There is an unspoken code of machismo in conservation. It’s not like anyone is keeping score, however, each is quick to discount any discomfort lest to lose esteem from others on the conservation team.When I lived in the high dessert lands of the Southwest, for example, even though the temperature really could boil an egg on the street, one just said, “But it’s a dry heat.” In so doing one communicated, “No problem for me. Why did you bring up the subject? Are you wimping out?”
Here in the Maya Selva (broadleaf forest shared between Mexico, Belize, Guatemala) it gets hot, but it’s a wet heat. No problem for me, but it is for our equipment and materials. With temperatures easily reaching 100 plus and the humidity percentage close to the same number, our gear gives up long before we do.
Here’s how so based on one 24 hour period last week in the Laguna del Tigre National Park in northern Guatemala. This year I am here with my conservation team members sampling wild macaw chicks to test them (the chicks, not my human team members) for disease and to get baseline data. We are all part of a group that centers on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s effort to protect the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Funding and expertise also comes from the American Museum of Natural History, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, and Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife.
Sure our shirts are already damp while we sip coffee at 5 a.m., and wet by the time we get to the base of the first nest tree. But it’s no problem for us. Handling the chick and taking blood goes well enough, but then the non living flesh begins to flake out. We make slides out of the blood and it is important that they dry right away so the cells don’t rupture, and so that they will lake take up the stain well. The slides refuse to dry. Quickly I pass them out and folks start blowing on the slides. This induces borderline hyperventilation in case anyone was thinking they were too comfortable in the heat and humidity.
We then move on to the next trees and as the day progresses the humidity drops and the slides dry more quickly. During the last nest exam, however, the chick brings plenty of nest dust down with her and when she moves, dust and dirt gets on the slides, making preparation difficult.
While some of us pack up under the nest tree, others go ahead to get to the truck as fast as possible. It’s important to quickly centrifuge the blood so you can separate the plasma from the red blood cells. So this has to happen truck side in the middle of the forest, drawing on the truck’s battery for energy. On the walk back we discover that even our knee caps sweat in this weather. No problem for us, but it might be for the blood samples. So we give thanks to Kari Schmidt and others on our advance team, for they are finishing up as we arrive.
We then go to the lab, and I did mention that there were no fans or air conditioning in the field lab, didn’t I? It is about the hottest time of the day, but we can’t break for lunch because samples need to be run as soon as possible. No problem for us. We keep cranking, but our equipment fails. First the clay that stoppers the hematocrit tubes gets too warm and doesn’t seal the tubes. The blood leaks out and we can’t assess whether the birds have anemia or not. In the middle of this, our Abaxis biochemistry analyzer, the Vetscan Classic, decides it’s just too hot to keep running, and stops. I guess we can’t blame the machine, after all the manual suggests not to run it with ambient temperatures over 90. Now we know why.
As long as the equipment peters out first we don’t mind stopping. We take a long lunch break, for the chicks’ and equipment’s sake, not ours. We don’t want to be handling the more sensitive chicks when the sun reaches its punishment zenith. We climb a nest tree in the later afternoon and then return gladly to work in the stifling lab after dark.
No problem for us, but our refractometer acts up. This is a piece of equipment that passes light through blood plasma so we can judge Total Solids. But there isn’t enough light to read the refractometer well, so we have to use a flash light. Using flash lights are notorious for losing macho points, but not in this case – it’s the equipment’s fault (the stupid clay keeps leaking even in the night!). .
There is nothing more we can do but wait until it is cooler in the morning. Otherwise I’m sure we could have worked all night. Instead we let the equipment rest as we try to do so ourselves, though the heat and humidity keep one wakeful, as do the Howler monkeys bellowing throughout the night. No problem for us. Refreshed or not, we are ready to go again in the morning.
So there we are running laboratory tests at 5:30 a.m. and do manage to tame the heat and humidity issues of our equipment. With no more tests to run, it’s time to pack up. A large walking stick (insect) inspects our process as we decide how to arrange it all. The more sensitive equipment, such as the VetScan and the microscopes, cannot go in the back of the truck. So we look for volunteers who will ride inside the relatively cooler and more comfortable cab of the truck. Usually riding in the hot direct sun in the rambunctious truck bed is rather a mark of pride. However, two agree to hold microscopes in their laps for the 4 hour bumpy ride out, and I get the VetScan between my legs.
The bronco like action of the truck along the pitted roads does make it seem like I am riding a horse, so I just hold tight with my thigh muscles and it doesn’t seem so bad. The next day though I discover that I indeed did develop saddle sores in the typical places. Others received bruises where doors and other protruding objects rudely slammed into them while the driver navigated the deeper ruts. No problem for us, and thankfully, not for the equipment either which made it back in one piece to Flores, our home base.
Once back in Flores we visit ARCAS where they graciously allow us to sample a few of their birds so we can work out the kinks in our equipment. We run various trials using different clay at different temperatures and finally come to a place where we have confidence that the slides, tubes, centrifuges, microscopes, stains, and machines on our next trip to the field will man up and do their job.
After all, it’s just a wet heat.