Monday, November 7, 2011

Entomological Expedition


We were two, and then we were one. In mid April, R. had to leave India - a.) because his visa was about to expire, and b.) because he got an awesome job leading a fur seal research project on a remote Alaskan island, and hey, if you've got to work now and then to make some money, you might as well be roaming rugged island cliff-tops, observing seals and racking up your bird life-list.  So he left, and I was sad.  But being a resilient climate change adaptation researcher (haha - resilient?  Climate change?  Get it?) I decided what better way to recover from my moroseness than to participate in an entomological research expedition in a remote national park in northern India!

At the Fulbright conference back in March I made the acquaintance of a Fulbright Senior Scholar, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist who was planning a bug-collecting expedition in the middle Himalayas in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). I jumped at the invitation to return to my biological field researcher roots and participate. So it came to pass that on a humid morning in early May I arrived by auto-rickshaw at the Dehradun headquarters of the Institute to meet the field team.

The next day the entomologist, three PhD students from WII and I traveled by land rover from Dehradun north into the Himalayan foothills. The first town we passed through was Mussourie, the place where I spent my first three months in India doing language study. We stopped only long enough to buy bananas, however, and then continued out of town down the road towards Kempty Falls.  The landscape became more densely forested, the terrain steeper. For eight very uncomfortable hours we navigated rural,bumpy roads, dodging the occasional bus and shared land rover taxi. Finally, as darkness began to fall, we arrived at a Forest Department lodge on the outskirts of Govind National Park in the far north-west corner of Uttarakhand state. I stumbled out of the land rover, lay down in the grass, and attempted to un-scramble my internal organs from the long ride.

After a quick drive to the trail head the next morning we were off, hiking a well-used trail connecting villages farther up the road-less valley.  In addition to me and the four researchers, we were accompanied by six porters from the village near the trail head. These very personable and enthusiastic young men were a pleasure to hike with - not only did they without fail produce delicious meals at our every improvised campsite, but they listened with serious expressions to my garbled Hindi without ever once rolling their eyes.

Four days later we staggered out of a cold and snow-crusted forest onto a sunny grass-covered hilltop above the treeline. The mountains of the middle Himalaya rose to the north against the vivid blue sky. Even at this altitude purple rhododendron bushes gave color to the hillsides, and we briefly spotted a yellow pine martin cavorting on a lower slope. Everyone dug their cell phones out of deep pockets, hoping to catch the signal that was inaccessible further down the slope.  

We didn't discover any entomological marvels, but got a close look at a beautiful and rarely visited corner of the country. This hilly land in the northwest of Uttarakhand is known as the Garhwal. Garhwali and Hindi are the main languages spoken in these parts, as well as mountain dialects from the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Several times on the road we passed migrant Gujar people, grazing their buffalo in the high mountain pastures to escape the sudden spring-time heat on the plains to the south.

Garwali traffic jam
These land rover taxis fit 12 inside and another 5 on the roof!
Skull of a langur monkey, found along the trail


Local women out gathering fodder

 Garhwali orthoptera

Mountain rhododendron
Lepidoptera

Yellow pine martin
Chapattis for dinner!
Himalayan porcupine quills






16 comments:

  1. the Himalayas, home of the snow, is the most impressive system of mountains on the earth, and for centuries the setting for epic feats of exploration and mountain climbing / treks.

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