I really should not be writing a blog post on this subject when I’ve already promised to do two others on totally different subjects, but after seeing the Last Chance To See special last night I feel all fired up about this particular subject, so I decided to try and do this first.
For anyone who did see the LCtS special, I can only assume that, like me, you spent most of the time melting into a sentimental puddle every five minutes – especially when the baby rhino was on screen and even more especially when Stephen Fry was feeding it. I really do think there should have been some sort of “cuteness-overload” warning at the start of the programme!
Clearly the northern white rhino as a species is in pretty dire straits and if they do breed and the move to Africa proves a success, the team will have achieved something monumental. But as the LCtS series has shown, there are many more species facing extinction – and this is not a distant threat of “in the next century or so”, this is a seriously urgent threat of “in the next couple of decades”. Faced with this sort of knowledge and hearing the current doom-and-gloom predictions of conservationists the world over, it might not seem as though there is anything much that we can do to help.
But quite apart from the fact that there are sometimes spectacular success stories in the world of conservation, the idea of giving up and accepting the thought that our planet may one day be a nature-free zone fills me with such gut-wrenching horror that I think it’s impossible to not at least attempt to do something.
So what can we do? Well the first thing I would suggest to those who wish to play a more active role in the world of conservation is to join a conservation society, and I can think of none better than the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which I will talk more about in a minute. The second thing to do is go and find out more about what is happening in the world of conservation. If you have children, try and educate them about it, not necessarily by rattling off terrifying statistics, but engaging them in activities involving the natural world: bird-watching, pond-dipping, trips to the zoo – anything, in short, that encourages an interest in and love for the living world around us.
So what exactly is the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust? It was first started by a man called Gerald Durrell, who some of you may already have heard of. As well as being a conservationist, he was also an author, and wrote several books about his childhood on Corfu (“My Family and Other Animals”, “Birds, Beasts and Relatives”), along with others concerning his animal collecting expeditions to Africa and South America (“The Bafut Beagles”, “Three Singles To Adventure”, The Drunken Forest”). He also later wrote books about his conservation efforts, one of which (“Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons”) ties in rather nicely with the original LCtS book by Douglas Adams, as they both involve trips to the islands of Mauritius and Rodriguez.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how wonderfully warm and witty his books are, if you’ve never read any of them I strongly suggest you do so – it will give you a fascinating insight into the life of an animal collector and zoo-owner, who was also, as it turns out, a seriously good writer.
Ever since he was a little boy, Gerry had dreamed of owning his own zoo. After working for a time as a zoo-keeper at Whipsnade and later conducting his own animal-collecting epeditions he decided that he would start looking for somewhere to set up his zoo. Having failed to find anywhere on the UK mainland, he decided to continue his search on the Channel Islands, where there was, at the time, less bureaucracy involved in such an enterprise. He eventually found the ideal spot at Les Augres Manor in Jersey, where the zoo still lives today, and set up the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust – which later became the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
But Gerry did not simply want to own a zoo where people could come and gape at such faunal wonders as the African elephant or Siberian tiger. That may originally have been part of his childhood dream, but as he travelled round the world visiting various countries and witnessing the plight of many species whose habitats were under serious threat from human activity, he decided that he wanted his zoo to play an active role in the conservation of wildlife. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, zoos were still seen as showcases for spectacular specimens rather than educational institutions for the advancement of scientific knowledge. His intention was to further the cause of wildlife conservation and carry out scientific study and research on the animals in his care, whilst also setting up captive breeding populations, so that even if a species became extinct in the wild, there was a chance that it could be re-introduced back into its original habitat at a later date.
The success of this novel method of conservation has been proven time and time again, perhaps most notably with some of the animals of Mauritius, including the pink pigeon, the Mauritius kestrel and the echo parakeet. All three species have been brought back from the brink and now have thriving populations back on the islands which are their home. This is particularly significant when you consider that the JWPT adopted the dodo as it’s logo – a Mauritian bird that met a swift and very sad end due to wanton slaughter by those who had the regrettable attitude “there’s plenty more where that came from”. But of course, there isn’t “plenty more”, not by a long chalk. We are only just beginning to understand how fragile, how delicate some of the natural world’s ecosystems are, but one thing we now know for certain: no species, however apparently infinite its numbers, is immune from extinction. The passenger pigeon is a classic example of this. Estimates of its original population numbers are as high as five billion, but it was extinct within 300 years, the last one dying in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
One of the most important initiatives started by the Trust was the establishment of an International Training Centre at the zoo. The ITC provides training in research techniques and the skills to manage species recovery in the wild. Crucially, there is funding available to train individuals from different countries around the world so that on completing the programme, they can go back home and use their new-found knowledge and experience to help save their local species.
I should also add that the DWCT now mainly concentrates on saving smaller more obscure species that people don’t often hear about, for example: the pygmy hog, the St Lucia parrot, Livingstone’s fruitbat and the ploughshare tortoise, to name but a few. This means that they can divert some of the attention that is normally almost exclusively devoted to “big-name” species such as pandas, tigers and rhinos, to some of the more delicate and equally vulnerable (if not more so) creatures that would otherwise be ignored.
If you want to support the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust or would just like to find out more about it, please visit http://www.durrell.org. If you do decide to become a member, you will receive free entrance to the wildlife park year round, which I think is great as it means you can go and see exactly what your membership money is being spent on. I fully intend on using my free entrance as soon as possible! Another way of finding out more is to read some of his books, all of which I can highly recommend – I think most of them can be picked up fairly cheaply from the Durrell website: http://www.durrell.org/shop or amazon.com. DWCT is also on Twitter: @DurrellWildlife. Another good one to follow for news and updates on conservation is @EcoInteractive. Below are some pictures of Gerry and quotes relating to his work in conservation.
A time capsule buried at Jersey Zoo in 1988 contains the following popular quote by Durrell, often used in conservation awareness campaigns:
- “We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you and butterflies in hedges and forests to greet you. We hope that your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you. We hope that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of creatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives as they have done for us. We hope that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.”