Last Chance to See is an emotionally insightful, humorous, and captivating odyssey to see creatures that could easily (and have since this book) become extinct.
Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), the inquisitive, playful mind behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mark Carwardine, a dedicated zoologist and conservationist, travel to Komodo Island and the heart of the Zaire mountains. We meet a few precious species, like the Rwandan mountain gorilla, which is vulnerable, threatened, and, above all, wildly delightful in its formidable presence.
We kept very quiet and looked very carefully around us. There was nothing we could see near us, nothing in the trees above us, nothing peering furtively from the bushes. I was a moment or two before we saw anything at all, but then at least a slight movement caught out eyes. About thirty yards away down the track we were following, standing in plain view, was something so big that we hadn’t even noticed it. It was a mountain gorilla or perhaps I should say a gorilla mountain, standing propped up on its front knuckles so that it assumed the shape of a large and muscular sloping ridge tent.
“No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body” wrote Charles Darwin in 1831 during one of his naturalist voyages.
Last Chance to See is full of such moments. Their team’s encounter with the kakapo, a frightfully silly flightless parrot dwindling on off-shore islands of New Zealand, is so wonderful you want to wrap the hapless creature in your arms and promise it safety. Sadly, we cannot.
“Of all the creatures we were searching for this year,” Adams writes of the bird, “it was probably the strangest and most intriguing, and also one of the rarest and most hard to find.”
Once, before New Zealand was inhabited by humans, there were hundreds of thousands of kakapos. Then there were thousands, then hundreds. Then there were just forty….and counting. Here in Fiordland, which for many thousands of years was the bird’s main stronghold, there are now thought to be none left at all.
Last Chance to See is about the animal habitats as much as the animals themselves. Where they live and near whom. We meet a few dedicated—often eccentric—individuals who stand body and soul between life and extinction.
We went to have a meal at the house which Kes shares with her husband, a park conservation manager. It was a house they built themselves, out in the bush on the edge of the river. The house is a long, low, rambling structure, full of books and largely open to the weather. Because their house is so open, it is regularly full of animals. A young hippo, for instance, frequently comes to chew on the pot plants in their living room. There are snakes and elephants in the garden, rats which eat all their soap, and termites gradually nibbling away at the support poles of the house.
Sadly, the world lost one of its great creatures, Adams himself, in 2001 when a heart attack claimed him at age 49. In 2009, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine continued the “Last Chance to See” journey and revisit some of the animals. Their encounter with the kakapo is beyond words—watch it in full.1
Do go on doing a lot of walking & keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better & better. Painters understand nature and love her & teach us to see.
Vincent van Gogh wrote these words to his brother in the 1880s. Echoing something Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, that nature isn’t separate from humanity, and, almost 2,000 years earlier, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote we are part of a Whole that is nature.2
The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the world was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, ‘Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us, and the gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off into the undergrowth.
Our world and the animals in it demand not only our love but our protection. Our focus, sacrifice, hard work, and care.2
This book, in its humorous humane way, shows us how.
The simplicity of wonder is a rare thing, and those who write joyously “Hey, look at this delightful thing, don’t you wonder at it as I do?!” are a treat. Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental work Silent Spring also delivers a wonder of nature and, despite all cause for it, a lack of admonishment for those who destroy it.