HOTSPOT: The Western Ghats
I arrived in the airport of Coimbatore, India, after a 49-hour journey. My airtrip included 12 hours in Christchurch’s Airport [NZ], 3 hours in Melbourne [AUST], 13 hours in Delhi’s airport [IND], and a stop through Mumbai to finally arrive in the thrumming city of Coimbatore. Upon my noon arrival, I was picked up from the airport by two of my new colleagues at Zoo Outreach… and brought directly to the office for my first day!
I was sent a great, affectionate description of Coimbatore by a family friend. He was both born in Coimbatore, and remained there through the end of his undergraduate:
“Coimbatore is an industrial town with a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. It is known for its engineering and technical excellence. There are a number of wonderful educational institutions in this area. This is one of the richest parts of Tamil Nadu: migrant workers from the rest of Southern India are common. People there are very passionate about the Tamil language and the city has a rich historic background. There were kingdoms there for 1000′s of years.
There are many site-seeing opportunities. You can visit ancient temples and historic sites. Coimbatore is next to a mountain range called Western Ghats and Palakkad valley, which borders the state of Kerala. National Geography has listed Kerala as one of the 50 must see places in the world. It has beautiful scenery and you definitely visit.”
I am so very excited to be here: in India, finally, surrounded by a culture [correction: many cultures] that I have had minimal exposure to. People selling newspaper-wrapped bundles of leafy greens both recognizable and alien to me yell out their wares as they make their way past office compounds… Motorcycles and resplendent sari-draped women frenetically weave through the streets… Spice-rich food are shared at tables of friends, cooled by creamy yoghurt, brought to the mouth right with the hand… Fences enclose sacred temple spaces, where reverent individuals kneel, whilst outside the gates a grandmother collects many-coloured, delicate petals for her offering to the gods.
Zoo Outreach, as an organization, is just as vibrant, interesting, and active as the region it is based in. The amount of work they accomplish is completely out of proportion with the size of their small team.
From the beginning, Zoo Outreach was driven by a sense of passion and mission. Sally Walker, an American national, had come to India in 1975 to study yoga and Sanskrit when she became involved with Mysore Zoo. Recognising serious shortcomings on the part of Indian zoos, which were numerous and not held to standards, she insisted on action through official channels. Her dedicated work resulted in the establishment of the Central Zoo Authority by the 1991 Indian Zoo Act. She also founded Zoos’ Print magazine, since literature for zoos in South Asia was usually lacking or inaccessible for many zookeepers. She was not interested only in standards for husbandry, but in a wider sense wanted to correct the purpose of Indian and South Asian zoos. Zoos should not exist in order to make money. Rather, their primary purposes should be conservation, education, and awareness.
Zoo continues to offer support, training, and resources to zoos; but due to its deeply-rooted interest in wildlife conservation both in and ex situ it now does work of a much broader and internationally-significant scope. ZOO now provides specialist knowledge for many working groups of the IUCN, coordinates taxon networks for information sharing, continues to publish Zoos’ Prin and now also publishes a peer-reviewed scientific journal called the Journal of Threatened Taxa.
A great strength of ZOO’s program is that it shies away from duplicating efforts. ZOO purposefully seeks out those taxa and those parts of the conservation process that are otherwise neglected in India: for example, mollusks and odonates, or policy-making and environmental education. My internship activities during my month and a half at ZOO are thematically exemplary of the kind of work ZOO does. I begin in the office in Coimbatore, supporting networking, policy brainstorming, and educational material generating activities. Then, I will be heading into the field to help perform some community-based groundwork with ZOO team members generating conservation research around otherwise neglected taxa. I will get to assist on initial field site visits for AZE species of freshwater fish; a frog species possibly at risk from chytrid; a rare and elusive rodent; and the Himalayan Grey Langur, which was described almost 100 years ago but whose most basic ecology is still unknown.
I am excited to gain a perspective on the diverse activities passionately pursued by this team…