The End of Exploration?
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2011
This response to my reminiscence about Ted Parker ( “Dying for Discovery”) came in, and I think the message–about “a segment of the scientific community that is almost always out of sight until some tragedy occurs”–deserves attention. It’s from field biologist Andrew Mack:
I was a dear friend of Ted’s, we both began as birders at the Lancaster County Bird Club and I went out to the University of Arizona where for a while I was part of an incredible union of like souls— Ted Parker, Kenn Kaufmann, Doug Stotz, Steve Hilty, Mark Robbins, to name a few. As you know, many of us carry on with the same sort of work that Ted was doing when he died. Sadly, death brought him a lot more legitimacy than he carried in life. There were more than a few of our colleagues who scoffed at what he did (and still scoff at those of us trying to continue such explorations).
Mack makes a point I have also heard from other readers, that naturalists who survive their field work often come away maimed by it:
I’ve struggled with filariasis for over a decade, have had so many malarial fevers I lost count years ago and always have my quinine within reach; tuberculosis, leishmaniasis, dengue, typhoid, Ross River Fever, and the list goes on. Things like botflies and eye leeches are like splinters to a carpenter. I’ve had plane landings on grass strips that still make my sphincter tighten just thinking about them, and at least six pilots I’ve flown with in Papua New Guinea have died in crashes. It is a ticking clock we don’t think about. The compulsion also shreds relationships (Ted had two divorces already when he died). I don’t say this to brag in any way, but to point out that we, with this compulsion to explore, just deal with these things. Most of my friends have equally long and debilitating medical histories, many have had much worse. I count myself lucky.
Financial support for their work is also a perennial issue:
Most of us struggle on with minimal support, and that is part of the reason it is dangerous. We do this work on shoestrings. When a partner like BBC comes in, or you work with a mining exploration company (as I did with Freeport McMoran in Irian Jaya), you see what it could be like with a little financial backing. The world of donors simply does not value this kind of science.
I used to work for Conservation International’s RAP program. Sure it is celebrating its 20th anniversary (I contributed to the commemorative volume Leeanne Alonso and Steve Richards put together), but RAP barely survives. CI does not adequately support RAP. I tried another major conservation organization for years but they too lost interest in exploratory field work. I then shifted to a famous natural history museum, but they too have little interest in expeditions or recent history in this sort of work. The priorities are set by donors and funding agencies. Expeditions and exploration are just about impossible to fund.
Having survived diseases that don’t even have a name yet and lived for years in camps without power or connection to the outside world, I (and my like-spirited explorers) are now withering away for lack of funds.
It is great that 20 years later Ted and Al are getting some press. I believe Ted would be gratified by the conservation that is at least in part attributed to his work, plus the commemorative publications and species named in his honor. But I also believe, if he was alive now, he would be even more frustrated than he was in the 70’s and 80’s by the lack of interest within the professional and donor communities in his sort of work. RAP barely survives and the other conservation NGOs do even less. Few museums mount expeditions or seriously support exploration.
Straight natural history is considered “not real science” by many academics. The flurry of laments and calls for more natural history after the crash have long since quieted, and little changed. Those of us from Ted’s era have soldiered on with less and less support. But we’re getting old and there are not many young Ted’s coming up behind us. When our knees finally give out after one mountain too many or our livers from one Plasmodium too many, we’ll retire to our computers and work on the backlog.
Just as it was tragic that Ted and Al died so young and before their time, so too is it tragic that the age and spirit of exploration seems to be dying while there is still so much left to do. Thanks for your efforts to keep the spirit alive.