Book Review: Last Chance to See

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwadine is a curious book format. Adams, best known for his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, writes with a distinctively quirky style, outside the box and off the wall, and he is supremely capable of taking the reader completely off guard with a simple concept. This applies well to comedy science fiction, but to the topic of environmental activism, with which this book is involved?

Yes, indeed. Having been approached by Observer Colour Magazine to be one of the celebrity hooks in a feature about the endangered Aye-Aye, he became wrapped up in the topic and initiated an extensive world tour to view the plight of several high-risk endangered species. He openly admits he lacks the background of a biologist or naturalist, which is where zoologist Mark Carwadine comes in. Carwadine serves as the educated foil to Adams’ humble and sometimes naïve view of the species they examine, which is what makes this book so approachable. Rather than being preachy, it comes off as introspective and identifiable, with brief conversations between Adams and Carwadine serving to succinctly relate the issues that such species face. The book is accessible to everyone, provided they can deal with the occasional obscenity that helps define the various personalities encountered. But if you have a problem with “fuck,” you’ve probably already left this blog.

Unlike most collaborative efforts, the book is written almost entirely from Adams’ perspective, the exception being a brief Afterword by Carwadine. You usually don’t find books with two authors written in first-person narrative, especially with the other author appearing as a second-person character within. The byline almost certainly came about because Carwadine not only arranged the trips, he provides most of the scientific, biological, and behavioral content, and Adams simply chronicles the experiences with the addition of his own perspective.

It’s not just about the species, as Adams relates his difficulties with foreign travel and the myriad inexplicable hazards therein. The notorious British Dry Wit (TM) is in prominent display as he describes Madagascar’s independence from the French, or the Tanzanian snack bar situation. Even as he comes face-to-face with some of the species featured, he provides some seriously thought-provoking passages as he examines his own role in the whole affair. Other people’s accounts of interactions with animals, most especially exotic species, are often loaded with the concept of spirituality or emotional communication as the authors struggle to define their feelings of awe and wonder, and one is often given the impression that there must be more to interspecies encounters than we recognize. Adams, however, makes it clear throughout that these feelings are almost certainly our own, and that we have no idea what some other species may be thinking. The need to “relate” is simply a desire within ourselves, and understanding is impossible. On his encounter with a Mountain Gorilla:

They look like humans, they move like humans, they hold things in their fingers like humans, the expressions which play across their faces and in their intensely human-looking eyes are expressions that we instinctively feel we recognize as human expressions. We look them in the face and we think, “We know what they’re like,” but we don’t. Or rather, we actually block off any possible glimmering of understanding of what they may be like by making easy and tempting assumptions.

After the number of times I have come across the mistaken idea of species communication, I found this refreshing and commendable.

Instead, we relate to Adams himself, as he ponders the actions of mudskippers during a casual encounter, or the tourism surrounding Komodo Dragons. Rather than placing blame, he provides in its place the concept that we, with our vaunted superior intellect, should be stewards within the ecosystem. And he brings a much-needed perspective to the reader by showing that those who are at the front of endangered species programs are special people, working ridiculously hard in a pursuit that is poorly funded and only vaguely supported. One of the exceptions to this, the Chinese national program to save the Yangtze River Dolphin, is shown to be exceptionally progressive, making it both ironic and heartbreaking that this species is the only one featured that appears to have vanished now, becoming extinct in the years since this book was written.

Adams also displays remarkable descriptive powers, able to invoke the desire to visit these places (or, sometimes, avoid them) with decidedly un-clichéd passages, such as describing the fjords of New Zealand as a land that makes one want to burst into spontaneous applause. Without even knowing what kind of landscape he’s referring to, this would be an engaging description, a talent I’ve personally found matched only by Gerald Durrell. This book is a travelogue of distinctive locales and people, with almost a sideline message regarding endangered species, and remains memorable throughout. To be fair, Adams does portray the various people he meets in light of their idiosyncrasies, which gives the impression that everyone he encounters is eccentric. While an entirely different impression might be garnered from another author meeting the same people, it does make for entertaining reading. It’s hard to say if this is intentional, or simply a facet of Adams’ approach towards the people he meets, defining them in light of their differences, not similarities. One of the things it provides to the reader, however, is the difference in perspective that everyone carries. As an example, while on the island of Komodo, the dangers posed by three-meter man-eating lizards and the largest density of venomous snakes found anywhere in the world has the entire party on edge except for Carwadine, the zoologist, who is clearly enjoying himself. I’ll also add my own perspective, from having worked in animal-related fields for several years: animal people are indeed, on average, more eccentric than normal.

Once, when asked what my dream job would be, I suddenly realized it would be to do exactly what Adams has done: travel the world and examine various species in detail, and bring it home in a way that makes the reader not only present in spirit, but feel what the author does. It is well known in zoological circles that the more visually appealing species get greater attention, regardless of their scarcity or ecosystem importance – Pandas are a great example. Adams and Carwadine, however, make the reader aware of this aspect, and highlight the various factors that can result in a species vanishing. In the US, we are probably most familiar with the idea of species being hunted to extinction, but for many, it’s the fragility of the ecosystem that presents the greatest danger. Animals that have evolved in specialized environments are the most vulnerable to changes within the system, and isolated systems are especially delicate. Komodo Dragons, while actually maintaining a stable population count, live in a very tiny and specific section of the world, one which can be changed almost effortlessly, even by the accidental introduction of another species.

Another message becomes clear, too: While greater public awareness is necessary to gain support for such efforts, it comes with its own price. Eco-tourism, and just the desire to personally encounter such rare species, can put them into a situation where they are severely affected by the attention. What this means is, in the process of trying to protect them, we may be doing them greater harm. This is the sobering realization regarding my own desires to write a similar book – is it driven more by selfish need, the drive to personally experience a “contact” that I disparaged above? Are well-written accounts like Adams’ and Carwadine’s enough to get us active in support programs, or do they instead provoke more instances of, “I was there,” that add up to damaging environmental impact within places like Mauritius, Komodo, Zaïre, and the Galapagos? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but the question itself provides a secondary, much subtler message: Enjoy the books, nature programs, and feature articles regarding the species, and help keep observation at a safe distance. Our sacrifice, in avoiding the personal encounters, is their gain.

It is unfortunate (at the least from a nature photographer’s perspective, which might be a teensy bit biased) that the one thing lacking in this book is a set of images that evoke the same feelings and mood as the prose does. Adams actually addresses this, explaining that the opportunity to bring along a professional photographer had disappeared, so the color photos in the book are Adams’ and Carwadine’s. Nevertheless, they still provide enough to punctuate the travels and encounters – and quite frankly, images that could do justice to Adams’ distinctive style are a tall order. For those wanting more information about such efforts and species, however, the book was the starting point for many video programs by Mark Carwadine and the BBC, some of which can be found in the book title link above. Adams, unfortunately, passed away in 2001 before he could participate in such expansions of this work.

Even if animals are not your thing [GET OFF MY BLOG!], this book is one of the better approaches to conservation efforts. The message remains much subtler, subsumed in the travel-journal styling, and the accusatory tone practically nonexistent; Adams writes as a person sharing the traits of the human race, and avoids polarizing the issues. And if you’re a fan of his other work, you’ll easily see that he leaves nothing behind when switching into autobiographical mode – indeed, he adds something, a self-deprecating, thoughtful aspect only peripherally available in his fiction. Whether your bookshelf includes quirky styles, travelogues, autobiographies, or animal-related themes, this is a good addition. It’s a book to share, so have more than one copy. It’s worth it just for the story of trying to find a condom in Shanghai.

1 comment to Book Review: Last Chance to See

  • The Manatee

    Nice review. I read this book many years ago – picked it up because of his “Hitchhikers” reputation – and enjoyed it. I have no idea whether he ever would have revisited this approach, but your review brought up a (nother) reason why he is missed. It would have been great to have sequels to this book covering other high-risk species.