skip to Main Content

An open letter in support of
The Beagle Campaign
Through Geographical Endeavour to Greater Knowledge

from Mark O’Shea
FRGS & Herpetologist on the RGS “Maracá Rainforest Project 1987-88

The Resolution is that the
Royal Geographical Society
should once again mount large-scale multidisciplinary expeditions
(in addition to continuing to support smaller-scale or independent external expeditions)

This Resolution is to be voted upon my
Fellows and Post-graduate Fellows
at a Special General Meeting of the RGS
on 18th May, in London.

The Beagle Campaign

A series of photographs from the
Maracá Rainforest Project
follow this letter

To Whom it May Concern

As a long-standing Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (20+years) and the herpetologist on the RGS-INPA-SEMA* Projeto Maracá (aka Maracá Rainforest Project) in Roraima, Brazil (1987-1988), I have for a long time been disappointed with the way the Society has been turning away from expeditions and exploration.

Since before the time of Scott and Shackleton this Society has been world respected in the field of exploration. Whether mountain, polar, marine, desert or jungle, few institutions in the World could compete with the reputation of the Royal Geographical Society.

This reputation was built upon not only the support the RGS has provided for small independent expeditions, coming to the Society for equipment, advice and funding, but also on its ability to put its own large-scale, long-term scientific expeditions into the field.
Mulu, Wahiba Sands, Karakorum, Maracá, were all large and well-run RGS expeditions of the 1970s and 1980s.

I read about the Mulu Expedition in Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s book Mulu: The Rainforest and was intensely envious of its participants so when RGS Director Dr John Hemming offered me the opportunity to join the Maracá Rainforest Project (1987-88), as the field herpetologist, I jumped at the chance and spent a total of seven months on the remote reserve in northern Brazil, documenting its herpetofauna and honing my field skills. Prior to my involvement in the project only 12 snake species had been recorded from the 100,000 hectare riverine island on the Rio Uraricoera but by the end of the expedition there we had documented 34 species of snakes, including the first record of the rhombic racer Drymobius rhombifer from Brazil not to mention all the lizards, turtles and caiman which bumped up the reptile total to 66 species. But the reptiles were only my part of the project, there were international specialists in all aspects of zoology, botany, medical entomology, soil science, forest regeneration and economic geography arriving and conducting fieldwork. If I fancied a day off from chasing reptiles I could assist the INPA fish teams catching stingrays and their parasitic candiru (the infamous toothpick fish), catfish, piranha or electric fish, or spent the night out with one of the bat teams who managed to record the largest number of species (49 I believe) of any location in the Neotropics, including vampire bats. In the evenings we sat on the verandah, sipped caipirinhas and discussed the day’s fieldwork, often learning about subjects far removed from our own personal fields of interest. It was an education and a joy.

This was an expedition with all the drama of those of the 19th century, as anyone who was involved will know, but thankfully it had the support that only a large institution like the RGS can provide. When I received a serious rattlesnake bite at 18:30 in the evening, 30minutes after the radio at headquarters in Boa Vista has been closed down the night, those of us on the ecological station knew there would be no help until the radios were switched back on at 06:00 the next morning. We could have a rough night on our hands. The expedition nurse Sarah Latham was fantastic and when it became necessary to use our antivenom supply she was professional in the extreme, despite this being her first ever snakebite case. Obviously I survived to be medivaced the next morning but such was the expedition camaraderie that when I returned to the island a few days later the members of the expedition threw the biggest party imaginable (or possible) on an ecological station 5.5hrs by road (on a good day) from just about anywhere. I think that sums up these expeditions: collaboration and camaraderie, learning about other people’s work, conducting your own and getting along with people in a tightly-knit group, often under extreme conditions. These are experiences that probably only expeditions (or combat) can provide.

I have so many wonderful memories of my time on Maracá; towing two elderly Brazilian lady entomologists up and down a lagoon in a small boat like Bogart’s Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, going caiman catching at night with Viscount Montgomery, herds of peccaries in the gloom of the forest like so many Tolkienesk Uruk-hai, the anaconda in the muddy hole, a scorpion in my sleeping bag…. yes even the rattlesnake bite and the somersaulting land cruiser, all amazing experiences in which I can loose myself from time to time. It is not that I stopped doing expeditions, far from it, I have done many, many more, but there was something special about being a participant on a large RGS expedition, it has kudos, it was the real-deal, it was important, and it was fun!

Yet since then the RGS seems to have moved away from conducting its own expeditions and limited its interest to supporting smaller independent projects from the sidelines.
Does it really have to be one or the other ?
Surely the Society can continue to support external expeditions whilst at the same time mounting an annual or biannual expedition of its own to some under-explored corner of the world, bringing in and supporting local scientists (on Maracá I also acted as field guide for young, but inexperienced, Brazilian biologists, in their own jungle!)

Could it be that these RGS expeditions are considered elitist or colonial by those in the higher echelons on the Society ?
Or is it simply that the Society has been taken over by persons more interested in town-planning and social problems ?

If so it is very disappointing and the future looks bleak.
I have spoken to several former Fellows who resigned from the Society because they no longer felt it offered them anything of interest, they felt divorced from its current direction and were frustrated by the way it seemed to shove its illustrious history, as a major exploring society, under one of the large carpets in the entrance hall.

I used to visit the RGS whenever I was in London, there were always people I knew hanging around there. It was a meeting place for the like-minded, explorers, expeditioners.
How many telephone conversations ended with “I’ll meet you next week at the RGS” , how many letters, telegrams and telegraphs ended that way in days gone by.
I even spoke from the hallowed stage on at least four occasions.

No more, I have not visited the Society for several years and would now feel as a stranger passing through its portals.
So far, however, I have not terminated my Fellowship, although a year ago I did telephone to Society to voice my opinions of the direction it was taking.

This Resolution is a breath of fresh air, it is a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe the RGS will rediscover its purpose and once again become a world leader in the fields of exploration and expeditions.
But just as this Resolution offers a chance for the future, it also threatens the reverse because if the Resolution is lost, then I will surely feel that the Society will never again be the Society I joined, and felt at the centre of in the 1980s.
Then I too might consider resigning and never passing through great wooden doors again.

I shall certainly be voting YES for the Resolution
Up the Resolutionists


Mark O’Shea