The Nilgiris: A Golden Goose Fighting Extinction

The dust kicked up behind the jeep as it carried me and my co-worker deeper into the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserves (NBR) than I had ever ventured for a field visit. Our driver cautiously rattled along the bumpy road as I treated myself to the backdrop: giant, lush Western Ghats mountains meandering down towards gleaming lakes and back towards montane-lined shola. The prickly South Indian heat paired with my craned neck to take in the towering, green giants around me was a reminder that I had descended from Kotagiri, a hill station and my placement for the American India Foundation (AIF) Fellowship year.

Waterfall and view from Dhamamokkai village where the Keystone Community Health and Well-being Team went to conduct a nutrition and well-being awareness meeting.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), home to the Western Ghats and Kotagiri, sprawls out in the south of the Indian peninsula. The hilly terrain and bustling wetlands are striking symbols of where the coastal ranges have converged to create an unusual and spectacular enclave of human and natural characteristics. It is not surprising that biologists and environmentalists alike are drawn to the dynamic processes of change that this region experiences [1]. More specifically, there has and continues to be great anthropological interest in the five prominent hill tribes of the Nilgiris (whose voices, stories, and perspectives I hope to explore in a later post). Much has been written about the NBR and these hill tribes; N. Ramakrishnan, a doctor and environmentalist, tries to capture just how much the Nilgiris enclave offers to the observant eye and keenly mentions how an increased understanding of this region can be interrelated with exploitation of its diverse bio-cultural findings by commenting that:

The Nilgiris is like the golden goose, let us not kill it in greed, but use it sensibly for our common good and for the future generations.” [2]

Long before I had gotten the green-light to tag along with my co-worker for the field visit, I had been pondering about how the threat of extinction helps mobilize time and resources. It is common to have the world slid into a state of alarm when faced with the loss of a species. Only then do we diligently create awareness campaigns; we sign petitions; we start fundraising. It is quite possible we do this because the loss of an species is a loss that is suffered globally. Now, imagine a different type of extinction entirely. One that stems from the impacts of globalization and a heightened pressure on adopting mainstream culture and values. As part of the greater society, we must then ask ourselves what our role is when faced with the imminent loss of tribal cultures that is ripe with indigenous knowledge and is much as part of the Indian landscape as the Nilgiri Laughing Thrush (amuse your ears with their call here) the herds of sambar deer, and the sprawling branches of the jamun trees. More importantly, we must ask ourselves how to involve and incorporate feedback from the indigenous members so that we are not using our time and resources to preserve aspects of their culture that we feel is “convenient for us” as a co-worker of mine so eloquently put it. Intentional preservation of sorts.

Walk into the Sigur protected region.

So, while some might argue that extinction is categorized as the antithesis of development, this past month it has helped me start a line of questioning that hopefully goes beyond the ten months that I spend here in the Nilgiris. I feel lucky to have joined Keystone Foundation, a team that is cognizant of molding their efforts around the difficult question of: What specific actions should be taken to preserve cultural practices considered important by the tribal communities?

Keystone Foundation has been framing its outreach and work around the aforementioned questions and more for the greater part of 24 years. Keystone helps spearhead eco-development initiatives for communities in NBR and the surroundings areas. The organization’s history, as we have already learned about  through the work of previous Fellow Audra Bass started out with a focus on poverty alleviation of the honey hunter communities in the Nilgiris, and has now grown to explore and address Adivasi (tribal) issues of development and natural resources. Now, their research and interactions with the hill tribe communities occur through: (1) awareness and educational campaigns, (2) advocating for governmental provisions(forests rights, houses, food, etc.), and (3) biodiversity research and program implementation. One of the recent ways that Keystone is exploring to “enhance the quality of life and the environment” is by working towards establishing a platform that collaborate with community health workers (CHWs) to help instigate and introduce conversations about health topics to their respective communities [3]. This is where I come in.

Captured at a menstrual health awareness meeting at an Irula village in the Sigur region. The women here are learning about the health and environmental benefits of switching over to using cloth pads. 

My work in the coming months will involve learning, observing, and incorporating existing work that Keystone has done on the topic of tribal health. Coming up with a two-tiered module design– one for the trainers of the CHWs and the other for the CHWs to use in the field– has become my specific project. As the Keystone health team and I mobilize our time and resources for this project, the question, “…what specific actions should be taken to preserve cultural practices considered important by the tribal communities?” keeps buzzing in our heads. My hope is that the knowledge of the social and cultural background of the Adivasi communities I work with, will structure and inform the lens through which the public health modules I’m designing. I am eager to continue building onto the tribal and staff perspectives on health as I join the larger team of advocates who want to have our golden goose, the Nilgiris, and the individuals that call it their home, fight the good fight of intentional preservation.

Captured at a Water and Health awareness meeting at an Irula village in the Pillur region. The kids were helping the Keystone team draw a map locating all the open defecation spots as well as point out the spots where they have clean water sources nearby.

[1] Hockings, P. (1989). Blue Mountains: The Ethnography and Biogeography of a South Indian Region. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[2] Srinivasan, Pankaja. “Life after Death for a Forest.” The Hindu, 30 Oct 2011. Retrieved from

[3] “Health and Community Wellness.” Keystone Foundation. Retrieved from


Shruti comes to the AIF Fellowship from Madison, WI with a Bachelor of Science degree in Neurobiology and Psychology. Her interest in the health and wellness of marginalized populations developed while volunteering at a village hospital in an Indian village. Since then, Shruti has deepened her experience in instigating community-oriented health initiatives by working as the outreach and health education coordinator at a mental advocacy. She also worked as an honorary research associate at a radiology stroke lab following graduation. Shruti is eager to use the skills she gained to keep building a foundation of meaningful engagement with the country of her birth.

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