Sunday, November 17, 2019

Leeches, leeches, leeches

In the mid-altitude rainforest of Sinharaja in Sri Lanka, leeches are at the top of the food chain.
We were warned before we came here about the leeches, but we were blasé and heedless. Not for long though. After a quick half-hour birdwatching walk along a paved road in the nearby village, I had already picked up two leech wounds, completely unawares, which proceeded to bleed copiously for the next two hours, all over the lodge bedsheets as well as my clothes.
When we finally entered Sinharaja Rainforest proper the next morning, they were absolutely everywhere - millions of them, probably even billions in total - noodle-thin and only a couple centimetres long in the main, unlike the big fat Canadian leeches we are more used to, but making up for that with sheer numbers.
And by their persistence. You don't even need to be stationary for them to latch on to a boot (and we were stationary much more than I wanted, thanks to some avid, over-achieving birders in the group). If ever we stopped for more than a few seconds, you could see them heading in our direction, like something out of a horror movie. Once given an in, they somersault and cartwheel their way into your socks, or up your pant legs, even all the way up to your stomach, shoulder or neck, in no time at all. Our guide gleefully regaled us with stories of someone who had one attached to his tongue (don't ask me!). Tucking clothing in seems to make little or no difference to them. They even found their way around (through?) the official "leech socks" some people were wearing - yes it's a thing, look it up.
You can pluck them off before they do to much damage if you are quick enough, but then you will find them happily sucking on your fingers, however quick you think you have been. You can end up shaking them off one hand and then the other for some time. The only real way to get rid of them is with a brisk flick of the finger nail, which I soon perfected, although by that time of course two more will have started their journey up your boots... By the end of the day, we were all semi-paranoid, and I must have flicked away many hundreds (even thousands) of them over the day.
And they are nigh on indestructible. I'm not proud of it, but at one point I was desperate enough to set about completely destroying them, rather than just removing them, and believe you me, it's not easy. I ground one under my boot heel for almost a minute, and somehow, inexplicably, it was still wriggling and coming back for more, a little slower perhaps but nevertheless undaunted. I have no idea how that is even possible. I flushed one, which had hitched a ride back to our room, down the toilet: it just effortlessly latched on to the slick, smooth procelain, and then continued its inexorable progress back in the general direction of my blood. It was a depressing sight, and not a little alarming.
I know that leeches are not actually dangerous and do not carry infectious diseases, and they are actually pretty cool animals in their own way. But, by the end of the day, our outdoorsy group of birders and nature-lovers was reduced to a collection of anxious, twitchy, leech-haters. There were barrel-loads of leech jokes and plenty of banter and bravado that night, but pretty much everyone was surreptitiously scratching and checking their ankles. I don't think any of us were sad to leave that beautiful but blighted place the next day.

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