeimai Yun.  Sadly, Ajeimai Yun passed away after a month of completion of the fieldwork and, in gratitude, Aiyadurai dedicated her dissertation to her lifelong friend. The social, economic and cultural factors related to hunting by the Adi Tribe are brought out by Anirban Datta-Roy thanks to the extensive conversations with the village residents, arranged by the ever-jovial Aggerbhai who himself was an expert hunter.

Documentation of available information on Kamlang Tiger Reserve and promoting tourism in the area for livelihoods by Cheshta Singh, a forest officer posted there, was possible due to her close interaction with local communities. Now, Kamlang has a Tiger Conservation Foundation due to the efforts of Cheshta Singh in mobilising the people for conservation.

Ajaimai Yun, of Anjaw District, was Ambika Aiyadurai’s field assistant and friend. She belonged to the Kaman Mishmi
Tribe and her rich knowledge of forests and culture helped shape Aiyadurai’s research. She passed away in 2008 and
Aiyadurai dedicated her dissertation to her. Photo: Ambika Aiyadurai.

Long-term impacts
The experiences of three other forest officers, Koj Rinya, Tana Tapi and W. Longwah, have also been well documented. Koj Rinya was successful in working with people in preparing working plans, creating village reserve forests and Anchal forest reserves, creating of wild orchid conservation trail in the Tale Wildlife Sanctuary and various outreach programmes. The importance of making the conservation programmes participatory and collaborative is highlighted by her work. Longwah has utilised his experience in tiger conservation at the national level in mobilising the support of the Idu Mishmi Community in Dibang Valley in conserving tigers. His work showed the necessity of the Forest Department directly engaging with the local communities to remove misconceptions and help in research and conservation. Tana Tapi has narrated the success of replacing the hornbill beaks in the traditional headgear of the Nyishi Community with artificial fibreglass beaks and also of the hornbill nest adoption programme, which was possible due to his close interaction with the local community.

Janaki Mohanachandran’s work involved diverse communities with cultural differences and her interaction with the assistants in the field was also varied, some cordial and some not so. But all these interactions only led her to a deeper understanding of cultural differences and their implications for conservation. Jayanta Kumar Roy benefitted greatly from the local knowledge of his assistants, Regon, Ahi and Gapo, leading to many discoveries of amphibians in Dibang Valley.

Lakpa Tamang worked with Vidya Atkore on numerous fish surveys. He has proficient fishing skills. He has published 12 new
species of fish from Arunachal with his colleagues and mentors. Photo: Vidyadhar Atkore.

Manisha Kumari, researching the non-timber forest products of Mandala Phudung Khellong Community Conserved Area, was lucky to have Dawaji, the multifaceted person as her guide, who assisted her in mapping the survey areas, identified plants, helped in organising meetings and took field measurements, besides narrating various myths about spirits inhabiting the forests. They remained connected even after the project, till Dawaji died due to an attack by a black bear. The study of the takin, by Mohan Sharma, in the Idu Mishmi landscape led to a lifelong friendship with his field assistant Kanki Miri, who was a cultural ambassador for his tribe sharing the traditional knowledge to enrich the research.

The book narrates the experiences of many such researchers and their assistants in the field, thus documenting the contributions of those who otherwise generally end up as footnotes. It can inspire researchers to suitably acknowledge the contributions of field assistants in the future. It is also good documentation of the traditional knowledge of the tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, which can help in formulating policies and programmes for conservation with the involvement of the communities.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/