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Explore 2016: Exploration in the 21st century

  • Written by  James Borrell
  • Published in Opinions
‘It is by exploring that we understand, and when we understand we develop an appreciation’ – James Borrell ‘It is by exploring that we understand, and when we understand we develop an appreciation’ – James Borrell Duncan Parker
15 Nov
The world is changing, but one thing stays the same – the urge to explore. It’s a part of our human nature, moulded over millions of years of evolution that has shaped the geography of our modern society

Explore 2016

It has been said before and it will undoubtedly be repeated again; that the planet is getting smaller, that there is nowhere left to explore, that the age of exploration is over.

I would argue instead, that there has never been a greater need to explore. Why? Because the stage for all exploration and adventure is the natural world, and nature is in an urgent, precipitous decline. It is by exploring that we understand, and when we understand we develop an appreciation. Ultimately, only the things we appreciate are worth protecting.

As the golden age of exploration dimmed, so too did the richness of life on Earth. It wasn’t just that there were fewer blank patches on the map; it was that wild places and spaces were progressively carved up, becoming more accessible and less forbidding. Visiting the Okavango delta or Kalahari, for example, no longer entailed a self-supported expedition with all the associated risk. Field stations popped up in important national parks and remote sensing by satellite became commonplace.

It is immensely important that today’s scientists continue to spend time in the field. Behind a desk thousands of miles away, it’s difficult to know which are the important things to measure

Increasing accessibility and the flourishing of environmental fieldwork is not a bad thing, but as wild places became less wild, biodiversity became less diverse too. We know that in the past four decades, more than half of the world’s wildlife has disappeared. We have lost three of the nine subspecies of tiger, lion populations are down from 1.2 million to below 20,000, and just last month the latest in a long list of amphibians was declared extinct.

In the next century, I believe we will need larger, wilder and better-connected protected areas. We will need wilderness, not just for the sake of it, but because it is from coherent, functioning ecosystems that we derive our essential services like clean water, food and materials. If we succeed, then expeditions – brief forays into the wild that seek to answer questions, monitor populations, and inspire action – will have a renewed sense of purpose. More importantly, it is the explorers that spend time in the wilderness that are the conduit through which the public experience, understand and appreciate.

Earlier this year, funded by the RGS-IBG, I led a research expedition to northern Madagascar. Our aim was to understand ‘edge effects’ – these are the changes in temperature and humidity at forest edges as a result of fragmentation – and how they impact endemic reptiles and amphibians. It was exactly the kind of question for which expeditions are ideal; relatively simple, urgently needed knowledge that can only be tested and validated in the field. What’s more, this kind of fieldwork often doesn’t require any special skills – aside from a taxonomist in the team – and so worthwhile expeditions are still hugely accessible to all.

forestA forest edge study area in Madagascar (Image: Duncan Parker)

It is, of course, also immensely important that today’s scientists continue to spend time in the field. It is here, almost by osmosis that you begin to understand how seemingly unrelated environmental interactions influence your study system. Sometimes, behind a desk thousands of miles away, it’s difficult to know which are the important things to measure until you stand out there on the forest edge and all quickly becomes apparent.

For this expedition, we worked in close collaboration with Malagasy scientists and students, to help build capacity for the future. This kind of project is only possible because organisations like the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), the Zoological Society of London and the Scientific Exploration Society make expedition grants available. It doesn’t just help develop good field scientists, but it builds collaborations that, with luck, will continue to blossom in the future.

It is this very generation – the Explore delegates attending this weekend – that are primed to lead the next wave of expeditions. The measure of their success will be whether there is still a place for expeditions in the future. Their leadership is needed now, more than ever.

James Borrell (jamesborrell.com) is a conservation scientist and science communicator, and one of four speakers at the Friday Night Lecture which will open the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Explore 2016 weekend. Friday tickets are free to Explore delegates, or with a £5 donation on the door.

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