Creepy Critters: Dinner in the Jungle

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 primatologist Ben Rawson’s story.

Centipede. (© Shinji Kusano/Nature Production/Minden Pictures)

After a long day chasing the Endangered black-shanked douc monkey (Pygathrix nigripes) through the remote forests of eastern Cambodia, I sat down with my two guides — members of the Phnong ethnic group — to our standard dinner of rice and fish. Dried, smoked or canned, we ate a lot of fish on these two-week field trips. We had a special guest on this trip: Allan Michauld, a long-time Cambodian resident, wildlife photographer and friend. He had been spending his days in a treetop hide with his camera, hauling himself up a rope to 15 meters (49 feet) above the ground and sitting in a small tent for eight hours at a time in 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) heat, waiting for something interesting to go by.

Night closed in and we all chatted and laughed as usual. I was still laughing about the previous afternoon, when Allan and I had been pushing through a patch of bamboo close to base camp and a bat had run smack bang into his forehead and fallen to the ground stunned, before rising up and flying off. Allan’s curvaceous and bald head was obviously immune to bat echolocation.

As we crunched away on fish bones at our makeshift bamboo table I felt a slight bite on my left buttock, but thought nothing of it as we were surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes most of the time — a source of fear to be sure, but a familiar one, as I had already contracted the disease many times.

Then I felt something I couldn’t ignore — a sharp shooting pain from my backside, which made me jump and yelp. Looking down, there was a centipede sitting where I had just been, and I swear it was looking up at me with a smile. Centipedes are predators, and clearly this one thought I looked good to eat. It was big, maybe 6 inches long, and all kinds of colours which say, “Don’t mess with me — I can kill you without thinking.”

Now the Phnong are not scared of much in the forest, but my guides were terrified of these things. They started chasing the centipede around camp with logs from the fire, bashing away trying to squash it, but only succeeding in smashing camp equipment.

Meanwhile, I had my shorts around my ankles, desperately trying to check the damage by turning round and round like a dog chasing its tail. I looked to Allan, clearly distraught; a bite from these things can hospitalize you, and we were at least a five hour’s walk from the nearest village and about a day and a half from medical treatment. Allan just looked back at me and said calmly, “I’m not sucking out the poison.”

I had a venom extractor — a small suction device designed to remove venom — and I quickly attached this over the bite in the hope that it would do something, then ate a fistful of antihistamines. I felt stupid standing in the dark in the forest with my pants down and a suction device on my butt, but I was more concerned about the creeping feeling of venom spreading down my leg.

I lay down in my hammock and tried to lower my heart rate. After a while, everyone else got bored of waiting for me to die and went to sleep. My mind raced — maybe the venom extractor worked, or maybe the centipede hadn’t used venom in its bite, or perhaps creatures my size were not its standard prey. I desperately wanted any of these scenarios to be true — and apparently, one of them was, as the agony I was waiting for never came. Eventually, after hours of lying in the dark with eyes wide open, I fell asleep and dreamt of creepy crawlies.

Ben Rawson is a primatologist and the Veun Sai forest manager for CI’s Greater Mekong Program. Check out more tales of creepy critter encounters or send a free Halloween ecard.

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