Postcard from India Part 2

The European Cemetery, Bangalore

I intended to post this from Bangalore, but the combination of impending Christmas holidays for Australians, and a few too many things to do, has meant a slight delay. On my last day in Bangalore, Indian friends and colleagues helped me find the grave of my great great grandfather, who was buried there (in the ‘European Cemetery’) in 1905. I have family who lived and died all over India during a two hundred year love affair with the country, and next visit hope to track down some more family sites while also exploring potential research field locations in the Western Ghats.


The Indian mountain chain of the Western Ghats is one of the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots. It was listed by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Area in July 2012, as a ‘serial nomination’ of 39 separate sites, all existing national parks.

There is no doubt that the Western Ghats meets the criteria for ‘outstanding universal values’ as described by UNESCO. The mountain chain extends almost unbroken for 1,500 kilometres from north to south parallel to the coastline of the Arabian Sea, and through six Indian states. It has almost unprecedented levels of biodiversity and endemism: nearly 4,000 species of flowering plants or about 27% of India’s total; 225 described species of reptiles, of which 62% are endemic; over 500 species of birds and 120 species of mammals. It has the largest global populations of the Asian elephant, and possibly of other mammals such as tiger, dhole, and gaur. The Western Ghats is also the origin of wild relatives of a number of cultivated plants, including pepper, cardamom, mango, jackfruit and plantain.

The listing however was despite IUCN, the expert body which carried out the assessment of its values, recommending that the World Heritage Committee should defer consideration of lndia’s nomination, partly on the basis of inadequate inclusion of 40 officially recognized tribal groups’ concerns and rights. Many of these tribal groups use the forests for hunting and other livelihood activities, and made a formal protest to UNESCO. However, India argued successfully in the St Petersburg meeting that the nomination should proceed.

2012 was the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, and there is still no process for formal representation of Indigenous interests. I have written a chapter analysing relationships at Uluru for a forthcoming book examining Indigenous interactions with World Heritage processes, to be published by IWGIA. AUSCCER postgrad Nick Skilton recently examined the current proposal for World Heritage listing for Cape York, and identified similar concerns about sites, boundaries, tenure and power. There is a growing sense that World Heritage listing is about national egos and pride – the Committee itself is increasingly politicized, and the nomination and assessment processes sometimes perceived as inadequate. Indian representatives raised concerns with the lack of Indian experience of the IUCN review teams, and their tight timetables. There are moves to create assessment teams with at least regional experience.


From the macro scale of the Western Ghats, I have also been discussing the fine-grained relationships between people and nature at the scale of individual rural houses and the anthropogenic landscapes that surround them. Lesley Head has explored this relationship in Australia in a variety of contexts. One of my collaborators in India, bio-geographer Meera Anna Oomen, is from Eraviperoor, a farming community in Kerala, and her family have been documenting the species who share space with them.

Kerala  is a very interesting state – it has a literacy rate of more than 90% and strong support for women’s rights. Seventy percent of the population is rural, and there have been significant processes of land reform that have given many rural people some level of land security. It is a centre for the medical system known as Ayurveda (argued to be the oldest surviving medical system in the world) and is also spectacularly beautiful.

Rusty Spotted Cat – the smallest member of the cat family, common in Eraviperoor, Kerala

These agricultural landscapes provide effective habitat for many species. M.O Ipe and his daughter, Ashley Mary Ipe, have so far recorded 20 mammals, 162 birds, 23 reptiles and 44 native fish within the village area of Eraviperoor. For these ‘rich interspecies communities’ their presence is more than a substitution of a ‘natural’ habitat for a human constructed one. There are particular relationships between lots of these species and the human occupants that in many cases are millennia old. These relationships are at once deeply cultural and intensely practical, which is in some ways a hallmark of some Indian relationships to animals.

Early photo of a Kheddah operation

The domestic scale relationships link to the wider landscape relationships. There is currently intense discussion on the issue of human-wildlife conflict in a number of areas, with species including elephants. While Jamie Lorimer has written on this in Sri Lanka, there are interesting further complexities. One just published proposal in Karnataka involves capturing ‘problem elephants’ using a high-tech kheddah operation. The kheddah was introduced to southern India from the north-east by the colonial administrator G.P. Sanderson, and essentially herds wild elephants into a stockade, using kumkies, tame elephants. Current proposals involve a revival of the unique knowledge of local/tribal kheddah experts, combined with the use of immobilizing drugs to minimize injuries. One of the possible AUSCCER collaborations is an examination of whether the elephant knowledge of Kuruba tribal people can help address these elephant-human conflict situations.

AHOKA TRUST FOR RESEARCH IN ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT   (ATREE)        In my last week in India week I gave a seminar at the Indian NGO ATREE, overviewing Aboriginal involvement in conservation in Australia. ATREE has just been listed as one of the top 30 environmental think tanks in the world, and its work has many similarities to AUSCCER.

ATREE in Bangalore

The researchers and other staff have recently moved into a beautiful purpose-built office building on the outskirts of Bangalore. Some of the food served in the staff canteen is grown on the grounds, and the building has extensive landscaped open-air meeting and working spaces. It is currently set in farmland – coconut trees and buffaloes, squirrels and monkeys, on the edge of a small village – but Bangalore is developing so rapidly that the surrounding landscape will likely be large residential buildings very soon. In an interesting connection to my hunting research (paper forthcoming in Environmental Humanities), an Indian colleague told me about a displaced tribal group, the Narikuravas, who now in part subsist by hunting urban wildlife, harvesting the ubiquitous squirrels with slingshots and snares, and removing beehives from high rise buildings in Bangalore.

Bangalore is a centre for research on environment and society, with significant NGOs like ATREE and Dakshin  (who hosted my visit, and have provided much assistance), to major academic research organisations like the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute for Science, who also hosted my visit. Also here are the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and close by in Mysore is the Nature Conservation Foundation who also have a great blog. I have met people from all these organisations and more, and we are currently developing a program of future collaborative research.


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