The best part of being a Zoologist is the field work.
Growing up as a kid, I watched National Geographic and Discovery all the time. The likes of Steve Irwin, David Attenborough, Jeff Crowin, Jesus A Rivas, Austin Stevens and many more were the people who fueled the Zoologist inside me. I wanted to be like them, run after snakes like Austin Stevens did, hop on a crocodile like Steve Irwin did. It seemed exciting to the kid I was back then, and when I had early life career crisis and had to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I decided to look back at my idols and I knew what I was going to do and what would make me happy for the rest of my life.
It’s been more than a fun ride so far, ups and downs, thick and thins of the forest, or cold and hot of the rivers and lakes. Not a single thing I’d change about it. As I look back into the early days of field work there are, or there were certain moments which was scary, more fun than scary at times. I wanted to write about the animals I’ve been chased by because I think this would give people idea about how life as a Zoologist is. How fun it looks on the outside but how scary can it get in real.
It was a huge Ox but the magnitude of the chase wasn’t that bad so the number 10 would definitely be the Ox. It was during the early days of field work. I was on a bird watching trip to Ghyampe dada. I went there alone on my mountain bike. Upon reaching the pilot baba temple thing, I locked my bike up in the railing and started walking up the hill next to the temple. I was excited, though I was alone, because I had seen plenty of birds in less than 10 minutes. I was about to take a photo of this long tailed Minivet on some tree and walked down the hill. I didn’t know that there was an ox right next to me. I don’t know much about how they behave usually but then the ox was surprised to see me as much as I was surprised to see the ox. Without even thinking about it for once the Ox just thumped and then started chasing me. I had a camera around my next and a binocular in my hands, and a backpack with books, water and lunch. I ran as fast as I could and then jump up on a small mound of soil high enough to be safe from the Ox. It wasn’t that bad.
During the early days of my masters second year, I was looking at the options of working on effect of urbanization on wildlife or urban wildlife. To work on that, I was going around the specially to places with urban monkey’s. One of my place of choice was Thapthali temple, because that’s how the definition of my Urban wildlife would fit. As a part of that I was thinking about monitoring their behavior in response to humans. I was outside the temple in Thapthali, right next to the Bagmati river. I was staring at this mother who was holding on to her offspring, hoping to see how she behaves when people pass them over. But then, as I pointed my camera at her she felt threatened and gave me that aggressive look , I thought it would be fine to continue taking the photos but it wasn’t. I was still looking at the camera trying to take a photo but in a snap, she was out of the frame and heading right to me with all of her teeth ready to bite me. I didn’t even get to react or see where I was heading but I made a run for it. She did chase me for at least 100 meters or so before giving up.
Himalayan Black Bear
During a trip to Gosaikunda, while returning back, we decided to take the Thulo syabru route. We had descended from Gosaikunda that day and were heading for Syafrubesi. It was a long walk and by the time we reached Thulosyabru it was almost dark. The hotel owners pursued us to stay there by saying that there are bears in the jungle and you’d not want to walk in the jungle after night fall. We thought that was a strategy to scare us off to stay in their hotel. We were reluctant to believe it and decided to head down. About 25 minutes later, we were resting in this pine forest opposite to a small hill. I was looking around the hill and about 50 meters away, I saw this big bulb of black mass moving in the trees. It was almost dark, so I thought it could be cattle or something along that line. But that thing stood on two legs and started right at us. I was like, well cattles can’t do that. It got back on all four and headed toward us. I could then realize that it wasn’t a cow but rather a black bear and a huge black bear. Gladly, half way through the hill the bear stopped again and stood on its feet and then looked at us again and then dropped down and walked away. There wasn’t much of a chase but it could have been one and since it was a Himalayan black bear, it should be a 8 I guess.
The Donkey chase wasn’t much of a chase but the situation and the magnitude of what could have happened if thing had gone just a little bit bad brought the donkey up to number 7. While I was descending down the steep stone steps down to Ghandruk bus stop from the village.I was on my knees, practically sleeping on the trails to take a photo a butterfly, but little did I know that this caravan of Donkeys were running down the hill. It was my reflex that saved me from that, I was quick to react, but if not for that, I’d have fallen down at least 1000 feet below the hill into the river.
One of my favorite is the Yak, partly because it happened instantly after I had said that “These domestic Yaks are pretty docile, they won’t attack”. For those who’ve been there you know the steep climb at Deurali on the way to Gosaikunda. We were about to start the steepest face and these yaks were descending down the hill, one of the friend who was with me was skeptic about them and he was trying to hide behind the trees, but I stood there on the trail and I was telling him how docile they are and they’d not attack. But whatever happened to that Yak at that moment, he just lashed out on me on the steepest face of the trail. I didn’t even know where to run, because there wasn’t any place to run. But I just jumped down to where ever I could and where the Yak couldn’t. I sprained my leg while doing so because I was carrying a backpack that was at least 15 kgs. But I’m glad that Yak didn’t get me. It would have been end of me if the yak had.
So when we were working on Salvia neubicola in Manang, we were in Chame and measuring the plants height, herbivory and all other attributes. We had about 250 plants in each field, so we used this metal detector to find the plants which were tagged with these small metal, since it was a long term project, 3 years of data on the same plant was taken. So we were looking for that metal tag and me and Sanajay were digging and looking for the tag. Prakash was bored and had a mattock in his hand and was hitting all the tree bark in frustration. Little did he know that, what he thought was a lump of bark on the tree was a wasp nest. We were about 10-15 feet away from him. As soon as he hit the wasp nest, the were a huge buzz sound followed by the thump. Within seconds the wasps were swarming us from all over. I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless tshirt. Thankfully, it was raining earlier and we had umbrella. So I just ran as fast as I could and climbed this hill and hid behind the stone and took shelter in the umbrella. I wasn’t stung but then I could hear the buzzing for at least 5 minutes. It took me a while to get out of there, but even then they were still looking for people to sting, specially that stupid human who had just destroyed their nests.
This has to be the most funniest of all the near death experiences during the field work. We were working in Chitwan National Park, we had to go inside the jungle every day and then return back before 5. We used to walk all the way to the field site and then take a canoe back to the camp. The canoe they use there are single tree canoe (made out of a single tree) and it can fit about 13 people including the rowing person or whatever they’re called. After the day was done, we headed for the camp, reached our rendezvous point and realized that few people ahead of us had taken almost a empty canoe and we had to fit 15 people in that canoe. There was no option, it would take about hour for a canoe to come up stream to where we were. So we decided to go for it. 15 people in a small canoe where only 13 can fit . Even without the turn and twist, this surge would bring water right into the canoe, the canoe would literally hit the sand on the river floor and the guy had to go out and push it and get it back on the water. Right before the place where we’d get out, there was a sharp turn, so this guy who runs the canoe said, the canoe is going to drown for sure on that turn because its sharp. So he asked me and my friend (Sunil) to get off on this small island in the middle of the river, and that he’d come back to get us. We agreed and got off at that island, we started walking to the front end of the island. When we looked right at the river bank in front of us, some of our friends were already there. They were waving and shouting at us, we thought that they were shouting at us because we got of there and they were excited so we started shouting as well. But we heard a huge thumping sound behind us, we both turned around and say this huge mugger crocodile that was easily at least 15 feet making a run at us. That’s what the friends at the bank were shouting at us, they were informing us about the crocodile that behind us. We didn’t have enough place to run because it was a freaking island, but then we ran randomly throughout the island and for some reason the crocodile gave up on chasing us and went inside the water.
It was during the same field trip in Chitwan. We used to eat dinner at a hotel and then walk back to the camp. There was a shortcut through the jungle and that was our route through out the fieldwork. One of the night, we were walking back to the camp, it must have been around 10 pm. It was pitch dark, we had headlamps and there wasn’t any light around, the headlamp wasn’t that good either, we could barely see 15 feet ahead of us. Three of us were walking back that day, Me, Sunil and another friend, up ahead we saw few shiny eyes, lots of them, we had seen wild boars in that area previously and they weren’t trouble some so we didn’t care, but when we reached near them, one of the mother growled, not sure from where, since there were at least 10 12 of them at least. We stood frozen and I said “Don’t move, stay still” and instantly the wild boar charged at us and I looked at my friends only to realize that they were at least 100 meter far and running like Usain Bolt. And I was alone in the middle of the jungle with a full grown pissed off female wild boar chasing me. I blacked out, well it was already black enough so I was just normal but then I made a run for it, funnily enough I didn’t have a good headlamp and the battery was almost done as well. I just ran wherever I could to avoid the wild boar, it was pitch dark to see anything and I didn’t have a choice but to run at random into the jungle that has Rhinos, Leopards, Bears, and the Bengal Tiger. Forget about those things, there are Cobras in the forest, they’re in the forest floor, I could easily been bitten by one of them. But I guess dying from a snake bite is better than being shredded by a pissed of wild boar.
So back to the same field work, it was like the mother of all dangerous field work. Back in Chitwan while working on the same field, one of the days we were right inside the deepest sal forest on the southernmost part of the national park. It was quite dry, it was in dec so obviously the dryish season. Prior to starting our fieldwork we were instructed on what to do when we were attacked by different animals and we were briefed about the wild elephants as well. So everyone was supposed to throw their bags on the floor and stand in circle and make noises, like crazy loud noises. The briefing went well and we knew what to do for every single animal that could chase or kill us . On that day though, we had to walk to the furthest field side from the camp and since it was tiring to carry all the shovel and picks we took an elephant with us to carry all the stuff. But, little did we know that the elephant was a female one and beaming with hormones and to mate. Half way through the field work, we started hearing this loud noises in the forest, trees tearing apart and then crackling sounds. Within seconds of that rustling a huge wild elephant charged at us, I think there was 8 people in our group and instantly, every single one forgot the drill and just ran wherever they could and threw their stuff on the floor. I did the same, I just ran wherever I could, but then I soon realized that few people were following me as well. But we were separated as a group, amidst the chaos, while we were running with a psycho wild elephant on on back, we ran into this huge forest fire and we couldn’t go anywhere further than that. It was as if the whole forest was on fire, we could feel the heat from at least 30 or 40 feet. We were stuck! There was nowhere to go, there was no phone network there and we didn’t have a gps either. But gladly we lost the elephant somehow and we were unharmed. But the team lost property worth of at least 200,000 Nrs (2000$) that day mostly phones and laptop that was in the bag which everyone threw away when they were running. Here’s the catch, the bag had lunch, which would basically be bananas, apples and cheese and other fruit stuffs most of the day.
1.The great one horned Rhinoceros
The best chase experience so far in the history of the fieldwork has to be the time when we were chased by the Rhinoceros. During the same field the killer field season in Chitwan. We were out to get small mammals, basically look for shrews in pitfalls that we had in the middle of the forest. We had done the sal forest before and on that day we were headed to the riverine forest and the grassland, basically river banks. The grassland had long elephant grasses at least 10 feet tall and a small trail where hardly one person would fit. There was 8-9 people in our group, we were walking along that trail, and suddenly right in front of us we saw this Rhinoceros, and without even a single warning the Rhino charged at us. Now let me remind you guys, we were in the middle of the freaking grassland with no trees around and we were chased by an angry Rhino. I have no recollection of how or where I ran that day but after a minute or two we reached this small patch of shruby forest and I climbed a tree instantly. Everyone made it to the tree in time and no one was hurt. But the Rhino followed and stayed pretty close to the tree and we couldn’t go down so we were stuck in tree for at least 2 hours. And those trees are usually used by the wild animals to scratch their body, hence they’re infested with ticks and when you spend about 2 hours on a tree, imagine how many ticks would then perch on your body. And if you guys haven’t been bitten by ticks, you guys don’t know the pain of a parasite feeding on your flesh. After a while 2 tourist accompanied by a ranger guide came to the same place, we were trying to signal them but they didn’t hear us. But they saw the Rhino and it charged at them as well, but they did manage to climb a small shruby tree but since the shruby tree was not big enough one of the tourist fell down from the tree right in front of the Rhino. The Rhino wasn’t expecting a human falling of the tree and somehow got scared and move back, if it had anticipated and charged at that person, that guy would have died right there. But somehow that Rhino got scared and, the guide jumped down and grabbed him back to the tree. The Rhino was no far enough for us to at least get down and make a run for a safer place. It was one of the scariest experiences in the field. We didn’t even get to collect data or find the shrews and we had to return back to the camp because it was late. But then we didn’t have any data, when asked upon why we didn’t have any data even though we were in the field all day, the whole camp laughed in fear after hearing the horror of the day.
It was a good thing that I wasn’t hurt in any of those field work. We could have easily encountered Tigers in Chitwan national park. We did have an instance where we encountered fresh urine of tiger. So we were working on creating this line transect that was 250 meters long and we’d keep pegs at every 10 meter interval. So we dug a hole and inserted the peg on 0 meters, 10 meter, 20, 30 and then moved to 40 meters. We heard this sound and the ranger asked us to keep quiet for awhile because he heard something. We were at 40 meters from our initial peg, we kept quiet for about a minute and went back to the 0 meters point to see what was going on and there was a freshly sprayed urine right next to the plot. The tiger must have seen us, but it didn’t care, and till this day I’m glad that it didn’t we’d not have been able to outrun a tiger in its own homerange. Life as a Zoologist is fun, I don’t think you’d get to experience these as anyone else. I guess, I still have tons of animals left which haven’t chased me yet. The list will grow on.