by Krishna Anujan
From September 2014 to January 2015, the best five months of my life, I was investigating the effect of introduced spotted deer (Axis axis) on island vegetation in the Andaman Islands, a group of continental islands off the eastern coast of India. First introduced by humans for game hunting, populations of these deer have grown unchecked in the absence of predators and competitors, posing a severe threat to the island ecosystem. Ecological apocalypse aside, the islands are home to gigantic evergreen forests and several endemic species, and I was drunk with joy every minute of my time there.
I had not been entirely prepared for my field season when I arrived and there were plenty of loose ends to tie. I had to apply for permits, befriend forest department clerks to move my paperwork along and train two novice field assistants before we could get out there and collect data. After five months of poop counting, tree hugging, leaf scanning (literally, using a Canon scanner), I had filled notebooks, excel sheets and a large part of a 1TB hard drive with data. This should have toughened me against all hardship in life, but I found myself struggling again in the out-of-field season. Don’t get me wrong, I love science, I love numbers and I love making graphs with science and numbers. But I would be kidding myself if I said that I don’t suffer from “field hangovers”. Working in my lab on the outskirts of Bangalore was not exactly idyllic and when I mentioned this to a friend she gave me a book to read. It was “Gorilla Adventure” by Willard Price. I pride myself in reading widely, but this was beyond the reaches of my net. My friend warned me to not overanalyze it, but I didn’t really listen.
Willard Price, as his Wikipedia page will tell you, is the Canadian-American author of the Adventure series. This series involves the adventures of two teenaged brothers – Hal and Roger Hunt – as they gallivant across the globe collecting exotic animals for their father’s zoo. It’s a bit dated, but not bad. In this particular book, they are sent on assignment to the central African country, Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), to bring a gorilla and miscellaneous other rare, exotic creatures back to their California zoo. (They justify it as “these animals would survive better in captivity anyway”). I finished the book in one sitting, and I was glad that I hadn’t read it in my teenage years.
Here’s why – fieldwork is to Gorilla Adventure what sex is to porn. Gorilla Adventure is what you imagine fieldwork to be like before you get there, fieldwork is what you actually live through. Here’s a list of where the Hal and Roger Hunt narrative disagrees with mine (a.k.a. real life).
Hal and Roger Hunt (HRH): They spend two days getting their shit together. Okay, maybe two days before getting there and two days after, so four.
Real Life: I spent two months reading, picking locations, trying to procure camera traps, finding stores with the cheapest paper bags, getting a scanner, making sure that it can scan leaves, and finding the most reasonable shipping company. The day before I left for field, I had a two-hour mental breakdown and succeeded in scaring my mother. I felt hugely underprepared, had tons of legwork still left to do and wasn’t sure that I would be able to pull the project off. In my first few weeks, I had to present my proposal to a permits committee, who proceeded to make life difficult for me, as government committees do. Over the next month, with infinite patience, I befriended the clerks and got them to push paper around until I finally got permits to even step into the forest. Maybe the Hunts were just more resourceful.
HRH: They know everything they see. Before the Internet age.
Real Life: If you are a regular human being in a new place, you don’t know what you are looking at most of the time. If you are lucky, there is a published field guide with pictures and you are carrying one. If you have Internet access, you can maybe venture to look it up. Most often, you rely on someone else, most likely someone who grew up there, close to the forests. Ask some questions: What is that snake? Is it venomous? What is that bird? Have you hunted it? They might tell you in a language or system of nomenclature that you don’t know. In that case you memorize the syllables (“tho-pana-e-thu”) and ask someone else who knows both the local names and English names later. You then learn both, make a dictionary and rinse, repeat. Working in the Andamans, we learned local names in two regional languages of all the common bird species. And our field assistants learned our strange-sounding English words. After two years of this, we still sometimes fail to understand each other.
HRH: They get tips from someone about where an exotic animal is. And they snag it.
Real Life: Having just expounded on the value of local knowledge, let me also say how variable it can be. People want to give you all sorts of tips, but often they are just stories. In my trips to the islands, I have heard several accounts of mermaid sightings. A lady once described in vivid detail a sighting of two merfolk who liked to eat rice from the shallows and of another beached mermaid who begged to be returned to the sea because she had children. She claimed to have a video of the latter but her daughter said that it had gotten deleted when they had changed phones. I was disappointed. I had promised my local zoo a mermaid.
HRH: The Hunts are alphas on the scene. They don’t falter.
Real Life: Field work is icky and messy. The twitter hashtag #fieldworkfail is the proof of the pudding. A typical day can involve one or many of the following: slipping and falling, climbing, panting, scrambling, failed equipment, failed experiments, kicking mud, relieving yourself in the open, washing yourself in sometimes stagnant pools of water, sandflies and midges, and a variety of skin infections. I like to describe my field persona as “gawkward” (gawky + awkward). My field assistants on the other hand, emerge at the end of a day like Bollywood heroes after a fight, unscathed. Alpha much?
HRH: They find everything they need and more. Surprise!
Real Life: When I reached my field site for the first time, I saw nothing I wanted to see. Of course, I had a wish list of species, but I was constrained by my untrained eye. Animals, contrary to what Gorilla Adventure might lead you to think, like to stay inconspicuous. I spent the first week honing my senses to avoid snakes while walking at night. At first everything is new, but slowly you get better. Months (or maybe years) in, you might see something truly spectacular like a red-tailed trinket snake (a rare endemic or a species unique to the region and found nowhere else in the world) eating an Andaman wood pigeon (another rare endemic) or a green bronzeback (another endemic snake) in a death-grip with an Andaman giant gecko (an endemic )! If you are not a nature nerd, think of it like this – you fangirl both Prince Harry and Megan Markle separately, and then you find out that they are getting married AND that you are invited! In short, beyond your wildest dreams.
HRH: They leave and never come back again.
Real Life: You want to be detached, you want to be an objective scientist, but locations and cultures have a pull on you. You can never really leave. The place sneaks up on you and before you know it you are in it for the long haul. You make lifelong friends in the field, because you bond most deeply when you are your least filtered self (re: washing yourself and your skin infections in puddles). You share most of your time with field assistants, camping with them and spending full days in the field with them, discussing science and life in general and learning a lot. You get to know them and their families, and you care about their happiness. You go to their weddings and you continue to be part of their lives as they text you photos of their new haircut when you are halfway across the world! Don’t let Willard Price tell you otherwise.
Krishna Anujan is a small diurnal mammal that prefers evergreen forest habitats. She wished as a child to become an elephant mahout but has now settled for a career in ecology. While an undergrad, she worked on big cats in northeastern India, mosquito larvae in the lab and invasive deer in the Andaman Islands. She then managed forest dynamics plots in the same islands before starting her PhD looking at tropical forest productivity and community dynamics. She is currently at Columbia University, dreaming of her next field season.
Krishna likes to read, write postcards, dance, watch birds, talk about life and argue about social justice until she suddenly remembers that she has a PhD to do. She is mostly a lurker on Twitter, but if you insist, you can follow her @KrishnaAnujan.
6 thoughts on “Un-Gorilla Un-Adventure: The Realities of Fieldwork”
Lovely Kichu. I loved the analogies that you have used. It brought a smile to my face.
What a wonderful adventure shared with the rare combination of honesty and entertainment!
Beautiful writing Krishna!
I don’t know about ecology, but you are a good writer. I loved it
Well written! How about a double PhD, one in ecology and the other in Literature. The style of writing and the analogies interested me more than the deer.
I don’t know shit about ecology and I was fully entertained.
“I had promised my local zoo a mermaid.” -Krishna Anujan