Humorous/serious dissertations on earth's endangered species

March 17, 1991|By Steve Courtney | Steve Courtney,Hartford Courant

LAST CHANCE TO SEE.

Douglas Adams

and Mark Carwardine.

Harmony Books.

220 pages. $20.

Pairing British humorist Douglas Adams -- best known for thmind-bogglingly funny science fiction of "The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy" and its many novelistic offspring -- with the serious issue of dying species may seem an odd idea.

It turns out that, like the "Hitchhiker's Guide," this was the British Broadcasting Co.'s odd idea, although the BBC got the idea from a magazine article that paired Mr. Adams with zoologist Mark Carwardine of the World Wildlife Fund.

The Observer Colour Magazine had sent the pair to Madagascar to look for an almost-extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye -- a name that could be taken from one of Mr. Adams' novels.

"My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise," Mr. Adams writes.

The BBC liked the result, and during the late 1980s sent the pair to Indonesia to see Komodo dragons, to Zaire to look for one of the 30 remaining northern white rhinoceroses, to New Zealand to locate a walking parrot called the kakapo, to China to find the baiji dolphin of the Yangtze River and to Mauritius for the Rodrigues fruit bat.

The public in Britain, where radio still lists its programs in the newspaper and is not just a background hum or mumble, was the first beneficiary of this collaboration.

But now we can read Mr. Adams's trenchant and often hilarious observations on a serious subject.

It's a subject made to order for sanctimony, so it's nice to have TC him say things like: "The ways in which the kakapo goes about mating are wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out, and almost totally ineffective."

He compares this parrot's quirky evolutionary development to that of British-made motorcycles, which "had their own special way, as T. E. Lawrence discovered at the end of his life, of going around corners."

Here is his description of the difference between ancient lemurs and our own ancestors: "Where the lemurs had been content to hang around in trees having a good time, the monkeys were ambitious, and interested in all kinds of things, especially twigs, with which they found that they could do all kinds of things that they couldn't do by themselves -- dig for things, probe things, hit things."

But the funniest parts require the leisurely weaving of absurdities and anomalies over a page.

Mr. Adams gives free rein to this style in his recounting of his and his companions' difficulties traveling to wild corners of the earth -- struggles with mosquito nets, the voracious bribe-seeking style of Zairian bureaucrats or his attempts to buy a condom in Shanghai (to protect a microphone under water).

The book really is a travel book in the British tradition of travel books, full of bemusement at the habits of the local residents -- and some particularly broad swipes at particularly disliked travelers, such as two Germans he meets in the Zaire jungle, whom he calls Helmut and Kurt.

They are "young, fair-haired, vigorous, well-equipped, and much better than us at virtually everything." They sneer at the tape recorders the Britishers carry, nearly starting a brawl; they are not bitten by ants because they wear antproof socks.

But amid the zany humor is the book's serious message: that "conservation is very much in tune with our own survival." And "ironically, it is not the big and beautiful creatures, but the ugly and less dramatic ones, that we need the most."

This is from Mr. Carwardine's epilogue on the fate, since the radio series was recorded, of the species described in the book. An appendix lists the names of the organizations working to save them.

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