Douglas Adams &
Mark Carwardine,
Last Chance to See
(Ballantine, 1990)

"This isn't at all what I expected," to borrow the opening line of Last Chance to See, an account of Douglas Adams' year-long series of excursions with zoologist Mark Carwardine to find, photograph and enhance awareness of endangered species. I feared a serious tome of detailed animal droppings. After all, these birds and animals are nearly extinct, which is a serious issue.

Well, it is and it isn't. Yes, Adams, whose satirical style pervades most of the chapters, cares about the wildlife, but he's also capable of finding humor in just about any situation, whether preparing to enter a snake-infested island in search of komodo dragons or miming product use in an attempt to buy condoms in China (to rig an underwater microphone).

Last Chance to See is witty, well-crafted and avoids preachiness. Adams and Carwardine show rather than tell about the native attitudes and challenges for these animals. The trip to Zaire to see one of the 22 remaining northern white rhinos is introduced with the shocking image of leopard skin -- made into a "rather natty" pill-box hat adorning the country's president in an airport photo. Amusing and disconcerting descriptions of bureaucratic extortion efforts, face-to-face encounters with gorillas while being bitten by ants, and ask-questions-later poaching patrols follow.

The vivid and powerful descriptions of scenery add to the poignancy of the writing since many of the species disappearing are losing habitat. Adams writes of Fiordland, New Zealand, "The land is folded and twisted and broken on such a scale that it makes your brain quiver and sing in your skull just trying to comprehend what you're looking at." The quest of this journey is the kakapo, a fat, flightless bird with strange mating habits that involve acoustically controlled booming. In this case, their search was limited by the government's reluctance to allow anyone access to the few remaining and protected birds.

In addition, Adams and Carwardine also pursued a glimpse of a baiji river dolphin in China, and many endangered birds along with Rodrigues fruit bats in Mauritius. The writing deftly recreates some of the rather eccentric characters they encountered along the way, some of whom are included in the color photo insert.

Last Chance to See brilliantly brings the environmental situation to the readers, evoking gasps, laughter and tears. Although it was written a decade ago, this work doesn't feel outdated. I would, however, welcome another series of journeys. Or Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, could do what he does so well -- follow up with a sequel.

Any fans of Adam's writing will definitely enjoy this insightful travelogue and commentary. Everyone will appreciate the candor and wit Adams and Carwardine bring to this topic. I can't believe it took me so long to buy it!

[ by Julie Bowerman ]



Buy Last Chance to See from Amazon.com.