Obituaries:Gerald Durrell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Familiar to millions as a maker and presenter of zoological television programmes and as the author of entertaining and best-selling books on his life with animals, Gerald Durrell made an important contribution to his science in spotting and exploiting the role that zoos can play in active conservation. The zoo world still sees itself largely as a living museum. Many zoos carry out fieldwork, but it remains a secondary part of their operations. But the zoo which Durrell founded on Jersey in 1959, dedicated to saving endangered animal species by breedingthem in captivity, has been one of the very few that have successfully mixed displaying animals to the public in a sensible and humane way with effective involvement in field conservation.

Durrell also heightened public understanding of the intimate connection between man and wildlife and its significance for both parties. A typical zoo will show a gorilla, and announce on a label "This is a gorilla from West Africa; it weighs 500lb and ismore than twice as powerful as you are." However, at Jersey, Durrell and his colleagues have acknowledged that this information is interesting in itself, but have emphasised a more crucial reality, that the future of the animal on view is dependent on the choices the observer makes in the next 20 years: if you buy hardwood furniture or if you show no concern for sensible land use then this beautiful animal is going to disappear in the wild.

Durrell was something of a self-made curator. He was born in India in 1925, the son of Samuel Durrell, a civil engineer. The family lived in Britain and on the Continent before finally settling on Corfu. As a child Gerald had his own zoo, which included eagle owls and scorpions. After working as a student keeper at Whipsnade Zoo in the immediate post-war years he made his first animal-collecting expedition to the British Cameroons in 1947-48, following it up with a second Cameroon expedition and one to British Guiana. In the 1950s, with his first wife, Jacqueline, he visited Argentina, Paraguay, Cyprus and the Cameroons again. In the Sixties he visited Sierra Leone (with the BBC Natural History Unit), Mexico and Australia, Mauritius, Assam and Mexico in the Seventies, and Madagascar in 1981 and 1990.

Through his travels, and his contacts with the broader conservation world, Durrell saw very clearly 20 years ago how a small zoo's resources could be focused to have a very real effect back in its animals' countries of origin. And Durrell and his colleagues kept this focus by leaving the big vertebrates - tigers, whales and tigers - to other institutions and concentrating on a particular type of site: the Oceanic islands and their species, of both animals and plants, which are not found anywhere else, whether it be the Rodrigues Island Fruitbat or the animals of Mauritius. They emphasised both the threat to the Pink Pigeon in Mauritius or the Round Island Boa Constrictor and the uniqueness of these species. If small, little-known, species were allowed to disappear, then it would not be long before the bigger mammals would suffer a similar fate.

Jersey Zoo has a small research unit dealing with both looking after the collection and the overseas work. And Durrell set up a mini-university near the zoo which is the foremost training centre in the world for animal keepers and specifically for those from the developing world. It has trained 700 students from over 80 countries in the last 20 years, thus exporting to areas they were working in Durrell's views on the use of local botanical and zoological gardens, and on looking after the ecological infrastructure.

Durrell started writing animal stories at the suggestion of his eldest brother, the poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell. The Overloaded Ark was published in 1953 and followed by 36 other titles. Gerald would retire to Brittany to write one book a year, and much of the financing of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust came from the royalties from his books. The most successful of all was My Family and Other Animals (1956), and Durrell's books, including Catch Me a Colobus (1972) and The Aye-Aye and I (1992), have been translated into 31 languages. Many young zoologists working today gained their first interest in the subject from Durrell's books. In terms of the character of his writing's impact, the closest author to Durrell is James Herriot in his vet books. Both are at once humorous and powerfully descriptive. The humour in Durrell comes not so much from the animals alone but from how an animal affects one human or another. Through his attractive style of writing and strong descriptive powers of animals Durrell made respect for animals and animal science of interest where they would otherwise have had no impact. What Herriot has done for domestic animals Durrell has done for animals in the zoo and in the wild.

Many of Durrell's books are closely connected to the television series and individual programmes, such as The Ark on the Move (1981) and Durrell in Russia (1986), that he made for the BBC and, latterly, Channel 4: My Family and Other Animals was televised in 1987. Durrell's programmes are very different in style to David Attenborough's. Durrell took a species-orientated approach, while Attenborough tends to deal with whole ecosystems.

Internationally, Durrell's most significant programmes may have been the 15-part series he and his second wife, the zoologist Lee McGeorge, made for Russian television in the years of perestroika. The programmes, made with a well-known Russian biologist,were enormously popular with an audience previously starved of such work.

I came into contact with Gerald Durrell through my work at London Zoo and as Chairman of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the world's oldest international conservation body, on whose council he served. He was a charismatic man with a large presence and a first-rate speaker.

In his latter years he showed himself single-minded in his goals. His vision for the conservation of animal species was far-seeing and sometimes controversial. Many members of the zoo world originally saw him as a renegade. But he was a renegade who was right.

David Jones Gerald Durrell was first and foremost a storyteller, and millions of his readers would probably never have taken an interest in wildlife or its conservation were it not for his books, writes John A. Burton. I was first inspired by his books as a child reading The Bafut Beagles (1954). This led to nocturnal forays in suburban London, in search of hedgehogs, which I then sold to Harrods.

Years later, by which time I was the Secretary of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, I confessed this to Durrell, who thought it a huge joke. The FFPS (long known as the Society of Penitent Butchers, because of its close association with the hunters and game wardens of the Empire) was not the sort of body where you would expect to find Durrell on the Council. But there he was, a Vice-President, from 1986 onwards. In those years I would periodically bump into him - always enthusiastic, not only for his own projects, but also eager to hear what anyone else was doing. A first-rate raconteur, he was able to hold a capacity audience at a Cambridge University meeting of the FFPS for two hours with nothing more than a few sheets of paper and a felt pen- and he raised several hundred pounds at the end of the evening by auctioning off his vivid cartoons.

Durrell's Jersey Zoo started out as a fairly conventional zoo (A Zoo in My Luggage, 1960, the story of the start of the zoo makes no mention of conservation), but it soon became "Durrell's Ark". And through the success of his zoo's concentrated efforts at captive breeding of endangered species he almost single-handedly created a bandwagon that zoos world-wide have since tried to jump on. Durrell's efforts were quite different from the majority of zoos', as he was as prepared to take on an insignificant Tahitian snail as a marmoset, Rothschild's Mynah, or a rather boring-looking boa; and he did not try and breed just the odd ones, he tried (and often succeeded) breeding enough to put some back in the wild.

Durrell had little time for people who professed to be conservationists, but spent all their time flying from meeting to meeting. "Decide what needs doing and do it" could have been his motto.

Despite the fact that his own Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust needed every penny it could raise, he also gave his support to numerous projects all over the world, I had first-hand experience of the value of his support, with a new trust established in1989 specifically to buy and protect tropical forest. With Durrell's name involved Today newspaper donated £25,000. All over the world there are projects doing things that, if it were not for Durrell's involvement, might still be just an item on the agenda of the next meeting.

Gerald Malcolm Durrell, writer, zoologist: born Jamshedpur, India 7 January 1925; FRSL 1972; founder and Honorary Director, Jersey Zoological Park 1958-95; founder and Honorary Director, Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust 1964-95; Founder Chairman, Wildlife Preservation Trust International 1972-95; OBE 1982; married 1951 Jacqueline Sonia Rasen (marriage dissolved 1979), 1979 Lee McGeorge; died Jersey 30 January 1995.

Comments