Last Chance to See, By Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

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The Independent Culture

In his foreword to this new edition (published on the back of Carwardine's TV series with Stephen Fry), Richard Dawkins observes perceptively that Douglas Adams' comic style is similar and not inferior to that of PG Wodehouse – evidenced by such similes as "When the rhino moved a leg, just slightly, huge muscles moved easily under its heavy skin, like Volkswagens parking." But Adams could write seriously, too (it seems he did most of the actual writing, with Carwardine supplying zoological expertise): the chapter on the komodo dragon is as good a piece of reportage as George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant".

In a series of expeditions, the authors encounter mountain gorillas and white rhinos (which are dark grey) in Zaire, rare kestrels in Mauritius, and kakapos ("the world's fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot") in New Zealand. In every case, the presence and personality of the endangered animals rise off the page – even when the authors don't manage to find them, as in the case of the Yangtze river dolphin. The writing may be witty, but this book is a sobering reminder of what a very great deal we have to lose.