Photograph by Kalyan Varma
The creaking bamboo bridge dangles high above the swirling river, swaying a little more with every step. Wildlife biologist Aparajita Datta inches across it, then disappears into the dense tropical forest of India’s Arunachal Pradesh region.
Here, she explores the conservation challenges facing one of the world’s last vast tracts of wilderness and the equally complex issues confronting tribal Lisu people who call it home.
“I began studying the Namdapha National Park more than ten years ago,” Datta explains. Its unparalleled altitudinal range includes lowland tropical evergreen forests, alpine areas, shallow river valleys, and Himalayan peaks—habitats that sustain an extraordinary variety of wildlife.
Datta calls the biodiversity “mind-boggling,” noting a hundred mammal species, about 500 species of birds, and more than a thousand different plants. With the help of Lisu hunters, several species were discovered in Namdapha by Datta herself, including two new species of muntjac.
On another survey with colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a species of macaque entirely unknown to science (the Arunachal macaque) was discovered. This survey helped lead to the creation of a biosphere reserve protecting high-altitude areas.
“Understanding connections and interaction between animals and plants is the part of my work I find most exciting,” Datta says. In fact, her main scientific passion soars overhead—five species of hornbills that occur in the park. Datta’s Ph.D. focused on the colorful, dramatically curved-beak birds and their role as seed dispersers in another part of Arunachal, a topic she plans to resume researching this year.
“In tropical forests,” she notes, “80 percent to 90 percent of tree species bear fruits that animals disperse. But here in Namdapha, many large mammals and birds like the hornbill—crucial to seed dispersal—are hunted. Some parts of the park have become empty forests, devoid of wildlife. The absence of these dispersers could have severe consequences for the regeneration of many plant species.
Yet what influenced Datta’s efforts most over the last seven years was neither animal nor plant, but the Lisu people. This marginalized tribe has encroached on Namdapha but insist they were here before the park was created.
“When I arrived, there had been no attempt to have a dialogue with the Lisu. Meanwhile they were losing agricultural land due to river erosion and dying in large numbers from malaria. Yes they were encroaching and poaching, but for them it was basic survival. They cut down trees for fuelwood and sold animal skins and meat to buy basics like salt, soap, or to afford surgery,” she says.
Datta established a community-based conservation program with the Lisu to reduce hunting and save wildlife by first improving the quality of life for local families. “We started schools; built river embankments to stop erosion and protect agricultural land; and supplied solar panel lamps that power homes and save the enormous expense of kerosene and batteries. Our team helps provide fuel-efficient stoves and water-heating devices in an effort to reduce deforestation; trains primary health care workers; provides medication; and finds funding for teachers and school supplies. We’re also exploring marketing local handicrafts, developing nature tourism run by Lisu people, and trying to increase public interest through a comprehensive website about Namdapha. All these activities are geared toward giving the community direct, meaningful benefits with the understanding that it will ultimately save wildlife.”
While these efforts may have somewhat reduced hunting and broadened appreciation for conservation, Datta warns that sustaining this trend long-term will require options that benefit not only the community in general but also each individual household.
“I love this area so much—the amazing diversity of its wildlife and its cultures," she says. "I work closely with both, feel great empathy for both, and hope to make a difference. Since I now spend much of my time in the NCF office 3,000 kilometers [1,860 miles] away, it’s always a joy to return to the forests. Several young, enthusiastic biologists have joined our team and their work will add to our knowledge. We are up at four in the morning, slogging our way through mud and slush in landslide-prone terrain, walking 12 hours a day through thick vegetation and rivers. The Lisu people are right by our side. They’ve shown and told me things I would never otherwise have known. I think wildlife biologists often forget how much we depend on the insight of local people. To me part of the wonder of this incredible place is being there with the Lisu, sharing moments in the forest with them.”
With her recent appointment to the prestigious National Tiger Conservation Authority, and persistent requests for government attention, Datta is uniquely poised to connect political, conservation, and local interests. Perhaps that bridge over turbulent waters will be Aparajita Datta herself.
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