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Don't Panic!


The late, great Douglas Adams said the book he was most proud of writing was Last Chance to See. I thought I’d read everything he’d written, and I’d never heard of it. I tracked a copy down. It’s a beautiful, tragic book in which Douglas and the zoologist Mark Carwardine travel to various parts of the world to see several endangered species that were heading towards extinction. Their adventures included going to Madagascar to see aye-ayes (named by someone from Yorkshire, obviously); to Indonesia to see the Komodo dragon; to New Zealand to see the kakapo; to China to see the Yangtse river dolphin; to Mauritius to see the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet, and the Mauritius kestrel (well, to see a fruit bat really). And then to Zaire (as was) to see mountain gorillas and the northern white rhino.

At the time there were just 22 Northern White Rhino alive in the wild. But Douglas told a story of hope. The Southern White Rhino had gone as low as 11 individuals before a recovery programme brought the species back from the brink. The northern whites had gone as low as 15. But now there were 22. So, it was all going to be fine. Now someone was doing something (Kes Hillman-Smith is the conservationist who shows Douglas and Mark round). After I read the book, which moved me but not enough to worry me too much, I forgot about it for a number of years.

Then Douglas Adams became extinct himself at the tragically young age of 49. Which is very young, don’t disillusion me. Another of my favourite writers, and a good friend of Douglas, Stephen Fry, ended up making a TV series to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Last Chance to See, and Mark Carwardine wrote a book of their adventures.

They planned to go and see all of the species Douglas and Mark had seen the first time round. They succeeded in all but two cases. The Yangtse River Dolphin, which was believed extinct. And the northern white rhino, which was believed to be down to 4 individuals in the wild, though they hadn’t been seen for two years. Stephen and Mark failed to find them as they were prevented from journeying to the Garamba National Park due to the Ugandan civil war. The last sighting of the rhinos in the park occurred in 2009, and they’re believed extinct in the wild now.

The author with a 'Big, exotic, cow' Chester Zoo 2020

I found this loss truly tragic. I’d seen rhinos in zoos. Big, exotic, cows, really. Just armoured and with horns. That their species has gone from the wild had a big effect on me.

There were some northern white rhinos still living in captivity, in Ol Pejeta conservancy in northern Kenya. They were taken there in 2015 from Dvur Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic. When I learned this there were just three of them left. A male, Sudan, who had been captured in the wild in 1975 (in Sudan), and his daughter, Najin, and her daughter, Fatu. Sudan died on 19th March 2018 leaving just two female northern white rhinos in the world.

Sudan himself died of old age, protected and cared for by dedicated rangers and keepers. But the species died because of man killing the rhinos for their horn to make into dagger handles. Utterly pointless destruction. Power used for power’s sake. The story of Hunted is a metaphor for this idiocy; the impact of one species on another boiled down to the acts of a few individuals; the slenderest thread of hope.

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