Dances with Kakapos

IN THE ELITE, SAD WORLD OF ENDANGERED species, the kakapo is one of the few creatures that could look a mountain gorilla in the eye and tell it to quit whining, things could be worse. Only 43 of the awkward, flightless birds are known to exist, scattered over two protected islands off the south coast of New Zealand. “The kakapo is a bird out of time,” writes Douglas Adams in a new book, Last Chance to See, about nearly extinct animals. “If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not.”

Adams, author of the delightfully warped Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, traveled the world to seek out the seven severely endangered species depicted in Last Chance. In addition to the kakapo, the author, together with a zoologist friend, Mark Carwardine, visited giant Komodo dragons in Indonesia, northern white rhinos and mountain gorillas in Zaire, Rodrigues fruit bats and Mauritius kestrels in Mauritius, and China’s Yangtze River dolphins. Adams, 38, got the idea for the project in 1985, when he visited Madagascar to write a magazine article about an endangered lemur called the aye-aye. “That was my first real exposure to the natural world,” he says. “After that trip, I began to feel I had a responsibility to know more about what we’re doing to the environment.”

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, Adams confidently gives the answer to the Question of the Meaning of Life: Forty-two. (It’s coming up with the correct question, he says, that’s the tough part, but in the end Adams does that, too.) Last Chance contains some of the same shaggy-dog humor. Aboard a fishing boat en route to the island of Komodo, Adams suddenly realizes that some of his fellow passengers won’t get that far. “For Westerners who are used to getting chickens wrapped in polythene from the supermarket,” he writes, “it is an uncomfortable experience to share a long ride on a small boat with four live chickens who are eyeing you with a deep and dreadful suspicion, which you are in no position to allay.”

Alternatively, Adams says he was powerfully moved by the disconcertingly intelligent gaze of a mountain gorilla near Zaire’s Virunga volcanoes: “If we had a predisposition to learn from the apes,” he says, “surely we would have already learned something from those members of our species who already live in and understand the jungle. But we don’t pay any attention to them whatsoever. We merely chop down their jungle and obliterate it.”

Adams was most distressed by the fate of one of the animals he did not manage to see in the wild. In China, he ventured out onto the filthy Yangtze River to look for the baiji, a freshwater dolphin whose aquatic world has been transformed into a sensory chaos by boat engines, propellers, fishermen’s nets, sewage, industrial waste and fertilizers. Sadly, none of the 200 remaining dolphins made an appearance that day. But Adams imagines nevertheless that their existence must resemble being “half-blind, or half-deaf, living in a discotheque with a stroboscopic light show, where the sewers are overflowing, the ceiling and the fans keep crashing on your head, and the food is bad.”

Douglas Adams may soon qualify as the David Attenborough of the post-MTV world. Born in Cambridge, England, the son of a theology teacher and a nurse, he studied English literature at Cambridge University and was inspired by previous grad John Cleese to try comedy writing. Several years later, while moon-lighting as a hotel security guard in London, Adams concocted a story about an Englishman who discovers his house and the entire planet Earth are about to be demolished for an intergalactic freeway and hitches a ride on a passing spaceship. First a BBC radio show, Hitchhiker’s Guide eventually sold 5 million copies, spawned a television series and three sequels and made Adams one of the richest young writers in England.

Success has led to what Adams describes as a chaotic life. Last year he bought a house in France, and he recently finished renovations on a home in London’s Islington district. Not long ago, Adams split up with his girlfriend of nine years, Jane Belson, 38. “Jane and I are appallingly typical of our generation,” he says. “We’re always wanting to put our options off, wait till we grow up and all that. Suddenly we find that 40 is not very far away.”

Bravely battling adulthood. Adams plans to keep moving and writing. Already at work on another Hitchhiker book, he is also scheduling trips to the Amazon, Easter Island and Egypt to research an environmental novel. “It’s a thriller that very much evolved out of Last Chance to See,” he says. “I want to entertain people as well as educate them.”

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