James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

The World Needs You, Badly – My Talk From Explore 2014

I love Explore.

For anyone not familiar, it’s the RGS’s annual expedition and fieldwork planning weekend. Attendance, at some point in your life, is probably my number one piece of advice for any aspiring conservationist.

It was a huge privileged to be asked to speak this year. I promised to share my slides and some links to the organisations mentioned, so here’s a summary.

Where to Explore?


Explore is special, because in any given lecture, you have a staggering diversity of people sitting in the audience. Some of them, will go to places where few have ever trod. Others to rainforests, deserts or the arctic. Some might go with big multidisciplinary teams, others, alone. Some will repeat or retrace some of the great expeditions of history. Some will no doubt climb mountains, sail oceans, cycle across continents or kayak and raft down the worlds rivers. The rest will probably go out to Peru and climb trees with Andy.

All of those people, are at Explore.

What’s Normal?

Another wonderful aspect is that you can arrive with the wildest, most ambitious, off the wall idea… and you’ll fit right in. Surrounded by like minded people, crazy dreams suddenly seem quite practical. If not ‘normal’, then certainly achievable. The trick is just knowing where to start.


Shifting Baselines

I would imagine something that unites almost everyone attending explore, is a love of wild places and wild spaces. Whether your flavor is adventure or science, you can’t help but notice the slow and unrelenting loss of biodiversity and wildlife around the world.

At the same time, we set our conservation ambitious on the levels of biodiversity we have experienced or remember in our own lives. It’s a phenomenon called shifting baseline syndrome.

A few of the statistics I shared:

  • Wildlife has declined 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010 (Living Planet Index)
  • The current extinction rate is thought to be 1000 or more times the background rate. (Brown University)
  • 96% of apes are threatened with extinction (the only one that isn’t is humans). (Mongabay)
  • We think 163 species of birds have gone extinct since 1500. (Birdlife)

I think the scale the problem is such that regardless of whether you come motivated by adventure, personal challenge, field research or something entirely different; you’ll be motivated to try and chip in to the solution.

Losing The Opportunity For Adventure

A lot of people in the audience are probably thinking that, as adventurers, science and fieldwork is nothing much to do with them. Well I’d ask to you to look at a map of Borneo like this (there’s dozens like it for all parts of the world). When I look at this with my scientist head on, I see a tragic loss of biodiversity. But if I look at it with my exploring head, then I see a loss of opportunity for adventure!

I hope I can persuade you that you don’t have to be a scientist to do science, and that anyone, anywhere, can help address the challenges our natural world faces.

Optimism and Turning The Corner

But I didn’t want to spend my whole talk sharing depressing statistics.

In fact, I’m an optimist. I think there’s never been a more exciting time to be an explorer, an adventurer, a scientist or whatever you call yourself. In our lifetimes, we’ll see the loss of biodiversity slow, and eventually stop. Perhaps if we live long enough, we might see it begin to turn that corner and start to rise again as we begin re-wilding parts of the land, returning it to a more sustainable state.

That will probably be the first time we’ve done that, in human history. And the people at Explore, amongst them some of the world’s most adventurous and inspiring people, will probably be the ones helping make that a reality.

That makes me immensely excited. So I think the title of my talk, is really put quite perfectly by E.O.Wilson:

How Adventure and Citizen Science Fit Together

Something I really wanted to show in my talk, was how well citizen science could slot into an adventure of any description. So I talked about seven ideas…

1. Snapshot Serengetti

There’s plenty of armchair explorers out there, in between expeditions, and looking for something exciting to do. Snapshot Serengetti is a great place to start.

2. Organised Expeditions

A great option for getting started. It’s up to you to ask the right questions, finding out what happens to your data, or what you’re bringing to the area in return for the experience you’ll take home.

3. Maybe You’re Going Traveling (to Vietnam and Laos for example)?

Learn about the area you’re passing through, and you’ll know if you see something important.

4. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Maybe you’re an adventurer through and through. Then why not have ASC help match you up with scientists that need samples from the tops of mountains or the remotest oceans. It’s only likely to take a few seconds!

5. Maybe you’re (casually) Rowing an Ocean

How many scientists row oceans? Not a lot. So think how valuable all those whale and dolphin sightings are from the middle of the ocean, outside of major shipping lanes. Even if you’re as athletic as my friend Lloyd, rowing an ocean still takes quite a while (sorry Lloyd!), so a bit of citizen science whale watching is a great way to make the most of your time out there.

6. Maybe you’re Walking Across a Desert…

As strange as it sounds, certain explore attendees have been known to do it! Passing through an area so few visit, why not keep an eye out for yet more wildlife that we know next to nothing about.

7. The EDGE Project

If, however, you have your heart set on an expeditions with a dedicated conservation focus. Then look no further than the EDGE project, which surely has to be a shopping list of worthwhile causes. Pick one that we know nothing about, and go!

Whatever You Do, Don’t Underestimate What You Can Achieve…

There’s plenty of folks out there that don’t give citizen science a chance. They don’t think it’s up to scratch. Luckily there’s plenty of great research, especially by Earthwatch, that shows how effective it can be.

But here’s a simple example. The image below is of one of the last 250 Arabian leopards left in the wild. It was taken thanks to the hard work, of a group of young enthusiastic 18-23 year olds, with no specialist scientific training, out in Oman. It just goes to show, with a bit of hard work, anything is possible.

The Global Biodiversity Information facility

Remember, it’s not just you. There’s dozens of organisations all working together to tackle global problems. It all feeds in (eventually) to a huge dataset of observations around the world called GBIF. It’s tools like this, that make conservation possible.

In terms of adventure, take a look at the map, find a patch with no yellow spots and go!

Communicating Your Discoveries

The last thing to remember, is that no expedition or adventure is over, until you’ve communicated your experience to others.

…And To Sum It All Up!

See you next year!