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Full India J-Term Course to Embark on Adventure

Nov 22, 2011

The engine puttered to a stop. Awed silence.  Thirty yards away, lying in a sparse grass field rimmed with short trees, lolled a male tiger: rolling on his back, yawning, staring intently at the large, metal bus purring a short distance away.  Twelve sets of eyes and round faces transfixed on his 450 pound frame.  After twenty minutes, he stood up, his sun-speckled body sauntering into the deeper grass.  In 16 years, it was the first time an Au Sable India group laid eyes on a Bengal tiger. 

The Western Ghats – home to this male tiger -- is one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots, a fact not lost on students in the ‘Ecology of the Indian Tropics’ course.  The course, which ecosystem-hops across landscapes spanning the Bay of Bengal to the Western Ghats mountain range, samples the immense biodiversity of South India over the period of three weeks.  The time span is short, but the helpings of rare, charismatic, and unique creatures are generous.  The Bengal Tiger was an elusive “find” for the group (scientists estimate there are around 400 remaining in the entire region), yet the dwindling, hidden tigers contrast strongly with the other indigenous species that explode across the landscape. Dolphin, green bee-eater, little blue kingfisher, double-crested cormorant, flamingo, spoonbill, painted stork, black buck, bonnet macaques, lion-tail macaques, slender loris, green tree snake, and Asian elephants simply start the list.  The Western Ghats alone are home to 139 mammal species, 508 bird species, 179 amphibian species, and over 5000 species of  flowering plants.  325 of these species are globally threatened.  At the same time, many more species are being discovered.  Just last summer, scientists discovered twelve new frog species in the Western Ghats.  For an Au Sable student sketching a creature in their notebook, not only is this the first time they may have sketched this creature, but there is the distinct possibility that this is the first time that creature has ever been sketched.

This January, fourteen North American students spanning six Christian colleges -- Bethel University, Calvin College, Goshen College, Southern Nazarene University, Gordon College, and Messiah College – will join two professors, periodic guest lecturers, and three Indian students from Bishop Heber College (BHC) to explore the immense diversity of plants, animals, ecosystems, and cultures of South India.  As in the previous 16 years, they will be led by Professor Orin Gelderloos (University of Michigan-Dearborn), Professor A. Relton (BHC), and Professor A. Daisy (BHC).  All three have a tremendous passion, and eye, for wildlife, but perhaps none more than Professor Relton. 

Growing up in a village nearby to Trichy, Tamil Nadu, home of Bishop Heber College, Professor Relton developed a keen eye for birds.  When Au Sable worked to form the Heber Au Sable Institute at BHC, Relton seized on the opportunity to attend Au Sable courses that summer, including ornithology.  On a recent visit to the Great Lakes Campus this past Fall, Relton spotted and identified North American birds with ease even though it was his first time back in the States in nearly 15 years.  His incredible nack for spotting wildlife makes the South Indian landscape come to life for Au Sable students throughout the course.

Despite Relton’s keen eye for wildlife, he serves as Chair of the Social Work Department at BHC and leads programs for social work students throughout the villages surrounding Trichy, Tamil Nadu.  However, this too is an advantage.  Students in the ‘Ecology of the Indian Tropics’ course have the opportunity to engage with village and city life under Dr. Relton’s guide, and learn about the rich and meaningful ways villagers and city-dwellers interact with their environment.  The course tours numerous villages during the three weeks, and students must complete an ethnography of a village as one of their assignments.

Upon returning to the United States, last year's student Lisa Pederson wrote, "I have taken time to reflect on the rich and diverse experiences I had while in India. Gratitude floods me every time I do so, as I realize the opportunities I was afforded are testimony to superb faculty that worked countless hours to ensure my trip's success. You, Dr.Orin, along with the Indian faculty, are responsible for what I deem a life-changing trip." 

This January, Au Sable students get the opportunity to meet people, and creatures, of all different stripes.