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Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams

Last Chance To See (original 1990; edition 1991)

by Douglas Adams

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3,215651,724 (4.27)99
Title:Last Chance To See
Authors:Douglas Adams
Info:Harmony (1991), Hardcover, 220 pages
Collections:Your library, Favorites

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Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams (1990)


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Good, but old book on conservation. Very entertaining to read Douglas Adams in a travelogue fashion--very funny, self-deprecating, and reflective of how much alcohol was consumed. Interesting to compare the animals Adams writes about in 1990 to their status today. Most are still here, but still endangered. Good read for anyone interested in conservation or Douglas Adams. ( )
  rdwhitenack | Jun 17, 2017 |
In 1985 Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine set off in the hope of spotting the Madagascar aye-aye, a nocturnal lemur nearing extinction. The trip was a success and so the duo came back together a couple years later to seek out more animals that were verging on the brink with the idea that their travels and Adams' writing would shine a much needed spotlight on said brink.

Like the Madagascar aye aye, my encounter with Adams' Last Chance to See adventuring was a nocturnal one. In simplicity, I couldn't put it down. The spotlight shone in Adams' humor and intellect, both fleshing out the weight of their experience. That it mattered to him, moved him.

I could go on about Douglas-Adams-as-a-synonym-for-brilliancy but it's been done. What I will say is that I love reading Adams because he seems to have been gifted with the rare ability to see the world from a slightly removed angle than the rest and the even rarer ability to translate such a view to those of us unaware.

This is an important book; a swollen, dog-eared, in peril of a broken spine book. A pass-it-on book.
( )
  lamotamant | Sep 22, 2016 |
Douglas Adams
Mark Carwardine

Last Chance to See

Arrow, Paperback [2009].

8vo. xvi+206 pp. New Foreword by Richard Dawkins, 2009 [xi-xvi]. 32 plates with colour photographs.

First published, 1990.
Arrow paperback, 2009.


Foreword to new edition

Twig Technology
Here Be Chickens
Leopardskin Pillbox Hat
Heartbeats in the Night
Blind Panic
Rare, or Medium Rare?
Sifting Through the Embers
Mark's Last Word



I am notorious for picking up the wrong book for my first acquaintance with a certain writer. I am told Last Chance to See is a very unusual book for Douglas Adams. Fortunately or not, it happens to be a wonderful book as well.

It all started in 1985 when Douglas Adams, thanks to a “journalistic accident” organised by the Observer Colour Magazine, found himself in Madagascar, accompanied by zoologist Mark Carwardine and searching for a rare species of lemur called aye-aye. The whole thing was pure improvisation. Douglas had never met Mark, Mark had never met Douglas, “and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.” Apparently the stunt was a success, for three years later Mark and Douglas went all around the world looking for endangered animals, possibly on the brink of extinction. The itinerary included Indonesia (Komodo dragon), New Zealand (kakapo), Zaire (mountain gorilla and northern white rhinoceros), China (Yangtze river dolphin) and Mauritius (Rodrigues fruit bat, plenty of rare birds). The result was this perfectly delightful book, evidently written entirely by Douglas save for the last chapter, but since Mark’s zoological discourses are profusely quoted I guess he has earned his place as a co-author.

Douglas Adams has a great talent for comic narrative. Chatty, witty and almost consistently tongue-in-cheek, he can make a piece of farcical comedy out of everything. Possibly my favourite example is the author’s sudden passion, on the plane to Beijing, for buying enormous amounts of aftershave. He later tries to get rid of them by marking his territory, as Mark knowledgeably observes. Sounds silly, and it is indeed, but it’s so much fun to read. Marvellously apposite vocabulary to describe people (“vacantly benign expressions”), buildings (“a kind of bombed appearance”) or natural formations (“like a number of Gothic cathedrals dropped from a considerable height but all is snow and ice”) really helps the matter. Adams even gets away with tedious subjects like missing planes, arguing with customs officials and invading dilapidated hotels. Gently mixed with all that, there is plenty of fascinating background about the animals in question and acute culture-shock observations (especially acute in China).

Even though this is supposed to be non-fiction, it is full of memorable characters. My greatest favourite is one Australian expert on venomous snakes. What is his advice? “Well, don’t get bitten, that’s all I can say.” What about cutting the wound open and sucking out the venom? “Rather you than me.” Can they take with them to Indonesia one of those marvellous snakebite detector kits? “Course you can, course you can. Take as many as you like. Won’t do you a blind bit of good because they’re only for Australian snakes.” When he treats them with the cakes he has baked himself and they’re not eating, he gets insistent: “Come on, get them down you, there’s plenty more in the venom fridge.” Finally, he regales the company with the charms of the ocean:

’Scorpion fish, stonefish, sea snakes. Much more poisonous than anything on land. Get stung by a stonefish and the pain alone can kill you. People drown themselves just to stop the pain.’
‘Where are all these things?’
‘Oh, just in the sea. Tons of them. I wouldn’t go near it if I were you. Full of poisonous animals. Hate them.’
‘Is there anything you do like?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Hydroponics.’

For all of its magnificent flippancy, this is a terribly serious book. Now and then, and not so seldom either, Douglas drops his Mr-Funny-Guy mask and becomes reflective, poetic and quite serious. Intelligent, sensitive and frank fellow, he is too honest to hide his feelings. When he talks of the presumably good God and his most famous servants on earth, the missionaries, his humour becomes sarcastic, even acerbic: just another reason why Richard Dawkins adores him. More importantly, Adams never loses his boundless, and quite contagious, enthusiasm for nature and our perception of it. When a Komodo dragon, without ceremony, eats one of the chickens Douglas and company had brought for their dinner, the author reflects how wrong it is to apply human standards of right and wrong to the wild, to anthropomorphise animals and burden them with our own hopes and fears. I wish somebody would tell this to those people, like Richard Dawkins for one, who do the opposite and apply natural selection to human affairs. When he has close encounters with mountain gorillas, a magical experience as David Attenborough can also testify, Douglas finds it hard to resist anthropomorphising, but he has the courage to go in the other direction:

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.

Most important of all, and Adams makes this abundantly clear, none of the animals described in this book has been endangered without the active participation of the human race. This is almost like a textbook on human-driven extinction. A grim list indeed!

Why do you think there are lemurs only on Madagascar? Because the island was separated from the continent before monkeys came on the evolutionary stage. When they did, the lemurs were edged out and finally died out everywhere – except on Madagascar. Everything was going fine in this Lemur Paradise until some “fifteen hundred years ago, the monkeys finally arrived, or at least, the monkey’s descendants – us.” The northern white rhinoceros has been victim of excessive poaching because its horns (it has two) provide dagger handles much sought in the Arabian world. You might think that kakapo, “the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot”, is so poorly adapted to its surroundings that it’s just right that predators (cats, mostly) should be decimating its population. You’d be wrong. It was man who brought these predators to New Zealand. Until then kakapo flourished just as well as any other flightless bird. The mountain gorillas have suffered greatly from being captured at an early age for the benefit of zoos or from being accidentally maimed or killed in traps for other animals. The Yangtze dolphin was driven to extinction mostly by the deafening traffic noise on the river. This may seem fantastic to people who are too ignorant, or too unimaginative, to realise how harmful countless boat motors can be to an aquatic mammal with a highly developed system of echolocation. Dazed and disorientated, the dolphins become easy prey of hooks and nets, not to mention propellers. In one of the most affecting passages in the whole book, Douglas writes:

As I watched the wind ruffling over the bilious surface of the Yangtze I realised 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. We did not manage to see a dolphin in the wild. We knew that we would at least be able to see the only one that is held in captivity, in the Hydrobiology Institute in Wuhan, but nevertheless we were depressed and disappointed when we arrived back at our hotel in the early evening.

As evident from this passage, usually several man-inspired destructive forces operate together. Witness Mauritius, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean (not far from Madagascar) and one of the strongest candidates for paradise on earth. A deadly combination of non-native species, pollution and habitat destruction in the last few centuries have endangered everything from kestrels, parrots and pigeons to bats, palms and wild coffee – none of them found anywhere else on the planet. It is Mauritius, of course, that was once the home of the most famous of all extinct species. Douglas devotes a page of beautiful poignancy to this “large, gentle dove” and remarks, optimistically, that “as a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.” Less than two pages later the enchanting mood has passed and now Douglas observes, soberly, that “there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.”

I have little patience with people who reply to all this with the shattering truism that nature is not static but constantly changing, so it follows that species naturally disappear. This is both missing the point and condoning animal genocide. The point is not to preserve nature in a static form like a museum exhibit: we cannot do this, even if we wanted to. Hence the term “conservation” is rather wrong in the first place. But the idea behind it, however badly misused sometimes, is right. The point is to prevent the extinction of species courtesy of human activity. The Yangtze river dolphin, now considered officially extinct, is not the first – and, alas, it won’t be the last – species that disappears in the matter of decades. The northern white rhino, of which 22 animals existed in the Garamba National Park at the time Douglas wrote, is now virtually extinct in the wild: three animals survive in captivity. Three! This is anything but natural, or normal, or acceptable. Make no mistake, disciples of the “constantly changing” nature, even a naturally rare species (i.e. endangered in a natural way) can easily survive for a few million years: longer than the complete evolution of our own species.

Here we come to the philosophical question “Why should we care about these animals?” In his glowing Foreword that verges on hero worship (“Nobody has written like that since P. G. Wodehouse”; not sure this is a compliment in my book), Richard Dawkins addresses this question. He quotes and agrees with Mark’s major reason from the last chapter that “the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.” This is not a bad argument, but not a very good one either. It’s a little too much grounded in vague aesthetics. Very few people would consider the world poorer, darker and lonelier if it contains not a single kakapo or aye-aye. Perhaps even fewer would care about white rhinos or river dolphins so far as other species of rhinos and dolphins survive. Even the disappearance of quite extraordinary creatures like the Komodo dragon would barely disturb more than the plans of a few intrepid tourists. I would suggest a different reason why we should do everything in our power to save these animals from extinction.

In his essay “The Meddlers”, Arthur Clarke defined two “common-sense rules” which the “intelligent meddler” should observe: 1) do not attempt the unforeseeable; 2) do not commit the irrevocable.[1] Homo sapiens, an allegedly rational creature, cannot be accused of following either of these rules. For this is exactly the point! It’s a question of moral responsibility. Every species is unique, just as unique as our own, and its extinction is completely irrevocable. In all probability, it can never arise again in a natural way. Nor can we, for all of our fabled powers over nature, create it in the labs: Jurassic Park is still science fiction. This is why the human-driven extinction of species is a tragedy. About this I agree with Mr Dawkins. I refuse to discuss the subject of natural extinction for the simple reason that it is much too slow to be observed – which means that it’s just as good as non-existent. Either way, it must not be mistaken with the much faster man-made extinction; extermination would be a better word. In his shattering final chapter, Mark provides some staggering figures:

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

It is the sheer rate of acceleration that is as terrifying as anything else. We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year.

Adams is not blind that some of the efforts for preservation (perhaps a better word than “conservation”) are appalling. The Komodo dragon is a case in point. He and Mark witnessed how a bunch of lazy lizards were fed with a freshly slaughtered goat for the benefit of several stupid tourists. Adams’ description is, for once, dry and matter-of-fact – and chilling. If you are disturbed by animal violence, you may want to skip those few paragraphs (I am but I didn’t, and I wish I had). The chapter ends with a metaphysical speculation along evolutionary lines about our remote descendants:

I suddenly felt, well, terribly old as I watched a mudskipper hopping along with what now seemed to me like a wonderful sense of hopeless, boundless, naïve optimism. It had such a terribly, terribly, terribly long way to go. I hoped that if its descendant was sitting here on this beach in 350 million years time with a camera round its neck, it would feel that the journey had been worth it. I hoped that it might have a clearer understanding of itself in relation to the world it lived in. I hoped that it wouldn’t be reduced to turning other creatures into horror circus shows in order to try and ensure them their survival. I hoped that if someone tried to feed the remote descendant of a goat to the remote descendant of a dragon for the sake of little more than a shudder of entertainment, that it would feel it was wrong.

I hoped it wouldn’t be too chicken to say so.

Foul practice does not necessarily invalidate a principle. It simply discredits the practitioners. Insofar as we interact with nature and change it, the preservation of wildlife, or conservation if you like, is our moral duty. Then again, appealing to morality may well be just as worthless as appealing to aesthetics.

Last Chance to See has aged fantastically well. However dated the details, the essence is still relevant – indeed, more so. And it’s such pleasure to read. It has the witty readability and easygoing charm of a Bill Bryson book. The great difference is that Adams is a much more interesting personality. He is less prone to wasting your time with trivia and he is capable of profound flights of the imagination well beyond Bryson’s powers. If The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is half as good, then it must be worth reading.

PS The photographs are essential. Well chosen, conveniently arranged and hilariously captioned, they really complement the text. All endangered animals except the aye-aye are shown, including some photos of the only Yangtze river dolphin in captivity at the time. The Komodo dragon, the mountain gorilla and the kakapo are especially prominent, but there also are plenty of other animals (from hippos to penguins) and various shots of Mark, Douglas, the places they visited and the people they met. The captions are dangerously funny and mostly come straight from the main text. When we see the author, all five foot six of him, lying on the boulders of a beach on the Little Barrier Island, we are told that “Douglas will shortly wake up and realise that he’s not in Zaire any more.” On the upper half of one page we see “a mountain gorilla, mooching”; just below there is a close-up of Mark: “a zoologist, mooching”. My favourite caption, however, appears under a fine portrait of an old Chinese gentleman:

This man told us he was too old to be photographed. We weren’t sure if this was personal vanity or if there were officially meant to be no terribly old people in China. Rather rudely we photographed him anyway.

[1] See Voices from the Sky (1965), Pyramid Books, 1967, p. 162. ( )
5 vote Waldstein | Jun 4, 2016 |
"I have a terrible feeling that we are in trouble.". This book originally published in 1990 has Douglas and Mark on this journey throughout the world to show us some of the efforts being made to save endangered species from extintion. Written by Adams this book has unique style it's comical, clever, thought-provoking and at the same time informative. Not being the specialist myself, like Adams, I have the impression that although the animals and the nature have suffered from our presence and might even disappear the "human race" is the one who might end it up sooner than later. ( )
  Glaucialm | Feb 18, 2016 |
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Douglas Adamsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Carwardine, Markmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Böttcher, SvenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
le Garsmeur, AlainPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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 ever met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345371984, Paperback)

"Very funny and moving...The glimpses of rare fauna seem to have enlarged [Adams'] thinking, enlivened his world; and so might the animals do for us all, if we were to help them live."
Join bestselling author Douglas Adams and zooligist Mark Carwardine as they take off around the world in search of exotic, endangered creatures. Hilarious and poignant--as only Douglas Adams can be--LAST CHANCE TO SEE is an entertaining and arresting odyssey through the Earth's magnificent wildlife galaxy.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:27 -0400)

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The authors provide an account of their journey around the world in search of endangered animals, including the kakapo of New Zealand, white rhinos in Zaire, and the Komodo lizard

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