Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Undergraduate Field Research: Making it Happen

A group of female Himalayan Tahr looking at us!
It’s really amazing how far you can get when you aren’t afraid to “just go for it”, no matter what point you are in your career! My dream started sitting next to a colleague and best friend of mine at our graduation from the Panama Field Study Semester, an amazing program offered to undergraduates at McGill University. We turned to each other that day and made a promise that one day we would work together on a project. A few months later when I was back in school in my last year of my undergraduate degree in Biology, I got a phone call from this friend who was all the way in India with the exciting news that the local community he was working in, had approached him with a project. Our golden opportunity was here! As intimidating as starting this project from nothing was, we begun doing our research: what is a Himalayan Tahr and Himalayan Serow? Where is Uttarakhand, India? How do you write a project proposal? Which grants do we apply to? Slowly but surely, everything started coming together and I learnt many lessons along the way (and am still learning today!).

And so we were off to India! 
One of the most important lessons I learnt is: do not be afraid to contact people to ask for help! Though experts in their field such as professors may seem intimidating at first, they are just people! Every single professor we contacted was more than willing to help us out whether it was through providing specialist knowledge on a species, teaching us parasitology techniques, writing a letter of recommendation or being a constant support and helping us fund our project (thank you Andrew for being one of those!).  

In the end, through dedication, support from researchers and professors we had contacted worldwide, and above all a positive attitude, we received the necessary funding to go out and do our project. It is so that the Wild Ungulate Research and Conservation Initiative was born! (Check us out on Instagram: @wurc_itindia).

Our two study sites: Rudranath and Sohkark (near Tungnath)
Our project had two main goals: (1) To assess the health impact of livestock grazing on two ungulate species in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarakhand, India, and (2) To conduct an ecological review on these two ungulate species as there has been little research done on them to date. The two species we were studying were Hemitragus jemlahicus (Himalayan tahr) and Capricornus tahr (Himalayan serow). To tackle the first aspect of our project, we collected tahr, serow and livestock faecal samples and used the FLOTAC method to analyze parasite eggs. For the ecological data, we took many focal and scan samples to record behaviour of individuals and the group. At each point of collection we also took a GPS point and will map their distribution, with special focus on the serow as their habitat preference remains unclear. We split our time between two research sites, the first being Rudranath: a site where tahr and serow are known to overlap with livestock herds, located between 3000-3800m along a pilgrimage trail to Rudranath Temple. The second site, Shokarkh, was expected to be devoid of livestock (but as so often happens in the field, this was not the case) and encompassed heights between 2700-4000m.

Me on the lookout for tahr - gotta get 
low to hide from their view 
Although the fieldwork is still in progress, we have some preliminary results. From scans, it was found that between both sites, Himalayan tahr spend the majority of their time foraging (58% and 65%). However, focal results indicated that adult females allocated more time in Rudranath to foraging and less time resting compared to in Sohkark. Even more interesting is that sub-adult and adult males showed seasonal differences in foraging activity. Furthermore, we observed curious subdivision of groups by age and sex in the Himalayan Tahr.

For prevalence and intensity of parasites, we found there were more parasites in both livestock and tahr in Sohkarkh than in Rudranath, however there was no significant change in intensity. This is interesting as livestock were in closer proximity to the tahr in Rudranath than in Sohkarkh so we had predicted the opposite to be true.

Our lab set up in the field
As you might have noticed, the Himalayan serow was mentioned a lot less in our findings. This is because we were not able to obtain any direct observations as we have yet to spot an individual. Nevertheless, we were able to infer some information from indirect observations and informal interviews. The most alarming finding was that Himalayan Serow populations are suffering big losses this year as they are being affected by sarcoptic mange disease, a skin disease caused by a mite (species unknown). Affected serow have been found on both sides of the Mandal valley. This was further reinforced when we found a diseased and deceased serow near Mandal village (base for trek to Rudranath), as well as by the lack of serow spotted this year which according to our local guide, is very unusual. This is super interesting and a huge red flag, so we are hoping to really keep exploring this issue and learning more about the species.

Deceased Himalayan Serow found near Mandal village

As fascinating as all the research was, what I will really take away from this time in the field was all the lessons learnt. And by this I mean more than just learning how to improve our record keeping sills and how to adapt our schedule to maximize and improve data collection. This project was deeply satisfying in two main ways. The first was through the confirmation of my love for field biology and research, which has given me the drive and assurance that this is what I want to be doing for the next few years of my life. The second was through shaping my personal growth, mainly through showing me that I am capable of more than I give myself credit for. A lot of the field work was very physically demanding as it required us to trek for long hours at high altitudes every day, and I came to appreciate my mental strength proving to myself how many barriers you can overcome through being mentally strong. Furthermore, the fact that this project went from a dream to a reality was proof enough of itself that if you work hard enough and put heart into something you want, results will show!

A great field example of the lesson we have all heard before that goes something like “don’t give up hope when things don’t seem to be going your way” was our situation with finding male tahr. For days we had been searching for a herd of male tahr without fruition. Some team members even embarked on a gruesome hike up to 5000m in altitude in attempt to go find them. Then suddenly, we got notice that they were a 15min hike from our camp! And one night when we had set out to go have tea with a local shepherd in the area, without the intention of collecting any data at all, we spotted the group of male tahr!
The group of subadult and adult males tahr found in Rudranath

Perhaps what I developed the most appreciation for this summer is something that too often goes unmentioned: the essentiality of local team members. Our local field guide was invaluable when it came to finding our way around the mountains, recognizing animal signs, establishing crucial local contacts and even in what would appear to be simple tasks as shopping for food supplies. Our field cook was another invaluable and not-frequently-enough-mentioned part of our team as by him taking on the cooking duties, we were able to go out into the field for longer periods of time and really dedicate our efforts on doing the research.  Our project would have never gotten as far without their collaboration, and the value of local knowledge is something I will always treasure.

Harsh Maithani, our local field guide,
posing for his picture
On a similar note, what was amazing to see is the amount a project like ours can do for a community. 
In addition to learning more about the species they treasure, it created well-paid jobs (alas temporary for now) for locals in a field they are passionate about and gave them the opportunity to work doing something they love. As an example, Prabhat is a boy of 18 who worked as a field assistant and relief cook with us this summer during his summer vacation. Instead of hanging around the village with his friends, he was ecstatic about the opportunity to learn what it is like to be a field guide and discovered that it is possible to have a career that matches his love for the mountains.                                                                                     

All the girls at camp and Prabhat
posing in front of the beautiful
I could not be more grateful to have had this incredible experience. We are now working on finding additional funding to continue this project next year and hopefully expand our research initiative. It is astounding what can happen if you really put your mind and heart towards something and give it your best effort. If there is something you have always wanted to do, but have always thought is not quite feasible or is too much work, I encourage you to give it a try. You never know what will come of it!

Our field team for Sohkark, site 2!

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