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Students Explore South India’s Ecological Diversity and Conservation

Feb 06, 2012

Article author Orin Gelderloos has taught 'Ecology of the Indian Tropics' since its inception 17 years ago.  He is Professor of Biology and Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Ecology of the Indian Tropics is offered on an annual basis typically from December 28 to January 18.  For more information, visit our Student page to read about our India campus, the course description, and course logistics.


Learning about the ecology of  tropical India in three weeks can be somewhat of a whirlwind, so it was fitting that the course opened with one. Upon landing in Chennai at midnight, a cyclone greeted students with high winds, thrashing trees, and six inches of rain on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Of course, it is “illegal” for rain to fall in the dry season, but that opening encounter with the weather was a prologue to the many surprises and eye-opening experiences that the 14 North American students from six colleges1 in the USA encountered.

Housed in the International Hostel and sleep-deprived, we caught a couple of hours of rest before exploring the local streets fill with busy traffic (driving on the “wrong side” of the roads), small jewelry shops, ready-to-eat parotha stalls, motorcycle repair stands, and small Hindu temples in the city of Tiruchirappelli.  Indian students joined our group at Bishop Heber College (our host college) along with our outstanding Indian leaders and faculty, Dr. A. Relton and Ms. Daisy Caroline, to orient us and reveal cultural insights we would otherwise miss on our own.

Without the keen eye-sight of Dr. Relton and Ms. Daisy, we would also miss much of the wildlife. Several locations in India, and especially the Western Ghat Mountains along the Arabian Sea, are home to so many endemic species that they are listed as some of the top “hot spots” of endemism in the world.  Thus, while India's rural areas are known for its high levels of poverty, they possess an overwhelming wealth of ecological riches.

Our first set of study sites included a wildlife sanctuary where dozens of migratory species of birds spend winter as well as a grassland preserve where male, endangered black bucks display their fitness by prancing around small ovals called leks to entice the females to join their harem. On the Bay of Bengal beaches, a sky full of brahminy kites circled overhead as we observed an early-morning fish auction in a fishing village, which had been swept away by the great tsunami on December 26, 2004.  We had sobering reflections as we pondered the impact of this astounding event that still affects the lives of thousands of people along the coast who lost family members.

In contrast to the habitats along the sea, the climb up 40 hairpin bends on our way up the Western Ghat Mountains afforded us the opportunity to analyze how the abiotic and biotic features of the environment changed.  We ascended the mountains from thorn scrub forests through moist deciduous forest to evergreen forests and mountain top grasslands. Tea plantations, introduced by the British more than 100 years ago, cover most of the mountains leaving remnant and fragmented forests.

As we stood in awe of the magnificent, huge buttressed trees of the evergreen forest, home of one-ton gaurs, elephants, nilgiri langurs, giant indian hornbills, and the endangered lion-tailed macaque, we had our somber moments, too.  We considered the conflicts between humans and animals as habitats shrink, thinking especially of leopards and tigers that require large territories to live.  The plight of the lion-tailed macaque provided an especially poignant experience because this totally arboreal primate is obligated to come down from tree tops to cross roadways and fields to reach the next piece of forest fragment and acquire its specialized fruit.  These wonderful creatures, which travel in troops of 30-70, are now in danger of becoming habituated to feeding on roadway trash and human handouts.

As part of our cultural experiences, we attended the Watch Night Service from11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve in St. Johns church and were feted at a dinner reception at the home of the Bishop of the local diocese of the Church of South India.  The women students wore their saris and all of us were “shawled” with large silk pieces of colorful fabric.

While conducting an ethnographic study of a village, we interacted with excited children in a small school and observed the social structure, remnants of the caste system, housing, food preparation, clothes washing, transportation, and use of plant material in the village.  Comparisons with North American levels of material life styles were inevitable, but yet we were challenged to consider the level of happiness and fulfillment of the village people.

A three-week course in a culture far different from ours in North America leaves us with sensory overload, appreciative of the privilege to interact with so many gracious and helpful people, and humbled at the challenge of trying to understand the meaning and depth of the ecology and culture of Tamil Nadu.


1Bethel University, Calvin College, Gordon College, Goshen College, Messiah College, Southern Nazarene University, and Trinity Christian College