TRI Field Notes: Scaling the Banj Oak in Dehradun, India

TRI Field Notes: Scaling the Banj Oak in Dehradun, India

by Alexandra Todorovic-Jones, 2015 TRI Fellow

I arrived to India in early May and was welcomed in Dehradun, Uttarakhand by the employees from a local NGO, the Centre for Ecological Development and Research (CEDAR). CEDAR is an Indian non-governmental organization, founded and directed by a Yale F&ES alumnus, Rajesh Thadani, Ph.D. The organization focuses on conservation-based research in Uttarakhand has experience with the tree species I am now researching, banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), shown in the picture below. Right now, I’m investigating how susceptible banj oak is to climate change by looking at leaf and tree core ring properties.

During my first week in India, I presented my proposed research at CEDAR, gained valuable feedback, prepared my equipment, and started figuring out logistics for the field. As the week sped by, I realized that I needed to get acquainted with the field site, to be sure that my preparations were appropriate for the place. Luckily, I had the opportunity to visit my site before my field work started. The second week of my trip, I headed to Orakhand, Uttarakhand with a few other research fellows at CEDAR. The main objective of this short visit to the field was to familiarize myself with the site, the different types of disturbances, and the tree species in the area. During the trip, I also assisted CEDAR with banj oak litter collection and improved my Hindi comprehension. The visit was success, but it also confronted me with issues in my methodology, raising some questions:

  • How would I get to the canopy of a tree that is straight — without live lower branches — and can grow up to 75 feet tall? 
  • How would I find sites that were completely undisturbed by people, when the local villagers depend on the forest?
  • How could I know if a site that presently looks undisturbed had not been previously affected by human-induced litter collection or lopping?
Field assistant Bhanu Raikwal climbs a banj oak tree (Quercus leucotrichophora) in Kumaon Himalaya in order to obtain leaf samples. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

Field assistant Bhanu Raikwal climbs a banj oak tree (Quercus leucotrichophora) in Kumaon Himalaya in order to obtain leaf samples. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

I returned to Dehradun, digging into the literature, emailing professors and meeting with local foresters in hopes of finding solutions to the obstacles I encountered in the field. Another two weeks flew by, as I found answers to my questions, trained field assistants, and adjusted the field protocol. Happily departing from the city once again, I ventured back to the field, back to Orakhand.

Orakhand is a small village center, where members from different Van Panchyats (forest communities) get their motor bikes fixed, enjoy a morning cup of chai, or indulge in some of the best sweets, especially jalebi. One of my field assistants, Somnath Dey, and I were lucky to find accommodations underneath a sweet shop with the best sweets for kilometers around. The sweet shop, which is owned by two brothers, Surendra and Mehendra Raikwal, also functions as a small restaurant and a homestay. Staying at the Raikwal’s home I was well fed — a good first step for a successful field season.

At the field site, we hurriedly traversed 75-degree slopes, racing against the rains.  Some days, we walked over 20km, gaining 800m or more in elevation. When we finally found a plot, we set down our supplies, marked the space, and began gathering data on the structure and layout of the trees surrounding us. Once the easy part was done, the tree climbing begins…

A drenched group picture of our field team after finishing the plots in the rain. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

A drenched group picture of our field team after finishing the plots in the rain. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

After a tree is selected for leaf collection, a few of us started planning how to safely collect leaves from the tree. Leaf collection nearly always involves tree climbing. However these are not the trees that you easily scaled as a child. These are 15m oak trees, and if you are lucky they might have branches for you to hold.

Somnath climbing a tree for sample collection. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

Somnath climbing a tree for sample collection. Credit: A. Todorovic-Jones

As a general note to any beginning scientist, anything that could go wrong in the field will. So as far as field seasons go, I felt lucky that my list of issues was short. Yes, there were leeches and heavy monsoon rains…and yes, there was no electricity or hot water, but I am grateful that we collected all the data with only minor bites, bumps, and bruises along the way.

Moreover, I’m also very thankful for all the people in the village who helped me. Words cannot express how indebted I am for everyone who took me into their home for supper and who guided me towards suitable field sites. They not only made the field work possible, they also made it really hard to leave the village this week. The Raikwal household in Orakhand treated me like family and I hope that someday I can return in order to learn more about the forest and the people there. For the rest of my time in India, I will be processing samples and starting data analysis. In a month, I will return from India with hopefully more stories and importantly, results!

Alexandra Todorovic-Jones and

Alexandra Todorovic-Jones and Banhu Raikwal collecting leaves from banj oak trees.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics.  The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  For more information on research and fellowships visit http://environment.yale.edu/tri/