24 March 2012

Blood, sweat and fears: the research scientists in Borneo's rainforests

Louise Murray joined an international team of research scientists in Borneo, where burrowing mites and enraged elephants are just part of a day's work

Louise Murray | guardian.co.uk | 23 March 2012
Research scientists in the Borneo rainforestTimm Döbert, Terhi Riutt, Ed Turner and some field assistants at work in Borneo. Photograph: Louise Murray for the Guardian

Stop, or sit down, and first one, then many, thin waving creatures appear in your peripheral vision. These are the vanguard of the leech community, using heat-seeking sensors in their multi-jawed mouths to locate the steaming, sweaty heap of wet clothes you have become just minutes after entering the rainforest.

Even a mosquito can be deterred from its purpose, but a leech – no. Think brain-dead, blood-sucking zombies, and you won't be far wrong. Once they have your heat signature, nothing will stop them. As researcher Nivaarani Arumugam from the University of Malaysia says, "Flicking them off is tough, they are like sticky rubber bands. Once they have arrived, they don't want to leave. The first few bites are a shock; there is something very uncomfortable about having a creature swell up as it drinks your blood."

Oxford University entomologist Jake Snaddon hates leeches and was once foolish enough to say that he would trade them for ticks any day, "I lived to regret that, because the next day I walked into a seething, breeding ball of ticks, hundreds of pinhead-sized, biting, blood sucking beasties. I have no idea how many bites I got that day, the only way to get them off me was to wrap my hand in Sellotape and rip them off my skin."

The two are part of an international team working in Sabah, Malaysia, on one of the most ambitious ecological projects ever undertaken – SAFE, the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosytems. The 10-year study tracks the transition of every aspect of the ecosystem from secondary rainforest, through logging, and conversion to oil palm plantation.

The project is the idea of Rob Ewers of Imperial College, London, and funded by the Sime Darby Foundation of Malaysia. "We are working with the oil palm industry to leave different-sized patches of forest standing to help us design the best way for these human-impacted landscapes to support the biodiversity for which the region is famous," Ewers explains. "Our work will help shape agricultural practice across the tropics."

But to achieve results, tens of thousands of hours must be spent in one of the most difficult working environments on the planet. Ewers wondered why his young Malaysian field assistants ran off laughing as they were building one of the first of 100km of trails in the experimental area.

"I soon found out, as thousands of angry wasps swarmed around me. Fortunately they didn't sting, but tropical insects can be nasty," he says in his laconic Australian accent.

This ancient forest is home to some of the largest insects on the planet, from the giant forest ant to the palm-sized, rhinoceros beetle, and centipedes with paralysing toxic bites. Heat and near 100% humidity take their toll on the scientists, making the work physically challenging.

"It's like doing aerobics in a sauna," says Terhi Riutta, a Finnish forest ecologist from Oxford University, who studies carbon dynamics. "The ground is slippery and muddy, and often steep. I carry 7kg of CO2-measuring equipment, and, on top of that, two litres of water and lunch. I think it was Lance Armstong who said it doesn't get any easier, you just get a bit faster."

Some really struggle with the heat. Surprisingly, young Malaysian environmental scientist Anand Nainar suffers badly. "But I grew up in the city, with air conditioning," he says, "which is no preparation for trekking for hours in the heat and humidity. During this startup phase we are building water-monitoring stations, carrying in everything from cement, gantries, sledge hammers and drills.

"I couldn't do it without our local field assistants and must admit that I am much more physically and mentally fit having gone through this." But it is Timm Döbert, a towering German studying for his PhD at the University of Western Australia in Perth, who has the most problems with the climate. Smaller, slighter builds do best in high heat and humidity, while his tall, northern European frame is well adapted to a cool climate.

Döbert sweats excessively in the tropics. To counteract this he has to drink – and carry – five litres of water, on top of the 10kg of cameras, tripods and other equipment needed for his work on invasive plant species in the forest. He sweats copiously and it is hard work just watching him. But the climate-change biologist has spent six months continuously in the forest, with only a few hiccups.

Foot rot is a fungal infection that gets a grip when feet are never properly dry. "I had it so badly I couldn't walk," he says.

He also thought that he had worms, after seeing tracks under his skin. Deworming made no difference, so he took himself off to the nearest doctor who diagnosed mites. "I keep an eye on the length of the tracks so I know if there are new ones, but they are very itchy, its hard not to scratch," he tells me, while surreptitiously running his nails over the spot.

But not all the perils of the forest are small and bite; others are large and seriously life threatening. Entomologist and scientific coordinator Ed Turner speaks about his encounter with some very angry forest elephants, who are often in conflict with plantation owners when they wander in to feast on choice young oil palm leaves.

Most of the pachyderms in Sabah will have had negative experiences with humans, as plantation owners use firecrackers and vehicles to scare them back into the rainforest. Turner and his team of field assistants were travelling back to camp after a long day when they turned a corner in their vehicle and almost ran into a group of five, including two babies.

Turner takes up the story: "I was driving and the matriarch started thrashing vegetation at the side of the road, trumpeting, and shaking her head, making it crystal clear that she wanted us to leave. She charged as I slammed into reverse and shot off back down the road. Unusually, instead of then leading the family into the trees she stood her ground and held us there, charging each time we tried to pass. Seven of us crammed into the truck got pretty uncomfortable as she kept us there until after dark."

Before travelling to Borneo, I had been warned by Ewers that the SAFEscience base camp was rough and temporary, and it certainly makes an impression as we arrive, lurching down a track that was half-river and half-road during a typical afternoon rainstorm.

Orange tarpaulins provide a makeshift roof supported by a framework of branches. Rudimentary tables support laptops and personal gear, and everywhere clothes are hanging out to dry, a near impossible task in the humidity.

The nearby river provides washing facilities for both people and clothes and the yellow, sediment-filled water looks very intimidating as darkness falls. I decide to stay grubby. Men and women wash in different parts and most locals prefer to wash in the dark.

"It was scary at first, but once you know where the rocks are its really the best part of the day and a place for a rare moment of personal privacy. The fish nibble your feet and later the fireflies flit above the water's surface. Just gorgeous, my own spa," laughs Riutta, who adds that she has never mastered the Malaysian women's mysterious ability to wash without wetting their sarongs.

Apart from the obvious discomforts of working in a rainforest, camp life is hard psychologically, particularly for long-term residents. The camp houses up to 40 scientists and more than 20 local field staff at peak times. Everyone speaks about the lack of personal space and privacy – your hammock and mosquito net are separated from the next by only 20cm.

The camp's designer, Johnny Larenus, has to organise the logistics, from food to fuel. He is also planning a more permanent base that will serve the SAFE project for the next eight years. He is justifiably proud of innovations such as his gravity-fed water supply that removes the need for carrying buckets of water from the river to the kitchen; and the sole flushing toilet. He is the one who allocates staff and vehicle resources to scientists, which can be a source of friction at busy times.

A minor irritation to those sleeping nearby, is the satellite TV system – installed by Larenus at his own expense to keep his Malaysian staff happy during their two-month on, one-week off rotas. It is bizarre to be listening to dubbed Mexican soap operas under a mosquito net in the forest. "It's hard to keep everyone happy," he says with a smile, "but I try."

Everyone looks forward to the small luxuries that a more permanent camp will afford – from a washing machine to, for long-term residents such as Döbert, mattresses and cabins with a door to close.

But the leeches have the last word. Almost two months since I pulled more than 20 of them from my shoe and discovered I had been making blood donations all day, a batch of bites still itch like hell. Or maybe the parasitic mites have moved in?

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