The name of Douglas Adams is of course very well-known to me, mainly because of his eternal comic science fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I must shamefully admit I still haven’t read. Anyway, I had already heard of Adams’s sarcastic sense of humour, but I didn’t at all expect to see it in a book about animals. Because that is exactly what Last Chance to See is. The science fiction author collaborated with the zoologist Mark Carwardine on an ambitious project around the world to see, probably for the last time, some of the species on the brink of extinction. Last Chance to See was simultaneously turned into a BBC radio documentary series and later into a TV series of the same name.
It all started quite innocently (if you can actually describe a trip to Madagascar as something innocent). Adams and Carwardine travelled to the island to see the aye-aye, a lemur and one of our closest relatives:
From this journey the idea to travel the world in search of nearly extinct species arose. For a couple of years Carwardine organized the trip, while Adams was finishing yet another of his books. According to the zoologist, they used a big map of the world. Adams pinned where he wanted to go and Carwardine in turn pinned the places with the endangered animals. The result is one of the most fascinating journeys into the world wildlife.
Contrary to its name, it is not a dragon (duh?), but rather a lizard. Which of course prompts the rather obvious question: What is so special to see in a lizard? Well, besides the fact that it is an endangered animal, it is also big. And by big, I mean it can reach 3 metres and 70 kg. I wouldn’t exactly call such an animal a lizard, but I assume the zoologists have a point there. In addition to being big, it tends to eat big animals as well. Goats, cows, humans (?!). It is quite a relief to know that the lizard prefers eating them dead, but there occasionally have been human victims as well. In search for the Komodo dragon, Carwardine and Adams witness a rather disturbing tourist show of a group of lizards eating a goat. All for the entertainment of the crowd, it somewhat reminded me of ancient Rome.
Next comes the kakapo of New Zealand, or to put it simply, a parrot. It is the only flightless parrot (and the heaviest for that matter), with only about 100 living individuals left, all of which have names.
On the way to see the northern white rhinoceros in Zaire (which for me were the most fascinating animals), Adams and Carwardine take a detour to meet yet another one of our cousins – the mountain gorilla. Adams is lucky enough to get very close to the animal and one cannot help but stand still in awe at the humanity of the apes. Adams is enchanted (and so was I) by the eyes, posture, movements, and expression of the gorillas, which are not so different from our own species.
On to the northern white rhinoceros (which are not white but grey, but again I am going to assume the zoologist had a point in mind). They are maybe the closest species to extinction, with only three (3!!!) left living in captivity. Adams and Carwardine went through a lot of trouble, including a rather dangerous journey in an airplane, followed by an even more dangerous journey through the Garamba National Park in Zaire. The rhinoceros are no longer living there, having been transported to California.
Next stop is China and the baiji, a dolphin only found in the Yangtze river. The river is extremely muddy and the baiji dolphin has evolved to be almost blind. Instead, it relies on sound to survive. However, the enormous amount of boats and ships in the river makes it extremely hard for the animal to distinguish between sounds and it has been often killed unintentionally. At the time Adams and Carwardine visited China, the Chinese were in the process of isolating part of the river for the dolphins. Presently, unfortunately, the species has been declared extinct. Evidence has been recorded of the presence of a few of the dolphins still, but it hasn’t been confirmed.
Finally, Adams and Carwardine travelled to see the fruit bat, a bat living in the island of Rodrigues, belonging to Mauritius. At least that is what they intended to do, but in the process they meet the Mauritius kestrel (a falcon), the echo parakeets (pigeons) and the pink pigeons, which are far more rare than the fruit bat. Because in the isolated islands of Mauritius numbers do matter. Hundreds (fruit bats) is not considered close to extinction.
Ever since Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine set upon their journey in the 90s, a lot has changed. Most of the animals they saw are even closer to extinction than they were before. A few of them have been saved and are on the verge of recovery. However, what matters most is the message a science fiction author and a zoologist are trying to convey. Human population grows each year and it becomes ever more difficult to share the same planet with the wildlife. The pollution, the global warming, and the changes humanity unconsciously or consciously makes on Earth are affecting species more than we can ever imagine. Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years, long before humanity decided to step ahead. However, the extinction rate has increased dramatically in the past 50 years.
Why bother, one might ask. For one, plants and animals are an integral part of the environment we are living in. You have heard about the food chain – if some species disappear, so could many others, depending on it for food. Secondly, animals and plants provide human beings with food and drugs and are much more essential to our survival then we can possibly imagine. And finally, the world would be darker, more boring, and far less beautiful and exciting without them.
Adams and Carwardine form a great team. We get the sarcastic science fiction writer and the serious zoologist. We get the two points of view – the self-absorbed average human being who is just on the verge of discovering the beauty and importance of nature and the one who spent his entire life fighting and protecting this same nature. And we get Adams and his incredible sense of humour. I was new to it, so I couldn’t help but laugh out loud in the train (attracting the usual amount of strange looks). Most importantly, however, Last Chance to See makes the reader think about the danger human actions pose on nature and the possibility that you might be seeing this particular animal for the last time. Just imagine the same about humanity.
But whatever malign emotions we tried to pin on to the lizard, we knew that they weren’t the lizard’s emotions at all, only ours. The lizard was simply going about its lizardly business in a simple, straightforward lizardly way. It didn’t know anything about the horror, the guilt, the shame, the ugliness that we, uniquely guilty and ashamed animals, were trying to foist on it. So we got it all straight back at us, as if reflected in the mirror of its single unwavering and disinterested eye. Subdued with the thought that we had somehow been horrified by our own reflection, we sat quietly and waited for lunch.
To react with revulsion to its behaviour was to make the mistake of applying criteria that are only appropriate to the business of being human. We each make our own accommodation with the world and learn to survive in it in different ways. What works as successful behaviour for us does not work for lizards and vice versa.
We are not endangered species ourselves yet, but this is not for lack of trying.
On the other hand, human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.