Environment Magazine

Life as a Conservation Biologist: This Ain’t Discovery Channel!

By Adityagangadharan

Back in the day when I was young and innocent, 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, in south Indian forests, if you wear shorts and walk around your legs are quickly going to be impaled by thorns 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!

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.

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

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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