Last Chance to See
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Last Chance to See (1990) is a non-fiction book written by Douglas Adams and co-written by Mark Carwardine. It describes the pair's journeys around the world in search of critically endangered species for a BBC radio series.
- All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Ballantine Books ISBN 0-345-37198-4, 11th printing
- All spelling and italics as in the book
Chapter 1: Twig Technology
- [Mark Carwardine]’s 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.
- pp. 1-2
- The aye-aye is a nocturnal lemur. It is a very strange-looking creature that seems to have been assembled from bits of other animals. It looks a little like a large cat with a bat’s ears, a beaver’s teeth, a tail like a large ostrich feather, a middle finger like a long dead twig and enormous eyes that seem to peer past you into a totally different world which exists just over your left shoulder.
- p. 2
- Antananarivo is pronounced Tananarive, and for much of this century has been spelt that way as well. When the French took over Madagascar at the end of the last century (“colonised” is probably too kind a word for moving in on a country that was doing perfectly well for itself but which the French simply took a fancy to), they were impatient with the curious Malagasy habit of not bothering to pronounce the first and last syllables of place names. They decided, in their rational Gallic way, that if that was how the names were pronounced then they could damn well be spelt that way too. It would be rather as if someone had taken over England and told us that from now on we would be spelling Leicester “Lester” and liking it. We might be forced to spell it that way, but we wouldn’t like it, and neither did the Malagasy. As soon as they managed to divest themselves of French rule, in 1960, they promptly reinstated all the old spellings and just kept the cooking and the bureaucracy.
- pp. 4-5
- It [seeing an aye-aye] was the kind of moment about which it is hard not to feel completely dizzy.
Because, I realised later, I was a monkey looking at a lemur.
By flying from New York and Paris to Antananarivo by 747 jet, up to Díego-Suarez in an old prop plane, driving to the port of Maroantsetra in an even older truck, crossing to Nosy Mangabé in a boat that was so old and dilapidated that it was almost indistinguishable from driftwood, and finally walking by night into the ancient rainforest, we were almost making a time journey back through all the stages of our experiments in twig technology to the environment from which we had originally ousted the lemurs. And here was one of the very last of them, looking at me with, as I say, serene incomprehension.
- (p. 6)
Chapter 2: Here Be Chickens
- I’m always very sympathetic when I hear people complaining that all they ever get on television or radio chat shows is authors honking on about their latest book. It does, on the other hand, get us out of the house and spare our families the trial of hearing us honking on about our latest book.
- p. 10
- There is in Melbourne a man who probably knows more about poisonous snakes than anyone else on earth. His name is Dr. Struan Sutherland, and he has devoted his entire life to a study of venom.
“And I’m bored with talking about it,” he said when we went along to see him the next morning, laden with tape recorders and note books. “Can’t stand all these poisonous creatures, all these snakes and insects and fish and things. Wretched things, biting everybody. And then people expect me to tell them what to do about it. I’ll tell them what to do. Don’t get bitten in the first place. That’s the answer. I’ve had enough of telling people all the time. Hydroponics, now, that’s interesting. Talk to you all you like about hydroponics. Fascinating stuff, growing plants artificially in water, very interesting technique. We’ll need to know all about it if we’re going to go to Mars and places. Where did you say you were going?”
“Well, don’t get bitten, that’s all I can say. And don’t come running to me if you do because you won’t get here in time and anyway I’ve got enough on my plate. Look at this office. Full of poisonous animals all over the place. See this tank? It’s full of fire ants. Venomous little creatures, what are we going to do about them? Anyway, I got some little cakes in case you were hungry. Would you like some little cakes?”
- pp. 12-13
- “The most poisonous spider is the Sydney funnel web. We get about five hundred people a year bitten by spiders. A lot of them used to die, so we had to develop an antidote to stop people bothering me with it all the time.”
- p. 13
- “So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then?” I asked.
He blinked at me as if I were stupid.
“Well, what do you think you do?” he said. “You die of course. That’s what deadly means.”
- p. 14
- We flew to Bali.
David Attenborough has said that Bali is the most beautiful place in the world, but he must have been there longer than we were, and seen different bits, because most of what we saw in the couple of days we were there sorting out our travel arrangements was awful. It was just the tourist area, i.e., that part of Bali which has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.
- p. 16
- We tried serenely to point out that it actually said “Confirmed” on our tickets, but he explained that “Confirmed” didn’t actually mean confirmed, as such, it was merely something that they wrote on tickets when people asked them to because it saved a lot of bother and made them go away.
- p. 19
- When we told our guide that we didn’t want to go to all the tourist places, he took us instead to the places where they take tourists who say that they don’t want to go to tourist places. These places are, of course, full of tourists. Which is not to say that we weren’t tourists every bit as much as the others, but it does highlight the irony that everything you go to see is changed by the very action of going to see it, which is the sort of problem which physicists have been wrestling with for most of this century.
- p. 22
- We had been told by someone on the plane that there were only three trucks on the whole of the island of Flores, and we passed six of them on the way in. Virtually everything we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true, sometimes almost immediately. The only exception to this was when we were told that something would happen immediately, in which case it turned out not to be true over an extended period of time.
- p. 25
- Sleeping in Labuan Bajo, however, is something of an endurance test.
Being woken at dawn by the cockerels is not in itself a problem. The problem arises when the cockerels get confused as to when dawn actually is. They suddenly explode into life, squawking and screaming at about one o’clock in the morning. At about one-thirty they eventually realise their mistake and shut up, just as the major dog-fights of the evening are getting under way. These usually start with a few minor bouts between the more enthusiastic youngsters, and then the full chorus of heavyweights weighs in with a fine impression of what it might be like to fall into the pit of hell with the London Symphony Orchestra.
It is then quite an education to learn that two cats fighting can make easily as much noise as forty dogs. It is a pity to have to learn this at two-fifteen in the morning, but then the cats have a lot to complain about in Labuan Bajo. They all have their tails docked at birth, which is supposed to bring good luck, though presumably not to the cats.
Once the cats have concluded their reflections on this, the cockerels suddenly get the idea that it’s dawn again and let rip. It isn’t, of course. Dawn is still two hours away, and you still have the delivery van horn-blowing competition to get through to the accompaniment of the major divorce proceedings that have suddenly erupted in the room next door.
At last things calm down and your eyelids begin to slide thankfully together in the blessed predawn hush, and then, about five minutes later, the cockerels finally get it right.
- pp. 27-28
- [On watching a Komodo dragon eat a live chicken:] The three of us were sitting ashen-faced as if we had just witnessed a foul and malignant murder. At least if we had been watching a murder, the murderer wouldn’t have been looking us impassively in the eye as he did it. Maybe it was the feeling of cold, unflinching arrogance that so disturbed us. But whatever malign emotions we tried to pin onto the lizard, we knew that they weren’t the lizard’s emotions at all, only ours. The lizard was simply going about its lizardly business in a simple, straightforward lizardly way. It didn’t know anything about the horror, the guilt, the shame, the ugliness that we, uniquely guilty and ashamed animals, were trying to foist on it. So we got it all straight back at us, as if reflected in the mirror of its single unwavering and disinterested eye.
- p. 35
- We talked about how easy it was to make the mistake of anthropomorphising animals, and projecting our own feelings and perceptions on to them, where they were inappropriate and didn’t fit. We simply had no idea what it was like being an extremely large lizard, and neither, for that matter, did the lizard, because it was not self-conscious about being an extremely large lizard, it just got on with the business of being one. To react with revulsion to its behaviour was to make the mistake of applying criteria that are only appropriate to the business of being human. We each make our own accommodation with the world and learn to survive in it in different ways. What works as successful behaviour for us does not work for lizards, and vice versa.
- pp. 35-36
- I have a well-deserved reputation for being something of a gadget freak, and am rarely happier than when spending an entire day programming my computer to perform automatically a task that it would otherwise take me a good ten seconds to do by hand.
- p. 38
- The thing [Komodo dragon] is just a monitor lizard, and yet it is massive to a degree that is unreal. As it rears its head up over the fence and around as it turns, you wonder how it’s done, what trickery is involved.
- pp. 43-44
- For all my rational Western intellect and education, I was for the moment overwhelmed by a primitive sense of living in a world ordered by a malign and perverted god, and it coloured my view of everything that afternoon—even the coconuts. The villagers sold us some and split them open for us. They are almost perfectly designed. You first make a hole and drink the milk, and then you split open the nut with a machete and slice off a segment of the shell, which forms a perfect implement for scooping out the coconut flesh inside. What makes you wonder about the nature of this god character is that he creates something that is so perfectly designed to be of benefit to human beings and then hangs it twenty feet above their heads on a tree with no branches.
“Here’s a good trick, let’s see how they cope with this. Oh, look! They’ve managed to find a way of climbing the tree. I didn’t think they’d been able to do that. All right, let’s see them get the thing open. Hmm, so they’ve found out how to temper steel, have they? Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. Next time they go up that tree, I’ll have a [Komodo] dragon waiting for them at the bottom.”
I can only think that the business with the apple must have upset him more than I realized.
- p. 47
- Some fish were jumping up the beach and into the tree, which struck me as an odd thing for a fish to do, but I tried not to be judgmental about it. I was feeling pretty raw about my own species, and not much inclined to raise a quizzical eyebrow at others. The fish could play about in trees as much as they liked if it gave them pleasure, so long as they didn’t try to justify themselves or tell one another it was a malign god who made them want to play in trees.
- p. 48
- I was feeling pretty raw about my own species because we presume to draw a distinction between what we call good and what we call evil. We find our images of what we call evil in things outside ourselves, in creatures that know nothing of such matters, so that we can feel revolted by them, and, by contrast, good about ourselves.
- p. 48
- The great thing about being the only species that makes a distinction between right and wrong is that we can make up the rules for ourselves as we go along.
- p. 49
Chapter 3: Leopardskin Pillbox Hat
- I certainly don’t like the idea of missionaries. In fact, the whole business fills me with fear and alarm. I don’t believe in God, or at least not in the one we’ve invented for ourselves in England to fulfill our peculiarly English needs, and certainly not in the ones they’ve invented in America, who supply their servants with toupees, television stations, and, most important, toll-free telephone numbers. I wish that people who did believe in such things would keep them to themselves and not export them to the developing world.
- pp. 53-54
- The system by which Zaïre works, and which this card [a card urging Zaireans to be helpful to foreigners] was a wonderfully hopeless attempt to correct, is very simple. Every official you encounter will make life as unpleasant as he possibly can until you pay him to stop it. In U.S. dollars. He then passes you on to the next official, who will be unpleasant to you all over again.
- p. 58
- Most of the other shops were in fact impossible to identify. When a shop appeared to sell a mixture of ghetto blasters, socks, soap, and chickens, it didn’t seem unreasonable to go in and ask if they had any or toothpaste or paper stuck away on one of their shelves as well, but they looked at me as if I was completely mad. Couldn’t I see that this was a ghetto blaster, socks, soap, and chicken shop?
- p. 61
- The gorillas were not the animals we had come to Zaïre to look for. It is very hard, however, to come all the way to Zaïre and not go and see them. I was going to say that this is because they are our closest living relatives, but I’m not sure that that’s an appropriate reason. Generally, in my experience, when you visit a country in which you have any relatives living there’s a tendency to want to lie low and hope they don’t find out you’re in town. At least with the gorillas, you know that there’s no danger of having to go out to dinner with them and catch up on several million years of family history, so you can visit them with impunity.
- p. 62
- Gorillas are not yet sufficiently advanced in evolutionary terms to have discovered the benefits of passports, currency-declaration forms, and official bribery, and therefore tend to wander backward and forward across the border as and when their beastly, primitive whim takes them.
- p. 63
- I didn’t notice that I was being set upon by a pickpocket, which I am glad of, because I like to work only with professionals.
- p. 64
- The first people to pour in were the missionaries: Catholics who arrived to teach the native populace that the Protestants were wrong and Protestants who came to teach that the Catholics were wrong. The only thing the Protestants and Catholics agreed on was that the natives had been wrong for two thousand years.
- p. 65
- Like most colonies, Zaïre had impose on it a stifling bureaucracy, the sole function of which was to refer decisions upward to its colonial masters. Local officials rarely had the power to do things, only to prevent them from 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 but 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.
- pp. 65-66
- I believe in traveling light, but then I also believe that I should give up smoking and shop early for Christmas.
- p. 67
- We are not an endangered species ourselves yet, but this is not for lack of trying.
- p. 68
- 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.
- p. 73
- I’ve heard an idea proposed, I’ve no idea how seriously, to account for the sensation of vertigo. It’s an idea that I instinctively like and it goes like this.
The dizzy sensation we experience when standing in high places is not simply a fear of falling. It’s often the case that the only thing likely to make us fall is the actual dizziness itself, so it is, at best, an extremely irrational, even self-fulfilling fear. However, in the distant past of our evolutionary journey toward our current state, we lived in trees. We leapt from tree to tree. There are even those who speculate that we may have something birdlike in our ancestral line. In which case, there may be some part of our mind that, when confronted with a void, expects to be able to leap out into it and even urges us to do so. So what you end up with is a conflict between a primitive, atavistic part of your mind which is saying “Jump!” and the more modern, rational part of your mind which is saying, “For Christ’s sake, don’t!”
- pp. 74-75
- It bothers me when they make up these colourful answers. I wish I could make them understand that if they don’t know the answer, or they think the right answer isn’t very interesting, it’s better to say so rather than just invent absolute nonsense.
- p. 76
- It was instantly clear what he was doing. He was contemplating life. He was hanging out. It was quite obvious. Or rather, the temptation to find it quite obvious was absolutely overwhelming.
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 recognise 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.
- pp. 79-80
- I began to feel how patronising it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence, as if ours was any kind of standard by which to measure. I tried to imagine instead how he saw us, but of course that’s almost impossible to do, because the assumption you end up making as you try to bridge the imaginative gap are, of course, your own, and the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don’t even know you’re making.
- p. 81
- I watched the gorilla’s eyes again, wise and knowing eyes, and wondered about this business of trying to teach apes language. Our language. Why? There are many members of our own species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don’t listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape could tell us? Or that it would be able to tell us of its life in a language that hasn’t been born of that life? I thought, maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language, it is that we have lost one.
- p. 82
- Charles flies his plane the same way my mother drives her car round the country lanes in Dorset. If you didn’t know she had done it invincibly every day of her life for years, you would be hiding in the footwell gibbering with fear instead of just smiling glassily and humming “Abide With Me.”
- p. 87
- The only people who do believe it are people who’ve read somewhere that other people believe it, and are ready and willing to believe anything they hear that they like the sound of.
- p. 90
- So the question really is this: How do you persuade a young Yemeni that a rhino horn dagger is not a symbol of your manhood but a signal of the fact that you need such a symbol?
- p. 92
- You can’t help but try and follow an animal’s thought processes, and you can’t help, when faced with an animal like a three-ton rhinoceros with nasal passages bigger than its brain, but fail.
- p. 99
Chapter 4: Heartbeats in the Night
- When the thudding blades of the helicopter are finally still, the spacious murmur of the valley gradually rises to fill the silence: the low thunder of cataracts, the distant hiss of the sea, the rustling of the breeze in the scrubby grass, the keas explaining who they are to one another. There is one sound, however, that we know we are not going to hear—not just because we have arrived at the wrong time of day, but because we have arrived in the wrong year. There will not be any more right years.
- pp. 110-111
- Until 1987 Fiordland was the home of one of the strangest, most unearthly sounds in the world. For thousands of years, in the right season, the sound could be heard after nightfall throughout these wild peaks and valleys.
It was like a heartbeat: a deep, powerful throb that echoed through the dark ravines. It was so deep that some people will tell you that they felt it stirring in their gut before they could discern the actual sound, a sort of wump, a heavy wobble of air. Most people have never heard it at all, or ever will again. It was the sound of the kakapo, the old night parrot of New Zealand, sitting high on a rocky promontory and calling for a mate.
- p. 111
- It [the kakapo] is an extremely fat bird. A good-sized adult will weigh about six or seven pounds, and its wings are just about good for waggling a bit if it thinks it’s about to trip over something—but flying is out of the question. Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.
- p. 115
- [On the kakapo’s tendency to freeze in confusion when faced with a predator:] It’s frustrating to think of the difference that language would make. The millennia crawl by pretty bloody slowly while natural selection sifts its way through generation after generation, favouring the odd aberrant kakapo, which is a little twitchier than its contemporaries, till the species as a whole finally gets the idea. It would all be cut short in a moment if one of them could say, “When you see one of those things with whiskers and little bitey teeth, run like hell.” On the other hand, human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
- p. 116
- It would help if there were plenty of them being born, but this brings us on to more problems. The kakapo is a solitary creature: it doesn’t like other animals. It doesn’t even like the company of other kakapos. One conservation worker we met said he sometimes wondered if the mating call of the male didn’t actively repel the female, which is the sort of biological absurdity you otherwise find only in discotheques.
- p. 116
- I’ve heard a tape of collected kakapo noises, and it’s almost impossible to believe that it all just comes from a bird, or indeed any kind of animal. Pink Floyd studio outtakes perhaps, but not a parrot.
- p. 118
- As if things aren’t difficult enough already, the female [kakapo] can only come into breeding condition when a particular plant, the podocarp for instance, is bearing fruit. This only happens every two years. Until it does, the male can boom all he likes, it won’t do him any good. The kakapo’s persnickety dietary requirements are a whole other area of exasperating difficulty. It makes me tired just to think of them, so I think we’ll pass quickly over all that. Imagine being an airline steward trying to serve meals to a plane full of Moslems, Jews, vegetarians, vegans, and diabetics when all you’ve got is turkey because it’s Christmastime, and that will give you the idea.
The males, therefore, get extremely overwrought sitting in their bowls making noises for months on end, waiting for their mates, who are waiting for a particular type of tree to fruit. When one of the rangers who was working in an area where kakapos were booming happened to leave his hat on the ground, he came back later to find a kakapo attempting to ravish it. On another occasion the discovery of some ruffled possum fur in the mating area suggested that a kakapo had made another alarming mistake, an experience which is unlikely to have been satisfying to either party.
- pp. 118-119
- “What does a kakapo tracker do when there aren’t any kakapos that need tracking?”
“Out of frustration?”
“No. Codfish Island was infested with feral cats. In other words cats that have returned to the wild.”
“I always think that’s an artificial distinction. I think all cats are wild cats. They just act tame if they think they’ll get a saucer of milk out of it.”
- p. 124
- That evening I fell to wondering why it was that I was so intensely keen to find and see a kakapo and so little bothered by all the other birds.
I think it’s its flightlessness.
There is something gripping about the idea that this creature has actually given up doing something that virtually every human being has yearned to do since the very first of us looked upward. I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing.
- p. 127
- The kakapo, though, is not an angry or violent bird. It pursues its own eccentricities rather industriously and modestly. If you ask anybody who has worked with kakapos to describe them, they tend to use words like innocent and solemn, even when it’s leaping helplessly out of a tree. This I find immensely appealing.
- p. 128
- I had no idea what I expected a freelance kakapo tracker to look like, but once we saw him, it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people, you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker. He was tall, rangy, immensely weather-beaten, and he had a grizzled beard that reached all the way down to his dog, who was called Boss.
- p. 129
- He nodded curtly to us and squatted down to fuss with his dog for a moment. Then he seemed to think that perhaps he had been a little over curt with us and leant across Boss to shake our hands. Thinking that he had perhaps overdone this in turn, he then looked up and made a very disgruntled face at the weather. With this brief display of complete social confusion, he revealed himself to be an utterly charming and likeable man.
- p. 130
- I’ve never understood all this fuss people make about the dawn. I’ve seen a few and they’re never as good as the photographs, which have the additional advantage of being things you can look at when you’re in the right frame of mind, which is usually around lunchtime.
- pp. 135-136
Chapter 5: Blind Panic
- Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making, which is why it is so disorienting the first time you take the plug out of a washbasin in Australia and see the water spiraling down the hole the other way around. The very laws of physics are telling you how far you are from home.
- p. 143
- In the middle of one of the biggest, longest, noisiest, dirtiest thoroughfares in the world lives the reincarnation of a drowned princess, or rather, two hundred reincarnations of a drowned princess.
Whether these are two hundred different reincarnations of the same drowned princess, or the individual reincarnations of two hundred different drowned princesses, is something that the legends are a little vague about, and there are no reliable statistics on the incidence of princess-drownings in the area available to help clear the matter up.
If they are all the same drowned princess, then she must have lived a life of exquisite sinfulness to have had the conditions of her current lives repeatedly inflicted on her. Her reincarnations are constantly being mangled in ships’ propellers, snared in fishermen’s nets full of hooks, blinded, poisoned, and deafened.
The thoroughfare in question is the Yangtze river, and the reincarnated princess is the Baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin.
- p. 145
- I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.
“So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s been burned down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burned down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.
I couldn’t feel entirely comfortable with this view, because it fought against my basic Western assumptions, but I did see the point.
- pp. 148-149
- It was hard to avoid the feeling that somebody, somewhere, was missing the point. I couldn’t even be sure it wasn’t me.
- p. 153
- [On how human activity on the Yangtze river affects the Baiji:] “I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a blind man trying to live in a discotheque. Or several competing discotheques.”
“Well, it’s worse than that, isn’t it?” Mark said. “Dolphins rely on sound to see with.”
“All right, so it would be like a deaf man living in a discotheque.”
“All the stroboscopic lights and flares and mirrors and lasers and things. Constantly confusing information. After a day or two you’d be completely bewildered and disoriented and start to fall over the furniture.”
“Well, that’s exactly what’s happening, in fact. The dolphins are continually being hit by boats or mangled in their propellers or tangled in fishermen’s nets. A dolphin’s echolocation is usually good enough for it to find a small ring on the sea bed, so things must be pretty serious if it can’t tell that it’s about to be brained by a boat. Then, of course, there’s all the sewage, the chemical and industrial waste and artificial fertiliser that’s being washed into the Yangtze, poisoning the water and poisoning the fish.”
“So,” I said, “what do you do if you are either half-blind, or half-deaf, living in a discotheque with a stroboscopic light show, where the sewers are overflowing, the ceiling and the fans keep crashing on your head and the food is bad?”
“I think I’d complain to the management.”
“No. They have to wait for the management to notice.”
- p. 156
Chapter 6: Rare, or Medium Rare?
- One of the first things you need to know about Richard Lewis, indeed the thing you need to know about him, is that he’s an ornithologist. Once you know that, everything else more or less falls into place.
- p. 180
- “You’d think that everyone involved in conservation work would be on the same side,” said Mark after he’d gone, “but there’s just as much squabbling and bureaucracy as there is in anything else.”
- p. 188
- [On the Rodrigues fruitbat:] “Yeah, but there are hundreds of them,” insisted Richard.
“Hundreds means they’re severely endangered!” said Mark.
“Do you know how many echo parakeets there are in the wild?” exclaimed Richard, “Fifteen! That’s rare. Hundreds is common. When you come to Mauritius and you see things in such a last-ditch state, everything else becomes unimportant.”
- p. 189
- Note: In the intervening decades since the book’s publication, efforts to save the echo parakeet have been highly successful. As of 2011, the wild population sits at around 280-300.
- I mean, animals may not be intelligent, but they’re not as stupid as a lot of human beings.
- p. 190
- When you spend much time on islands with naturalists you will tend to hear two words in particular an awful lot: endemic and exotic. Three, if you count disaster.
An endemic species of plant or animal is one that is native to an island or region and is found nowhere else at all. An exotic species is one that has been introduced from abroad, and a disaster is usually what results when this occurs.
- p. 191
- An island, on the other hand, is small. There are far fewer species, and the competition for survival has never reached anything like the pitch that it does on the mainland. Species are only as tough as they need to be, life is much quieter and more settled, and evolution proceeds at a much slower rate. This is why you find on Madagascar, for instance, species like the lemurs that were overwhelmed eons ago on the mainland. Island ecologies are fragile time capsules.
So you can imagine what happens when a mainland species gets introduced to an island. It would be like introducing Al Capone, Genghis Khan and Rupert Murdoch into the Isle of Wight—the locals wouldn’t stand a chance.
- p. 192
- There is no “tropical island paradise” I know of which remotely matches up to the fantasy ideal that such a phrase is meant to conjure up, or even to what we find described in holiday brochures. It’s natural to put this down to the discrepancy we are all used to finding between what advertisers promise and what the real world delivers. It doesn’t surprise us much any more.
So it can come as a shock to realise that the world we hear described by travelers of previous centuries (or even previous decades) and biologists of today really did exist. The state it’s in now is only the result of what we’ve done to it, and the mildness of the disappointment we feel when we arrive somewhere and find that it’s a bit tatty is only a measure of how far our own expectations have been degraded and how little we understand what we’ve lost. The people who do understand what we’ve lost are the ones who are rushing around in a frenzy trying to save the bits that are left.
- p. 202
- The system of life on this planet is so astoundingly complex that it was a long time before man even realised that it was a system at all and that it wasn’t something that was just there.
- p. 202
- Up until that point [the extinction of the dodo] it hadn’t really clicked with man that an animal could just cease to exist. It was as if we hadn’t realised that if we kill something, it simply won’t be there any more. Ever. As a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.
- p. 204
- 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.
- p. 205
- Wildlife conservation is always a race against time. As zoologists and botanists explore new areas, scrabbling to record the mere existence of species before they become extinct, it is like someone hurrying through a burning library desperately trying to jot down some of the titles of books that will now never be read.
- pp. 211-12
- But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we’re driving.
- p. 213