Twenty years ago, writer Douglas Adams embarked on a trek with zoologist Mark Carwardine to find animals so rare they faced extinction. His role was to be “someone extremely ignorant to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise” – a role, he said at the time, for which he was extremely qualified.
Carwardine recalled: “We put a big map of the world on a wall. Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey to every place that had two pins.”
The result was Last Chance to See, a BBC radio series and book that brought home just how threatened many species and habitats were.
Sadly Adams died in 2001, so writer and wit Stephen Fry joined Carwardine as the ignorant observer as they retraced their steps to find out if those rare beasts had survived. Of course, ignorance is not something we usually associate with Mr Fry, known more for his wordplay and broad knowledge of interesting yet useless things from quiz shows like QI. And here in the austere and entirely appropriate surroundings of the Natural History Museum, surrounded by the bones of other long-extinct creatures, Fry in a pinstripe suit looks more cloistered don than intrepid adventurer.
In fact Fry is known more for his technology obsession than he is for any predisposition towards animals. He claims to have bought the second British-owned Macintosh computer in 1984 (Adams bought the first), and wrote in his Guardian gadget column that he “never met a smartphone I didn’t like”. He has embraced the internet, using the Twitter message service to update more than 500,000 followers – second only to Barack Obama – on the minutiae of his life, from trips abroad to being stuck in a lift.
In fact his iPhone goes off three times during the interview and he breaks off to answer with an almost Tigger-like excitement at his modern technological marvel.
Outside acting roles, Fry is no stranger to British television. He spent weeks in a black cab travelling across the US last year to explore the land that, had his father not turned down a job at Princeton, could have been his home. “My fascination with America is something that propelled me towards doing the series,” he said, “and though it is odd to think that I could have been American, I could equally imagine being American and being quizzed on how it feels to have been nearly British.”
In 2006, ten years after being diagnosed with a mild form of bi-polar disorder, Fry made The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, praised for opening up the debate about mental health with frank discussions of depression and breakdown with the likes of Tony Slattery, Jo Brand, Carrie Fisher and Richard Dreyfuss. This confessional aspect continued the following year with HIV and Me, a look at how HIV had affected him through the deaths of friends.
“You could call it confessional,” he said, “I’d think of it as non-lying. If there’s a story you want to tell and it happens to be about yourself then it’s pointless lying about it. I think honesty is interesting.”
Fry’s only foray into wildlife TV was an investigation into the plight of the Peruvian spectacled bear, in which Mr Fry journeyed to South America to follow the bear while making humorous references to the origins of Paddington. So, the opportunity to ‘do an Attenborough’ and meet wildlife at close quarters has left him visibly thrilled. “Watching a turtle hatchling bursting out of an egg and rushing toward the sea as it follows its single, earliest programmed urge, and then to see them grow into this magisterial creature with a vast, domed shell, their slow graceful ease in the water, was simply fantastic,” Fry enthused.
In six months of trips to Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, New Zealand, Mexico, Malaysia and Indonesia they had mixed results. Two species – the Yangtze river dolphin and northern white rhino – are effectively extinct, while others like the flightless kakapo parrot from New Zealand are on the brink.
“There are only about one hundred kakapos left, the situation is critical,” Fry said. “The slightest wrinkle in the stability of their habitat could wipe them out.”
Other species have recovered, such as the Juan Fernandez fur seal which increased from only a few hundred to a thriving 10,000 after its habitat was protected by the Chilean government.
Conservation’s potential benefits are shown best in the stark contrast between the northern and southern white rhino populations. The southern white rhino has been protected by an efficient and well-resourced conservation programme, mainly in South Africa, and has blossomed from a few dozen animals 100 years ago to around 17,000 today – probably the most successful conservation programme in history.
Sadly, the last four northern white rhinos in the wild have not been seen in a year. With two ivory horns to the black rhino’s one, the northern white has likely finally fallen victim to poaching but also to the warfare that rages across its habitat of the Congo, Chad, Sudan and Uganda.
Instead, Fry and Carwardine went in search of the highland gorilla, one of humans’ closest relatives. Decades of scientific study and films such as Gorillas in the Mist have raised public awareness of the threat they face, and though Fry acknowledged gorillas are popular objects of documentaries he denied they were over-romanticised.
“They are phenomenal animals. You feel this particular kinship with them as fellow primates, as we are,” he said. “Anyone who has ever encountered gorillas close up feels that without question. There is such a power in their presence, though you try not to anthropomorphise and see things from their point of view, they are so similar to us it is difficult not to use words like ‘wisdom’ and ‘patience’.”
Carwardine agreed, recalling an ecounter from his trip with Adams: “Douglas was writing notes in a pad while the gorillas were around us. This silverback male lay down next to him, propped on his elbow just watching him. After a minute he got up and took the pen out of Douglas’ hand, held it up to the sky and looked at it, examined it, then gave it back to him and went back to lying down.
“It was amazing to see; not only the inquisitiveness, but an understanding of a sense of ownership – he recognised that it was Douglas’ pen, and gave it back.”
Other creatures were less friendly: the fearsome komodo dragon native to only a few tiny islands in Indonesia has a vicious bite, a 10 foot tail that can break a man’s legs or knock a water buffalo off its feet, a mouth full of bacteria so virulent that even a slight wound will fester and eventually kill and, said Fry, “the worst breath of any creature I’ve ever encountered.” It is perhaps only the dragons’ popularity with tourists that saves it from its human neighbours.
And it is not just obviously lethal creatures that can be dangerous, as Carwardine found out to his cost when they went in search of the kakapo in New Zealand. He recalled: “One of these birds thought it was a person rather than a parrot, and tried to mate with everything it came across. We were getting attacked by it every time we left the hut, on one occasion it got on top of my head and tried to mate with me – drawing blood with its sharp claws.”
The island of Madagascar is famous for being home to many species found nowhere else, such as the entire family of tree-dwelling primates called lemurs. Among these, the rarest and perhaps most curious is the aye-aye.
“It is the weirdest of creatures, it looks like bits of other animals stuck together,” Carwardine said. “A bat’s ears, an ostrich’s feathery tail, rodents’ teeth, the body of a cat and an amazing long middle finger for pulling grubs out of trees.”
Unfortunately the nocturnal aye-aye is known locally as the bringer of death, and despite being harmless finds itself killed on sight. Protecting lemurs has been made a government priority, but poverty and deforestation are natural enemies to these shy creatures – the slash and burn policy of the last 50 years has reduced the island’s rainforest cover to a fifth of its size.
Fry said: “So much of it comes down to habitat. You can save a species by isolating it, by putting it on an island where it could be safe from introduced predators. That’s fine, but it’s not the same as protecting the entire habitat and returning them to the wild.”
And like it or not, conservationists have to accept the needs of the human populations too. “For example, the idea to reintroduce wolves to Scotland (adopts thick Scots brogue): ‘I’ll no have them roond here, I’ll shoot them.’ It’s easy for us to point our prosperous fingers at those that live by subsistence farming or hunting and tell them not to kill or burn their trees, but it’s a bit rich coming from us as it’s what we’ve done to our environment for hundreds of years.”
But having seen the evidence for themselves, both are aware of the urgency with which the message must be spread – on television, Twitter, by any means necessary. “We can’t keep silent about what must be said,” Fry warned. “All the data returned shows that the clock’s ticking, and if anyone cares then we have to do something now.”
You can read up on Douglas Adams’ original trip at www.tdv.com/lastchance
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]