Research Vacations No Walk in the Park, Experts Say

May 29, 2007

More and more people are signing up to spend their vacations helping scientists with research in exotic locales like the Amazon and Madagascar—despite the risk of poisonous snakes, biting ants, and uncomfortable sleeping quarters.

Such vacations fall into the broad category of ecotourism—tourism that is more environmentally friendly or that benefits conservation efforts. In 2004 the International Ecotourism Society found the category is growing three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole.

But science expeditions are inherently dangerous and uncomfortable, some experts say.

David Mellow helps coordinate volunteers for research trips to the Amazon rain forest.

Some dangers—such as being hit by falling trees or getting lost in unfamiliar landscapes—can be life-threatening, he said.

But most, taken with a grain of salt, are humorous. (See Amazon photos from National Geographic magazine)

For example, on a recent trip, wary of encountering a poisonous snake on his way to a camp outhouse, Mellow was holding a broom in one hand and a machete in the other.

He whacked at the tall grass, watching out for the snake, and, once safely at the stairs up to the proverbial throne, put his guard down.

"And there's the snake all coiled and waiting for frogs and insects right at the base of the toilet," he said.

"I didn't notice this until I was face-to-face, and of course I screamed."

Tight Quarters

Mellow routinely participates on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest led by his wife, Kevina Vulinec, a conservation biologist at Delaware State University in Dover. (Related: "For Dung Beetles, Monkey Business is Serious Stuff" [May 26, 2004].)

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