Best known for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams also had things to say about topics concerning our own planet, particularly the natural world. Last Chance to See was his only non-fiction book, which is a pity because it’s a highly enjoyable read that makes what could have been a dry subject interesting and engaging. Now approaching its 20th anniversary, the book still feels like a fresh and relevant look at the world of endangered animals.
Although the book is about conservation, it’s told in the form of a humourous travelogue, a style that keeps the tone readable and usually light despite the serious subjects explored. Adams and Mark Carwardine (with various team members) travel the world looking for obscure species to find out what’s being done to protect them. Carwardine provides the zoological and conservation information while Adams writes, “My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would be a complete surprise.”
Though it had its roots in a supposedly one-off trip to Madagascar for the Observer Colour Magazine, the project expanded into a radio series, later joined by the book and a CD-ROM. Part of the charm lies in seeing how Adams is swept along in this world of conservation — in particular the moment in Madagascar when Carwardine lists a host of rare species in dire situations. Adams responds by fetching his Filofax and saying “I’ve just got a couple of novels to write, but what are you doing in 1988?” Schedules eventually coordinated, and the pair made a radio series on endangered wildlife with the BBC that aired in 1989. The book was published a year later, and features many of the journeys they made while making the series. Adams died in 2001 but, upon Last Chance to See‘s anniversary, the BBC are making a television series in which Carwardine revisits many of the animals with presenter Stephen Fry, a move which is likely to prompt new interest in the book.
Adams writes the entire book bar the epilogue, quoting Carwardine in the narrative when necessary. It’s a great format because Adams doesn’t talk down to the audience in the way scientists often can — he knows as little as we do, and learns about these rare species alongside the reader. He also communicates a real sense of wonder at some of the things he learns and sees, and his enthusiasm draws the reader in emotionally, provoking genuine interest in the fate of the animals.
The book is divided into a series of trips to different places around the world, and the process of actually finding each animal is a big part of the story. Showing how difficult it actually was to get to the magical moments makes them far more meaningful as the book sweeps the reader along. It’s not even a certain thing that all these animals will be seen in their native environment, and there’s poignancy when hoped-for signs of a rare species aren’t found. The story of the kakapo, a flightless bird native to New Zealand, is very moving as the team search sadly for evidence of a creature that hasn’t been seen in the mountains for years.
There’s also a good cross-section of animals covered, rather than just the fluffy sweet ones. The team’s trip to Indonesia to find the Komodo dragon is a memorable — if somewhat disturbing — episode, and gives Adams a chance to muse on the interaction between humans and wildlife. Likewise the search for the Baiji dolphin in the Yangtze is frequently troubling, as the scale of river traffic and the problems it causes the dolphin begin to sink in. To measure river noise the team need to waterproof their microphone, and their quest for condoms in Shanghai is both very funny and ultimately renders the results of their experiment all the more saddening for the contrast in mood.
They also search for more obvious candidates for a conservation book, such as gorillas and white rhinos in Zaire, but even then Adams tells a story much more personal and amusing than might be found in a typical guide to a rare species. There’s plenty about the animals, but also about the experience of being a human in their presence — what it feels like and why it matters so much that people try to save them.
This isn’t a hand-wringing book about how the nasty humans hurt the animals, but neither does it avoid the fact that humans are fairly frequently directly to blame for the trouble these animals are in. Adams expresses real frustration at the sheer stupidity of some of the situations conservationists face, most memorably that the demand for rhino horns is not because they are seen as aphrodisiacs, but because men in the Yemen see knives with handles made of rhino horn as a status symbol.
One can’t help agreeing with Adams, especially because he’s very good at writing in irritation. He’s irritated about a lot of lesser issues as well, such as being trapped amongst a group of missionaries, buying too much aftershave from the duty-free, and the efficient Germans he meets in Zaire (not liking to write stereotypes, he decides to re-assign their nationality as Latvian).
Adams treads a delicate line between making it clear how threatened some of these animals are and staying optimistic as to the future. It’s possibly too late for some of them, but others still hang on, and with increased public awareness perhaps comes an increased chance of survival. Adams’ character portraits of the conservationists in the field are witty and skillful, and leave the reader with some hope that with (often charmingly insane) people like these devoting their lives to these animals there might be a future for some of them.
As one of the people who’s spent his career working in conservation, Mark Carwardine gets the last words of the book, and he explains succinctly why he feels it’s important that conservation efforts continue. His final reason, and one he believes stands alone, is the one he ends the book with: “It is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”