Vicki Small-Chester Zoo keeper-was tasked with preparing and delivering a number of workshops for the villagers providing more advice and techniques on caring for their livestock.
Vicki tells us more:
“Where to begin…
“After leaving Chester Zoo on the Saturday we took a mini bus-three planes and a car to get to the first hotel. All went without a hitch-though I did get searched twice at the airport – I must look dodgy! Wearing the Chester Zoo Expedition shirts created quite a stir with many people-which was a great ice breaker for us to then explain what were up to-oh and sell a few memberships at the same time for the zoo!
“So what exactly were we up to?
“For me I was in charge of preparing and delivering the Animal Husbandry workshops -which soon got re-named to Animal Health Workshops as this was the primary focus. As part of the preparation I sent a questionnaire to Ecosystems India (our partners in India for this programme) with various animal livestock related questions-in order to gain an insight to which areas of animal husbandry they felt the villagers needed the most assistance with. The questionnaire found that the biggest issue was the health of the animals-since veterinary support is hard to come by in such rural locations.
“After extensive research and piecing information together I came up with the following program-which split into three elements:
Theory covering symptoms-causes-treatment and prevention of common diseases and health issues such as worms-ticks-mastitis-egg bound poultry-mites and liver fluke. Also a section on setting up barrier techniques and isolation areas to contain diseased animals therefore preventing the spread of diseases to other livestock and people.
Three practical elements:
A drenching gun demonstration on a goat (a means of getting solution into livestock for worming or general hydration purposes-drenching guns were left with Ecosystems India for the villagers to use once we left).
Hydrating poultry using a syringe.
Making a home-made insecticide which was then applied to a local chicken.
One-to-one consultation with the villagers and their animals offering advice on all areas of animal husbandry.
“For treating common diseases it was essential not to suggest getting certain products from a vet which-would not only very expensive but not readily available. Instead using local trees and plants as insecticides-wormers and healing agents were suggested. Other resources suggested were: the use of wood ash as a natural anti-septic-mineral supplement and a means of stemming the blood flow on an injured animal-plus the application of a salt-sugar and water mix as a hydration solution.
“Even after all this preparation I shared similar concerns to Maile: ‘had I prepared the right stuff?’ and ‘would these be practices they already use?’ I had looked at pictures of Assam on the internet and farming in Assam-but I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
“Right-back to being in Assam…
“My first taste of livestock was on this first journey – cattle and goats roaming around the city-in the middle of busy roads even crossing the road which does not stop traffic in Assam like it would back home. The drivers just drive around them-as to them this is the norm.
“On the morning of the first workshop I awoke to ‘bed tea’ (a guide brings tea to your lodge) and the sounds of hornbills and parakeets – not a bad way to start the day. As we arrived at the first village I was very excited and eager to share with the villagers the workshops I prepared.
“Parag my translator in Sonitpur-who is also a vet for the Pygmy Hog Breeding Centre in Assam-went through the printed off slides for the theory and to my delight knew the trees and plants I suggested and better than that could even point them out around the village from where we were stood-phew!
“The first workshop was an all-female audience of approximately 30-40 woman-one lady stood out with a very keen interest-excellent knowledge and strong leadership skills-this lady also volunteered to drench the goat.
“The workshop went really well-Parag and I connected instantly making working with a translator easier than I expected-plus we had banter throughout. I am use to teaching here in the UK but I relished this style of teaching; outdoors-sun on your back-nature around you and moving away from the traditional PowerPoint presentation. It was refreshing-but more rewarding was how the workshop was received.
The ladies took notes-asked questions and followed the content well. They recognised the animal diseases we spoke about plus the symptoms they caused but did not know how to treat them nor prevent them. The women were amazed when Parag pointed out the trees they could use as they had no idea these trees had such medicinal properties.
“I left this village on a huge high yet also exhausted! Three to four hours of non-stop teaching is draining-especially in that heat! The workshops continued like this throughout the villages we visited. A few concepts were not always seen as a plausible practice for the villagers to implement-especially land management ideas as the land used is common land therefore lacked ownership.
“The last village we visited in Goalpara weren’t so receiving-to begin with.
“This particular village had only been a part of the Assam Haathi Project for six months. I gained an insight to the many trials and tribulations the project team have had when starting out with a new village. It takes time for the villagers to trust an outsider-to listen to them-let alone change traditions and a way of life just because one person says it will make things better. It is a huge gamble in the eyes of the villagers-if these new methods don’t work it is a huge loss of time-energy-money and resources that are extremely precious to these communities.
“Quite quickly into this workshop I could sense the villagers were not openly receiving the information but rather appeared guarded-weary and even at one point mocking of the suggestions as felt they were totally unrealistic. At one point my translator even refused to translate to me.
“A corner was turned once treatments were suggested that were received in a positive and welcoming manner-the ice had been broken and the walls shaken to allow the message to be delivered with what was in the end open arms.
“Later these particular villagers approximately 40 men were the most thankful-gratuitous-gracious and overwhelming welcoming people so far (if that is at all possible-since all the people I met out there were beyond the kindest-most gentle and warm people ever to have been met). A leaf truly had been turned-a battle won but not yet the war.
“It wasn’t all work out there we did have some down time allowing us to see and appreciate the beauty and extraordinary wildlife Assam has to offer.
Here are my highlights: river dolphins within 10 foot of the raft we were in; one horned rhinos so close I could hear them chewing; water-Buffalo with the hugest horns I have ever seen; tiger footprints so fresh you know it has not long ago walked right where you are; and Chital breaching the surface of the water sending out rays of silver. A-ma-zing!
“Assamese people are kind and live life to the full-the women are very hard working and hold the families together. The project team in India go above and beyond to help their local people and protect the precious wildlife especially the Asian elephants. Many an evening in front of the campfire sharing stories-life events-playing games meant I gained new friends amongst my colleagues at Chester Zoo.
“At first I found Assam very alien and overwhelming in terms of heat-smell-landscape and culture yet totally captivating and after just two weeks felt very at home and was reluctant to leave. The Assam Haathi Project is a very worthwhile conservation project and I am honoured to have been a part of this expedition.”