I’ve read, over the last week or so, Last Chance To See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, a book that is a clarion voice for conservationism, but also much more.
Last Chance to See is a nerdy science-fiction writer’s account of his journey across five continents and several countries on a mission to find the world’s rarest fauna. You learn how this Gulliveresque journey came to be when you travel to Madagascar to find the rarest lemur in existence today. We also meet the fearsome (even purely for its breath) Komodo Dragon Lizard, the delightfully weird Kakapo of New Zealand, The northern mountain gorillas and the majestic white rhinos of Zaire, the precious Baiji river dolphins of Shangai and the critically endangered birds of Mauritius. DA has an exceptional ability to make these animals and their critically endangered habitats come alive to the reader. When he’s talking about the silverback (meaning adult) gorilla he encounters:
As I moved again, he shifted himself away from me, just about six inches, as if I had sat too close to him on a sofa and he was grumpily making a bit more room. Then he lay on his front with chin on his fist, idly scratching his cheek with his other hand. I sat as still and quiet as I could, despite discovering that I was being bitten to death by ants. He looked from one to another of us without any great concern, and then his attention dropped to his own hands as he idly scratched some flecks of dirt off one of his fingers with his thumb. I had the impression that we were as much interest to him as a boring Sunday afternoon in front of the television. He yawned.
Or when he describes the island of Komodo:
The images that the island presented to the imagination were very hard to avoid. The rocky outcrops took on the shape of massive triangular teeth, and the dark and moody grey brown hills undulate like the heavy folds of a lizard’s skin. I knew that if I were a mariner in unknown waters, the first thing I would write on my charts at this moment would be ‘Here be Dragons’.
In both cases he talks about the kind of mind that would leap to anthropomorphise everything around it. This keen understanding of the human psyche has, for me, been the most (surprisingly) satisfying part of Last Chance to See. DA’s powers of observation of human behaviour are sharp, and his commentary is genius. He says of the fact that Komodo’s giant lizards are fed freshly slaughtered goats to allow visitors to see the lizards ‘in action’ (once more, his musings mirror those of Gulliver):
We find images of evil in creatures that know nothing of such matters, so that we can feel revolted by them, and, by contrast, good about ourselves. And if they won’t be revolting enough of their own accord, we stoke them up with a goat. They don’t want the goat, they don’t need it. If they wanted one, they’d find it themselves. The only truly revolting thing that happens to the goat is in fact done by us.
In their travels through Africa, the group has to wrangle with an assortment of corrupt officials. DA’s grasp of colonial politics and the effects it has on people comes across in his observations of travel through Zaire, which was once a colony of Britain:
Like most colonies, Zaire had imposed on it a stifling bureaucracy, the sole function of which was to refer decisions upwards to its colonial masters. Focal officials rarely had the power to do things, only to prevent them being done until bribed. So once the colonial masters are removed, the bureaucracy continues to thrash around like a headless chicken with nothing to do other than trip itself up, bump into things and, when it can get the firepower, shoot itself in the foot. You can always tell an ex-colony from the inordinate numbers of people who are able to find employment stopping anybody who has anything to do from doing it.
Having ranted about the frustratingly tiresome malaise of bureaucratic overkill in India, I particularly appreciate DA’s comments on sweet-talking, well-dressed officials who turn out to be the most corrupt of the lot:
He explained slowly. Tourists, he said, had to leave the country from the same port by which they had entered. Smile. […]It was the most preposterous invention. He still held on to our passports. […]We knew it was nonsense. He knew we knew it was nonsense. That was clearly part of the pleasure of it. He smiled at us again, gave us a slow contented shrug, and idly brushed a bit of fluff off the sleeve of the natty blue suit towards the cost of which he clearly expected a major contribution
If this wit of Douglas Adams is surpassed at all, it is by his own awe in the face of the enormous, complex, fragile beauty of nature. I can think of no better reason to read a book than that.