The work begins

We followed the same routine every day: We set off at 7:00 am after a hurried breakfast of rice and dried fish. I need two cups of instant coffee to jolt me awake. The teams travel together up the stream and then split. Thiens group takes the area to the right of the river and my group goes left. Then we climb a near vertical assent through thick vines and tangled vegetation, clearing a tunnel-like path through the vegetation with our machetes. Once we reach the top of the mountain the vegetation thins and the ground opens. The three of us spread out and systematically comb both the ground and ourselves for leeches. Under the closed canopy of the rainforest it is often difficult to spot the twitching movement of an awakened leech. But we are successful. We gather modest numbers of leeches each day—usually between 100 and 200 during eight hours of intensive searching. While this is not as many as I would like it still represents a decent sample size. And it is many times more than we were collecting earlier this year in Pu Mat. Several times leeches had sneaked under our clothing and helped themselves to an on-the-go meal as we hiked through the forest. Grinning and laughing, I would pluck the hitchhiker off and pop it into the collection tube. The guides thought it odd that I would treat a nuisance with such pleasure. But it was, after all, an extra sample. And as I’ve said in previous posts: Every leech counts.

Results of a leech that got under my shirt
Results of a leech that got under my shirt

We worked long and hard hours. The terrain was much more difficult than other areas I had surveyed in this landscape. But I also realized that the roughness of this area was probably a major deterrent to hunters. As in many other parts of developing Southeast Asia, the most remote areas with the steepest terrain usually hold the most wildlife. These were the places where loggers and poachers had trouble operating. Unfortunately the hardships apply to everyone—including biologists tromping around the jungle in the name of science. We pushed ourselves as far as we could each day. And every day the landscape took its toll. After only three days the camp became eerily silent in the evenings—even at mealtime people were too exhausted to talk. I was again reminded how much respect this landscape commands. The unforgiving nature of this jungle simply can’t be put into words. This was fieldwork at its hardest. I tried to tell myself each morning when I woke up that the difficulty of the task at hand would be matched only by the value of our rewards. For me that is an unprecedented glimpse into one of the most unexplored mammalian communities on the planet. More specifically it is the chance to study some of the world’s most elusive large mammal species, including the Holy Grail: Saola. I can’t wait to see what secrets these leeches tell us. That tantalizing thought keeps me going during even the roughest patches of fieldwork. It makes it all worthwhile.


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