Extinction should be a sad subject, but one author was also able to point out how absurd it could be too.
For Darwin Day, I’m sharing my favourite science book. Last Chance to See is the best thing Douglas Adams ever wrote – with Mark Carwardine. It’s connected to – but not the same as – the radio series of the same name that Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine made for BBC Radio 4.
The idea was that Douglas Adams would travel the world with Mark Carwardine looking for species on the verge of extinction. Douglas would be bewildered by the wildlife and Mark would explain to Douglas what he was looking at. It would have been easy to write this book badly. However between them, Adams and Carwardine manage to balance the tragedy of the species that are one storm away from being wiped out, and the absurdity of a world that makes this happen.
The journey starts with the aye-aye of Madagascar and takes in New Zealand, Indonesia, China and Mauritius and Zaire. Not only is Douglas Adams bemused by the wildlife, but also by the people who either try to preserve it or, more often, get in the way of it.
There’s not a lot of botany in it, and that’s a pity when you see the book includes writing like this:
We finally made it to Rodrigues, a small island dependency of Mauritius, to look for the world’s rarest fruitbat, but first of all we went to look at something that Wendy Strahm was very keen for us to see – so much so that she rearranged her regular Rodrigues-visiting schedule to take us there herself.
By the side of a hot and dusty road there was a single small bushy tree that looked as if it had been put in a concentration camp.
The plant was a kind of wild coffee called Ramus mania, and it had been believed to be totally extinct. Then, in 1981, a teacher from Mauritius called Raymond Aquis was teaching at a school in Rodrigues and gave his class pictures of about ten plants that were thought to be extinct on Mauritius.
One of the children put up his hand and said, ‘Please, sir, we’ve got this growing in our back garden.’
At first it was hard to believe, but they took a branch of it and sent it to Kew where it was identified. It was wild coffee.
The plant was standing by the side of the road, right by the traffic and in considerable danger because any plant in Rodrigues is considered fair game for firewood. So they put a fence round it to stop it being cut down.
Immediately they did this, however, people started thinking, ‘Aha, this is a special plant,’ and they climbed over the fence and started to take off little branches and leaves and pieces of bark. Because the tree was obviously special, everybody wanted a piece of it and started to ascribe remarkable properties to it – it would cure hangovers and gonorrhoea. Since not much goes on in Rodrigues other than home entertainments it quickly became a very sought-after plant, and it was rapidly being killed by having bits cut off it.
The first fence was soon rendered useless and a barbed wire fence was put around that. Then another barbed wire fence had to be put around the first barbed wire fence, and then a third barbed wire fence had to be put around the second till the whole compound covered a half acre. Then a guard was installed to watch the plant as well.
With cuttings from this one plant Kew Gardens is currently trying to root and cultivate two new plants, in the hope that it might then be possible to reintroduce them into the wild. Until they succeed, this single plant standing within its barbed wire barricades will be the only representative of its species on earth, and it will continue to need protecting from everyone who is prepared to kill it in order to have a small piece. It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.
More recently it’s been remade as a television series with Stephen Fry replacing Douglas Adams. You might be able to catch it on Netflix, and if not there are clips on YouTube. Sadly though you won’t see the Yangtze River Dolphin in the remake, the book really was the last chance to see.