[Women in Science] Swinging across forests, Jis Sebastian tracks orchids and apes
The conservation ecologist works with both animals and plants and is passionate about environmental awareness and conservation.
Jis Sebastian is not the only naturalist who is enamoured by orchids. Charles Darwin, too, spent many years studying these flowering plants to pacify those who criticised his famous On the Origin of Species for not having enough evidence to support his theories on evolution. His observations on orchid evolution to attract pollinating insects were described in his 1862 book, On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects.
Orchids are incredibly diverse, comprising thousands of species (that’s twice as many bird species and four times as many mammalian species) making them one of the largest families of flowering plants. This diversity is precisely what made it an apt subject for Darwin to study adaptation in. Fast-forward 150 years to a world where evolution is mostly accepted and we see that orchids, popular for their catchy colours and floral architecture, hold a different kind of appeal.
“Orchids require specific climatic conditions to grow in. Besides regular factors like temperature, rainfall and soil type, epiphytic orchids – those which grow on top of other trees – are also affected by the immediate climate available. We call it the microclimate,” explained Jis, a conservation ecologist I caught up with at a café in Kochi. “This dependence on the micro-environment explains why in a single tree, there may be different kinds of orchids on the trunk, than those growing on the canopy.”
What orchids can tell us
Orchids’ sensitivity to environmental conditions makes them a potentially valuable indicator of climate change. “We can actually model or map current distribution and predict what could happen tomorrow. For example, we can say that if the temperature changes by this much, this group of orchids may disappear.”
Jis has just finished studying the distribution of epiphytic orchids across altitudes ranging from 30-2000 m in the Western Ghats. Trekking across the terrain, climbing trees to reach the orchids growing on their canopies, she compared the distributions of different orchid groups. “When you go higher, you get more diversity among the epiphytic orchids,” noted Jis, pointing out that it’s probably because of the fog and the suitable temperatures higher up.
“In lower ranges, the diversity is less but there is high abundance.”
Because of their epiphytic nature, tracking these orchids is time-consuming and strenuous, says Jis. “Moreover, because their distribution is seasonal, you might not find them every time you go looking.” It’s because of these reasons that not many ecologists approach this subject – in fact, Jis says that hers is the first attempt to study orchids in the Western Ghats. “Obviously, it’s very challenging. Though taxonomic data is there, ecological data (on their interaction with the environment) is not there. We have to come up with our own methodologies… lots of trial and error.”
Having finished her field studies, Jis is now combining her data and waiting for results. If all goes well, in a year or so, she will have successfully determined the combination of factors that control orchid distribution. In the end, Jis hopes to be able to call the orchid an indicator group of plants for climate change, just like some reptiles are.
Growing up in a small village
The completion of the orchid study will also be of personal importance to Jis as it will formally earn her a PhD. A PhD may be one of the first goals for aspiring researchers but Jis’s priorities were different. “I belong to a village called Kudakkachira, in the Kottayam district of Kerala. I grew up close to paddy fields and during my daily evening walks I developed an attachment to the trees, fields and streams.” During one such walk, the young Jis noted that some trees were disappearing. “I used to get worried and ask my parents – why are they removing these trees? Does it not have any use for us?”
But it was only in class 12 that Jis came to know from some visitors to her school about the field of forestry. By then it had become her dream to work for the environment or become an activist. After she completed her bachelor’s degree in botany at a local college, Jis wrote the exam that would qualify her to enter the prestigious Forest Research Institute in Dehradun to do her Masters in Forestry. This is how 20-year-old Jis came to take her first ever train journey. And she hasn’t looked back since.
In Dehradun, Jis wanted to do something in wildlife. Lucky for her, the Wildlife Institute of India was close to her institute and she got a chance to work with a senior scientist Dr Sathyakumar who was studying the ecology of the Asiatic black bear in Dachigam, Kashmir. Those three-four months in Dachigam was Jis’s first experience working in the wild. “This was in springtime, which is when the bears come down and raid the orchards. We were studying their habitat utilisation.”
Having to track the creatures by their scat, dung, paw prints, was all very exciting for Jis, but most rewarding was the exposure she got. “I had friends from all states, representing different cultures and languages. I think this really helped me in going further.”
Studying India’s only apes
After her Masters, Jis found herself in a bit of a dilemma. “I had to choose between conservation and research. With research, I would need to concentrate on my doctoral work or work with an institute. I’d seen many cases where people are not able to do what they actually want to do because of restrictions and political issues that come along. I wanted to be very free so I thought I’ll join an NGO.”
So off Jis went to Delhi where she joined the Noida-based Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). After an orientation programme, she was assigned a project in one of her dream destinations, Arunachal Pradesh.
Her work was in Digan Valley situated in the easternmost part of Arunachal that shares a border with China. To reach there, Jis had to travel for hours along the Brahmaputra river. “During heavy rains, you’re totally cut off from the rest of India. It feels very strange, yet beautiful.” Her mission was to study a group of endemic primates called Eastern hoolock gibbon. The village that Jis went on to stay in for one-and-a-half years was populated by two tribal groups. “They have this wonderful way of living. They are very close to nature and not much bothered about what’s happening outside. It was an incredible experience living with them.”
The hoolock gibbons are the only apes to live in India. “They look like orangutans or chimpanzees with their long hands and short legs. They’re very clumsy on the ground so they stay most of the time on tall trees. The funny thing is that these gibbons have a family system much like humans. The male and female, they live together for their lifetime.”
Jis had been assigned to study their population, behaviour, and activities. She used to go to the field really early – “around 3 am, since the sun rises by 3.40” – and watch the family of gibbons until they go to sleep in the evening, making notes every five minutes. “It’s a tiring job, but it was fun. At first, I had to maintain a 50 or 100 m distance, but slowly, I reduced this. Eventually, you become familiar to them. They treat you like another primate so you don’t have to worry. At the end of the study, I was as close as ten metres.”
The purpose of this study was to enable forest department to capture the vulnerable gibbons from the village and move them into another protected area.
The point of a PhD
Being an ecologist, Jis has worked with both animals and plants. “Animals are always fascinating. Wildlife research seems easy and charming but once you get in there it’s difficult. We have to get exposed to the sun, snow, rain and everything out there.” Most of the time in the forest, Jis would be alone. But this fact never scared her. “I like being there. Actually, I feel more scared when I’m in the city,” she laughed.
After her stint in Arunachal, Jis spent another three to four years doing different projects on various subjects in the forests of India. It was around this time that Jis decided to pursue a PhD. “There were occasions while doing conservation work when I saw that my opinion is not reaching where I want it to. I realised that you get more respect if you have a higher degree, then you can influence decision-making.”
So when Jis came to know about a project starting in the Western Ghats on orchids, she jumped at the chance. Her project investigator was based in Sacred Heart College, Kochi, so Jis came back to Kerala. Her PhD is registered at Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu.
Now close to its completion, she has not forgotten why she’s here. “I want to engage with conservation activities. Currently, not much importance is given to the science of forest and wildlife management. It is mostly managed by people from different sectors who sometimes don’t even know the basics. It’s a mess. You need to clean it up with people from the subject.”
She can only submit her thesis at the end of next year, but Jis has no intentions of taking it easy. She has at least couple of other projects underway: one to restore orchids in Wayanad by involving the local community, and another to clean up the scenic village of Parunthumpara in Idukki district in Kerala where unregulated tourism is a looming threat. Just the previous day, Jis told me happily, she received a letter of approval for funds for the latter project.
Dealing with biased officers
In her years of research in the wild, Jis has encountered various forms of resistance as a woman alone on the field. Interestingly, her parents were always very supportive and gave her liberty to make her own choices. During her travels, she found Arunachal Pradesh the most respectful of women. “The men there treat you with respect. Even in urban Itanagar, there was also no trouble from men. Maybe it’s their culture; women take decisions, run houses…” But this was not so in other places, says Jis. “I have seen people in other cities trying to take advantage of a woman who is alone.”
However, as a researcher, the most toxic form of gender discrimination for Jis comes from forest officials. “There are very biased officers especially in Kerala,” she reveals. “I had to go alone to almost all sanctuaries (for my research) and it was hard for me because these officers tell you straight away – you’re not supposed to come alone, bring somebody, bring your parents or your relatives,” Jis recounts incredulously.
How do you react to that, I asked. “I just said I’m not bringing anybody. This is my own business. I am capable of coming alone and I will go alone. I have permission from PCCF (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests). You have no right to tell me I shouldn’t go.”
Jis says that she’s had this trouble a lot; she even considered filing a complaint with the PCCF – ‘but you’ll have to spend a lot of your time on this’. Many fights later, the officers are now familiar with her and it doesn’t happen so often. Jis was always determined not to give in to this pressure. “If we do what they say, then tomorrow the same thing will happen to another girl in my position. Let them say what they want to me but don’t do this to the next girl who comes to you. That’s how I made many officers understand.”
Having more women officers could help, feels Jis. “I once had to work under the division of one of the first female range officers in Kerala. She was very helpful, bold and strong, so when I had problems with officers under her, I could go to her directly for help.”
“I feel pretty safe and comfortable in the forest. To be honest, only this part – dealing with the department staff, is tough. Once that is done, I feel free as the wind inside,” Jis laughs.
Overall, Jis is optimistic about the fate of Indian forests. “When I visited China in 2014, I noticed there that people there are not concerned about their forests. India is definitely in a better place. We have a very good pack of scientists, environmentalists, good resources and policies. We may have to tighten loopholes but we can surely improve. It’s about engaging the community and controlling population.”
I parted ways with Jis feeling exhilarated that if her passion and earnestness is anything to go by, Indian ecology is in good hands.