May 22, 2008

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Last Chance to See documents several expeditions taken by Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Cawardine to see some endangered species while they were still around to be seen. It all began in 1985, when the Observer Colour Magazine sent them to Madagascar to look for the aye-aye, a very rare nocturnal lemur. Then in 1988 they took several journeys, which resulted in a BBC4 radio series and this companion book.

These journeys took them to Indonesia to see the komodo dragon, to Zaire to see the mountain gorilla and the northern white rhinoceros, to New Zealand to see the kakapo (“the world’s largest, fattest and least able to fly parrot”), to China to look for the Baiji river dolphin, and finally to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues Fruit Bat and several endangered species of birds.

I don’t normally quote from blurbs, but there’s no point in my sitting here trying to figure out how to express something when I have the perfect sentence right in front of me. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times said: “He fails completely in the self-righteous pity department. Instead he invites us to enter a conspiracy of laughter and caring.” That’s exactly what makes this book so perfect – “a conspiracy of laughter and caring”. This is a funny, passionate, informative and important book. It’s also very touching at times. It’s a book that makes you care.

I thought it’d be interesting to let you know how some of these species are doing 20 years after these expeditions took place. Let’s start with the worst news. The Baiji River Dolphin, of which there were 21 in 1988, is now functionally extinct. The Northern White Rhinoceros is still critically endangered. The species more or less recovered in the 1990’s, but poaching reduced them to as few as 13. The kakapos are doing better – there were less than 40 at the time Last Chance to See was written, and there are currently 92. But here I have to cite what Douglas Adams says at the end of the book: “The bats are doing just fine. There are hundreds of them. I have a terrible feeling that we are in trouble.”

Then there are of course the Mountain Gorillas, which also remain critically endangered. Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine visited them at the Virunga Mountains, the same place where famous zoologist Dian Fossey worked. She was passionately against tourists being allowed to visit the gorillas at all, and this remains a controversial topic. Douglas Adams says that the truth of the matter is that tourist revenue helps fund conservation projects, and it’s also a good argument against poaching by making gorillas more valuable for the local economy alive than dead. But there are risks. Because the gorillas are so genetically close to us (almost as close as the African and the Indian Elephant are to each other), they are vulnerable to some of the same diseases that affect humans, except that they are much more devastating for them than they are for us. A tourist infecting and eventually causing the death of gorillas is something that can and has happened (Incidentally, has anyone read Gorillas in the Mist? I’m thinking of picking it up).

The part where Douglas Adams describes his meeting with the gorillas is one of the most memorable and touching parts of the book. You have to see how he describes it. He conveys the emotionally impact of the experience so well.

At this point I have to see that part of what made this book so perfect for me was the fact that it gave me the chance to spend time with Douglas Adams. The book is infused with his wonderful sense of humour, with his intelligence, with his unique way of being both cynical and warm, both sad and hopeful. I wish he was still around.

Last Chance to See is a book about endangered species, but it’s also a travel book – Douglas Adams shares his impressions of Indonesia and Zaire and New Zealand and China. For me, his thoughts on China were the most interesting of all, and there was a hilarious episode in which he describes what happened when they had to buy condoms in China to soundproof their microphone and record the noise of motorboats as heard by the dolphins underwater.

I will shut up now, and leave you with some favourite passages:
We talked about how easy it was to make the mistake of anthropomorphising animals, and projecting our own feelings and perceptions on to them, where they were inappropriate and didn’t fit. We simply didn’t have any idea what it was like being an extremely large lizard, and neither for that matter did the lizard, because it was not self-conscious about being an extremely large lizard, it just got on with the business of being one. 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 accommodations with the world and learn to survive in it in a different way.

I watched the gorilla’s eyes again, wise and knowing eyes, and wondered about this business of trying to teach apes language. Why? There are many members of our species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don’t listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape would tell us? Or that it would be able to tell us of its life in a language that hasn’t been born of that life? I thought, maybe it’s not that they have yet to learn a language, it is that we have lost one.

“ thought to myself that the words ‘endangered species’ had become a phrase which had lost any vivid meaning. We hear it too often to be able to react to it afresh.
Other Blog Reviews:
Wrapped Up in Books
Age 30 - A Year of Books
(Got any more? Please let me know and I'll add a link)


  1. This looks awesome. I love Douglas Adams, and anything to do with animals makes me unabashadly giddy.

  2. O.K., I am definitely getting this one! I read Gorillas in the Mist a looooong time ago...I thought it was excellent at the time, but honestly don't remember much more than the basic story. Another book you might enjoy is The Eye of the Elephant, by Mark and Delia Owens (who also wrote Cry of the Kalahari). I loved both of those books very much! The Eye of the Elephant is about their efforts to help stop elephant poaching, helping people make it more worthwhile to save the elephants rather than kill them. Anyway, thanks for the wonderful review, Nymeth! (I have a feeling this one will be making it to my house more sooner than later.)

  3. Sounds interesting! I'm sure it'll be an eye-opener to me.

  4. This book sounds exactly like what I love to read! I didn't know komodo dragons were endangered. I appreciated you relating how the animals are doing now compared to when he took his trip. This is definitely going on the top of my TBR!

  5. this sounds like a must-read ... thanks so much! and since i'm choosing to read it after seeing your review, it's perfect for this challenge.

  6. Ah, this has been one of my favourite nature books since I first read it over ten years ago! It is nice getting a real insight into an author's life and personality, especially when its so different to what we see in their work. Mark Cawardine is a fabulous nature writer, and it was this book that actually introduced me to the wonderful Douglas Adams in the first place! I'm a zoologist of sorts, so this book really struck a nerve with me at an age when I was deciding what to do with my life. One of many that probably lead me where I am now! Glad you enjoyed it and if you want any recommendations of other nature conservation related books, just ask..I have many!!

  7. this looks like a really refreshing take on this kind of thing. i could watch a nature program, but i definitely couldn't read a book with all that self-rightious sympathy stuff!

    so its good to hear what this is like. very cool.

  8. What a great idea for a book. I've read so much by Douglas Adams, but I never heard of this book. I guess I was always so focused on his fiction books that I never thought to look into his other writing. I'm adding this one to my TBR list. Thanks!

  9. Yeah....I may have to have this one myself. Sounds fantastic. Boy, you are such a reading machine!!

  10. Great review, as usual! It's so much fun when an author steps out of the pigeon-hole we've placed them in and shows us a little part of themselves that we didn't know about before. This sounds like another one to add to the list(!!!!???!!!) - and I second Debi's recommendation of the Owens' books.
    I really enjoy old fashioned travel books (not travelogues!), Michael Palin has written some very good ones - Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Himalaya, etc (all his travel books can be read for free, complete and unabridged, on his website)

  11. I grew up reading Gerald Durrell's (brother of the more famous Lawrence Durrell) books about their life on an island in the Mediterranean, and all the animals he brought home. He became a naturalist or zoologist, I think. anyway, reading your review of Douglas Adam's adventures sound like there is the similar sense of love and respect for the animals, and awe and wonder. And, as you say, a chance to know Douglas Adams again. I'll be picking this one up! Thanks for reviewing it!!

  12. Cypress. They lived on Cypress! I finally remembered!!

  13. Great review. This sounds great and just right for the science challenge I'm working on. Thanks for bringing it to my attention ;>).

  14. Awesome review! This sounds really good, but I get so discouraged and depressed with this issue. I love our fellow living creatures so much, I am even vegan because of this. I just feel so helpless about being able to do more to help them.

  15. I like the quote "I thought, maybe it’s not that they have yet to learn a language, it is that we have lost one" about the gorillas. Also the comment about the cats made me laugh. I love bats, long may they live! I am really sad to see the others decreased or disappeared even. Sounds like an interesting book and it is nice to read someone's words who is sadly missed.

  16. Raych: It is awesome! Considering that you like both Douglas Adams and animals, it's safe to say you'll love it.

    Debi: Do get it! And no, I'm not saying this to get points in the Blame Game :P I really think it's a Debi-Household book. Thanks for the recommendations! I'm going to look for them.

    Melody: It was for me too.

    Jeane: Yup, I do think it's your sort of book! Komodo dragons are in a difficult situation not so much because there are very few of them at the moment (though there aren't many either), but because their habitat is so limited. It's just komodo and one neighbouring island, and that means that everything that threatens their ecosystem threatens them too.

    Heather Johnson: Yes, it'd fit Darla's challenge. I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to pick it up :)

    Mariel: I can definitely see how this book could have that sort of impact on someone. And yes, I would love some more recommendations :)

    JP: Yeah, self-righteousness is always the wrong approach. Thankfully this book avoids it completely!

    Becca: Unfortunately this is all there when it comes to non-fiction by him...but it's a great one. I wish he had been able to write more :(

    Stephanie, I really think you'd enjoy this one!

    Ken: I'll really have to look for the Owens' books. As for travel books, I discovered that Michael Palin's existed through another blogger very recently - but I didn't know he had them available on his website! Thanks for letting me know :)

    Susan: Love and respect, awe and wonder...that's exactly right. I really think you'll like this one!

    Kristi: I hope you enjoy it :)

    Teddy Rose: The book was actually much less depressing than I thought a book about critically endangered species could ever be. Douglas Adams' humour helps, but the main thing is that throughout the book you're introduced to a number of passionate and determined people who are out there doing all they can to make a difference. It's hopeful and inspiring.

    Rhinoa: Bats are cool, yes :P It's such a good book...and Douglas Adams really is missed.

  17. Nymeth,

    Bad reply. You were suppose to say, "your right Teddy, way too depressing for you." But no, you had to go and force me to add it to my TBR! LOL!

  18. Hi Nymeth :)

    I haven't read this book but will add it to my TBR list. Also stoped by to say hi :)

    Nat received her boooks last week, I am a little worried about yours, let me know when you do receive it,I ll send you Monkey House soon.

    Have a nice week ahead of you

  19. Terry Rose: Sorry :P

    Madeleine: For some reason, the mail has been incredibly slow lately. I'm still waiting for two bookmooch books that were sent to me in mid-April (one from Canada and one from the US). I'll let you know as soon as it arrives, though!

  20. Hi Nymeth - I did read this (like I posted that I would, above) and I loved it! Here's a link to my review in case you're interested. ;)

  21. Thanks for the link, Heather! I'll include it in my post :)


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