Two thumbs up for Last Chance to See

I’m jealous of those of you who haven’t read this book, because you have immense pleasure in store.

I’m beginning to work my way through some of the books suggested in the spring book contest, and I started with the winner, Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (I suspect that most of the writing is Adams’).  After polishing it off last night, I agree completely with John TR’s winning review:

Most know of Adams through the Hitchhiker’s series and his wit and humour carry over brilliantly in narrating the journey to observe the world’s most endangered creatures. From the hilarious story of trying to buy condoms in China to the awe of patiently searching for white rhinos in Africa, Adams remains endearing and never condescending while educating the reader about such pressing environmental issues. This is the uproarious and enlightening story of an Englishman so far displaced from his clean and proper life.

As Adams would say, “Spot on.”  I would put this in the “must read” category for anybody who likes biology.  It’s more than just funny: it’s alternately sad, pensive, philosophical, and hilarious, and you’ll learn a fair amount of biology.  Although it was written 20 years ago, and Adams has since become an ex-Adams, it’s every bit as timely as it was back then.  The species that were endangered are still endangered, and one of them, the Yangtze River dolphin, is now gone (there’s a very nice new book on this creature, Witness to Extinction by Samuel Turvey).

Buy it or take it out of the library, but read it.  Adams has a unique voice (I confess that I’ve never read the Hitchhiker series), and the book is so good that it’s hard to single out one passage for praise.   Highlights are the horrific description of Komodo dragons eating a freshly-killed goat for the delectation of the tourists, and Adams and Carwardine’s arduous but ultimately successful search for the world’s only flightless parrot, New Zealand’s kakapo (Strigops habroptila).  There are only about 120 kakapos left, and they’ve all been moved to a predator-free island.  They once lived in the mountainous part of New Zealand called Fiordland:

Until 1987 Fiordland was the home of one of the strangest, most unearthly sounds in the world. For thousands of years, in the right season, the sound could be heard after nightfall throughout these wild peaks and valleys.

It was like a heartbeat: a deep, powerful throb that echoed through the dark ravines.  It was so deep that some people will tell you that they felt it stirring in their gut before they could discern the actual sound, a sort of wump, a heavy wobble of air.  Most people have never heard it at all, or ever will again.  It was the sound of the kakapo, the old night parrot of New Zealand, sitting high on a rocky promontory and calling for a mate.

I found one audio clip of kakapo booming, but my aged ears can’t hear it.  (Arkive has twelve short videos of the kakapo; the BBC has four.)

And I’ve put this up before, but it’s too good not to repeat: a clip from the BBC Last Chance to See television program, with Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry.  Here Sirocco (the birds, being few, are all named) tries to bonk Carwardine’s head:

And one more passage from the book. Here, conservationist Richard Lewis goes out to feed a mouse to a hand-reared Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) that has been released back into the wild. (This is a conservation bright spot: the species was once down to only four individuals but is coming back.):

“Okay, let’s feed the bird. You watching?”

Richard swung his arm back. The kestrel’s head followed his movement precisely.  With a wide underarm swing, Richard lobbed the small mouse high into the air. For a second or so, the kestrel just watched it, jittering its legs very slightly on the branch as it engaged in monumental feats of differential calculus.  The mouse reached the top of its steep parabola, its tiny dead weight turning slowly in the air.

At last the kestrel dropped from its perch and swung out into the air as if on the end of a long pendulum, the precise length, pivotal position, and swing speed of which the kestrel had calculated. The arc it described intersected sweetly with that of the falling mouse, the kestrel took the mouse cleanly into its talons, swept on up into another nearby tree, and bit its head off.

“He eats the head himself,” said Richard, “and takes the rest of the mouse to the female in the nest.”

It is natural selection, of course, that has instilled that wonderful and unconscious calculus into the bird.

If you have a biology maven on your Christmas list, this would make a great present.  But by all means get it for yourself, too.

26 Comments

  1. Wowbagger
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    I love the book and have read it a few times – though not recently. Perhaps I’ll dig it out for a re-read.

    One of my favourite bits is where (if I remember correctly) Adams comments that the noises he’s hearing shouldn’t come from a bird but would be perfectly acceptable as Pink Floyd studio outtakes.

  2. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    (I confess that I’ve never read the Hitchhiker series)

    Blasphemer! Stone him! Stone him, I say!

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted May 19, 2010 at 1:36 am | Permalink

      Well shun at least …

  3. agentwhim
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    It isn’t a series, it’s a trilogy in five parts.

  4. Posted May 18, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I seriously believe that Last Chance To See is Adams’ best book by far, and it’s a crime that it’s his least well known.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      Being here may change it being “least well known”.

  5. latsot
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    One of my favourite books and one of the most…well…human… treatments of the loss of species. Why should we be sad that we’re losing species? Because the world is poorer without them, as this book explains. I defy anyone to read it and remain complacent about species loss in particular and environmental issues in general.

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    It is natural selection, of course, that has instilled that wonderful and unconscious calculus into the bird.

    Exactly correct I suspect, and wonderfully put. IIRC, (human) brains shows up as basically linearly interpolating machines in tests. Say, judging velocities, jump length (acceleration), et cetera. (Though the observations can be made on logarithmic scales such as in hearing.) If that is the case, the “calculus” model of behavior emerges out of the whole system.

    Adams enthusiasm takes him to odd places. Which, I assume, is exactly what enthusiasm evolved for. 😀

  7. Jolo
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Don’t be jealous, you will always have the anticipation for the next time you get to read it.

    I still get that feeling, 20 years after my first read!

  8. bric
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Mark Carwardine also co-presented the recent BBC series Museum of Life, behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum – see it if you possibly can

  9. Greg Peterson
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    My favorite book…and Doug, among my favorite people. We exchanged emails about this book just a few months before his death…one of the coolest things that ever happened to me, and something that made his death all the more sad to me. This is timely, though, because the event celebrating Doug’s life and work is just one week out: Towel Day. For more information on Towel Day, go here:
    http://towelday.org/

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted May 19, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

      Whaddya mean ‘towel day’? I always carry my towel!

  10. Sili
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    It is natural selection, of course, that has instilled that wonderful and unconscious calculus into the bird.

    It’s also made flying mice extinct by the sound of it.

    • Posted May 19, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      I think they are called bats

  11. Wayne Robinson
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I want to read it on my Kindle! Failing that, on my iPad when I get it next Friday week (I’m in Australia, and that’s when it’s being delivered). I can’t read printed books anymore.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted May 18, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Is that legal? Owning a Kindle and an iPad? They won’t spontaneously explode? Similar to having too much U238 together.

    • bric
      Posted May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      “I can’t read printed books anymore” – that’s the saddest thing I’ve read all day.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    How is a species of kestrel revived from only 4 individuals? Do they interbreed them with other kestrels?

    I’ve seen a number of shows with raptors and most involve slingshots and mice.

    @bric: Are you sure those are finches, not Norwegian Blues?

    • bric
      Posted May 19, 2010 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      look mate, I know a dead finch when I see one

  13. Posted May 18, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Glad you’ve enjoyed the book. Really, everyone should read it, and again after that.

  14. Posted May 19, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    a lot of this material can be enjoyed at this video, uploaded at the university of california television youtube channel

  15. latsot
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Another touching aspect of the book is Adams’ journey toward environmentalism. He goes from someone who was called to write a piece on the aye-aye because he was a bit of a geek and someone who would be completely out of place in the jungles of Madagascar to someone who became *enchanted* with nature and passionately cared about the plight of species. Along the way there is grumpiness at jet lag, confusion at wilting toothbrushes and unsettling disquiet at goats being sacrificed to komodo dragons for the delight of tourists.

    The Komodo chapter is especially brilliant because it surprised the travellers so much: their trip to the island was a difficult trek and when they got there they found there was a ferry and a canteen and a tour. It always reminded me of Dawkins’ Mount Improbable.

  16. Roy Magnussen
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    For all those who have read the original “last chance to see”, I will also recommend the new “Last chance to see”. It’s a journey in the footprints of the journey that led Mark Carwardine and Douglas Adams around the world. This time it’s together with Stephen Fry and a team from BBC. So they both made the tv-series and a new book. The new book is also really funny with many nice clever points of view. They also visit other places and other animals, but the focus is on the same species.
    Here is the link to the webpage for the Tv-series;
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/lastchancetosee/

  17. Posted May 19, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget that Last Chance to see was originally a radio series, not unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  18. Posted May 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    My favourite part of Last Chance to See is the I suppose moral tale of the ever diminishing returns offered by the old beggar lady hawking the the twelve books of knowledge from the chapter “Sifting through the Embers.”

    That passage always comes back to me whenever I hear of the destruction of a habitat or an extinction.

  19. Mark D.
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    THe most chilling part of the story about the kestrels is that they originally went to Mauritius to see the rarest fruit bat in the world, with only a few hundred of them left.

    Then they met up with a pair of ornithologists who showed them dozens of endangered birds, many of which were down to double digits, and a few even to single digits.

    “The fruit bats are doing just fine. There are hundreds of them.

    I have a terrible feeling that we are all in great trouble.’


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