Determined to save endangered animals from extinction

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Cape Argus

September 4, 1997
Posted to the web September 4, 1997

John Yeld
Cape Town

Admiring visitors to the late Gerald Durrell's world-famous haven for critically-endangered animals in Jersey praise the staff for dedicated efforts that sometimes verge on the miraculous.

But restoring extinct species is just too much to expect, even for these experienced hands.

This is confirmed with a laugh by Lee Durrell, Gerald's widow and the zoo's honorary director, who is visiting Cape Town this week as guest of the Wildlife and Environment Society.

"It's so heart-breaking," she told the Cape Argus. "Some of those children come up to me and and say, 'I hear you've got the extinct dodo here in your zoo. Can I see them?' And I have to say 'Oh no, extinction means you can't see them ever again!"

Dr Durrell, an internationally-respected zoologist and author in her own right, married Gerald in 1979.

The famous author, naturalist and zoo-keeper extraordinaire had already established his unique animal sanctuary on the Channel Island of Jersey, when, in 1977, he was invited to give a lecture at Duke University in North Carolina, where Lee was writing up her PhD thesis and running biology courses.

As biographical notes explain with typical Durrell humour, he was introduced to the young post-graduate student and quickly adopted a behaviour pattern instantly recognisable to animal observers - the courtship display.

When they married two years later, Gerald claimed with characteristic overstatement that he was the only man in the world to be married for his zoo, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust.

At his sanctuary, he was busy developing conservation programmes for critically-endangered species, some of whose populations had fallen to as low as just 10 individual animals, and which were were in imminent danger of extinction.

The surviving animals were safely housed at the zoo and, in many cases, were persuaded through careful handling to breed. This in turn allowed the re-introduction of their offspring into their original natural ranges, as the nucleus of viable wild populations.

Since Gerald's death in 1995, Dr Durrell has continued this work as honorary director of the zoo, as well as being involved in many other conservation activities of her own.

It's not her first visit to South Africa. She passed through Johannesburg airport once on her way back from Madagascar, where she's done much of her research, and she and Gerry (as she refers to him) visited Umfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in 1983 while working on their book, The Amateur Naturalist.

"But I've never been down to the Cape region, which I've always wanted to do, because I rather like plants as well as animals.

"Your Cape floral kingdom is very important," she said.

Asked whether spending so much of her time working with critically-endangered species made her pessimistic about the environmental state of the planet, she responded by quoting Michael Soule, the father of conservation: "There are no hopeless cases, only people without hope."

She and Gerry believed strongly in what they were doing, Dr Durrell said.

"We specialised in what would seem to be hopeless cases - animals down to fewer than 10 or 20 (individuals) - and both of us agreed we couldn't really do anything else.

"The usual reason for these populations getting down so low is that their habitat has been destroyed, and there are enormous pressures on these animals.

"So it's a great, huge, uphill battle. Because we've orientated our work towards the individual species themselves, our particular work might seem to the outside world to be a sort of fire-fighting, you might say, in spots here and there.

"We do think in terms of the global picture, but people understand the issues better when they have a particular animal they can identify with, or bond with."

This approach had enormous, positive benefits, as had been confirmed by their conservation work with lion tamarins in Brazil, Dr Durrell said.

"Lion tamarins are just very appealing little monkeys, but the results of that work have been not only getting that species close to viable populations again, but also saving bits of the rain forest and developing an environmental ethic among the local people, thereby saving lots of other species and habitat, and, indeed, good quality environment for human beings.

"But we maintain our thrust on species conservation, because it's very important to remain focused and not to diffuse your energies all over the place."

So is she pessimistic or optimistic?

"Isn't it hard to say?" she responded. "There are so many people on the planet now and there are going to be so many more, even if family planning took hold now.

"It's pretty grim, and we can all but try. And in that trying, in the long run, it's going to be a better planet for people as well as animals."

One of the most controversial conservation issues was the notion of the "sustainable utilisation of species", which usually involved killing the individual animal. (In simple terms, sustainable utilisation of species means using animals and their products - such as ivory - in a conservative way, so as not to threaten the long-term survival of those species).

In the case of the African elephant, this debate came to a head during the meeting of members of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species - more commonly known by its acronym Cites - in Harare in June.

Here, decisions taken at earlier Cites' meetings were reversed, and applications from African states, including Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, to resume trading in raw and manufactured ivory, were approved by a convincing margin.

Dr Durrell is familiar with Cites and the issues, although she displays some reluctance to comment - at least as far as the elephant controversy is concerned.

She agrees it's difficult to argue against the principles of sustainable use, but suggests these need to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis.

And it's quite clear where her particular sympathies lie.

"One kind of wonders, why don't people want to talk about beauty and inspiration and spiritualism? But that's not very fashionable now," she said.

For Dr Durrell, utilisation means much more than mere materialism.

"It's loving nature and wanting it around you. Living things have a right to exist, virtually on an equal basis (with humans), in my opinion."

Copyright © 2001 Cape Argus. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (

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