THE SECOND WORLD CONGRESS OF HERPETOLOGY
BY RAYMOND T HOSER, 41 VILLAGE AVENUE, DONCASTER, VICTORIA, 3108, AUSTRALIA.
FAX: 0011 61 3 9857 4664.
(The following was originally published in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 29 (3), March 1994, pp. 56-58, along with four high-quality photos)
It ran from December 29th 1993 to January 6th 1994 and was the largest herp’ gathering ever seen in the Southern Hemisphere. Delegates from over 80 countries converged on Adelaide for the second world herp’ congress. The first was held at the UK’s Canterbury University in September 1989.
Australia’s most famous frog-man (and author of numerous books and papers), Associate Professor Michael J. Tyler, had the official title of ‘Congress Director’. He was the lynchpin of the whole event. Tyler who is based at Adelaide University, beat the competing bids from Costa Rica and Singapore for the right to host this Second world Congress of Herpetology. For the last 3-4 years Tyler and his team of close associates at Adelaide Uni have been snowed under organising the event ever since.
Tyler timed the event to coincide with the University’s summer vacation and so was able to utilise much of the University’s lecture halls, bars and other venues for the congress. Many other university services, such as the media and some administration offices became offices for the congress and so the event was able to be held in a first class environment that was friendly to both the organisers and the visitors.
Tyler enlisted and got the services of the top Herpetological talent from Australia and all parts of the world in his bid to make the congress a success. A perusal of a list of those on the various committees and in charge of Symposia and other activities reads like a whose who of herpetology. The well-known herpetologists most conspicuous at the congress were those conspicuous in their absence rather than presence. However one must expect some people to have other commitments preventing them from attending such a congress when so many are expected to show up.
By gaining the services of herpetologists the world over, Tyler was able to promote the congress as perhaps the biggest strictly scientific herpetological get-together since the Canterbury gathering and certainly for some years to come.
So what was it?
The program in essence consisted of about six concurrent symposia based on specific themes, namely ‘Evolution and Genetics’, ‘Systematics and Distribution’, ‘Physiology’, ‘Ecology’, ‘Ethology’, ‘Conservation and Captive Care’. These symposia were then subdivided further into subthemes. For example the ‘Conservation and Captive Care’ symposium was divided into ‘Endangered Species’, ‘The role of amateurs in herpetology’, ‘Diseases and Husbandry’ and ‘Ethics of trade in herpetology’. These categories essentially were so as to give some order to the placement of papers by delegates. For the most part, the symposia ran concurrently in adjacent lecture theatres, with each lecture (paper presentation) lasting about 15 minutes, (which were strictly timed to run concurrently). Attendees were able to freely move from theatre to theatre to hear and see the speakers of their choice. This, the main ‘official’ part of the congress ran smoothly. Occasionally some speakers had such popularity, that there was difficulty in getting everyone into the given lecture theatre, but these instances were relatively rare compared to the overall number of papers presented. In general the Australian speakers and those that spoke on ‘Australian’ topics got the bigger crowds, probably because there were more Australians at the congress than other groups.
A common complaint some visitors had was that they wanted to see more than one paper at a time and were forced to choose one presentation over another. Valid though this complaint was, it wasn’t feasible to stagger all presentations in a single file order. As it was, the congress ran for about a week, and including special sessions, posters and so on, there were probably about five hundred presentations. Most of those were summarized in the abstracts. A copy of these abstracts were presented to all who attended and provided enough information to assist those who missed given presentations for one reason or another. For those who missed the congress completely, these abstracts ate also available from the World Congress of Herpetology, for a reasonable price. I strongly recommend purchase of these to all interested.
Besides the concurrent papers, presented most days, the mornings commenced with plenary sessions in a hall large enough to fit all the delegates where general announcements were made and some (longer) papers by particularly well-known herpetologists were presented. The choice of presenters and papers for these sessions didn’t always seem to match the interests of the bulk of the audience and I’d certainly question the methods by which these presenters were selected. Perhaps the procedure of selection of speakers in plenary sessions could be altered in future world congresses.
In reality the 15 minute presentations gave most listeners little more than a general overview of the topic being presented. However these talks were usually of high quality, usually with the presentation of excellent slides, graphics and so on, as required. The herpetological material provided at the congress by presenters was more than enough to direct attendees further should they share interests in a given field.
As one who sat through many presentations (and didn’t present myself), I had the opportunity to unbiasedly assess a number of speakers and I make a few comments here. Although most speakers were top-grade and I’d hate to give each a score, particularly good ones were typified by the UK’s Mark O’Shea. In his talks he presents excellent slides and commentary, at a speed fast enough so as not to bore an audience, nor too fast so as to confuse them either. His enthusiasm for his subject radiates through to his audience. Rick Shine (Australia), is often able to present detailed statistical information to his audience without boring them because of his ability to simplify a graph into words that anyone can understand. Unfortunately a few speakers who will remain anonymous had irritating faults including a tendency to talk in monotones, talking in unnecessarily complex jargon and perhaps worst of all facing the screen or monitor (away from the audience) for the entire time they spoke. I make these comments as a listener only so that those who speak at other gatherings may be able to take note.
However in spite of the various lectures, the true value of this Second World Congress of Herpetology, were the informal gatherings and general meeting and mingling times. Once again Tyler and his organisers must be commanded here. The activities organised all tended to bring attendees together in a friendly atmosphere for the duration of the congress. People of like interests were able to meet unimpeded throughout the congress in excellent surroundings. The free-flow of ideas and meeting of persons in such a setting can only benefit herpetology everywhere. I’d hate to print a list of all the people I’ve known for years but had never met prior to this congress. Often you’d find yourself not knowing who you were standing next to until you saw their name tag, only to find that it was someone you’ve been corresponding with for the last ten years. I’m sure many others found themselves in the same boat.
A huge number of other activities, expos and so on were organised as part of the congress or to coincide with it. A New Year’s Eve dinner at a winery was attended by about six hundred of the eight hundred attendees. I’m sure a good night was had by all. After that, a fellow herper from Australia, Fred Rossignoli and myself, rollerbladed through the city streets and nightclubs of Adelaide crashing into herpetologists everywhere we went. Like many others, we didn’t get to bed before the sun rose. Fortunately the next day there were no lectures.
Timed to coincide with the congress was the NARAMA reptile display at the nearby Wayville Showgrounds. Organised by Robin Noye and others with the South Australian Herpetological Group (SAHG) and Adelaide Snake-Catchers (one of two local snake rescue groups), NARAMA was a well produced expo of Australian reptiles and related things. For many delegates to the congress NARAMA presented the best opportunity to see a large number of Australian reptiles in one place. The most popular exhibit was the recently re-discovered Adelaide Blue-tongue Lizard Tiliqua adelaidensis. Adelaide Zoo and the Museum (both immediately adjacent to the site of the congress) both had special displays to coincide with the congress.
Also timed to coincide with the start of the congress was the theft of an adult Scrub Python Morelia amethistina from the nearby Cleland Wildlife park. Fortunately the snake, along with other previously stolen reptiles were recovered when the police raided a house on another matter. It turned out that the man charged, Mark Lemmon had nothing to with the congress or attendees. The matter comes up for court hearing on February 2nd.
Prior to the congress Australian authorities received 12 applications from overseas based herpetologists to export reptiles from Australia for scientific purposes. All 12 were rejected. The reason was simple, ‘Australia won’t allow the export of wildlife for any reason’. Such a blinkered attitude does nothing for Australia’s conservation of wildlife or our international reputation. It only serves to increase the incentive for otherwise law-abiding people to break wildlife laws. Such did in fact occur. One delegate got busted for bringing a few preserved specimens into the country, while another was caught for importing live freshwater tortoises. A third attendee was picked up for carrying dope (marijuana/Indian hemp/cannabis) when strip-searched upon arrival at Sydney’s Mascot airport.
Federal and state wildlife and customs authorities had a full-scale national operation planned around the congress. Officials got hold a list of all attendees to the congress and many were closely watched on the presumption of guilt when they were merely going about their lawful business. Two separate people complained of being followed by officials in their cars immediately following the congress. Strip-searches and baggage searches were more vigorous than usual. An American delegate gave me an electronic tracking chip placed under a wheel on his suitcase by officials without his knowledge when he arrived into Australia. It isn’t certain how many others were marked in this way. However I cannot help but think that if the Australian authorities weren’t so tight on the legal import and export of reptiles and other wildlife, then perhaps they wouldn’t have to waste so much money on enforcement – or is it just a case of bureaucrats doing this to justify their existence.
Bill Love of Glades Herpetoculture didn’t win the popularity stakes with local officials when he got widespread media coverage (TV, radio, papers), in his attack of local wildlife laws. However most of his arguments were soundly based. A local herpetologist, Peter Mirtschin, presented a paper which showed that with all the money spent by wildlife bureaucrats on wildlife licencing laws and seizing illegal fauna in Australia over the last ten years, the same amount of wildlife could have been saved by shooting just one feral cat! (the cost being the bullet). He also produced a table which showed a direct correlation (linear relationship) between an increase in wildlife licencing laws and extinctions in Australia. As one has risen, so has the other. While nobody with common sense is against any licencing laws at all, Mirtschin’s paper clearly showed that things in Australia need fixing up urgently.
Towards the end of the congress there was a meeting where the ‘official business’ of the congress, including resolutions and so on took place. Mike Tyler gave an overview of how the congress had run. After starting the project with a debt left by the organisers of the first world congress, Tyler had managed to stage the second one and turn a substantial profit which was to be used to help run the third. Importantly, Tyler had gained so much corporate sponsorship in Australia, that he’d managed to keep the registration cost down to less than $500 (Australian) per person, instead of a possible $1,200 (Australian) which would have been conceivable without the sponsorship. I for one would not have been able to afford to go had he not managed to pull such a feat and like most attendees to the congress, I hope that Tyler will be duly recognized for the fantastic effort he put in. For those who missed this congress, I think the next one will be in Rio, some years hence, and I’m sure Tyler has set a new standard. Start saving for that one now!