In “The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy” and the bestselling “Dirk Gently” novels, Douglas Adams has taken his millions of fans on wild excursions through time and space. Last Chance to See continues the trip–but this time the place is Earth, the date is today, and every word is true. By turns a poignant and hilarious look at exotic, endangered creatures around the world.
If you tell someone you’re reading a Douglas Adams book, they’re most likely to assume you’re immersing yourself in tales of bizarre, unfathomable creatures from worlds far, far away, in the form of science fiction. This is instead a book full of almost-unfathomable creatures that seem to be from worlds far, far away, but actually inhabit our own planet. Or, in the case of some, did inhabit our own planet. Last Chance to See… was published in 1990 as an accompanying book to the 1989 BBC radio documentary show of the same name, which saw author Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine travel to different corners of the earth in pursuit of some of the most endangered animals on Earth. From aye-ayes in Madagascar, to Komodo dragons in Indonesia, to kakapo parrots in New Zealand, to Yangtze river dolphins in China, the pair travel in search of animals whose numbers range from a meagre few hundred to a sickeningly tiny forty, seeking out the perils those animals face and the stories of those who work desperately to save them.
Last Chance to See… is fundamentally a call to action. Interspersing funny travel anecdotes with expert descriptions of the conditions and conservation efforts of some of the most endangered species in the world, Adams and Carwardine set out not just to experience some of the world’s most endangered species, but to impart that experience on us, bringing us into the seemingly-distant worlds these creatures inhabit. The book -with Adams at the helm- is fully aware that while he has the privilege to observe these species, if the human race does not swiftly start listening and taking action, few others will in the future. It is from this awareness that the book creates its tone: a mixture of awed yet concerned, amused yet solemn. It seems a contradiction – how can a book by a comedy writer handle the topic of impending extinction with the severity it is owed? However, it is because of Adams’ juxtaposition of lightheartedness and excitement with desperation that the severity of these animals’ plight is heightened. In being more than just a chance to lambaste humanity for allowing our world to decay in such a way, Adams allows the readers to be pulled into the beauty, horror, normality and lack thereof across the corners of the globe, rooting us into the fabric of the story through raising our investment in these endangered animals and the people trying to save them, making us way more attached to the efforts required from us as well.
Adams and Carwardine made a brilliant pair of travel guides for the reader/listener, due to their willingness to go on a journey: not just their physical one, but an educational one. Whilst I have never been able to get into Adams’ fiction work, his narrative voice here is extremely charming, as he teeters the line between humorous recollection and solemn dismay. His confusion at the search ahead of him quickly morphs into an awe at the world around him, swiftly into despair at the thought of it slipping away. He perfectly embodies the exact person these stories were aimed at: those who don’t know much about conservation but -when approaching with an open mind- begin to see the beauty in the world around us and the risks they are facing, forcing us to question what we can do about it. I know that in the aftermath of this project, Adams turned to campaigning as an environmental activist, in particular spoke passionately about the love he gained for the virtually unknown kakapo. In an interview a month before his death, he called Last Chance to See… his favourite of his own books. It is through Adams’ own journey that the reader is convinced that you do not have to be a zoologist or environmentalist to be determined to make a change in conservation: the human race as a whole has been responsible for much of the destruction that has jeopardised these animals, and it is the human race as a whole -not just the experts- who need to take an interest in saving them. Seeing Adams’ passions develop into the vocal activism he displayed towards the end of his life is proof that we as the reader are capable (especially thirty years later in a technological world) of educating ourselves and cultivating a passion for the world around us, even if we are not environmental experts.
Adams and Carwardine bring different expertise (or lack of) to the table, but combine for a common goal. Carwardine is a necessary voice of knowledge for both Adams and the reader, whilst not being a know-it-all. He is a zoologist, and of course has a vast wealth of knowledge of animals, but that does not mean he doesn’t have gaps in his knowledge. It is in willingly attempting to fill these gaps that his passion shines through. Each of the different travel locations reveals an expert in that specific species -environmentalists who have done incredible work to try and preserve them- who act as a conveyor of specialist knowledge. There was potential for this to raise questions as to Carwardine’s role, but he proves absolutely essential. Adams was positioned as the ‘extremely ignorant non-zoologist’ to Carwardine’s ‘the one who knew what he was talking about’ [p.1] however it is in Carwardine’s open attitude that even the experts have more to learn, further to go, that feeds into the message that the project is striving for, which is that everyone has an obligation to learn more, and to strive for better, in order to save our planet.
The uncomfortable feeling reading this book today is that has become a conflicting symbol of progress and lack thereof. Adams and Carwardine undertook their travels in the mid-late 1980s, with the radio show debuting in 1989 and the book in 1990. After Adams’ untimely passing, his friend Stephen Fry stepped in to join Carwardine for a 2009 follow-up BBC series to trace the progress of species twenty years later (this series is available on Netflix UK and is very much worth watching). By the time Fry and Carwardine were embarking on their journey, some of the species originally traced (including Adams’ beloved kakapo), although still endangered, were seeing slight population rises. The experts and their conservation efforts that Carwardine and Adams had investigated (and publicised) had seen successes. But one species you will not see in the television series is the Yangtze river dolphin. They had been declared ‘functionally extinct’ in 2006: whilst a couple of unconfirmed ‘sightings’ have been claimed since, the last known specimen died in 2002. The Yangtze river dolphin aren’t the only ones to face this fate. Since the TV show aired in 2009, the northern white rhinoceros has plummeted to only two: both females. The functionally extinct species is relying on a miracle discovery for salvation. To read a book now that is both damning in the threats these animals face but also uplifting the stories of conservation workers giving their all to save them is, to put it bluntly, heartbreaking. In just thirty years, two of the glorious animals described in this book have gone and will never return. And it’s a far larger crisis than that: the WWF Living Planet Report 2018 found that “population sizes of wildlife decreased by 60% globally between 1970 and 2014.” Adams, Carwardine, Fry, and the rest of the BBC crews behind these projects, have raised the profile of some of these critically endangered animals. But in times as dire as these, with deforestation, poaching, overpopulation and relocation, more and more animal and plant species are in perilous danger. And it’s our fault. Perhaps a large part of the power of this book and its extended project is not just the inspiration it imbues on us to save the planet through Adams’ relatable journey, the passions of the conservation workers, and the dire picture it paints for us of such beautiful creatures; rather, the power increasingly lies in its role as a time capsule. Thirty years later, none of these species are out of danger. Some of them have already gone. This is not a distant fear but a reality, and it has become more and more of a test as to whether or not we are listening to the message of this project and of those of many conservation efforts worldwide before it becomes too late to do so.
It is impossible as readers not to garner some of the pair’s enthusiasm for the endangered species they uncovered. It is that enthusiasm that will prove essential in saving the kakapo, the aye-aye and countless other threatened species of animals and plants fast fading from our planet. Ultimately, if everyone had an ounce of passion for wildlife that Adams garnered from this experience and wrote into this book, maybe many of these species wouldn’t be in such a dire place. As the book and the thirty years lived since its publication espouse, it’s time for us to recognise that passion before it’s too late.
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