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.
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.