David Attenborough famously once said about humanity, that we won’t protect what we don’t care about, and we won’t care about what we haven’t experienced.
This, I think, is one of the most persuasive arguments for setting off on an expedition if ever there was one – and crucially for young scientists, the sooner that you do, the better.
My first experience of expeditions was at 17 with the British Exploring Society. I came across the opportunity almost by accident and before I knew it, was en route to Madagascar. The marvelous thing about expeditions is that it’s impossible to know what to expect. I was sure I would learn a lot, I expected to see many new and incredible things – but I didn’t expect it to fundamentally shape the rest of my life.
Madagascar is wrecked by deforestation and poverty, yet the people are among the kindest you will ever meet. At school, in geography you learn about global development issues, and if you study the text books hard enough, when the inevitable exam questions arise you can recite the answers and leave with full marks. This is not so, in the real world.
The most important lesson I learnt in Madagascar is that solutions to many of the problems just haven’t been discovered yet. How do you balance the needs of villages to grow food with the loss of forest? How do you persuade hunters to avoid species on the brink of extinction? How do you get the rest of the world to pay attention?
I don’t know the answers. But what I do know, is that on our British Exploring expedition way back in 2007 there were 33 young people like myself, and we were all driven to ask the same questions about the environment around us. For weeks we worked hard in the forest, surveying lemurs, collecting reptiles and planting trees. Every one of us was left utterly enchanted by Madagascar, it’s people and it’s wildlife. We will be asking those questions for many years to come, no matter which direction our lives take us.
But as for me, I’m betting that the answers lay in science. The expedition motivated me to study through university, work on research projects and now study for a PhD in conservation genetics.
Remember, it’s simply experience, care, protect; and all you have to do is take that first exploratory step.
James Borrell is a conservation biologist with a passion for challenging expeditions. He’s been involved with a range of projects on four continents. From critically endangered big cats in the remote Dhofar Mountains to biodiversity surveys in the Amazon and forest genetics in the high Arctic. He also founded Discover Conservation, a website to inspire the next generation of young field biologists.
The British Exploring Society is the UK’s leading youth charity taking young people much like yourselves the adventure of a lifetime on Scientific Expeditions to the majestic wilderness from places like the Jungle, Arctic, the Deserts and Mountains. Do check them out, they’re a brilliant charity and really do an amazing job!