I interned at Keystone in April and May of 2017. I came to the internship as a part of the Urban Fellows Program, at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. The fellowship focused on introducing us to the multiple variables present when trying understand and intervene in urban processes, requiring us to undertake a 2-month internship. Unlike most of my classmates I chose a non-urban area to do my internship and was not directly dealing with issues linked to urban development or urbanization.
With a background in sociology and urban studies, and with no fluency in any south Indian language, in many ways I was less than prepared to work with a conservation organization situated in the Nilgiris. However, in some ways that worked in my favour, as I was introduced to completely new subjects or was able to look at issues I had previously studied from a different perspective, and forced to build my skills in research methods I was generally uncomfortable with.
As a part of my internship I worked with the conservation and research team, focusing on work relating to human wildlife interaction. While a new field for me, there were several aspects I was able to link to my work and studies in urban sociology. Getting the opportunity to add several more layers to my understanding of urbanization and how it takes place in and has varying effects on different contexts and landscapes.
My work at Keystone was largely centered on human-wildlife interaction. I was able to experience and learn about the field, through the various work I undertook during the 2 months.
This included editing existing reports on projects and stakeholder meetings conducted by the conservation team at Keystone. Highlighting the major focus areas and points of discussion, which came up during each of these. That may be used later on to write articles and reports on the work undertaken by the team over the years.
Along with this, I also worked on interpreting data regarding the reporting of human wildlife interactions in newspapers. The data contained news stories from 3 Malayam newspapers covering human wildlife interaction in the Wayand region for a year. Ananlysing the data to identify patterns in the kind of stories picked up by the papers, the animals focused on and the kind of interactions being covered.
While at Keystone a large chunk of my work comprised of gaur monitoring and data collection on gaur behavior. This required me to go out during the mornings and evenings, looking for herds of Gaur that generally moved around the Keystone campus. Once found, I used to note details of the herd and their behavior and conduct scan samples of their activities. Going for these monitoring sessions with other members of the team, I was able to learn about how to carry out animal monitoring and proper quantative data collection regarding their movement and activities. This not only gave me an opportunity to take part in a very different kind of fieldwork than I was used to, but also allowed me to explore the landscape and understand the changes that have occurred in it over the years.
The gaur, commonly known as the Indian bison though not actually a bison, is indigenous to the region. Although not much work has been done regarding it in the Western Ghats. This could possibly due to the fact that, they usually live in heavily forested areas, and being herbivores have never been a threat to the indigenous communities living in the area. While in other parts of India and South East Asia, where Gaur are found, they have been victims of poaching due to the consumption of their meat, in the Western Ghats this has not been the case. Rather it is only in the last 5-10 years that accounts regarding their interactions with humans have risen. In this time period there have been many more sightings and instances of Gaur coming out of the forest and being found in human inhabited areas. With daily sightings of them in various parts of Kotagiri in the last few years. Several reasons have been attributed to this shift in their living and grazing patterns. Discussing these with various people also exemplified the various attitudes people have towards the gaur and their interactions with them.
The loss of forest cover in the area, and the decline of food and water available to the gaur was one of the main reasons to explain their venturing into the town. While the Gaur do not eat the major crop in the area- tea, they do graze and browse on many of the trees, grasses, shrubs, and vegetable crops. In order to deter the Gaur from coming into their property many residents and farmers had put up fences, which were often broken down or jumped over by the Gaur. This created an antagonist relationship between the animal and people, as people saw them destroying property and leading to economic losses. Making the animal seem like more of a threat. In the case of the animal, the fences coming up often blocked the paths used by them, causing them to either damage property or look for alternative routes that may go through someone else’s property or take them further away from water, food and shelter.
For me this was a very interesting dynamic as it reminded me of the work done on gated communities in cities. On how the creation of walls and fences to keep one section of people out, further deepened class antagonism and had an effect on issues of threat perception and safety.
The work, thus, not only introduced me to new concepts and ideas, but allowed me to think of things I had studied in a new light. Often expanding my understanding to different species and landscapes I hadn’t considered earlier. Along with, building a greater knowledge of different species and the need to consider them, when thinking about expanding urban spaces and their effects on those around.