Life as a conservation biologist: this ain’t what you see on dicovery channel!

Back in the day when I was young and innocent and still had my hair (here), I used to think that life as a conservation biologist was the way its often portrayed on TV. You know, you’re in the great outdoors, wearing khakhi shorts and hat, in that big cool-looking 4 wheel drive vehicle, watching big carnivores take down big herbivores.

Well, at least in south Indian forests, if you wear shorts and walk around your legs are quickly going to be impaled by thorns like this….

Ayyankadavu

Try walking in shorts thru this

…and get raw from mosquito bites. That nice hat will disappear within 10 seconds of entering a cane thicket. All those fancy vehicles wont get you up narrow hairpin bends set at ridiculous angles. As for the epic sightings of large mammals, well, in evergreen forests, half the time you don’t even see the elephant that’s charging at you. All you see are the branches breaking and the trees shaking closer and closer to you!

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Elephants preparing to charge

But the real bane of fieldwork are ticks and leeches. Ticks infest deciduous forests in the summer, and you can get covered by hundreds of bites in a few days. These are very itchy and can cause serious skin infections in some people. I once heard a tragicomic story (probably made up) about a volunteer who got bitten very badly. When he went back to his office, he got into big trouble for, uh, scratching himself inappropriately.

One way to reduce tick bites is to wear tick socks – these are basically sock like things that you wear over your normal socks, and tie up over your pants below the knee, leaving only a small gap in between that they can sneak through. This can get really hot though. And it cant save you from a tick nest. A tick nest is exactly what it sounds like – a nest filled with millions of little ticks. If you brush against this, you are likely to get a hundred of them on you. You will also face social ostracism from your campmates, who may insist on an agni pareeksha before allowing you back into camp!

In the monsoons, you have to contend with leeches, those incredible products of evolution. They sit around on the forest floor, still and seemingly dead. But as soon as they sense you, they immediately jump up, and hungrily start ‘running’ towards you at amazing speeds. Grabbing and pulling off these rubbery, slippery bloodsuckers is not easy. Especially when it is raining and your hands are wet and glasses fogged up, and you are also trying to watch out for that hump-nosed pit viper that is uncomfortably close to your hand hold as you stand on a slippery rock. Luckily hump nosed pit vipers are mostly pretty well behaved.

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Hump-nosed pit viper

Heres what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walking in the forest in the monsoon:

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A few of the 458,998,760 leeches that bite you during fieldwork

Tick socks also work against leeches to some extent, but the best solution is to cover your shoes and pants with a concentrated mixture of castor oil and snuff. The smell is strong and is almost guaranteed to make you vomit the first time (I can still smell this stuff on my boots 6 month after last use). But it is a weapon of mass destruction against leeches. It is a very satisfying feeling to see those jerks running towards you, probably drooling in bloodlust, crawl up your shoe, suddenly stop before they reach the laces, sway uncertainly, then shrivel up and fall off dead. 1 down, 459,876,310,099 to go!

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15 thoughts on “Life as a conservation biologist: this ain’t what you see on dicovery channel!

  1. Pingback: Mango-munching sloth bears and waterpipe-chewing wild dogs | Poochaandi

  2. Pingback: Management lessons from elephant charges and such | Poochaandi

    • Hmm, the thing about salt is that they spit out all the blood they have already drank, and that tends to cause infections…
      Thank you for the nomination! It will take me a bit of time to fulfil the conditions, but I will do so in the near future!

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  3. Great one Adi….bdw is that my shoe????
    Nther fact the leeches get dehydrated (due to osmosis) after touching snuff and thus die off..

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  4. The romanticized image is what most of us still have. Hopefully the respect and admiration for your work, in people’s minds, will increase after reading how dangerous it really is – it has, in my mind. I must admit that I did know most of this but such well written pieces can act as valuable reminders. Kudos!

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    • Thank you Abhimanyu. Actually I think my fieldwork is wimpy in comparison with lots of other people. For example those that study amphibians in mountain streams at night in elephant forests during the monsoon!

      Like

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