by Glen Cousquer
The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) Explore 2016 weekend of talks and workshops attracted some 450 delegates, all keen to learn from the assembled selection of inspirational speakers. This year saw the event mark its 40th anniversary, a reflection of the role that this event continues to play in supporting expeditions as they plan and prepare for their overseas journeys.
This year animals, animal ethics and animal welfare were very much centre stage. The poster presenting The Donkey Sanctuary’s work on pack mule welfare in mountain tourism attracted a significant amount of attention. The same was also true of the team of Canadian husky dogs who were present throughout the Saturday. The dogs were largely confined to the grounds of the Society, providing visitors with an excellent reason to go outside. That said, one or two dogs did make it into the tea room where they also attracted some friendly admirers.
The weekend was structured around a series of talks and workshops. On the Saturday afternoon, workshops on expedition planning were held. I was invited to contribute to the mountain panel along with three other experienced International Mountain Leaders, together with a past president of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club who has recently returned from leading an expedition to Svalbard. The panel was chaired by Tori James, who in 2007 became the youngest British and first Welsh woman to summit on Everest!
This expert panel fielded a host of questions from those who had gathered to seek inspiration and advice as part of their own expedition planning. It was particularly reassuring to see so much interest being taken in responsible travel and in undertaking due diligence to ensure that team members (whether they be human or non-human) are not exploited and are not caused to suffer (whether wittingly or unwittingly).
When asked what advice we might offer someone looking to undertake a solo expedition, the obvious answer was clearly “take a mule”. This brought a chuckle from the audience. I had to explain though that my answer was a serious one for mules and donkeys are not only the perfect companion on a solo journey into the mountains, they also allow us to discover our own “inner mule or donkey”! Their honest companionship tells us so much about ourselves for they stand and reflect back to us who we are and what we believe in and care about.
When asked what advice we might have when engaging the services of people on the ground, I was able to emphasise that there are companies out there who already have dedicated animal welfare policies and who can explain exactly what they are doing to ensure that pack animal welfare is not compromised. I gave the example of The Mountain People, who have been featured in a previous blog. Their website provides clear information on what standards they enforce and what guarantees they can provide. All those seeking to trek responsibly should ensure they seek similar assurances from those they trek with.
The RGS Explore event was a remarkable success and allowed us to reach out to a community of trekkers and explorers and to spread the message about responsible travel. This was confirmed when Paul Rose, in his closing speech, commented on the fact that we had at several points over the course of the weekend been challenged to think about the ethics of animal use on expedition. I had challenged those assembled to think about how we can better understand and meet our responsibilities to the pack animals who provide transport on expedition. I had also asked those undertaking biological research on expedition to consider the ethics of killing and preserving animals as part of their research. There is an assumption that this is justified by the need to discover and describe new species. Clearly this argument is not as persuasive as it once was for past generations of scientists. Our challenge is to re-imagine how we relate to, respect and care for the animals we share this world with.
There is a hunger for knowledge about responsible trekking and expeditions. Where pack animals such as mules are used on expedition and on treks, we need to ensure they receive the very best care and that their needs are understood and respected. This is not always easy, especially when operating in areas that are poor and remote. It is, however, the challenge that The Donkey Sanctuary is helping those involved in the trekking and expeditions industry to meet.