Let’s face it – wildlife conservation sounds sexy. I love seeing the awe and excitement on peoples’ faces when they ask me what my field is and I reply “wildlife conservation” or “landscape ecology.” People ask questions. Their minds immediately jump to images of gazelles racing across the African savanna, of elephants trampling through paddy fields, of collaring tigers and tracking lions.

Up in a tree after some langurs. P.C. H. Purkey

But here’s a new perspective from the inside: wildlife conservation has its moments, but so much of it is as mundane as any other career path. Let’s consider my summer internship. Yes, I spent three weeks collecting data on predators and prey in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, three weeks of glorious fieldwork in a beautiful landscape. But alongside the exciting wildlife sightings, the thrill of seeing fresh tiger pugmarks in the dirt paths, and the early morning drives in our Gypsy Rover, fieldwork involved a lot of…shit. Literally. I spent a good portion of my time squatting by animal feces, both fresh and days — sometimes weeks — old, poking through the scat and pellets grimly with a long stick in an attempt to identify the unsuspecting creature that left it behind. Many times, I spent a good part of the afternoon washing the bottoms of my hiking boots to remove fresh scat that I had stepped right into from the soles. And of course, fieldwork meant carrying a backpack full of supplies with me for hours at a time. Supplies, which included at least four to five bottles of water, a first-aid kit, a stout stick, spare towels and socks, and my sandals, in case it should rain. The day always began cool and fresh, and the wildlife was bountiful in those early-morning hours. But, as it approached eleven a.m., the animals slunk away to rest, leaving us with nothing to see but scat and pugmarks.

There was a day when we followed a striped hyena through the hills for at least three kilometers. The scent of the trail was strong, and we knew the hyena was close by. How did we know this?

It left a fresh squirt of urine on nearly every tree along the path.

Did we actually see that hyena that day? No. But we knew it was close thanks to the fresh, pungent urine and the ripe scat it left in its wake.

“It’s five p.m. and I still haven’t found any trace of a tiger…” Tracking tigers in Ranthambhore, 2016. P.C. U.K. Tanwar

A large part of tracking wildlife is learning how to use your senses. Not just your sight (though seeing scat is certainly better than falling headfirst into it), but also your hearing and sense of smell. Carnivores smell pungent, with breath like rotten flesh. The easiest way to sense when a leopard is nearby is to take a few deep whiffs of the air. If it smells like a pile of dead rats, it’s likely a leopard (unless you’re in your house, in which case we hope it is a dead rat). Hearing is also exceptionally useful, although it is common knowledge that most non-human animals have better-developed hearing than we do. But listening to the sounds of the jungle plays a key role in both your ability to find wildlife and your survival. A good example of this is the way prey species — let’s use the Hanuman langur and the spotted deer (chital) as examples — alert other prey to the presence of a hunting tiger. Langurs and chital forage in close proximity to one another. The langurs stay up in the trees, where they can keep a sharp lookout for a tiger, while the chital graze and flick their ears constantly, listening for predators. If the langurs should spot a tiger before the deer smell it, they cry out in warning and the deer flee. And if the chital should scent the predator on the wind, they bark in warning and galvanize the herd — and the langurs — into motion. This mutualism allows both species a better chance of survival. Conservationists working in tiger forest learn to keep a sharp eye and ear out for the langurs and the chital. Natural alarm calls are the surest indicators of danger.

Changing back into hiking boots after wading through the Chambal River. P.C. M. Singh

When not in the field, where at least the chances of spotting wildlife are higher, we conservation scientists spent our time in the office, where there is no chance of seeing anything larger and more interesting than a thieving monkey or a cow. A lot of our work involves sifting through vast datasheets of disorganized data. Data which includes fine print on whose cow was eaten by which tiger, or which village was last attacked by a leopard, or where that elephant herd was last seen. Data also includes information on national park wildlife counts, revenues, and village demographics. Sometimes, data is in vernacular or poorly written in datasheets and must be transcribed to be useful. And sometimes, we spend hours sitting in other peoples’ offices waiting for our turn to request data or information access.

Conservation is sexy, yes, but it is sexy because it forces us to care about a larger world than the one we have built for ourselves. It is a field that requires humility and passion; indeed, conservation scientists without passion will soon find themselves burnt out. It is grueling work to stalk tigers through the field all day, or to analyze pellets to assess the diet of a sloth bear. It is boring to sit in a hide or in a jeep all day, eyes glued to binoculars, only to realize at the end of the day that twelve hours later, you have not seen a single animal larger than a rabbit. It is demoralizing to read reports of habitat destruction or poaching cases, to see videos of human-wildlife conflict or of floods destroying forests and cities alike. But it is a career for a wild heart, for souls that want more than humans can offer, for those who have the desire and the will to keep on fighting against all odds. Because the odds are stacked up against Mother Nature. Conservation scientists don’t think we can cure all of our planet’s problems and wipe away all wounds caused by human development.

We are simply trying to keep nature intact for just another day. And to leave the office knowing that your work may save a tiny patch of land, or a river dolphin, or a row of saplings struggling to put down roots in a megacity is fuel enough to face the trials of tomorrow.

With a baby alligator, prior to its release. P.C. A. Ranganathan

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