The scientific names of plants are given in Latin. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the language of learning was Latin, this practice made sense.

Even today, botanists who are fortunate enough to have been schooled in Latin have a leg up in understanding and remembering scientific names and the taxonomical classifications of species.

The rest of us have to rely on mnemonics rather than true understanding.

Perhaps that’s why so few people chose a career in botany

More importantly, if we can’t know plants, how can we be expected to see them, much less care when they begin to disappear? Plant blindness has real implications for plant conservation.

The difficulties are compounded when those of us from the global, English-speaking world work with local communities in places such as Kargil, where we not only have to overcome the lack of Latin, but the lack of English too.

Conservationists are increasingly realizing, however, that local community buy-in and participation is essential to their success. In other words, to live up to its promise of universality, science has to go local.

Still, we have such a long way to go:

I find that scientists in India often look down on people who can’t speak English. I work in the field of conservation. When scientists come here from Europe or North America to conduct field research, they have a strong preference for employing English speakers. They assume, correctly, that if they hire someone who isn’t fluent in the language, they’ll have to spend extra time training them. Most conservationists in India are short on time and funds, and they don’t want to put in the extra effort. They end up hiring people from privileged backgrounds who have had the chance to learn English.

There are so many people out there who want to contribute to science, but can’t because they don’t know enough English. Funding agencies could help by including clauses to encourage visiting researchers to hire local residents, even if they aren’t fluent in English. These locals understand the problem better than does a scientist who has never been to the area, and that knowledge matters whether it’s expressed in Hindi or English.

–Sneha Dharwadkar, a wildlife biologist from India, as quoted in Nature

For our project in Kargil, our science curriculum expert, Dr. Sushama Yermal and our ecologist, Dr. Navendu Page, will work in close conjunction with Shabir Hussain, a local conservationist, as well as local teachers to educate local school children on their natural environment.

But the challenge is not an easy one: how do we explain species names like Dactylorhiza hatagirea or Aconitum heterophyllum to Kargil’s school children in way that makes sense within the context of their lives? Or, should we resign ourselves to staying outside the realm of science and instead relay the local names and stories of these plants?