I included Gerald Durrell in my top 10 heroes of wildlife conservation but as I’m off to stay at the Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey this weekend for my birthday (YAY!) I thought I’d write a bit more about him and then post a whole tonne of photos from my trip once I’m home. Also, Durrell has been a huge inspiration for me – he resparked my interest in the natural world and I now donate 10% of my profits from Beetle Cherry sales to the Trust. So its about time I wrote a blog post on him!
I first came across Gerald Durrell after reading his book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ while living in a house-share in the centre of Brighton, working every day in an office. I’d kind of lost my focus in life and spent a lot of time feeling like I was missing something. I don’t know what made me pick up his book, but it was one of those life changing moments, at least looking back anyway. I grew up in a village and spent quite a bit of my childhood outside, going on bike rides and family walking ‘holidays’ to the Lake District. But spending years living in the middle of Brighton, I’d forgotten what nature was, the only regular sightings I’d get were gangs of herring gulls going through bin bags, and the stoney beach, usually full of students or drunk Londoners. I found ‘My Family and Other Animals’ an eye-opening, inspiring book, detailing the Durrell family’s relocation to live on the sunny Greek island of Corfu and how Gerald (Gerry) spent his days finding and observing the wildlife. I quickly became obsessed with nature – reading books, watching documentaries, doing courses – but most importantly I started to notice the world around me. An interest in nature makes you appreciate life, and the small things in particular. I’d stop and watch the squirrels in St Ann’s Wells Park, or notice a blackbird singing. Durrell is one of my top conservation heroes because I rediscovered my love of nature through his writing, and because he completely reimagined the concept of a ‘zoo’ to become somewhere to focus on the survival of endangered animals.
The Durrells moved to Corfu in 1935 after they’d ‘sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows’. The Corfu trilogy of books describes their time on the island, and in particular of Gerry roaming free, exploring, finding animals and observing nature. He had a very influential tutor while on the island, Dr Theodore Stephanides, who taught him how to really study and think about the wildlife. Returning to England at the start of WWII, he worked at Whipsnade Zoo for a while before self-funding trips to exotic locations to collect animals, initially for other collectors. He wrote many, many books about his trips and it was while he was off on these foreign countries that be began to really see how endangered a lot of these animals were. Thats what kick-started the idea of setting up his own animal sanctuary, and so his later trips were very much focused on collecting a limited number of these most endangered animals to bring to Jersey to form part of his breeding programme. With the publication and huge success of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ in 1956, Durrell had funds, public recognition and contacts to start making this dream come true.
Durrell was a pioneer. He didn’t want a ‘zoo’ in the traditional sense, he wanted a place to help and protect endangered animals. His book The Stationary Ark, outlines his ideas: his focus would be on the animal, not the people visiting; their enclosures would reflect the size of their natural territories, as would the numbers of animals in that enclosure (some animals are social while others are solitary). He would give the animals places to curl up and hide away, and a variety of food and enrichment to keep their brains and bodies active. A lot of this sounds obvious to us today, but when he set up Jersey Zoo in 1959 this wasn’t the norm at all. He promoted the most important function of a zoo as to support endangered animals whose natural habitats are threatened and other forms of conservation have failed. The zoo would then serve its secondary function – to educate the public, raise awareness and funds, and allow conservationists and scientists to learn more about the animals through close observation.
Durrell was a champion of the ‘little brown jobs’ as he called them – the animals that may not be a huge crowd-pleaser but which desperately needed saving, such as the Giant Jumping Rat from Madagascar, and the Pink Kestrel and Pink Pigeon from Mauritius. He made sure he had a viable breeding population of each species and gave them the best habitats possible, whether that meant a good view for the visiting public or not. Its these different priorities that make Durrell Wildlife Park, located on the estate of Les Augres Manor on the island of Jersey, so much more than a zoo.
During the 1980s Durrell achieved a life-time dream – to start releasing animals they had bred in captivity back into the wild, such as the Ploughshare Tortoise (see above image – sorry for the dodgy photo, its from one of my Durrell member magazines!), Mountain Chicken, Echo Parakeet and the Black Lion Tamarin – see the Durrell Index (link below) for more detail. Many of these reintroduced animals have in turn helped to redevelop their ecosystems, improving the habitat for many other species. In 1978 he also set up his mini-university, the Durrell Conservation Academy, the aim of which was to teach and share skills with zoologists, conservationists and scientists from all over the world. Durrell set up so many important organisations and programmes that have gone on to have great impact, such as the World Land Trust (with David Attenborough) and launching the official ‘Saving Animals from Extinction’ appeal in 1991. In the last couple of years, the Durrell Index has been launched as a way of trying to assess relative success (or failure) of their conservation work.
Durrell died on 30th January 1995 following a variety of health issues. His second wife Lee is now the Honorary Director of the Trust, and his legacy more than lives on.
Of course, it would be so much better if we didn’t need these zoo sanctuaries and breeding programmes at all. It would be so much better if we could just let all animals be free and wild, and of course thats what Durrell wanted too. But as we destroy our planet, and are only very slowly coming to terms with what this means, sanctuaries like Durrell are the only places some of these animals can survive until their natural home is made available to them again. All conservationists want to see free animals, but the reality of our world today is different and changing. There is the argument of course that if the rainforest is being cut down then the orangutans will never have a wild home to go back to, so whats the point in breeding them and looking after them in zoos? But as the destroyers of their homes, we should at least try our very hardest to put it back together, and if that involves keeping some populations in wildlife parks (the kind that look after their animals and are working towards wild conservation, not the awful ones that are for entertainment, they are two completely and utterly different things) while we sort out the biological, political, social and economic mess that is destroying habitat then, personally, I think thats a step we must take. We just need to hope that progress is made with habitat conservation so that these populations are not destined for an eternity in captivity but can be released back into their wild homes. Reconnecting people with nature, whether through books such as Durrells or other experiences, are essential to the survival of our planet, animals, and ourselves.
More to come on Durrell after my trip, and lots of photos of amazing, weird and wonderful animals! Plus ITV are broadcasting a drama of My Family and Other Animals later in the year…