My field assistants have an interesting belief. They say that tigers are very fond of elephant milk, because it is nutritious. So when there is a young calf in an elephant herd, tigers follow that herd, in the hope of getting some milk from the lactating cow elephant. Though I think that if a tiger is following an elephant herd with a young calf, it is probably trying to eat that calf, rather than drink its mother’s milk!
Still, the observation – that of tigers selectively following elephant herds with young calves, but not otherwise – is a rare one, and an important contribution to natural history. Starting off from there, you can get into all kinds of interesting scientific questions. How does the tiger discover that there is a new born elephant calf in that herd? How does it trade off the risk of injury or death from the protective herd, against the benefits of a fat juicy meal? How does it decide the best moment to attack? And when does it decide that this is a failed investment, and give up?
T in tribal societies is based on repeated observations, pooled across many individual people, over several years, decades or even centuries. That can make it very powerful, because it brings together empirical experiences that no one person – let alone an urban-educated scientist – can hope to gain in a lifetime. For example, the Nilgiri marten is a rare species that is very poorly studied by scientists. The Kani name for this species, Kombukodukka, is interesting in itself, describing one aspect of the animals behaviour. It is derived from the fact that these tough little carnivores hide in tree branches (kombu), and even ambush much larger langurs.
Such knowledge, though, is also more subject to errors in interpretation, because the observations may be incidental, incomplete, or biased. And at some point in time, the acute observation of a tiger prowling after an elephant calf turns into a legend of the tiger drinking elephant milk. Modern science is (allegedly) the opposite: you have very specific hypotheses that you test in a more deductive manner. An ideal balance would be to combine them:serving up hypotheses and predictions, to be specifically tested and validated using scientific methods.
Ideally, this should be done by tribal scientists, who can bring together both their traditional knowledge and modern science/management. Those who are born to the sound of a tiger roaring in the nearby forest can probably do a better job studying and conserving it. I am sure any of my field assistants would have been 10 times the ecologist that I am – if they had had the appropriate education. Instead, they provide wage labour for urban scientists. Ironically, these guys were the ones that arguably showed more scientific traits at school – they were rebels, who liked to go into forests, and learn from observing plants and animals rather than from their mind-numbing textbooks. But our education system is committed to imposing conformity, killing curiosity, and celebrating mediocrity. Gotta be faithful to 19th century colonial mandates, right? Those of their peers who continued in school are now in better-paying conventional jobs in the larger economy, though their traditional knowledge has eroded. This is of course inevitable as traditional communities become part of the mainstream – after all, no culture is a museum piece.
My point though, is that those who are interested in making the transition into professions where their traditional ecological knowledge is relevant, should be helped in doing so. This would help them personally, the scientific community, and society as a whole. Modern education is necessary in this process but not sufficient in itself. Pending the much awaited entry of the Indian education system into the 21st century, ecologists, whose data collection and even survival in the field is reliant on their field assistants, can help. For example, through providing scholarships or internships to promising kids to prevent them from dropping out, or holding regular talks in local schools. Some researchers do this already, but I feel there could be a lot more.
What if the kids are more interested in conventional jobs in the big city? At the very least, traditional ecological knowledge needs to be documented so that *somebody* can learn from it. And, maybe things will go a full circle. Maybe they will migrate to cities,and one day, their descendants will get tired of the noise and heat and chaos, and decide to go to the rainforest and study wildlife!