The original Last Chance to See was a late-‘80s radio documentary series and accompanying book conceived and written by Douglas Adams (yes, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and his friend, zoologist Mark Carwardine. They reported on their travels around the globe searching for and profiling rare and endangered species – the Northern White Rhino, the Amazonian manatee, and the Kakapo, among others—with the hope that exposure would spur conservation efforts to save the animals.
This reprise of the series – six one-hour long episodes made for the BBC in 2009 – checks in on several of the featured species to see how they are getting on. Carwardine is back on board, and subbing for the late Adams is British comedian Stephen Fry. Now, at first glance, Fry seems an odd choice to send head on into the rigors of wildlife expedition. He’s a bit…um… largish, and woefully out of shape. He crashes gracelessly through the rainforests of Brazil, goes lumbering through the African savanna, and fails mightily at getting from shore to ship (landing himself in the hospital with a fractured arm). He’s perpetually sweaty and wheezy, and prone to complaining continuously about the lack of comfy beds and cell phone reception (“I like my creature comforts rather more than I like my creatures” he drolly quips in an early episode).
However Fry is, actually, the perfect host for such a program; a surrogate for the chair-bound viewer at home who might never entertain the thought of spending a week sweating it out in Indonesia for the chance to come face to face with the especially fearsome and malevolent looking Komodo dragon. Garrulous, droll and possessed by childlike wonder when encountering some sort of unexpected behavior by these remarkable animals, Fry’s enthusiasm is infectious.
Carwardine, a zoologist, expert photographer, and activist, is the perfect foil for Fry. Laid back but very passionate, he is obviously much more hands on and fearless than Fry, and is driven by what can only be described as pure unconditional love for all God’s creatures (even the Aye-aye, an especially ugly and smelly lemur). Their repartee drives the show, and they play off each other so well that they seem like a comedy duo that’s been together for 20 years.
Together they set out across and around the globe, mostly to tropical regions, from the Amazonian basin to a remote island off the coast of the already remote New Zealand. Each episode is dedicated to revisiting one particular animal – if they can find it. Some prove to be tricky to hunt down, and others are gamboling about in great prolificacy; some species have turned around and begun to thrive, others have, lamentably, apparently vanished and are presumed extinct.
Such appears to be the case for the poor Northern White Rhino, of which there were only four (4!!!) left in the wild in 2006 or so, and no one had seen them in over six months at the time of shooting in 2009. A victim of habit loss, poaching, and civil war in the Congo, proceedings were begun during shooting to declare the Northern White Rhino extinct in the wild (its cousin, the more common Southern White Rhino, was found in great abundance though). Also, in the 20 intervening years, one of the previous animals showcased, the Yangtze River dolphin, has been confirmed extinct, much to Carwardine’s regret.
In happier news, the Kakapo, on the verge of extinction after being driven off mainland New Zealand, where it had existed in great numbers for centuries before the influx of British settlers in the 19th century, is actually staging a turn around, due in no small part to a remarkable conservation effort. Basically, a group of conservationists have set up an isolation chamber for the large, utterly adorable flightless parrot on Codfish Island, about 600 miles off the main coast of New Zealand.
Kept free from predators, the Kakapo has started to increase its numbers in within this sanctuary. Of course, whether it can ever return to the mainland and survive is another question entirely, and calls into question a whole slew of bigger moral and philosophical questions about the progress and decline of species, and whether active human intervention is “natural”. (Short answer: yes it is.)
The animals are not necessarily exotic, and most are fairly well known (the Komodo dragon, the blue whale), but what unites them all is the continuous state of siege they live under, a two-pronged attack against either their habitat or their hides (or both). While the featured animals themselves are endlessly fascinating, the series is at its best when it wanders off track.
Fry’s own discursiveness informs the direction of the show sometimes, so an episode that’s presumably about rhinos ends up spending a good amount of time on gorillas and chimpanzees, or the difficult search to catch a glimpse of the elusive blue whale (“like searching for a very large needle in a very massive haystack”) becomes sidetracked into an excursion swimming with gray sharks and getting up close with some truly horrifying looking squids.
Like a lot of nature shows, Last Chance to See’s strength lies in the power of nature and animals to surprise us, and there’s a lot of the unexpected (and the unexpectedly cute, like when Carwardine feeds a baby manatee with a bottle…. AWWWWWW!). However, it’s also a bit weird to watch an episode that’s supposed to be about komodo dragons and only see them during the last 15-minutes or so. No offense to the rest of the wildlife in the Indonesia archipelago, but we really do want to see the big nasty looking lizard dripping toxic drool from its vice like jaw and loping towards us with the certainty of our own painful and protracted death.
The obvious message of Last Chance to See is that these animals (and the countless others on the endangered species list) are not, in fact, doomed (well, except the poor Northern White Rhino), and that rigorous human intervention can preserve these species, and even turn the numbers around. It’s a fairly obvious moral, but one that is in no small need of reiteration, and when it’s done as agreeably and humorously as it’s done here, it’s hard not to be bitten by the bug to become an eco-warrior oneself… as long as the cell phone reception is good, of course.