Footsoldiers, not footnotes: Book sheds light on Arunachal's conservation workers
The book is supported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Guwahati: Their contributions in helping find new wildlife species and inputs in wildlife conservation in remote parts of Arunachal Pradesh are more often buried as acknowledgements or as footnotes in scientific publications.

For the first time, the book: “More than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation Some Stories from Arunachal Pradesh” attempts to bring some of these roles onto the main stage. It is a collection of stories about field assistants whose roles often lie buried as acknowledgements or as footnotes in scientific publications. The biographical-based pieces highlight the valuable contributions made by the local assistants in shaping wildlife research, and how their inputs have helped in wildlife conservation. Field assistants are a core part of every field research project.

The book has been written by wildlife biologists and forest officers who worked in Arunachal Pradesh and is a collection of 16 stories, including 6 women. The book has been edited by Ambika Aiyadurai and Mamata Pandya. Ambika Aiyadurai is an Assistant Professor in the discipline of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar while Mamata Pandya is an independent educator, editor, writer and communication and instructional design consultant. Mamata retired as Senior Programme Director at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), India.

The book, supported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is the first of its kind in India to document the significant role played by the local communities in wildlife research and conservation.

“The story of wildlife conservation in India is not just about scientists and the animals they study; it is also more than that of legal and government initiatives. It is a story that involves many actors, who are often behind the scenes, but whose role is equally significant. Often these roles remain unacknowledged in conservation stories,” Ambika Aiyadurai & Mamata Pandya say in their preface.

Some of the stories are on Jonti Bhaiya: My Family Away from Home” by Aisho Sharma Adhikarmayum, Ajeimai Yun: Gone but not Forgotten” by Ambika Aiyadurai, Dawa Ji: Caretaker, Friend and Guide by Manisha Kumari, Iho and the Dibang team by Sahil Nijhawan and Ihi Mitapo.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the biodiversity hotspots and has attracted a lot of researchers in recent times. Along with the stories of field assistants, the book covers rich information emerging from the state, which not only includes research on magnificent wildlife species such as tiger, takin, and red panda but also on frogs, fishes and gliding squirrels.

“Field-based research along the Sino-India borders and in areas adjacent to Myanmar and Bhutan can be logistically challenging. Therefore, researchers and forest officers often rely on the local communities (village leaders, school teachers, government officials, and host families) who participate in research projects as translators, porters, and guides, identifying animal footprints, counting birds, and fixing camera traps. It is impossible to carry out ecological and social surveys without their tireless support and engagement of field assistants in the process,” the authors say.

“Wildlife researchers often take assistance from the local communities in their study site, who shape their research output in significant ways. The support from the communities, in various forms, comes from village leaders, local NGOs, school teachers, government officials, and host families. Besides this, young men and women from the local community participate in research projects as translators, porters, guides, interlocutors, and research assistants. Community members are often involved in the process of field research in different ways, such as recording animal presence, counting birds, identifying local flora and fauna, and measuring and compiling data. Sometimes, knowledgeable and experienced community members play an important role in suggesting potential sites to fix camera traps, identifying animal footprints, and providing guidance on local geography and terrain in remote regions. This knowledge is critical in designing research plans and their successful implementation,” Ambika Aiyadurai and Mamata Pandya say.

Even though local field assistants are critical to the process of data collection, and providing all-round field support, there is often little or no meaningful engagement with the field assistants once the project ends. Contributions from the local community often lie buried as acknowledgements or as footnotes in the PhD theses, books, reports, and scientific papers. “While researchers publish journal papers, gain fame and receive awards for their field research, there is not sufficient recognition given to the contributions of the field assistants,” the book editors say.

While the stories are about field assistants, they are equally about young researchers, many just starting their journey in the field of research and conservation. Many of them have ventured far from their homes and comfort zones into totally new terrains and cultures. “Their reminiscences capture not only the excitement but also their apprehensions, challenges faced, and good and bad experiences that marked early milestones in their own journey. It is on this journey that the researchers met their field assistants who went far beyond their designated duties to take on the role of mentors, and guides, and ended up becoming life-long friends,” the editors say.

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The field assistants were the first link between the researchers and the study landscapes, communities and culture. “It is from the communities that researchers got insights into the rich traditions and age-old conservation practices that have defined the relationship between people and their forests. The stories include some of the local lore related to animals and forests which has in some ways helped to continue the strong indigenous conservation ethic. These tales give a glimpse of these traditions, as they struggle to co-exist with new developments. The researchers’ stories are at one level deeply personal, but at another level, they raise important issues and concerns,” the editors say.

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