Humorous science fiction writers and zoologists don’t come together very often, but
when they do something wonderful can happen. People who may not be interested in
zoology may end up with a lasting involvement, it can change the way they think, bring
awareness and help with the protection and continuation of rare animals, and help the
environment on the whole. This is what happened with Last Chance To See.
Where It All Began
In 1985 Douglas Adams was in Madagascar looking
for a possibly extinct lemur called the Aye-aye. The World Wildlife Fund and the
Observer were sending famous authors to remote places to look for endangered species in
order to write articles for the Observer Colour Magazine to help raise awareness of
Arriving in Madagascar Douglas was met by zoologist Mark
Carwardine (who was working for the World Wildlife Fund at the time), they
got on well together and actually found, or rather (briefly) saw, the Aye-aye alive and
It would seem that this event in Douglas Adams’ life would change him and the rest of his life forever. Indeed, in conversation the next day, Mark told him about a whole host of other endangered and possibly extinct animals. The result of this was what
would become the Last Chance To See Radio Series, Book and CD-ROM.
Originally envisaged for Television, the costs incurred meant that it was not possible, so
they came round to the idea of a radio series. In fact, it seems that a ten minute radio
program called Natural Selection: In Search Of The Aye-aye, detailing their first
meeting was made and broadcast on the 1 November, 1985.
After working with Geoffrey Perkins on the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy
Radio Series, Douglas asked him to produce Last Chance To See, but after
finding out that, rather than accompanying Douglas and Mark on their travels, he’d be
staying at home to assemble the raw material, he politely declined.
They decided on spending three weeks to search for each animal, as it turned out, to find
them all would take about 300 years, 1,000 more if they included rare species of plants.
So they came up with a list and actually found about eight of them. It was generally a case
of ‘I’d like to go here...’, ‘Well I’d like to go here...’, ‘OK, so lets go here...’.
It was 1988, when both Mark Carwardine and Douglas Adams were available to start
their travels. Mark Carwardine had done most of the organising, since it was field of
expertise. So from mid ‘88 to mid ‘89 Mark and Douglas and radio producer Gaynor
Shuttle spent the year travelling the world.
The Radio Series
The Radio series was narrated by Peter Jones, again
someone who Douglas had worked with on Hitchhikers, and it was broadcast on
BBC Radio 4, between October and November 1989. Six, 30 minute episodes made up
the series, each episode dealing with a different animal. Four of the episode were repeated
the following year. Another five episode series called Last Chance To See was
broadcast in May 1997, this series though, was just Douglas reading from the book.
The budget for the radio series wasn’t large, In fact both Mark and Douglas were only
paid presenters fees for the series. Their travel and expenses and that of the producer and
sound recordist travel and expenses, were paid by Mark and Douglas themselves out of
the advance for the novel of the series. It was a little rough, they were given little time to
edit and produce the series, and it was rushed out with little promotion, which,
understandably, left them a little aggrieved.
Episode Titles and Air Dates
Part 1: The Kakapo Parrot (11 October, 1989)
Part 2: The Yangtze River Dolphin (11 October, 1989)
Part 3: The Amazonian Manatee (18 October, 1989)
Part 4: The Rodrigues Fruit Bat (25 October, 1989)
Part 5: The Komodo Dragon (1 November, 1989)
Part 6: The Juan Fernandez Fur Seal (8 November, 1989)
Infomation about the series is sadly in short supply, most likely due to not having been
aired in the UK in its entirety for some time. The Rodrigues Fruit Bat episode however,
was broadcast on BBC7 as part of tribute to Douglas Adams in 2003, and maybe possible
Also the series was broadcast in Australia in 2001, on ABC
Radio National. The episode titles and episode details below therefore have
been taken from their site, however according to epguides.com, the episodes are titled:-
Ralph, the Fragrant Parrot of Codfish Island
Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?
The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
A Man-Eating, Evil-Smelling Dragon
The Sultan of Juan Fernandez
Part 1: The Kakapo Parrot
The fragrant parrot of Codfish Island in New Zealand is large, green and has forgotten
how to fly. Which is worrying because there are less than fifty of them left.
Part 2: The Yangtze River Dolphin
According to Chinese legend she's the reincarnation of a drowned princess. She is twenty
stone, not very bright, short-sighted and in increasingly short supply.
Part 3: The Amazonian Manatee
….is easily mistaken for a mudbank. The Jesuits thought it was a fish and ate it on
Fridays, but in fact it's a totally harmless mammal.
Part 4: The Rodrigues Fruit Bat
….spends most of its time hanging around in trees in the middle of a cyclone belt. At
regular intervals it is blown into oblivion somewhere over the Indian Ocean.
Part 5: The Komodo Dragon
….grows up to twelve feet in length, eats goats and people, and has the worst smelling
breath of any creature known to man.
Part 6: The Juan Fernandez Fur Seal
Juan Fernandez Island, off the coast of Chile, was the inspiration for 'Robinson Crusoe'.
When the book was written in 1719 there were so many Southern Fur Seals it was
impossible to walk on the beaches. Today it's very different
Though its very hard to find, some clips from the radio series are available.
The Official Last Chance To See
Website, has a clip of, Dr Struan Sutherland imparting some vital advice about
The BBC’s online Hitchhikers pages, has a section about Last Chance To See, which
includes a clip, Douglas talking
about Komodo Dragons.
Chance To See CD-ROM, has many clips from the radio series and some that
A new triple CD, Douglas
Adams At The BBC, has a number of extracts from the series as well.
Chance To See Book was released in 1990, not long after the radio series.
Despite Mark and Douglas retiring to the south of France with the recording and
photographs to write it, after four months they had only got a page written (which never
even made it into the final book). In the end the publisher said as soon as you’ve got
enough for a book, we’ll publish it. This meant that two of the animals they went to see
were omitted from the book, these being, The Amazonian Manatee, and The Juan
Fernandez Fur Seal.
Of the three mediums that Last Chance To See exists in, the book is the most well known.
It is perhaps worth finding a copy of the hardback version as it seems the text is slightly
different in parts.
As previously mentioned a second radio series of five episodes was aired in 1997, which
was just Douglas reading parts of the book, an abridged reading of the book by Douglas
Adams was released. And parts of the book can be read on the the official Last Chance
To See website. Although not as well selling as other Douglas Adams books, Last Chance
To See remains his and most fans favourite.
The Last Chance To
See CD-ROM was released in 1995, it contained a whole host of photographs,
the entire text from the book, a complete reading of the book by Douglas Adams, extracts
from the radio series and additional audio material.
The Animals - Then And Now
The animals that featured in the radio, book and CDROM of Last Chance To See, were
endangered or were thought to possibly not exist in the years (1985 - 1990) that Douglas
and Mark went to see, write and make radio programs about them. It would be nice to
think that in 2005, their fortunes may have changed for the better...
In 1985 few Aye-ayes were known to exist, those that did had been moved to the small
island called Nosy Mangabe(there should be an accent over the e), some 20 years
previously. Their lowest population was thought to be between 12 and 20 in 1965.
Currently they are still listed as endangered, though in 1994 it was estimated that their
population could be between 1000-10,000
The Kakapo Parrot
In 1974 no Kakapo’s were thought to exist, by 1995 there were at least 50. Their currant
total of 86, relies on the efforts of the New Zealand Wildlife Service, set up in the 50’s,
and now the Kakapo recovery program, despite good news in recently years, they still
need a lot of help to survive.
The Yangtze River Dolphin
Also known as the Baiji dolphin, it lives, not surprisingly, in the Yangtze river, one of the
oldest and busiest rivers in the world. In 1975 the dolphin was declared a national
treasure in China, and they set up a protection program but it had little success. From
about 6,000 pre 1950’s to less than a hundred in 1995, its estimated that there could be as
few as 5 left.
The Amazonian Manatee
The main reasons for the decline in numbers of the Amazonian manatee, is hunting, by
humans and animals alike, also human actions such as water control and drowning in
fishing nets. It was considered endangered in the 70’s, but in 1973 human hunting was
banned. At one time there were great herds, now there are only small groups of four to
eight. They are classed as vulnerable, which means a high risk of extinction in the
The Rodrigues Fruit Bat
Like many animals, threats to it habitat are a major problem, in this case deforestation,
cyclones have also decreased their numbers. In 1974, 75-80 were left in the wild, by 1990
up to 1,000 existed. A cyclone in ‘92 dropped their number down to 350. A study in
2000, showed a population between 1,500 -2,000.
The Komodo Dragon
Known by locals as ’Ora’, and again as the Komodo Island monitor, there are about 1,000
- 5,000, and it would seem that this has always been their number. Human intervention
and threats to its restricted habitat are the problems that endanger its survival.
The Juan Fernandez Fur Seal
Hunted almost to extinction from 1792 - 1806 by sealers, they were rediscovered in late
1950’s - early 60’s. Chile gave total protection to all species of the fur seal in 1978. A
census showed that in the early nineties over 6,000 existed, today there is up to 12,000.
The Mountain Gorilla
Discovered in 1902, the Mountain Gorilla is one of our closest relatives. War and
poaching are the biggest threats, also their small numbers and diminishing habitat due to
humans need for farm land are contributing factors. Dian Fossy (whose life story was
turned into a film - Gorillas In The Mist), studied the animals from 1967, till her
(unsolved) death in 1985. She set up the Digit Fund, later renamed The Dian Fossey
Gorilla Fund International, to help protect the gorillas. There are around 400 left in the
wild at present.
The Northern White Rhino
2,000 - 3,000 Northern White Rhino’s roamed over five north African states in the
1900’s. With two horns, it was even more attractive to poachers, who began hunting it in
1903 when it was discovered. The poachers left 1,000 alive by 1980, and by 1984 they
had killed all but 13. The Garamba Project began that year, and by 2003 they had doubled
in number to 32. Sadly poaching has become more of a problem, in the last 14 months
poachers have again succeeded to half their number. There are between 17 - 22 left today.
There are many places on the internet, where more infomation can be found.
The Official Last Chance To See
website, has text from the book, photos, a clip from the radio series and outakes
from Douglas reading the book.
Another Chance To See, a website with up to date news about the animals
featured in Last Chance To See.
Douglas Adams website,
Since the sad passing of Douglas Adams in 2001, its not updated very often, though it still
has plenty of information. For all the lastest news on Douglas Adams, Magrathea, is regularly
Mark Carwardine’s Official Site, this site has receintly been updated, Mark is still working as much as ever.