Wild time: Uni paper takes students into Borneo jungle

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A trip to the steamy jungles of Borneo is now officially part of a third-year paper at the University of Otago.

And the three-week field trip is not for the faint of heart, zoology department lecturer and ecology degree programme director Prof Phil Bishop says.

“I’ve got a very detailed four-page risk assessment form that they have to read.

“There’s poisonous snakes, large animals, rising rivers, it’s slippery and wet, there’s spiders and tarantulas, scorpions and nasty plants.

“And there’s lots of leeches. You do get eaten by leeches.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

The paper was for those who wanted to forge a career in ecology, he said.

“They want to go to places like that and get dirty and smelly and encounter all those dangerous animals in a safe way.”

The experience might also give students a greater appreciation of the living conditions in their student flats, he said.

He was inspired to create the paper after discovering some of his students were spending their own money to go to places such as Costa Rica, Borneo and Southeast Asia during their summer holidays, to experience a tropical environment, Prof Bishop said.

“They would have an amazing educational time as well as a fun time, but then they would come back and they wouldn’t have any university credits for the experience.”

Over the past two years, he had started taking small groups of interested ecology students on unofficial trips to Borneo.

But late last year he took it one step further and applied to the university to run it as a paper. It was approved and the first cohort of students studying the paper went to Borneo in January.

“At the university, we cover the temperate zones and the poled zones really well here in our ecology programme, but we don’t really do anything in the tropics or the subtropics.

“So I thought, if I could run a high level course that teaches them a lot about the issues there and the ecology there, then that would be a really good thing.”

He said the third-year paper was called Tropical Field Ecology, and students had to have good knowledge about ecology and tropical ecosystems before they could go on the course.

“What they get out of the trip is knowing the incredible diversity of the plants and animals that you find in the tropics, and the tremendous amount of knowledge that we still don’t have about these systems.

“A lot of students that go on this course, will go on to do research to find out answers to these questions.”