Life lessons from the field

This post originally published on the ICCS website.

Conservation happens all over the world and, by partnering with local organisations, ICCS researchers get to work in many different places. Conservation also often occurs in remote areas with sparse populations and poor infrastructure, which can make working there very challenging. But getting to the places where conservation happens, collecting data, and understanding what is going on is an essential part of conservation science. For my PhD, I’m working in Cambodia to understand the issue of wildlife poisoning, and working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to develop strategies for persuading local communities to stop doing it. Having just returned from a five-month stint in the woods, I thought I’d share five thoughts I have about making fieldwork a success.

1. Plan ahead – Having a plan reduces risk and provides peace of mind. It is especially important to have an idea of where you’ll eat and sleep each night! Take risk assessments seriously, make sure you know how to access emergency services, and make sure you have a first aid kit and that you know how to use it. Similarly, if you’re using vehicles, make sure you have the knowledge and tools to do basic maintenance if you won’t be able to access a garage. Finally, think about a small bottle of hand sanitizer for those bush toilets!

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My research assistants – Vichet and Theavy, and myself before commencing fieldwork.

2. Go with the flow – Nothing ever goes perfectly to plan: there are always things that no amount of planning can prepare you for. The only way to deal with that is to keep calm and have a sense of humour. Remember: it’s very difficult to die. Solutions almost always present themselves, especially in the developing world where people are incredibly resourceful. One dark rainy night each of our three motorbikes had a breakdown and each time a kind passer-by rescued us!

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Pushing motorbikes through the mud is hard work!

3. Use local knowledge – Local help isn’t just important in emergencies but in every stage of fieldwork from planning to execution. Local collaborators can give you the best planning information and guide you through bureaucracy, I wouldn’t attempt any sort of work without one. Learning the local language is invaluable as talking to locals will give you the most up to date and detailed information. Even just taking a moment to ask about the road ahead can save you hours of headache. 

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The village chief helping us invite people to a meeting to talk about pesticide practices.

4. Manage your stress – Even if you are a zen-master and follow all of the above, fieldwork is bound to cause you stress at times. Often there is a lot of time and money invested and, especially as a PhD student, it can feel like you’re in it on your own. Make sure you find time and opportunities to do the things you usually love like sport, reading, or listening to music. Keep in touch with your loved ones, and those that can give you moral support – you’ll be surprised where you can get mobile coverage these days!

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The rice paddies and palm trees close to Choamsrae village

5. Enjoy yourself –Despite the stress and shock, working in such a different environment and culture is a rare privilege and an amazing adventure. Remember to live in the moment, enjoy the food, take pictures, be curious and learn from the people around you, enjoy each sunrise and sunset and keep a journal. Soon you’ll be back home with a treasure-trove of stories to tell, and maybe feeling just a little wiser.

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One of the lovely families that hosted us at their house.

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