Indian journey connects family heritage with research collaborations

A UOW academic is connecting his family’s heritage to new directions in international research.

Associate Professor Michael Adams from the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) and the Indigenous Studies Unit has recently returned from India, where he combined new research collaborations with tracking down elements of his family’s history.

He is working with Indian colleagues to develop a collaborative research program focusing on the relationship between tribal knowledge and wildlife conservation. These same colleagues helped him find the grave of his great great grandfather, buried in 1905 in Bangalore’s Christian cemetery.

India covers 2.4% of the world’s land area and houses 17% of the world’s human population. It simultaneously contains 8% of the world’s mammals and 12% of the world’s birds, and is considered one of the world’s biologically ‘megadiverse’ countries.

Professor Adams points out that “the persistence of those species and their habitats in the world’s second most populous nation creates a significant opportunity to understand cultural relationships with wildlife and ecosystems”.

Extraordinarily, despite phenomenal levels of population and economic growth, India has lost only one major mammal species to extinction in recent or historic times, the cheetah. India’s last wild cheetahs are thought to have been hunted to extinction by the Maharaja of Surguja in 1947.

Compare this with Australia, Professor Adams said highlighting the worst record of mammal extinctions in recent times with at least 22 mammals becoming extinct in the last 200 years. Many mammals do, however, face local extirpations and range contractions.

Professor Adams is working with colleagues at two Non-Government Organisations (Dakshin and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore to develop pilot projects to investigate tribal knowledge of animals and how this can connect to current wildlife policy.

India has 80 million Indigenous people (classified as ‘tribal’ in legislation). The projects include Kuruba tribal people’s knowledge of how wild elephants use different landscapes and respond to humans, to contribute to management responses where there is human-elephant conflict; and the relationship between Soliga tribal people’s knowledge of fire and contemporary landscape management.

Professor Adams met senior Kuruba elephant tamers and Soliga tribal elders in two national parks in South India to learn more about their aspirations and discuss possible projects.

Professor Adams was born in Calcutta, the fifth generation of his family to be born in India. His research trip was funded by a grant from the University Internationalisation Committee and the Faculty of Science.

For more information on these projects, read the blog postings on the AUSCCER Blog:


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  • Associate Professor Michael Adams met Arjun, a big male elephant caught in the wild, and his trainer (Photo: Eva Hampel)

  • The Biligiriranga Swampy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary is a designated tiger reserve (Photo: Eva Hampel)