Encounter: Monster Leeches

Pardon me for exaggerating the danger posed by leeches, for experience has not been kind to me

The farmer looked at his buffalo lying in the leaf litter. She looked as if she had been sucked dry, with circular bite-marks the diameter of tennis balls. He gasped. Having spent all sixty three years of his life here, he knew the forest and the grasslands adjoining it like the back of his hand. There was absolutely no creature here that could inflict such a death. He had previously lost a few cattle to snake-bite, and a calf to a leopard. But, this was certainly odd.

A slight movement among the fallen leaves caught his eye. A bullfrog? But something made him look at it again. It didn’t have a head, just a stump in place. It tilted the stump-head left and right like a blind man trying to tell the direction of a sound. And it leaped right at him – the same way frogs do, albeit in the opposite direction.

As he battled with the thing, trying to pull out the stump that worked now like a suction-head attached firmly to his throat, he saw from the corners of his eyes, more of these creatures springing towards him from all directions. He screamed, though he knew well that there was no one around who could hear him…

A few miles away, in a secret army biological research station, the army chief read the report from his scientists. The last three decrypted reports had brought a smile to his face…

“Experiment to infuse tiger leech DNA into bullfrog spawn- Success
Self sustainability in the wild – Success
Reproducing capability – Success”
But the blood drained from his face as he read the last report…
CODE RED! Recapturing/ eliminating the specimen released to wild – Failure. Transmitters attached to six of the twenty not working.
If the Japanese could invent Godzilla out of their resentment for nuclear experiments and atom bombs, can’t I invent a monster-leech?!
A drunk leech with a punctured stomach paints a gory picture (Photo: Sahastra)

Since childhood, I have been mortally afraid of leeches, though I had not yet encountered them. My dad was an avid trekker and came back from his trips with tales of how leeches attached themselves to the limbs of trekkers and grew fat sucking blood. He said that dropping salt or lemon juice over them made them drop off. The stories implanted a permanent apprehension in my head about leeches. Add to that other stories I heard of leeches getting under the eyelid of someone who washed his face in a stream only to be discovered two days later when the eye swelled up, of HIV viruses being found inside leeches in Africa, and of a guy who went to change his undies in the bushes after a long dip in a forest stream finding a fat, bloated leech mirroring his leech-like member…

How much more does one need for mere fear to give way to paranoia?

The modus operandi of this bloodsucker is the proven lie-in-wait-and-ambush method. The moment you put your feet anywhere near one of them, they will detect motion and heat and latch onto you. They clamber up through gaps in your shoe, all the way up to where your socks end, and latch onto the skin. Its saliva contains an anaesthetic, which numbs pain and other sensation, and an anti-coagulant, which unclots the blood to make it flow smoothly. When it has had enough, it drops off.
The fat, dark specimen looks for a tender spot on Beej’s index finger…

On our Agumbe trip we saw two kinds of leeches: a thin, long one with stripes around it and two along its length, and a darker, shorter one with two cream-coloured stripes on either side along its length. With the first one, the standard technique that Arun taught us worked well: Roll, pick and flick. Put a finger on top of it, and roll it over the leech. It would curl up into a ball, then just pick it up and flick it far with a finger. With the latter, this was tough as the guy just wouldn’t roll. Here, pressing your nail near the bite to loosen its hold and then doing a carrom-strike with the middle finger was easier.

Two slender leeches attempt to find the point where the socks originate…

We also tried some experiments with the guy. Beej lifted one up, pulled it with both hands like a rubber band, twisted it and squeezed it in an attempt to “give him a tough time” – but the guy was literally indestructible that way. Chemical warfare was easier. Some salt on a leech would make it shrivel up and die, and same happened when we squeezed a drop of lemon juice on it. I had worn socks dipped in Dettol and brine and dried, but they didn’t deter the leeches much. Wearing ankle-length shoes and jeans that extended all the way to the base of the shoe, made the leeches climb up the jeans – they were easier to spot and remove.

Locals often tell us to drop salt or hold a flame to a biting leech. But it is said that this may cause the leech to regurgitate blood along with bacteria in its stomach right on the bite wound, leading to the risk of infection.
One had latched on to my leg too (photo: Beej)
After the Agumbe trip, I made my peace with the leeches. Of course, peace is a relative term, though I even stood still with a leech having started to suck my blood long enough to let Beej photograph it. But there were moments when they troubled me — like when one attached itself to Arun’s arm at 1 AM when we were asleep inside the tent. And yes, the itch from only three bites (a blessing, considering the number that I plucked off my legs and one from right under my chin) hasn’t worn off yet.
Photos by Sahastrarashmi, Beej and Sandeep
Read more Agumbe Diaries
The Green Ogre – Birds, Wildlife, Ecology and Nature notes from India.
Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.