DOUGLAS ADAMS… Rhinos and Gorillas.
Through his intellectual convictions Douglas Adams showed a great interest for zoology and the preservation of endangered species.
In 1985, the Observer Magazine had the far-fetched idea of commissioning Douglas Adams to report one the last of the aye-ayes, an extremely rare lemur species of which there are only very few remaining survivors in Madagascar. To facilitate his task and assist him they sent Mark Cawardine, an experienced zoologist working for the World Wildlife Fund. “His role was that of an expert. Mine, for which I was perfectly qualified, was that of a non-zoologist extremely surprised by all that is going on around him. As for the aye-ayes, they could go on and do what they had been doing so well for millions of years – sit in trees and hide.”
last chance to seeThis double meeting with Mark Cawardine and the lemurs is at the origin of a real passion for zoology. Douglas learned from Mark that there are only a handful of white rhinos in Zaire, a few mountain gorillas in Africa, that the New-Zealand kakapo, the Komodo island Dragons and the Chinese Yangtze dolphins have almost disappeared off the face of the Earth. Douglas Adams checks his agenda, sees that he has two novels to finish and sets an appointment with Mark for 1988. In fact, they get together only one year later to span across the world in search of rare and highly endangered species.
As Nick Webb writes in his biography : « His fascination (for endangered species) was quite unconventional ; it was not so much a matter of observing the strange behaviours, bizarre instincts, off-beat mating procedures and so on that these rare creatures might manifest. What he wanted to imagine was the world as these animal might perceive it. It was for that reason that Douglas was so stricken by the fate of the Yangtze Dolphin which assembles its model of its environnement through sound. The poor animal has almost certainly vanished from the Earth now and the last remnants of its doomed species were maddened, and, as it were, blinded by mankind’s marine engines before extinction. Or what, Douglas wondered, does the world ‘look’ like (we humans are locked int our visual paradigm) if it is mapped mainly by smell ? The rhinos with their colossal nasal membranes (larger than their brains) and terrible eyesight would have seen Douglas like some obsolete computer screen without enough pixels, but they could have smelled him on the wind half a kilometer away. Sight is effectively instantaneous, but smell isn’t. Douglas’s insight here was to realize that as a result a rhino’s view of the world is rich with the sense of data of things past – in a way they ‘see’ in time » (in « wish you were here », chapter twelve).
After this trips, Douglas Adams goes on to write, with the help of Mark Carwardine, what many fans consider his greatest book “Last Chance To See” (Heinemann, 1990). He tells the story of these very precious living beings with much humour and derision, but above all with a great passion and conviction. « Last chance… » is also a radio seies and a CD-rom.
Since then, Douglas often did lectures and speeches at conferences on the subject, and he also participated in field actions. He was a great supporter of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund, and in 1994 for Save The Rhino he even went on to climb up Kilimanjaro disguised as a white rhino! This action allowed the association to reach the local population’s awareness and raise 100 000 pounds.
So smitten was he by the subject that Douglas Adams even considered to go back to university to study zoology, which was in part due to Mark Cawardine and their trip but also because it was his friend Richard Dawkins’s speciality. Douglas wanted to learn more about the animals but also Darwininian evolutionist principles.
For Douglas Adams, each species has its place and has a right to exist. After all, accepting Darwin’s principles of survival of the fittest does not mean that we should simply let entire species disappear by mere negligence, nefarious actions in their habitat or by poaching. Man is obviously not the the begining and end of everything. Everything is connected, contingent. As he writes in Mostly Harmless « Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen ».