By Vivien Cumming
There is a place in the world where all the forces of nature merge and create an environment so unique that there are animals like nowhere else on Earth. Rainforest-covered volcanoes soar out of an ocean filled with vibrant coral reefs, ecosystems meeting to create unrivalled biodiversity.
This is the land where Alfred Russel Wallace spent 8 years exploring from 1854 to 1862, and where he made some of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. Wallace played a key role in the discovery of evolution, and also laid the foundations for our understanding of how islands influence the natural world.
To Wallace, this region was known as the Malay Archipelago. To modern biologists, it is Wallacea: thousands of South-East-Asian islands that lie between Asia and Australia. Everything here shouts out the magnificence of life.
Wallace’s research tried to answer one of the most profound questions of all: where does life come from? His exploits would change the course of history.
Born in 1823 in Wales, Wallace was a man of modest means, but he had a passion for nature and he chose to follow it. He started out collecting insects as a hobby, but eventually his yearning for adventure led him to explore the world.
Luckily for Wallace, Victorian Britain was discovering an interest in weird and wonderful insects, so the demand from museums and private collections for these beasts was growing. Wallace was able to make a living doing what he loved: collecting beetles and other insects.
But his first trip ended in disaster.
Wallace ventured to the Amazon in South America. Its giant forests promised a wealth of new species, sure to put him on the scientific map. At first he travelled with friend and fellow naturalist Henry Walter Bates, but they eventually split up to cover more ground, roaming the unexplored tributaries of the Amazon.
The trip took 6 weeks and involved every mode of transport in existence at the time
After four years Wallace set off for home, but his boat caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. Everyone survived, but Wallace had to watch in despair as his specimens went up in flames – including live animals he was bringing home that were trying to jump free of the flames.