It’s quite ironic that these tips are essentially coming from a girl with a track record of falling over on a flat surface without so much as a mild breeze. However, you must take into account, that as a trained guide and field researcher, as part of trying to cope with my clumsy everyday existence, I’ve become quite familiar with some of the terrifying scenarios that you will face when things do go wrong. If you stick to these rules you might* be able to learn from my mistakes.
Rule 1: Accept that anything that could possibly go wrong WILL go wrong!
I’m not talking about sleeping through your alarm or the torrential downpour that follows when you forget to pack a raincoat (although these are both valid scenarios you will no doubt face at some point). I am referring to the fact, you are going to be in the rear end of nowhere, possibly working in a small group or possibly on your own. Either way, you will be collecting data in an environment where the plants and animals have evolved to defend themselves against you. You are not imagining it. They are out to get you! That includes the spikey acacia thorn that pierced through two layers of shirt to slice open your arm, that very brittle spiny anemone that’s lurking patiently below the sole of your foot or the hissing cobra you haven’t even noticed yet, as it’s still merrily sleeping under the rocks to your left.
In my experience, if you stay out in the field long enough, or perhaps if you are just super unlucky (in which case, sucks to be you), you are going to come face to face with some sort of danger at some point. This rule is not to prevent any hazard from happening (though a bit of research about the environment you are entering is always recommended to help with that part too). This rule is meant for that unpredicted, unforeseen or just downright unlucky scenario has sodding well happened anyway. The point of this rule is to think: ‘what the hell am I going to do now?’
For me, one of the scariest moments of my career was watching a friend and colleague trip backwards, smashing his skull hard on a bait table and consequently knocking himself out cold. The moment I put my hand on his head to try and wake him up, I felt a lot of blood. At this point in my career, although I knew instinctively that this was not a good sign, I had no first aid training other than an EFR diving course which I’d completed at the age of 18 (6 years earlier).
With the beauty of hindsight, I would not recommend this level of training as sufficient for anyone entering the field. Before starting my job as a grizzly bear guide, it was mandatory that I completed a 2-week intense ‘Wilderness First Responder’ course. I’m not going to lie; it was really tough! Through practical and written sections, I had a crash course in how to evaluate, monitor, stabilise and evacuate anything from a serious head injury, broken spine, severe arterial bleed or dislocated shoulder. Though I’ve yet to walk out onto a real helicopter crash scene yet, for the confidence and knowledge it’s given me, I cannot recommend this level of training more! As the old saying goes, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’.
Rule 2: Never enter the field with a hangover…
Though this sounds like a no-brainer for anyone outside of the science industry, the part most people don’t fully take into account when trekking down this career path, is the sheer intensity of the work. Most positions are far from a 9-5, with some projects stretching for up to 20 days without a day off and 10 hour shifts as standard. Not that this is a bad thing, if you like wildlife and the outdoors! But as a result, when you do get that mythical off-day, it tends to be based on somewhat of a ‘work-hard, play-hard’ ethic. Looking after yourself, drinking lots of water and getting a good nights sleep on the build up to your next working day, will prevent you from trudging around the field, dopey or sick with a killer headache. On a hangover, your reflexes are slower and your guard will be down, especially when it comes to all those things out to get you (this list now also includes your boss, who is just waiting for the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’ after you insisted on those final tequila shots). Trust me, you definitely want to avoid the embarrassment of injuring yourself on this occasion! Make sure you don’t break this rule.
Rule 3. Don’t skimp on the gear
We’ve all been there. Stocking up for a new position in the field, filling our baskets with all the expensively unappealing and seemingly unnecessary items required by our future employer. As a conservationist/wildlife professional, naturally our pockets are already exceedingly shallow and each added zero on the tag matters. It’s very tempting at this point to swap out some of these painful options to go for own brand labels instead or even miss them off the list completely (guilty!). If you do this, realise that you are doing this at your own risk. It may seem like a great idea now, but believe me, speaking from experience, one of the worst decisions you can make is skimping out on a cheap brand of head torch! There are some items that you may be able to afford to do without, such as a UV hat (my personal opinion only). A decent quality head torch however, is not one!
I stupidly have made this mistake twice?! Don’t ask me how! For some reason, head torches, drinks bottles and sunglasses are always the last things I think of to buy, whereas mosquito repellent has earned a place very high up every list. The realisation I’d gone wrong the first time, came to me at 1am, while wading through waist high water alongside a gill net we were using to catch sharks. When you are handling an angry wild creature at 1 am, in an area where you caught 4m tiger sharks the week before, the last thing you want to be worried about is your lack of vision! There is a huge difference between a £5 bargain bin head torch and a £20 water proof, high beam version. Save room in your budget for vision. The same goes for binoculars!
Rule 4: Avoid the pointy end!
This goes without saying really. When you are working in close proximity to dangerous wild animals a lot, it is very easy to become blasé. Don’t be a victim of the Disney land effect! Animals DO bite. Their teeth are covered with saliva, bacteria and in the worst case rabies. Make sure you have invested in your vaccinations before you head out and always, always be wary of the pointy end.
Rule 5: Do not get lost!
Easy right?! Well, in new territory like the middle of the bush, when you’ve traipsed around in circles, following a business of mongooses with your head in your data sheets for the last three hours, it’s not as easy as you might think. Especially if your GPS battery dies and you aren’t completely sure of your position on the map anymore. As you go along, keep looking for obvious land marks to orientate yourself. You don’t want to be rushing back through the bush at dusk, alone and not 100% sure of your location. While all the fun predators come out at night, you don’t really want to meet them alone on foot.
Rule 6: Always have a fall back (plan B, C, D, E, F … Z)
So you are up a river fighting against the current, the weathers torrential it’s time to get everybody back to base pronto, but when you twist the throttle the engine dies….
Before I left the country, I didn’t really regard myself as a very handy person. Like most young women who’ve grown up in the first world, until my early twenties should anything go wrong in my life, plan B had always been to call my dad/brother/boyfriend or generally anyone with the know-how and ask them for backup. When you are alone, in the field, or even if you’re working within a small group, there will be a point where plan B simply is not achievable. Perhaps you are out of phone service, perhaps there is no one at base to answer the radio, either way, at this point you want to be able to execute plan C asap. It’s because of this rule that I’ve become quite proficient at taking apart outboard boat engines and jumpstarting/push-starting cars/mopeds and even familiarising myself with the contents under the hood of old buses. When it comes to changing tyres, pffft, I could do that in the dark during a sandstorm, been there got the t-shirt (or the mouthful of sand anyway). If you work on the principle that nobody is going to be around to help you, then you will get pretty efficient at problem-solving fast. This is a great skill to have and is far better than the alternative.
Rule 7: Never go for the cheapest insurance!
So you’ve forked out on a decent first aid course, your tickets are booked and you’ve even invested twenty quid in a flashy new head torch (good job). You’re finally starting to get excited about the prospect of leaving. Except for one thing-insurance! Insurance is painfully expensive. Especially when you are visiting North America (for some reason, this world wide selection always comes at an extra cost!?).
At this point you may have used one of those tempting market comparison tools, unchecking options like luggage protection, flight cancellation, extreme sports… But still, most are coming out well into the hundred-pound mark.You may never have made a claim on insurance in your life up to this point. I get it. Most people haven’t. You may be thinking, sod it, I’ll go for the cheap £70 version and take my chances… what’s the worst that could happen?!
Cue the time I was casually bitten by one of the subjects I was working with, that happened to be a small shark, only to find out there was no doctor on the island. Or the time my concussed and vomiting friend was told he would need to go for an emergency MRI scan, which would also require an upfront $5000 payment for the evacuation helicopter (which his cheap insurance wouldn’t cover).
When you read the small print of your insurance, the most important sections you want to look at is the amount available for emergency medical expenses and the personal liability. There are some insurances where you will have to pay in advance, others that will take on the bill immediately. The quality of your insurance could be the difference between you transferring smoothly through A+E or appearing on one of those devastating crowd funder appeals by your now bankrupt parents who are still trying to get you home for treatment. In some countries, they may even refuse to treat you without proof of insurance.
I heard an incredibly sad story from a friend in Indonesia, her colleague had crashed into a tree while returning from a night out on his moped. Not only did he not have a helmet, but he didn’t have a copy of his insurance on him. Though people found him and kept him warm/stable while an ambulance came, without being conscious to answer questions about insurance, he wasn’t taken to the nearest modern hospital but the more distant and cheaper version. He did not receive the emergency medical care he needed and tragically he didn’t make it. It is for this reason, I would also advocate that once you’ve purchased it, you make a lot of copies of your insurance certificate, make sure the people you are with know where to find it and always have at least one in your purse/wallet.
**Rule 7.b Disclaimer: There are NO guarantees in the field!
This article was written by Sarah Roberts, Founder of Creature, a communication platform dedicated to conservation and education awareness. To find out more about Sarah and her experiences in the field, subscribe to her youtube channel Sarahsrealjob here.