Lost Land of the Tiger: The species hunters

We are living in a golden age of zoological discovery, yet are losing species faster than ever before, says Lost Lands... presenter George McGavin.

The species hunters article spread
We are living in a golden age of zoological discovery, yet are losing species faster than ever before, says George McGavin.
The urge to explore is a defining characteristic of our species. Since early modern humans spread from East Africa a mere 70,000 years ago, virtually every part of the planet has been colonised.
With the exception of cave systems and the ocean floor, it is hard to find anywhere on Earth that humans have never set foot.
The Age of Exploration, which for Europeans began in the 15th century, was driven by a compulsion to claim new lands and valuable commodities – conquest and commerce were high on the agenda. Later, the great expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries had as much to do with the quest for scientific knowledge.
Today, the illustrious tradition of human exploration continues: though there may be no new territory to discover, we know precious little about the Earth’s biological diversity. Most of the world’s flowering plants and vertebrates have been described, but pretty much everything else is woefully understudied.
We know precious little about groups of organisms such as bacteria, fungi, roundworms and insects, so there is still plenty to learn.

Five threats
We know that the world harbours a great diversity of species, but human activities are causing the progressive loss of plants and animals at a frequency far higher than the natural rate of extinction. The five things that drive this – all linked ultimately to human population growth – are habitat loss, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change.
Why does all of this matter? It is difficult to overstate the importance of biological diversity. The annual value of so-called ‘ecosystem services’ has been estimated at a colossal $33 trillion – in other words, this is the amount we would have to spend if these organisms were not doing what they do.
Actually, this figure doesn’t mean that much, because if they weren’t doing their job we simply could not survive. It is biodiversity at all levels – genes, species and ecosystems – that we depend on, and the more we know about it the better.
Breaking the rules
In my career as an academic zoologist, I’ve been fortunate to go on expeditions to many parts of the world. My maiden trip, aged 34, was to Papua New Guinea, where I ate my first cooked beetles and got lost in the rainforest for hours.
In my defence, I got a bit carried away by it all, but I had broken all of the cardinal rules. I had not told anyone where I was going, had not taken food, water or a compass, and was lucky to get back the same day I set out.
Near the end of the trip I visited Karkar Island and climbed the extinct volcano at its heart. When I returned to the village, I found a feast had been prepared for me. Delicious as it was, I caught my first tropical disease.
Giardia is a nasty intestinal parasite that causes abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and – well, let’s just say that the long flight home was not a pleasant experience for me or my fellow passengers.
Entomologist heaven!
On another trip, I explored miles of cave passages in Thailand, and in that magical, watery darkness discovered highly adapted predators and their prey. Flattened, scuttling whip spiders with huge, spiked pedipalps (mandible-like appendages) and enormously elongated, feeler-like front legs hunted wary cave crickets across the damp rock.
Take my word for it – watching the whip spiders stalk the crickets was far more exciting than any East African safari.
I came across several new species in those caves, including a nice little cockroach living on the fungi that grows on rotting wood that gets washed in by the rains. It was later called Spelaeoblatta thamfaranga.
Pioneering adventurers
With hindsight, my early expeditions were hastily organised affairs compared with today’s meticulously planned high-tech operations. Things have changed beyond all recognition since the days when earnest, pith-helmeted, moustachioed chaps or ladies in long skirts and buttoned boots set off to explore the unknown.
For one thing, the latest equipment is much better and lighter. Camera-traps enable us to record the goings-on of rare, secretive and nocturnal mammals, while GPS and satellite phones make exploration much safer. (To enjoy the results of BBC Wildlife's camera-trap competition, click here.) 
Symbiotic relationship
The link between zoological expeditions and TV is an interesting one – you could say that biologists and natural-history TV producers have a kind of symbiotic relationship. It’s almost worthy of a PhD.
David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest series (1954–63) pioneered the art of filming expeditions in exotic locations, introducing viewers to fascinating creatures such as lemurs and Komodo dragons. Then the ‘adventure’ style of TV went out of favour.
But in 2006, the BBC decided to update the format and organised a trip to Borneo. I was lucky enough to be invited.
It proved to be a steep learning curve: the logistics of taking a large crew and three tonnes of equipment into a rainforest for six weeks were not inconsiderable. But, to our relief, the resulting programmes were deemed a success, and follow-up series were commissioned, visiting Guyana in South America (2008) and Mount Bosavi in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (2009).
Our latest expedition, Lost Land of the Tiger, visited Bhutan and was broadcast in the autumn.
Cynics might say that these programmes are simply a form of reality TV, but that’s missing the point. The whole idea behind the series is to introduce a new, broader audience to some serious zoological and conservation issues.
If audience figures are anything to go by, the heady cocktail of high-octane adventure, stunning landscapes and wonderful wildlife, combined with the thrill of discovery, is doing the trick.
Lasting legacy
So what is the legacy of expeditions carried out for tv? First, we are adding to scientific knowledge. In Papua New Guinea last year, for instance, our team documented at least 12 new species of frog, plus two lizards, three fish, one bat and an undescribed subspecies of silky cuscus.
The largest new animal found on the trip was a woolly giant rat the size of a domestic cat, chanced upon in the forested interior of Mount Bosavi crater.
The programmes influence policy makers, too: within a year of Expedition Borneo being broadcast, the area where we filmed, Imbak Canyon, was fully protected from logging by the Sabah Government.
Making a real difference
While filming Lost Land of the Jaguar, I met the Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo. He spoke with great passion about an exciting initiative to place almost the entire Guyanese rainforest (an area the size of Great Britain) under internationally verified supervision.
In February 2009, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Norwegian government, pledging millions of dollars for rainforest protection and climate change control.
Television has the power to entertain and educate, as well as to inspire a new generation of explorers and naturalists. But the real point of it all may simply be to celebrate the beauty and diversity of what wild places remain – and to remind us that, without them, our world would be a poorer, duller and much less exciting place.
Undiscovered species
It is often said that we are living through a new era of zoological discovery. We have never been better at tracking down and naming new forms of life. But this can lead to misplaced optimism.
So far, science has formally described only about 1.5 million of the species alive today. How many remain undiscovered?
The surprising thing is that we don’t have even the vaguest idea – guesstimates range from 5 million to well over 10 million.
Given that most of the terrestrial diversity resides in tropical rainforests, which now cover less than 6 per cent of the world’s land surface, it is obvious that these are the places where conservation efforts should be targeted. Yet these biodiversity hotspots continue to be lost at an alarming rate.
It is certain that we will never know how many species we share the Earth with, but, if we don’t take effective global action soon, at least half of them will be extinct before the end of this century. We are already having to ponder which species are worth saving and which we can let go to the wall. But how are we going to decide?
George picks the six expeditions that have had the greatest impact on how we see the natural world.
Captain Cook’s first voyage
In 1769, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, the British Royal Navy research vessel HMS Endeavour reached New Zealand. A year later, its passengers became the first Europeans to set foot on the east coast of ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ – Australia. The botanists on board, including Joseph Banks, described dozens of plants new to science.
Burchell’s caravan
The English naturalist William John Burchell landed at Cape Town in 1810 to explore and collect botanical specimens. Over the next five years, he travelled more than 7,000km through the interior of southern Africa in a customised ox-drawn caravan, collecting thousands of plants, animal skins, seeds, fish and invertebrates.
The voyage of The Beagle
HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy, circumnavigated the globe in 1831–36 to carry out hydrographic surveys, coastline mapping and other scientific studies. The naturalist on the voyage was the young Charles Darwin, whose observations helped him to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Bates’ Amazon navigation
In 1848, Henry Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace set off on a collecting expedition to the Amazon Basin. After four years, Wallace returned to Britain, but lost his entire collection at sea. Bates remained in South America. In the 11 years that he spent in the field, he collected nearly 15,000 species of animal – an astounding total. Half were new to science.
The Challenger expedition
HMS Challenger was equipped to study chemistry and biology and in 1872–76 she was the lead vessel in the world’s first large-scale oceanographic expedition. During the voyage, almost 5,000 species of marine organism were collected. The expedition’s findings were hailed as the “greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries”.
When a species new to science is found it is first compared to every other known species in its group. This is done by painstakingly checking published descriptions or by examining the actual specimens, known as Types, on which those descriptions were based.
Types are typically stored in major museums or herbaria. When choosing a scientific name, certain conventions must be followed – it should refer to the species’ general appearance, the place where it was found or who collected it, for example. It is not the ‘done thing’ for finders to name discoveries after themselves.
Things I never go on an expedition without
  • Headtorch with spare batteries
  • Strong cord
  • Gaffer tape
  • Bush knife (such as a machete or parang), purchased locally
  • Sealable plastic bags of various sizes
  • Portable water filter
  • Large poncho
  • Waterproof compact digital camera
  • First-aid kit
  • Waterproof notebook and pencil



To visit George McGavin's website click here

Lost Land of the Tiger was broadcast on BBC1 on 21, 22 and 23 September 2010. Find out more about the programme here
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