“I’ve been asked to talk about my life but this could take years so for tonight I’ll just talk to you about what I’ve done last year.” Mark Carwardine smiled widely and turned the lights off.
It must have been a chilly evening of March and I was stuck in my chair unable to look away from the screen where the most amazing wildlife spectacles were projected. Two hours before, one glance at a photo on his website of a couple of blue whales taken from the air had convinced me to give up my laundry plans.
I can now confirm it with jealousy and admiration, Mark Carwardine encounters more wildlife in a year than most people dream to encounter in a lifetime. He has been literally everywhere on the seven continents, supporting the most diverse and varied conservation projects. A zoologist and renowned photographer, Mark has also presented numerous wildlife related programmes on BBC 4. He is chairman of the judging panel for the Wildlife photographer of the year and writes monthly columns for BBC Wildlife and Wanderlust. Mark has also written more than 50 books mainly on wildlife but also on conservation and travel based themes, one of them being “Last Chance To See” co-written with Douglas Adams and published in 1990.
I approached him at the end of his talk, holding on tightly to the last issue of the “Missing Link”, the University of Bristol Natural Sciences Magazine, that I’d dared to bring. He drew a little whale in the book I brought for him to sign and accepted to give me an interview.
Mark Carwardine began travelling around the world with Douglas Adams in 1988 to look for some of our planet’s most endangered species. They made a successful radio series about it and subsequently wrote a book describing their adventures which became a best-seller.
“Originally, Douglas stuck pins in a world map as where he would really like to go… And then I stuck pins where the endangered species are and we compromised and went for a mixture… but the whole idea was to pick animals that aren’t to obvious to most people and to pick the ones that are really charismatic and really different like the Aye-Aye and the Komodo Dragon. And of course at that time most people haven’t had heard of most of these animals.”
Each chapter of the book covers one of the trips made by the pair. The first one tells us about the time they met in 1985 when Douglas Adams was sent to Madagascar with Mark to look for the almost extinct Aye-aye. The encounter finishes with Douglas Adams saying to Mark : “I’ve just got a couples of novels to write, but, er, what are you doing in 1988?”
They began their adventures journeying to Komodo to see its famous Dragon. On their way to meet the White Rhino in Zaïre, they saw the Mountain Gorillas, then on to search for the Kakapo in New-Zealand, the Yangtze river dolphin in China and on the last leg of their epic journey they found the Rodrigues fruit bat in Mauritius.
“They are really different, each one represents a different issue. So one might represent haunting and poaching and another one would be Rainforest destruction and so on so you cover different themes within each chapter and have a whole range of different animals.“ Mark had a sip of his orange juice, looking grave. “I think they listed the latest account, 16 300 endangered animals and plants you can chose from, so everything from the Giant panda, which everyone has heard of, to the No-eyed Big-eyed Wolf Spider which is in Hawaii, that nobody has heard of.”
Mark just started filming a BBC TV series at the beginning of 2008 inspired by his book “Last Chance To See”. In January, he went to the heart of the Brazilian Amazon with Steven Fry to film the Amazonian manatee. There, they joined their forces to produce a the series that they are now co-presenting.
The unusual partnership of Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine made the book simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Mark ensured me that they will keep this spirit in the series.
“I did the travels with Douglas Adams twenty years ago and so there is a history, we can actually have a look back for the first time ever in a TV series. We have a chance to see what has happened over a long period of time, see how the animals that we went to look for are doing. Douglas died, about six years ago now and he was good friends with Stephen Fry, who I knew. Stephen seemed like the obvious person to take his place being genuinely interested in wildlife and conservation, so I contacted him and he said he’d like to. We took the opportunity with the twenty year anniversary to look back. We are looking for partly the original animals, and partly a whole load of new ones.
The aim of the series is to get people who wouldn’t normally watch a wildlife program or a wildlife series to think about conservation. The whole idea was not to have a heavy documentary style that only very keen people would watch but no one else would… because it’s too boring!
On working with Steven
Steven Fry has a much more popular appeal, a whole different take on it. The first program we have maid has loads of very funny bits and it’s very entertaining as well as having a serious thing, and I think that’s the aim of the series. It will maybe attract people not necessarily that interested because of Stephen and everyone will go away with at least some sort o idea of what conservation is all about. So the whole idea is it’s entertainment and there’s a message.
Stephen has an incredible knowledge about everything already but he hasn’t been to the majority of these places, hasn’t done roughing it very much and so that’s all a big adventure and a new experience for him. The idea is to look at things from a fresh perspective; if you’ve been involved in conservation for a long time you don’t necessarily see things from a side view, which is interesting. I went originally to all the places and I’ve been back since and know them reasonably well. I act then as a guide, introducing them to people and then in between we go of with Stephen, looking for the animals.”
The book was a real success and had such an impact on many people that I wondered what Mark was expecting from the series.
“I spoke to people who said that as a result of reading it they change their career and got involved in conservation and so on. That’s fantastic! That’s exactly what we hope might happen. Television has a much bigger impact than a book in many ways so who knows, it might just hit a pool of people to go off and do something. I think the more people who actually can be aware of some of the details of what’s happening in conservation rather than that sort of background noise of observation, then the better.”
Of course it has been proved many times in the past, wildlife TV programmes have helped to shape attitudes towards nature and conservation. So what is the best way to do it?
“It’s got to be a combination of hope and shock. If you have a completely negative television series it would be too depressing and everyone would give up. It’s like walking around and say: The end of the world is now! It’s not a good way of inspiring people. So it’s much more important to say: We’ve got really serious problems and not pretend they’re not serious, but then meet the people who are devoting their lives to doing something about it and learn what needs to be done and how it can be done and thus inspire people to do something. We have to be honest but we also have to make the point that there’s actually something that could be done, that most of these animals can be protected and saved if there is the world to do it. It’s a matter of hitting a balance between honesty and inspiration. I think that’s where individual people come in. Most of them have been there all these years and they are still devoting their lives to saving individual species. In most cases a lot of these species have been really seriously endangered that are still here because of the few individuals, not because of big conservation groups, meeting or conferences. These individuals live in the field and do everything in their power to save them. That is really inspiring, the fact that one person can make the difference, it’s cliché but it’s true.”
Because some of the species they went to see are even more threatened now than twenty years ago (The White Rhino and the Yangtze river dolphin are even believed to be extinct), I thought that finding them again would be more difficult now but Mark’s views were different.
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t phone or email these places so we had to do it by telex which banged away one letter at that time and the message came out. It took us ages to get replies and it was much more difficult travelling around. Now you email and you get a reply that same day, you can fly to many more places we could then, there were boat trips to islands and there’s tourism and so on… so setting up the trips is a lot easier. In most cases the same people are there, working on the same animals. We were in the Amazon doing the first shoot and we met the same lady who was already studying the Amazonian manatee twenty years ago when Doug an I first met her in the same place. But the actual finding of the animals is going to vary, two of the eight species we picked for the book are now extinct… that says everything. Some of them are doing better than twenty years ago; the Aye-aye is now relatively easy to see, whereas it wasn’t when we went. The Komodo Dragon is pretty much the same and the Kakapo is doing a little better".
This reminded me of an interview made after the filming of “Planet Earth”, some of the crew members were also working on “Life on Earth” filmed twenty years beforehand. They were saying how they were both depressed and touched after coming to the same places and finding them completely changed and even sometimes destroyed by human intervention. Did he fear that happening to him?
“All the time. You rarely go back somewhere and see it has improved, nearly everywhere you go back two years later and it’s worse. There’s less wildlife and there’s more people. They’re places where you could go and be the only one in the whole reserve or national park and now there are hundreds of thousands of people and the wildlife is in general harder to see. It is quite depressing sometimes travelling around the world because you really do see a decline. A man I was talking to the other day was describing a scene in East Africa with 72 vehicles of Tourists around one pride of Lions…But tourism can help as well, there would be no Mountain Gorillas without it. It has to be well managed though so you have a situation where the money from tourism is being put back into national parks or into conservation of species and habitats but where it’s not allowed to get out of hands and destroy the wildlife. It’s a really delicate balance and you don’t get that many places who got it right.”
Mark Carwardine continued telling me about conservation and I couldn’t stop asking him questions about his marvellous adventures. I saw the twinkle in his eyes every time he was describing one of his favourites wildlife encounters.
“I think watching blue whales from the air, in an aircraft with the door off is pretty spectacular… because you get the idea of the scale of the animal slowly swimming below, that’s quite exciting.”
I remember with shame hearing myself saying: “You don’t even realise how lucky you are…” He looked right into my eyes and smiled. “No, I do!” When he had to go, we said goodbye and I walked away feeling ten feet tall.
I would like to thank Rachel Ashton and of course Mark Carwardine for their generous help. (written in small)
The final line-up is still being discussed (there are currently no fewer than 16,306 endangered species to choose from) but this is the plan so far:
PROGRAMME 1: Amazonian manatee and West Indian manatee (Brazil and Florida).
PROGRAMME 2: Northern white rhino (now extinct), mountain gorilla and African lion (Uganda and Congo).
PROGRAMME 3: Aye-aye (Madagascar).
PROGRAMME 4: Kakapo (New Zealand).
PROGRAMME 5: Komodo dragon (Indonesia).
PROGRAMME 6: Yangtze river dolphin (China) and a selection of endangered whales, dolphins and porpoises (Mexico).
Please visit : http://www.bbc.co.uk/lastchancetosee/ to follow Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine online in their incredible journey to some of the most remote places on earth in search of animals on the edge of extinction through exclusive video and blogs.