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June 18, 2012
LAST CHANCE TO SEE by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine, 1990
The best-selling science fiction humorist Douglas Adams accompanies a world-class zoologist on an around-the-world trip in search of exotic, endangered creatures. By turns hilarious and poignant, this is a treat for Adams fans and anyone who cares about Earth's wildlife. (Amazon)
Reviewed by Sarah Hofhine, conservationist and sci-fi fan
Last Chance to See chronicles the adventures of science-fiction comedy author Douglas Adams (yep, that Douglas Adams) and zoologist Mark Carwardine to see six of the world’s most endangered animals.
In 1985 Douglas and Mark went to Madagascar to look for the elusive and incredibly endangered aye-aye lemur. As Douglas says in the book, “This was the idea of the Observer Colour Magazine, to throw us all in the deep end. Mark is an extremely experienced and knowledgeable zoologist…and his role, essentially, was to be the one who knew what he was talking about. My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise.” That thrilling and eye-opening trip led to a joint venture three years later in 1988 to see if they could catch a glimpse of some of Earth’s most critically endangered species including the komodo dragon, northern white rhinoceros, kakapo (a large, flightless parrot from New Zealand), Yangtze river dolphin, and Rodrigues island flying fox (a type of bat). Along the way they not only manage to see most of the animals on their list but also a large number of other endangered animals.
You might expect a book about animals teetering on the brink of extinction would be depressing, but Douglas Adams’ delightfully ‘ignorant non-zoologist’ musings on the subject are both fascinating and very, very funny. Unfortunately, it’s the type of funny that takes a few paragraphs to set up, so it’s not necessarily worth it to attempt to share what’s so funny with your loved ones who want to know why you have doubled up amidst shrieks of laughter. The best strategy is to offer to loan them the book once you are finished.
It definitely also has its somber and mildly depressing moments – as he puts it, “It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo, we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.” By the time this book made its way to me in 2008 two of the species highlighted had not been seen in some time and have since been declared extinct or extinct in the wild, a sad and sobering postscript to the book. Happily, the population of several of the species has increased significantly and the outlook is hopeful.
FYI: the language gets a bit salty. It includes using the name of the Lord in vain and two instances of the big once, the inclusion of which would get a movie an R rating. It also has sporadic milder epithets (conservationists can be a wild and wooly bunch sometimes). In addition, although there are no sexual encounters, there are some bits of funny general innuendo: a bit about a possible explanation for why rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine, and the mention of a ‘delicate mime’ Douglas performs when trying to find a prophylactic to purchase for use in impromptu underwater sound recording in China. (That piqued your interest, didn’t it?)
On their 1988-1989 trip they were accompanied by a BBC producer, and a radio programme about the adventure was recorded and later broadcast. In 2010 the BBC produced a video follow-up in which Mark Carwardine revisited the animals with Stephen Fry, comedian and close personal friend of Douglas Adams (who died in 2001). I just could not share Last Chance to See the book without also trumpeting the amazing genius that is the BBC video series. It’s pretty much perfect. Just make sure you read the book before you see the videos so you get the backstory.