Last Chance to See: Douglas Adams on Shifting Baselines

From the author of The HItchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy came a wonderful book: Last Chance to See. Published in 1990, Douglas Adams (in photo) and zoologist Mark Carwardine head off with the BBC to make radio programs about some of the world's rarest species. Adams poses as the science novice, commentator, and weary traveler: 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.

I realize I am about 17 years late in this discovery, but better late than never (thank you KAB). Many of the animals Adams and Carwardine visited are still on the brink. At least one is now extinct: the Yangtze River dolphin disappeared last year (in part due to idiot visitors to China, such as the ones who wrote to Douglas and Mark about eating pregnant Yangtze dolphins during their stay). But most of the tiny populations (white rhinos, Komodo dragons, and rare birds in Maritius) still exist, in many cases, as Adams points out, thanks to the efforts by a few hard-working humans.

Doug Adams on mountain gorillas:

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.

Threatened by deforestation, mountain gorillas struggle to survive; photo by Craig R. Sholley

Mark Carwardine with some (1990) numbers:

Not that a large population necessarily guarantees an animal's survival, as experience has shown many times in the past. The most famous example is the North American passenger pigeon, which was once the commonest bird that ever lived on earth. Yet it was hunted to extinction in little more than fifty years. We didn't lean any lesssons from that experience: ten years ago, there were 1.3 million elephants in Africa, but so many have been killed by poachers that today no more than 600,000 are left.

On the other hand, even the smallest populations can be brought back from the brink. Juan Fernandez fur seal numbers dropped from millions to fewer than one hundred by 1965; today, there are three thousand. And in New Zealand in 1978, the population of Chatham Island robins was down to one pregnant female, but the dedication of Don Merton and his team saved the species from extinction and there are now more than fifty.

Juan Fernandez fur seals on the path to recovery; photo by Mark Carwardine

Last Chance to See is so pertinent to the concept of shifting baselines and such pleasurable reading, it has replaced one of my previous Top Ten in the booklist (see sidebar).


More like this

I have tried really hard not to write a blog post about this book for awhile now, but I had to move recently, and in packing and unpacking I happened to run across my copy of it at least a dozen times. I can't resist it any longer. For those of you who have read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy…
The passing of Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin in a freak accident while diving with stingrays (and not while sticking his thumb of the butt of some exotic and venomous creature) has made a big splash in blogdom. I was never a fan of his shows, so I don't have anything specific to say about him,…
I'm sure most of you are aware that today is a truly special holiday. It's a day where we can honor those who have come before and done a great service to us - one single remembrance of those who have fallen before their time and the contributions they've made to us all. Of course, I'm referring…
The Good News: Not extinct -- YET! Portrait of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Didermoceros sumatrensis. Photo by Alain Compost (WWF-Canon). For those of you who like to read about endangered species that have somehow managed to survive despite our best efforts to exterminate them, I have some good news…

You may have already found my follow-up website Another Chance To See, where we're anxiously awaiting a TV version follow-up with Stephen Fry. Although the TV company behind it went belly-up, we believe the project is not quite dead.

I read this book a couple of years ago and it is definitely a must-have. Thanks for posting on it, I am amazed at how few people have heard of it, considering how popular and widely known his other work is.

Yes, I was embarrassingly late in reading this one. I believe it's probably more popular in Britain (with its English edge).

Also, please keep Shifting Baselines posted on the future of Another Chance to See!