Expedition safety fears unfounded

January 26, 1996

The safety of student research expeditions has been called into question by the kidnapping of four Cambridge graduates by separatist guerrillas in the Indonesian jungle.

There have been allegations that sponsoring bodies are failing to ensure the safety of research teams, and that young people are inadequately prepared. But while no one can supervise an independent trip across the Sahara in a Land Rover, students on recognised research expeditions go through stringent vetting and have access to a wealth of information and advice.

The Cambridge team leader, Daniel Start, who last session graduated in biological sciences, initially won support from the Cambridge University Explorers and Travellers Club in 1994. Around ten expeditions are annually approved by a committee of club members, academics, and experienced expeditioners.

The majority of expeditions undertake conservation research, although some are medical or technological, generally attracting science students, particularly those in biological sciences, says Steve Bull, the club's vice president.

The Cambridge team was carrying out a biological exploration of the remote Irian Jaya area when they were kidnapped on January 8. They had hoped to discover new species of flora and fauna, and was also helping draw up a management plan to protect the area.

"We specialise in expeditions which are going to achieve something positive," Mr Bull said. "We actively encourage all expeditions to collaborate with the host country and gain the participation of local students. Gone are the days when an expedition would go in and leave again with the third world country never seeing any benefit."

The club's expeditions committee has to be convinced the venture is safe, and that the team has considered potential problems.

"I would say it was one of the best expeditions to go out from the club in recent years. A lot of people have been saying 'We wouldn't have approved it if we'd known'. But nobody did know," Mr Bull said. "In the entire history of the club, 30 years, nothing like this has happened before."

His comments are echoed by Birdlife International and the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers, both of which sponsored the Cambridge team. The RGS receives daily faxes on overseas safety from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and there was no diplomatic advice that Europeans would be in danger.

"There are some parts of the world where the security situation is such that we wouldn't advise anybody to go there," said Colin Bibby, conservation director of Birdlife International.

The Cambridge team was "incredibly well organised", Dr Bibby said, with Mr Start having gone to Indonesia the previous year and recruited local graduates as co-researchers. "Follow-up research only works if it's rooted in the local society, but there's also an important safety dimension that you're far less likely to do things that are illegal, culturally ill-advised or diplomatically insensitive if you're with local people," Dr Bibby said.

The RGS demands that the team make contact with the host country, and says the bureaucracy surrounding visas and permits would also reveal whether an area is sensitive.

The RGS last year approved about 100 expeditions involving more than 750 young people, mostly undergraduates. It has a comprehensive expedition advisory centre, which holds an annual two-day expedition planning seminar at which students can discuss their plans with leading field scientists and explorers. It regularly updates advice on the logistics of research in different parts of the world, and has a register of 5,000 past and planned expeditions.

The main hazards for young researchers in developing countries are road accidents and tropical diseases. It is more common for expeditions not to take place because of money or fall-outs beforehand.

Nigel Winser of the RGS expeditions and fieldwork division said: "Lessons will be learnt from the kidnappings in Irian Jaya, but we see no reason to curtail the activities of dynamic and well-motivated young scientists, many of whom become important ambassadors for the peoples and places they have had the privilege to visit."

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