At CI, we’re dedicated to the protection of all life on Earth, recognizing that all species play a role in the healthy ecosystems that sustain us. However, even we’ll admit that some of them are less … cuddly … than others. With Halloween coming up, we recently asked CI scientists to recollect on some of their most harrowing wildlife encounters. Here is herpetologist Peter Paul van Dijk’s story.
What’s my creepiest or scariest critter encounter? As a (now part-time) field biologist, I can think back to a whole series of interactions with what many people would consider “creepy critters.”
Probably the most impressive experience was years ago in western Thailand, coming back from a long forest hike and seeing fresh tiger tracks on top of the boot-prints I had left that morning, going in the same direction. I worked in that forest for over two years and never saw a tiger; though I’m convinced tigers saw me on several occasions. My reassurance was my belief that tigers have clearly-set patterns and habits: tiger cubs learn from their mothers what they can hunt and eat. No tiger in living memory had killed a human — or even a monkey — in that forest; I would have been a curiosity to any tiger, but probably not considered edible.
Honestly, most wildlife that the general public might consider ‘creepy’ is just fascinating to me. A 13-foot (4-meter) king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) basking on a sunny trail is just magnificent; a red-eyed tree viper in the shrubs near a frog breeding chorus is a delight to photograph. A near-endless stream of bats flying out of their roosting cave at dusk is a spectacle worth hiking many miles for — and if there’s a bat-eating snake on the rock wall trying to catch its dinner, so much the better. Scorpions and tarantulas are best admired untouched, but if handled carefully, it’s surprising how lightweight and delicate these animals are.
All these ‘creepy’ animals have their role in the ecosystem, and none will go out of their way to actively injure or harm me. In fact, nearly all such encounters last too briefly, because these animals generally consider me and other humans to be the dangerous ones. They’re probably right, considering how humans exploit and wantonly kill animals. Personally, when considering ‘creepy,’ I am more likely to think of humans than of animals.
Still, I will admit that there is one type of animal that scares me greatly — not in the same way as an adrenaline-inducing tiger sighting, but terrifying none the less: mosquitoes. These insects transmit malaria, encephalitis, dengue and other severe diseases to humans across the globe. Mosquito populations can explode as we humans convert functioning, balanced ecosystems into degraded landscapes.
In the short-term, mosquitoes can be fought with nasty chemicals. However, developing a sustainable environmental management system will be a more effective — and cheaper — long-term approach. Not only would it reduce human suffering and discomfort, it will also be better for all the other critters — creepy, scary or otherwise.