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Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals & An Ancient Way of Life

Explorers Club Public Lecture Series with Michael Benanav

The Van Gujjars are nomadic water buffalo herders who live in the forests and mountains of northern India. Traditionally, they dwell in the wilderness, where their world revolves around the feeding and well-being of their animals. They spend the winter months in the lowland jungles of the Shivalik Hills, where thick foliage provides plenty of fodder for the buffaloes. Each April, however, temperatures there soar above 110 degrees; the leaves and grasses wither and die; creeks run dry. With nothing left for their animals to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars must move. Entire families, from infants to the elderly, trek with their herds up into the Himalayas, where melting snows reveal lush alpine meadows laced by gurgling streams. When the cold sets in at the end of September, they head back down to the Shivaliks, where the jungle has sprung back to life following the monsoon rains. The tribe has followed this cycle of seasonal migration - up in summer, down in winter, shunning settled village life - for over a thousand years.

Van Gujjars have deep personal relationships with their water buffaloes: they think of them as family members, like sons and daughters or brothers and sisters. They readily sacrifice their own comfort for that of their buffaloes. If a buffalo falls ill, Van Gujjars are wracked with concern; if one dies, they mourn for it as though it were human. They never eat their animals or sell them for slaughter, keeping them only for their milk – and though they are Muslim, they are also vegetarian, averse to the idea of killing living creatures.

But things are changing. While about 30,000 Van Gujjars still live in the wilderness today, the existential challenges they face may drive nearly all of them out of the forests over the next couple of generations. The main threat to their way of life has been the designation of their traditional lands as national parks - from which the government has attempted, often successfully, to evict the nomads and settle them in villages, turning them into wheat farmers.

In 2009, author and photojournalist Michael Benanav embedded himself with one Van Gujjar family to document their annual spring migration. He lived with them for 44 days, walking with them, herding buffaloes with them, sharing their food, sleeping under their tents, and becoming much more a part of the family than he ever expected. He came to know them well – their joys and their troubles, their hopes and fears for the future, and their perspectives on their place in the world.

Benanav’s new book, Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life (January 2018, Pegasus) offers an intimate glimpse into the rarely-seen world of the Van Gujjars. For this event, he will take you along on a photographic journey of their migration into the Himalayas, featuring extraordinary images of nomadic life in the forests and mountains of north India. And he will delve into the dilemmas faced by the family he traveled with, as government authorities threatened to ban them from the alpine meadows where they have lived in summers for many generations.

Benanav is the author of three books, including Men Of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold, for which he traveled 1000 miles with one of the last working camel caravans on earth. His work, including articles and images from five continents, appears in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Geographical Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Lonely Planet, and more. His photos have been featured on 60 Minutes, in National Geographic Books’ Rarely Seen: Images of the Extraordinary, and at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, in New Delhi. He is also the founder of Traditional Cultures Project, an educational non-profit that documents traditional and indigenous cultures around the world.

Date: Monday, February 5

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Reservation Notes:

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Background image photography courtesy of members Christoph Baumer, Neil Laughton, Matt Harris and Don Walsh's image of the Bathyscape Trieste