Last chance to see

I was inspired by the release of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to pick up one of Douglas Adams’ books. I read the Hitchhiker series, plus Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, many years ago, and although I enjoyed them a great deal, I hadn’t thought about them much until the movie came out. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I hear that the reviews are mixed. But I’m actually not here at all to write about Hitchhiker. I was inspired by the movie’s release to think about Douglas Adams, but my book selection was inspired by the recent re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The book I picked up last week was Adams’ Last Chance to See, written with Mark Carwardine and published in 1991. Now that I’ve found the book again, I’m able to write a few thoughts about it. Adams and Carwardine went around the world to see—or try to see—endangered species, and the book is a partly a travelogue of that adventure and partly a discussion of the uphill battles being waged to save some of the rarest animals and plants on the earth. Some passages from the book could just as well come from a Hitchhiker novel, as Adams and Carwardine find themselves confronting obtuse bureaucracies and inane policies that are almost Vogon-like: At an airport in Zaire they are shuffled between two waiting areas by two different officials who seem entirely unaware of the other, and the cashier at a well-stocked snack bar goes to great lengths to avoid selling them anything. Douglas is excellent at observing both the disorienting effects of travel as well as the usually warm (but sometimes prickly) nature of the game wardens, zoologists, and conservation project directors who guide him and Mark through the back of beyond.

While the book is great fun at times, what Adams does extraordinarily well is meditate on the animals and their precarious situations. In China, the sense of being overwhelmed by a bombardment of sounds, traffic, and fatigue becomes for Adams representative of the environment in which the baiji dolphin now finds itself—the Yangtze river, now clogged with boats and pollution.

As I watched the wind ruffling over the bilious surface of the Yangtze, I realized 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.

He’s extremely wary of anthropormorphizing the animals, alert to the danger of massive misunderstanding that comes from assigning our own thoughts and emotions to animals. Still, spending time with a silverback gorilla in Zaire, Adams watches the gorilla cast occasional sidelong glances at him, and wonders what it is wondering.

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 assumptions 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.

This tension between being an observer who cares about animals, and caring because the animals have characteristics that we might identify as, even remotely, somehow human, is prominent in much of the book, and I really enjoyed seeing Adams grapple with it, especially in his discussions of kakapos in New Zealand, and komodo dragons. Ultimately, I think he reconciles himself to some measure of anthropomorphizing, because doing so gives him, as an author, a stronger story to tell. There’s great debate about this sort of thing in the conservation and zoology communities, where it is argued that anthropomorphizing (and yow that’s a tough word to type) focuses too much attention on big, cuddly, or awesome creatures—as opposed to the endangered insects, fish, and plants that live lower on the food chain but are just as important (Mark Carwardine makes this argument himself in the epilogue)—but I appreciated the resolution that Douglas offers: He seems to suggest that all of these animals and plants have a story that is fascinating, complicated, and important, and that those stories need to be told.

Telling the story of his trip around the world, Adams also tells the story of the animals he visits. Both stories are great, and Adams weaves them together so well that it ultimately seems rather clear—but not heavy-handed—that our own story is intimately linked to those of the rest of the various things that live on the planet with us. And if we’re not convinced of their importance to us via the food chain or scientific promise, or because other issues overshadow species conservation, Carwardine makes a final suggestion.

Even so, the loss of a few species may seem almost irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. 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.

There is one last reason for caring, and I believe that no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos, and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.