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last chance to see
4 january 2010
Last Chance to See, according to Douglas Adams's biographer M.J. Simpson, was its author's own favorite book – and much as I enjoy both the Hitchhiker and the Dirk Gently novels, Last Chance to See is my favorite Douglas Adams, too.
Adams wrote Last Chance to See with naturalist Mark Carwardine as a kind of lark, a radio project casting Adams as the anti-David Attenborough, traveling the world's hinterlands to attempt encounters with drastically endangered species. But Adams's special gift – the famous ability to see Earth as if he were just popping in from a galaxy far away, which made him the world's pre-eminent "comedy science-fiction novelist" – was really exceptionally well-suited to this kind of eco-travel writing. His travel narratives, full of the strangeness and cruelty of humans as much as the marvels of biodiversity, are unique in English literature. If Bruce Chatwin was ROFL funny, he would have been like Douglas Adams – and the literary world is much poorer for both of their early departures.
Two of the essays in Last Chance to See – "Here Be Chickens," about the Komodo Dragon, and "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," about gorillas and rhinos – are among the finest pieces of nature writing in English. Adams wonders not at the brutality of the voracious dragon, but at the inhumanity of people who stage gory spectacles based on that voracity. And his description of encountering an alien intelligence in the gorillas he hung out with in Zaire is terrible and beautiful. Hardly less compelling is Adams's account of how he and Carwardine and their crew sought the Baiji dolphin in China's Yangtze River, a heartbreaking comedy of errors.
Since it's now 20 years or more after the book appeared, I thought I'd devote the rest of this short piece, however, to checking (via the marvels of websurfing) on the current state of viability of the species that Adams and Carwardine visited in the late 1980s.
- aye-aye: "Recent research shows that the Aye-aye is more widespread than was previously thought, but is still endangered." In fact Wikipedia doesn't seem too alarmed about this Madagascarian prosimian at all. Of course, "previously thought" was that there might only be about a half-dozen left, so we shouldn't be too sanguine about the aye-aye.
- Komodo dragon: There are several thousand of these critters in the wild, and lots more in zoos. They are protected in preserves in their native Indonesia, so they are probably not immediately out the door in our lifetimes, either.
- Mountain gorilla: There may be between 700 and 800 mountain gorillas in the wild, which seems like a lot; but then, if you were told that there were only 700 or 800 people left in the world, you'd start to worry about us.
- Northern White Rhino: Now extinct in the wild. This was a case where Adams & Carwardine really did get the "last chance to see."
- Kakapo: This large flightless New Zealand parrot is doing nicely thanks to strenuous conservation efforts.
- Mauritius Kestrel: "Has come back from the brink of extinction."
- Baiji: "Functionally extinct," which means if there are one or two of them left, it's not enough to keep the species going after they die – much as an endangered language is functionally extinct if it's down to a few elderly speakers.
That's five out of seven, which is actually fairly appalling. We hear so much about how X number of species are about to disappear in the next decade or so, but so few reports of definitive extinctions, that we can lose track of how pressing the problem has become. But Adams, Carwardine, and other nature writers aren't just playing Chicken Little. 28% of the star species that the original Last Chancers set out after in the 1980s were not around for the series reprise (done by Stephen Fry and Carwardine last year for the BBC).
Adams, Douglas, and Mark Carwardine. Last Chance to See. New York: Ballantine, 1990.