Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last Chance to See...random thoughts

Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.

Let me just say this to start with: There is no way on Earth that I am going to be able to put into words how amazing this book is.

I'm not even sure how to describe this book. Non-fiction--well yes, that's easy. Natural science--yep. Travelogue--yeah, sort of. Humorous--most definitely. Serious--again, most definitely.

 Briefly, Douglas Adams (yes, the Douglas Adams) and Mark Carwardine, a zoologist, head out on a mission to find and document some of the world's rarest animal species. They travel to Indonesia to see Komodo dragons...China to see blind river dolphins...Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to see mountain gorillas and white rhinos...New Zealand to see kakapos...the islands of Mauritius to see Rodrigues fruit bats (though they learn of the even worse outlook of the some of the islands rare birds, thus changing the focus of that visit). They encounter spectacular environments and meet some very interesting folks who have dedicated their lives to trying to save these species.

(Note: This book was published in 1990, so the status of some of these incredible animals has changed. In fact, here is a website with updates. However, the fact that this book is twenty years old, in my opinion, does not for a second take away from its awesomeness. It is still a powerful, important look at the subject of biodiversity loss.)

I have to admit something--I was just a tad wary of reading this book. Because I knew that the book was supposedly quite humorous. My brain just screamed out at this idea..."Why the hell would anyone want to write a humorous book about such an incredibly sad subject?!!!" Well, you know what, I'm not sure anyone else could have written this book, and managed to convey with such respect and honesty and reverence, the seriousness of the potential loss of these beautiful species. And yes, he did it in the most hilarious way imaginable. My brain told me this approach could not possibly work...but reading is believing.

It's sort of strange. I know many people go positively ga-ga over dolphins. But I'm not one of them. Don't get me wrong--I have nothing at all against them. I have a deep love and respect for all animals. (Okay, it's a bit harder to love mosquitoes than it is most other animals, but I'm sure you know what I mean.) But dolphins don't capture my imagine the way some other animals do. Anyway, that is why it surprised me somewhat that it was the story of the Baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, that hit me the hardest, that twisted my insides, that made the tears flow most freely. These beautiful creatures, which now are functionally extinct, were nearly blind...they had no need of sight because the Yangtze is such a muddy river that sight was of no benefit. They relied on their other senses, especially their sonar for navigation and feeding. And this served them just fine until too many people with too many "advanced" vessels began crowding the river. The fact that they have essentially disappeared is heart-breaking. But so is the picture of how these last generations had to live their lives:

As I watched the wind ruffling over the bilious surface of the Yangtze, I realised with the vividness of shock that somewhere beneath or around me there were intelligent animals whose perceptive universe we could scarcely begin to imagine, living in a seething, poisoned, deafening world, and that their lives were probably passed in continual bewilderment, hunger, pain, and fear.
 It's hard to believe that this book contains humor after reading that, huh? But it does. In massive doses. For me, some of this humor hit close to home, being married to a biologist. For example:
One of the characteristics that laymen find most odd about zoologists is their insatiable enthusiasm for animal droppings. I can understand, of course, that the droppings yield a great deal of information about the habits and diets of the animals concerned, but nothing quite explains the sheer glee that the actual objects seem to inspire.
 You might think he's exaggerating there. He ain't. Proof:

Yep, that's what you think it is. Biologist husband actually collects poop (though he, of course, uses the term "scat" to keep it all on the scientific up-and-up), shellacs it, and then stores it in jars. (And don't worry, I promise you, most of Adams's humor is directed at subjects a little less unseemly. :P)

Well, as predicted, I didn't even come close to doing this book justice. And that's a darn shame.

Many thanks to Ana--it was her incredible review that made me pick up this book to start with, and for that I am quite grateful.


  1. I SERIOUSLY have to read this book! I remember Ana reviewing this! I had totally forgotten about it actually until reading this review, but now I seriously want to read it. And I am laughing aloud now at Rich's crap collection :p So sad that I missed the tour of that while I was there :p

  2. The Baiji broke my heart too :( I'm so glad you loved it - but then I was sure you would.

  3. I gotta read this book! It sounds awesome. I was not at all surprised to hear that Douglas Adams wrote for Monty Python. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was the funniest book I've ever read.
    I can't wait to get a chance to show Chris my collection too.

  4. My paperback of this dates back to *ahem*1991*ahem* and I've read it quite a few times since. Probably my favourite non-fiction book ever. (Not surprising as Hitchiker's is one of my two favourite books ever.

    But I haven't read it for at least 10 years now, but I still have very strong memories of it.

    I meant to re-read it when Carwardine re-traced the journey with Stephen Fry last year. Never got around to it though. :( Definitely going top have to right that soon!

  5. I've never been much of a dolphin person, either, but after reading Moby Dick the first time (I suppose ironically) I developed a fondness for whales - strange how that is. It's odd to think that 100 years ago the closest thing to 'Environmentalists' were people who hunted, by and large, like Teddy Roosevelt.

  6. Oh this sounds good! Especially for the biodiversity challenge! Sad though. :(