Last week, Jan wrote about the kakapo, “the world’s largest, fattest, and least-able-to-fly parrot,” and reminded me of this collection of essays by British writer Douglas Adams. Best known for his sci-fi comedy cult classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams actually considered Last Chance to See, a nonfiction work blending ecology and travel writing, to be his favorite work.
In the 1980s, Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine, then working for the World Wildlife Fund, traveled to various places around the globe in search of species that hovered on the edge of extinction. Some, like the white rhinos of Zaire, were being hunted into oblivion or, like the blind river dolphins of China’s Yangtze, were struggling in habitats that changed more quickly than they could adapt. Others, like the Komodo dragon lizard and the kakapo, evolved in fragile island ecologies and were simply losing their fight with natural selection.
With a finely-tuned sense of irony and a Monty Pythonesque way with words, Adams describes not only some bizarre species but the eccentric scientists and volunteers committed to saving them. The subject matter is serious, but the storyteller is not. As the non-zoologist half of the project, Adams brings out the humor in everything, even when the humor is a sort of desperate sarcasm at how human beings have treated the planet. Much of the comedy comes from just getting to the out-of-the-way places where the animals might be found, and the travelers spend a lot of time wrangling with ticket agents and bureaucracies:
“Virtually everything we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true, sometimes almost immediately. The only exception to this was when we were told that something would happen immediately, in which case it turned out not to be true over an extended period of time.”
Each chapter is a quick read covering one of the expeditions, so you can dip into the book at any point and learn something interesting. Say, about the mating rituals of the kakapo (“wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out, and almost totally ineffective.” Or the freelance kakapo tracker (“it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people, you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker”) and his kakapo-tracking dog (“there were major problems in training dogs to find kakapos because of the terrible shortage of kakapos to train them on. In the end, he said, it was more realistic to train the dogs not to track anything else.”)
If you enjoy Bill Bryson’s books, especially In a Sunburned Country, I think you’ll enjoy the combination of history, zoology, and travelogue.
Carwardine reprised the project twenty years later with actor Stephen Fry. Some species–like the kakapo–were doing better. The river dolphins were gone.
Check the WRL catalog for Last Chance to See.
Or try the DVD with Stephen Fry.