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We have led field study programs into the Himalayan backcountry since 1991, and we are excited to have you join us beneath the grandeur of the Himalayan mountains. Our remote field study takes us into the heart of the Indian Himalaya where we will study the ecosystems, botany, ecology and culture of this special region. We are very proud of our work in this spectacular part of the world and appreciative of our “locals only” experience far from the tourist circuit. As a small international community in an exotic environment we have a great deal to share and to learn from each other. Team members will become acquainted with the local residents of Kumaon – their culture, social customs, food, folk songs and games. We will endeavor to understand as best we can the singular relationship that exists between these people and the Himalayan environment.

The spring program takes place before the rainy monsoon season when the environment is getting primed for its annual watering. Expect to see the rhododendrons showcasing their vibrant flowers and the farmers prepping optimistically for a new growing season. If we are quiet and aware, the opportunity may briefly present itself to observe local wildlife such as the barking deer or langur monkey along with the multitude of migratory birds.

We will be trekking through a region in flux. From the land use patterns to the cultural shifts, we will identify and aim to understand how this mountainous region is adapting to modern times while still preserving heritage. Don’t underestimate how our interactions with local people may inspire positive change.

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Background Information

The Himalaya is Earth’s tallest and most dynamic mountain system. This spring, our team will return to conduct field studies in Kumaon, a region of the Indian Himalaya that lies near Tibet and the western part of Nepal. Kumaon is ideally suited to our program because landscapes here exhibit a dramatic transition from subtropical pine forests to alpine valleys enclosed by some of India’s tallest summits, including the revered peak, Nanda Devi. In the course of our field study, we will investigate warm river valleys, complex agricultural landscapes, moss-laden cloud forests, and spectacular alpine habitats. Throughout Kumaon, at all elevations, the local people practice subsistence lifestyles that are remarkably well adapted to local ecological conditions.

We will divide our fieldwork among different elevations and ecological zones as we move upward into the mountains from the south. River valleys are warm and dry with scattered monsoon forest and many tropical birds and mammals. With luck, we may spot a jackal, leopard, or barking deer. Depending on the weather it may be warm enough to swim. Somewhat higher, steep hillsides are farmed with orchards and terraces of hemp and maize. Adjoining patches of protected forest, under local control, conserve the watershed and provide fodder for domestic animals that fertilize the fields. Villages are inhabited by communities of Kumaoni farmers with distinctive customs and subsistence strategies.

The mid-elevation forests support a high diversity of plant and animal species. Pines and deodar cedar grow on grassy hillsides; broad-leaved forests are cloaked with mosses and ferns. Higher still, the forests give way to alpine pastures. If the weather cooperates, we may investigate the high alpine zone to the foot of the glaciers, with the awe-inspiring Himalayan summits as our backdrop.

The Kumaon people have important festivals during spring to signal seasonal change and the forthcoming planting season. These festivals add an important cultural dimension to the program. The people of the Kumaon Himalaya face life with a spirit refined by centuries of self-reliance and acclimation to a demanding environment. Despite limited access to goods and services, they retain a deep cultural heritage and a finely honed sense of place. Time spent among them should provide some of the most interesting, illuminating moments of the program.

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Program Goals and Activities

The spirit of our Himalaya program is good-natured, flexible and very accommodating to team members’ diverse interests. At the same time, we approach our fieldwork seriously, not only because it is significant, but because we want to provide a solid experience base for team members who think they might want to make mountain science a part of their future. Throughout the program, we work closely with local support staff who help teach and who take responsibility for many of the logistical aspects of our class.

Traditional classroom learning encourages the idea that different fields of knowledge are somehow discrete and isolated from one another. In the field, the boundaries that separate the natural sciences, conservation politics, and cultural anthropology tend to fade. With some guidance, all this information can be interpreted as a richly integrated text.

A firsthand investigation of the Himalaya involves much walking. Access to our backcountry field sites requires successive days of moderate hiking through a stunningly scenic mountain landscape of river valleys, forests, and terraced hillside villages. During our days in the field, we eat together, camp in tents, and travel on mountain paths that range from centuries-old trading routes to meager hunting trails. In Kumaon, the trekking segments are divided by visits to small towns where we may sleep in a lodge and check email. Some jeep travel will supplement the backcountry trekking.

Along the way, we plan to spend two or three nights at each of several locations that are of special field study interest. We allocate much time to teaching and research, which for us means practicing ecological survey methods, discussing local natural history, interviewing villagers, and collecting other information useful to local conservation workers. In the early evening we hold class outdoors or in a large community tent. These evening class activities may include a lecture or a student presentation, or a chance to discuss park management issues with our local colleagues.

As we teach, we also try to engage the group in field work that can make small but significant contribution to the region’s future. In this spirit, we bolster our lessons about wild nature and the ecology of mountain peoples with practical instruction, including biological work (collecting data about species diversity, and ecosystem structure), cultural studies (interviewing local people about resource needs), and field research examining scenarios for climate change in this mountain region. Team members will learn to use forestry sampling equipment like a tree corer and more common tools like a global positioning system. We will also meet with and learn from local residents of the Himalaya. Expect to learn how to identify a tree covered with moss and orchids on a steep hillside thick with bamboo; or how habitat differences affect the architecture of a forest. Team members interested in bird, insect, or plant identification can contribute to what is known about these groups in the Himalayan region. Opportunities also exist to explore topics such as medicinal plant use, gender roles in mountain societies, agriculture ecology, and human-wildlife interactions.

Team members take part in both group and individual field study activities. Participants are expected to take two or three written exams, give one oral presentation to the group, and complete a guided independent study project. Bilingual staff members enable students to interview local people as part of their project if they wish. Through participation in the group research effort, team members learn how to use a variety of field study techniques to gather data accurately and efficiently. Please note that previous field experience is not required. All necessary skills to will be taught on-site on the slopes of the Himalaya, enabling all of us to participate fully. By the end of the program, each of us will have gained a new appreciation for the mountain peoples of the Himalaya and some direct experience conducting ecological field studies in a part of Asia that holds great conservation significance.

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Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses:

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in all scheduled class and field activities; 2) examinations and quizzes; 3) field journals; 4) independent research papers/essays; and 5) the design, implementation and presentation of a mini-group project.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.

 

Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Delhi, India and meet at the Delhi Airport. Participants can decide whether to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in Asia to travel on their own.

The format of our program is an extended foot journey through the varied landscapes of the Kumaon Himalaya conducting ecological field studies. Most of the hiking trails that we’ll use are narrow mountain footpaths, sometimes rather steep. Most nights, we’ll stay in established camps near small towns or villages. Some nights we’ll camp in the backcountry at remote, breathtakingly spectacular sites. Occasionally we may stay in a lodge with electricity and hot water.

Participants are required to provide their own camping and hiking equipment for this program, including a sleeping bag, backpack, duffel, and water filter. You may bring your own tent, or use one of ours. Stoves and other cooking supplies will be provided for the group.

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our Himalayan program, travel arrangements can remain slightly uncertain until the traveling actually occurs. Weather conditions, road closures, political and bureaucratic considerations may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together a unique and innovative program, so team members need to be flexible, patient and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments.

 

Accommodations

Primarily camping, occasional guest house or rural lodge.

 

Official Documents/Visa/Insurance

You will need a current passport that does not expire until six months after the end of the program. You also need to obtain a tourist visa for India. The visa is available from an Indian Embassy in the United States (or in most countries except India). Indian visas are not issued upon arrival in India – you must obtain your Indian visa in advance. We will provide full instructions in our logistical packet on how to obtain your Indian visa.

 

Language

The course will be taught English.

 

Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel and visa information, equipment requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about 10-12 weeks before the program initiates.