For most people, Orchids are nothing more than an extremely expensive take on a regular floral arrangement, but there are some who have dedicated their lives to the study of these elusive beauties. There is no one type of orchid that can typify the genus, it has thousands of species, each with their own unique traits and attributes which makes them one of the largest families of flowering plants. It was this diversity that drew the interest of Charles Darwin in his studies of adaptation and even today it’s what captures the imagination of botanists the world over.
One such dedicated observer of orchids is Jis Sebastian, a naturalist and conservation ecologist who specialises in studying India’s plethora of flora. While working on her PhD. Jis ventured out on field studies into the Western Ghats and Kerala to study the plants in their natural habitat. Orchids are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the surfaces of other plants, absorbing nutrients and moisture from the surrounding areas, this also means that finding them can pose a unique challenge. Often Jis would have to climb into the canopy of the forest to discover the most diversity.
This same epiphytic quality and sensitivity to temperature makes orchids a valuable indicator of climate change. Jis grew up village called Kudakkachira, in the Kottayam district of Kerala where there was an abundance of nature and one day during one of her daily walks she noticed that there were trees missing. She was concerned by this as she’d developed an attachment to the trees, fields and streams but it wasn’t until standard 12 when her school was visited by forestry officials that she learned there was actually something she could do about the problem.
It was her love for conservation that led her to do a B.A in Botany and then go on to join the prestigious Forest Research Institute in Dehradun to do her Master’s in Forestry. After her masters she was keen to get some hands on experience rather than relegate her knowledge to research and decided to team up with the Noida-based NGO, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). It was with WTI she travelled to the Digan Valley in Arunachal Pradesh to study India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.
It was after 3 or 4 years studying both plants and animals that Jis decided to go on to obtain a PhD. She felt it would give her more autonomy and authority in the field she loved so much, as she put it, “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.”
Throughout her career Jis has mainly worked alone and although most of the time she feels completely safe and at ease in the forest, she find that working as a woman in the field comes with a unique set of challenges. Her family always backed her expeditions and in Arunachal Pradesh found little resistance however while working with forest officials she faced many cases of toxic discrimination. She was often told to bring companions on her research trips to sanctuaries, her response to this request was simple, “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.”
She believes that the way forward is to include more women in the Forest Department and empower the women already in India’s ecology sphere. She hopes that interest in the country’s well-being continues to grow and people begin to take the issue of climate change and its far reaching effects on India’s flora and fauna, as an immediate reality instead of a distant possibility.