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Douglas Adams is the best selling author of comedy sci-fi novels such as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This book chronicles his travels throughout the world, with zoologist Mark Carwadine, searching for some of the most endangered species on the planet.
This unlikely pairing has produced one of the most poignant and significant books ever written on the subject of species facing extinction. The species searched for are often less obvious and "media friendly" than the usual giant pandas, tigers and orang utans. Rodriguez fruit bats, Komodo dragons, aye-aye lemurs and the kakapo (a huge flightless parrot from New Zealand) are some of the animals featured, and Adams has the reader rooting for these more obscure, and often unattractive, species as much as any cuddly conservation poster-beast.
Adams is a brilliant observer, and the book is littered with asides on the absurdities of life. Whether it's trying to buy condoms on China, coping with airport security in Zaire, or describing the surreal nature of the Komodo tourist trade, the writing is always pithy and intelligent. But these travelogs don't detract from the real stars of the book. Adams can have us laughing out loud at his bizarre experiences one minute, and weeping for the animals on the brink of extinction the next.
This amazing book should have changed the way people think about species conservation. However, while I think it did have an impact, this wasn't enough. One of the featured species, the Chinese River Dolphin, was recently declared extinct. Although well over a decade old, this is still a hugely relevant book that should be read by anyone with an interest in natural history and travel, and makes you sad that Adams' early death means there will never be a much-needed follow up.
In 1985, The Observer newspaper decided to send Douglas Adams to Madagascar to hunt for a virtually extinct lemur. No-one seems quite sure exactly why they did this, including Douglas Adams himself. Quite possibly, its because he was quite good at creating strange alien creatures that no-one is ever likely to see, and no-one really expected him to ever see the aye-aye, the lemur in question.
Quite against the odds, he did. And so, buoyed with their success at doing what no-one else had done for some time and actually catching sight of the aye-aye, Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine, the zoologist who had accompanied him, decided to go looking for some more endangered species.
In 1988, they did. The result was Last Chance to See, quite possibly the best piece of non-fiction writing you may ever come across, and definitely the best book I have ever read about endangered wildlife.
Its essentially just a description of a journey, or rather several journeys, to foreign locations in an attempt to find endangered species. Its almost just a natural history version of Tony Hawks One Hit Wonderland, only better written. Think of a cross between David Attenborough and Michael Palins BBC documentaries, and youre getting the right idea.
It is the same thing that made Michael Palins travelogues so entertaining that makes Last Chance to See as easy to read as it is. Its written in a hugely accessible style, with very few technical terms youll not find a single Latin species name here and with an ever present humour. Douglas Adams has taken these voyages as an opportunity to poke fun at everything, including himself. There are moments that a lesser writer would have left out, such as the parts involving aftershave, which Adams does not.
However, the true beauty is in some of the descriptive work. Adams isnt a naturalist, and so can look at what he sees with a completely fresh eye, having never previously considered seeing any of these animals, much less studied them, even theoretically, for some time. This, in addition to his clearly being a writer of some skill, gives rise to some unique descriptions that both entertain and make perfect sense, as well as conjuring up some wonderful mental pictures. Describing a rhinoceros as a nimble young tank is something youre unlikely to see anywhere else, but somehow manages to evoke a wonderful image, even for those who have only ever seen either a rhino or a tank in pictures.
The only part of the book where the style seems to change in any way is during the trip to China. Unlike many of the other destinations, Adams doesnt really seem completely comfortable with the idea of China and it does show a little in his writing. Of course, there is also the mention of Tiananmen Square, which was to be the scene of much unhappiness shortly after their visit. Although perhaps containing the most laugh out loud recollections as they try to waterproof a microphone, this section does lose a little of the humour that is otherwise prevalent. Although this is noticeable, its by no means a distraction.
Last Chance to See is no less than a total joy to read. The pages fly by and, although theres a serious message here, its presented in such a gentle and humorous way that it never becomes cloying or overly sentimental. Adams writing is of such a quality and his touch so light that, although we are being preached to just a little bit, its done so gently that you dont realise until after youve realised that youre actually enjoying yourself.
If there is a touch of sadness to be had, though, its on the front cover. There is a poignancy in seeing Douglas Adams face above the words Last Chance to See, as it reminds us that there will be no more writing of this calibre from him ever again. He may have gone looking for endangered species but he beat them to the edge of extinction himself. Its a brief moment of sadness in an otherwise light hearted read.
Its not a book that will provide belly laughs, so fans of humour and people expecting writing more like Adams other works may be a little disappointed. But if you have anything more than a passing interest in hearing of travel to new places or in animals, this really is a book you have to read.
Even at £6.99, writing of this high order represents good value, which is rarer and rarer in books these days. However, from £6.39 at Amazon or £5.99 from play.com, its really something that should not be missed. Copies have been seen on eBay from £1.45 and in the Amazon marketplace from 90p, but they tend to be few and far between. Simply because some things are just so good, you cant bring yourself to let them go once you have them. This is one of those things.
(I have put a couple of paragraphs copied from the book in this review. If you think this reveals too much of the story please comment on the comments page and I will consider changing.) I finally got around to reading this book just recently (Hence ‘last chance to read’) after being saddened by the death of my writing hero (see my Douglas Adams Op). I wasn’t sure to expect and didn’t expect what I got. This book not only has Douglas Adams and saving endangered species in the same book (I will remind you he originally intended to call HHGG ‘The Ends of the Earth’ as it was going to be about 6 of them), it also has his comedy and some thought provoking comments, mostly about human nature. I have split the rest of this Op into sections that fit with the chapters of the book. - Twig Technology - In this chapter Douglas introduces himself and the book and goes to see the Aye-Aye a Madagascan lemur. He starts by showing he didn’t know what to expect either – “This isn’t at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine (a zoologist) to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no-one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.” – This chapter is quite short, as Douglas and Mark went to Madagascar before the book was thought of. At the time it was intended that several unlikely stars would go around the world looking for endangered animals. A television programme was to be made of it with each episode showing a different animal and celebrity. Douglas went to Madagascar with Mark, finding the Aye-Aye on a small island offshore called Nosy Mangabé. He enjoyed this so much that he straight signed up for all the other episodes. - Here Be Chickens - In this chapter, Douglas and Ma
rk go to Labuan Bajo to see the Komodo dragon. The Komodo dragon is the biggest lizard in the world (some can grow up to 12ft long). They have trouble getting there though and first go to Australia to see a snake expert to warn them what to do if they meet any of the dangerous snakes on the island. When they finally get to Labuan Bajo, they go with a group of tourists to see some Komodo dragons being fed. Douglas sums up this adventure with a very interesting comment. – “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 fid 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.” - Leopardskin Pillbox Hat - Next the pair go to Zaire, to see the White Rhino and (man’s closest relative) the Mountain Gorilla. They again have trouble at customs with corrupt officials but finally get to see what they wanted. They find the gorillas and are surprisedat their friendliness. They have to go in a helicopter to see the rhino and do finally find one fighting some hyenas. -Heartbeats in the Night - In this chapter they go to New Zealand to see the Kakapo, a very rare and strange flightless bird. They have a lot of trouble finding this bird and eventually find on an island that has been chosen as a sanctuary for them. They have to use a tracker dog to find the creature and this means chasing the dog round the island. They have trouble going to the island as the officials do not want to many people to go there and disturb the birds. - Blind panic - Next they go to China to search for the Yangtze River Dolphin. The dolphin is becoming extinct due to the amount of traffic on the river. Douglas compares it to ‘a deaf man in a disco’ but when Mark tells him that doesn’t m
ake sense he changes it to ‘a blind man in a disco’. They don’t find any dolphins in the wild so go to a sanctuary for the dolphins. They are very impressed by the funding schemes the consevation committee have come up with. They also use an ingenious method for listening to the sound of the river (I won’t spoil this for you). - Rare, or Medium Rare? - In the last chapter Douglas and Mark go to Mauritius to see (ready?) Rodrigues Fruitbat, Mauritius Kestrel, The Dodo, Echo Parakeet and the Pink Pigeon. They see so many rare animals in this chapter because Mauritius (like the Galapagos islands) has many rare animals. They originally intend to go to Rodrigues but were convinced otherwise by a local who had all of these animals at a conservation centre. The kestrel turns out to be the most interesting as it believe it is a human and has some very interesting mating habits. (One of these birds may be a fake, to see if you were listening (reading)) At the end of the book a chapter has been added to say how the animals have been doing since the pair were there. All of the animals are doing well it reveals. I believe this book isn’t very well known (and you may be reading when you haven’t even heard of the book) but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in endangered species, or Douglas Adams humour and opinion (this is worth reading it for).
Mention the name Douglas Adams and most people will instantly think of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, or possibly his recent, untimely death, at only 49, from a heart attack. What hardly anyone will think of in association with his name is the wonderful book I am going to urge you to all rush out and by - Last Chance to See - which he wrote with acclaimed zoologist Mark Carwardine. I'm sensing a few of you shuffling in your seats already (please don't it's very off-putting) and I can hear the almost inaudible whisper of 'he wrote a book with a zoologist???!'. But book he wrote and what a book it is. It is, essentially, a non-fiction catalogue of a number of endangered species - and when I use the term endangered here I am talking about hundreds and more often only tens of animals which, thanks to a certain hairless race of apes, are fast being beaten off the planet. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this book, I am not a big non-fiction reader, but it is gripping and entertaining from beginning to last, rather like a string of highly intelligent newspaper articles, which is where the idea actually started. This book is no drab catalogue of fading beasties, using dusty words which are nearly extinct in themselves, rather it is a largely jovial travelogue which pulls the reader from idea to idea, contrasting the seemingly uncontrastable and offering a fresh perspective on the plight of the planet. Perhaps the best way I can illustrate Adams wonderful use of language is to quote a little bit for you, the first paragraph, in fact. 'This isn't at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no-one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.' Do you see his
wonderful use of perspective in there. The way he equates meeting this strange, far-flung and scarce creature with teaming up with Mark. It makes it seem friendly, you want to know if they meet up and what happens when they do, don't you? Just so you don't lie awake wondering, I'll tell you, they do all meet and their encounter is as fascinating as it is educational. This whole segment of the book, entitled Twig Technology, is a joy to read. Adams talks about how the Lemurs managed to cling on (literally) in Madagascar when they died out elsewhere, because of the abscence of apes and goes on to explain, how after managing to avoid said apes for centuries, it is the highly evolved hairless ones (though some of us are more hairless than others), with their twig technology, that are threatening their delicately-balanced ecosystem. By carefully describing the animals and their habitats in simple language and everyday terms he makes them incredibly real in your mind, from the aye-aye to the kakapo ('the world's fatest and least able to fly parrot'),.from the jungles of Madagascar to the backwaters of Bali where he meets the immense Komodo dragons and is at once appalled and amazed by the tourist industry surrounding them, you are struck by his sense of wonder and his overwhelming concern that these animals are drinking in the last chance saloon of life. It is Adams gift for description which makes the book so readable, for example, when visiting the baiji dolphin, he likens their system of navigation - echolocation - to the use of bike bells by the Chinese, thus making the animal much easier to understand and, along the way, providing an insight into modern Chinese living. This book is about the animals, but it is so much more than that. It is also a wry reflection on the society we live in today, both the good aspects and the bad, and more importantly it is a funny and anecdotal piece of glorious writing. T
he tale of him trying to buy a condom to put a microphone in so that they could record under water , for example, is as funny as anything in Hitchikers Guide. It is these lighter moments which put the terrible positions of these animals into even sharper relief. As Adams says when they finally manage to get condom and microphone into the waters of the Yangtze, to hear what the bajii dolphin is trying to echo within: 'The sound we heard wasn't exactly what I had expected. Water is a very good medium for the propagation of sound and I had expected to hear clearly the heavy, pounding reverberations of each of the boats that had gone thundering by us as we stood on the deck. But water transmits sound even better than that, and what we were hearing was everything that was happening in the Yangtze for many miles around... Instead of hearing hte roar of each individual ship's propeller, what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise.' This is ultimately a book of hope, inspiring us to consider the impact we have on the environment in which we live and urging us to take an interest in more than ourselves. They do get to see (almost) all the animals they are seeking and it is clear from the epilogue that much good has come out of their collaboration. This is one of the few books I have had the urge to immediately rush out and buy a further four or five copies of to give to all my relatives and friends, but it is a classic and, unfortunately, due to his untimely death, one of the last chances to see this brilliant man's work shown to its best, most educative and inspired advantage. Bookends: ISBN 0-330-32332-5 It is available for 6.29 on www.bol.com and 5.59 on amazon.co.uk - I notice it is virtually impossible to pick up second hand, as strong an endorsement for a book as I think you can get. For more about douglas adams you can visit http://www.douglasadams.com/ which also contains links to
a couple of his favourite charities.
'Last Chance to See' (1990 William Heinemann Ltd; 1991 Pan Books Ltd) is Adams' second-most recent book (followed by 'Mostly Harmless', the fifth episode of the Hitchhiker series. A sixth one was also said to be in the pipeline, but that was years ago and nothing has happened yet). To quote, "This isn't at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident I was sent to Madagscar with Mark Cawardine to look for an almost extinct lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no-one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years. This was the idea of the Observer Colour Magazine, to throw us all in at the deep end. Mark is an extremely experienced and knowledgable zoologist, working at the time for the World Wildlife Fund, and his role, essentially, was to be the one who knew what he ws 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. All the aye-aye had to do was do what aye-ayes have been doing for millions of years - sit in a tree and hide." I have come to the conclusion that it is actually a darn sight funnier than 'Hitch'. The escapades the two get up to in a brave attempt to draw the public eye to the plight of the animal species of the planet had me laughing so loudly that the librarians offered me an ultimatum - shut up or leave. I left. The two first visit Madagascar, to look for lemurs. Lemurs are basically primitive primates. They were out-competed by the monkeys everywhere else, but survived on Madagascar as the monkeys couldn't swim (or fly). Unfortunately, monkeys later arrived - in boats, and later aeroplanes - and set about cutting down all of the trees the lemurs had lived in for millions of years. Eventually some bright monkey decided enough was enough
, and tried to stop them by writing a book about it. That evidently didn't work, because no-one seems to have heard of the book! By the way, you can probably guess my persuasion on the subject... The book goes on to describe the two's adventures looking for, among others, the kakapo (all 40 of them), the mountain gorillas of Zaire, the Komodo dragon, the Rodriguez fruitbat... It would take much more time than I have to give you the full message of the book, but it does have one. There must be one lurking in a library near you, or, if not, it's a bargain at £5.99! This wil be of interest to all environmentally-minded people, be they students, academics, or just have an interest in the subject. Or any-one with a sense of humour, really.
Everyone has either heard of or read the Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. However, not so many people seem to have heard of Last Chance to see by Doug. I can tell that for two reasons, one it is not listed here and two I bought it in hardback from a cheapo bookshop for a fiver. A fiver well and truly well spent say I! If you’re a fan of Doug’s brand of humour you’ll love this and at the same time get more of an insight into the man himself and most importantly the subject of the book. Endangered species. It starts when our hero is asked by a magazine to visit Madagascar to meet a guy about endangered species (Mark Carwardine, the co-author) and on of the endangered species in question, an aye-aye lemus (never heard of it? I’m not surprised because there are only about 10 left). Now it turns out that Mark is a bit of a zealot and manages to convince Doug that he could do a book on loads of endangered species. Here it it and what a book it is. Doug and Mark travel the globe looking for endangered species and sadly in most cases the title of the book is accurate. Yes the book is funny, but it is also an eye-opener, informative and a bit upsetting. Read it.
Record of a search for rare animals. Published by Pan