Review: The Aye-aye and I – Gerald Durrell
Gerald Durrell, the comedic naturalist famed for his witty tales of animal encounters during his colonial upbringing, tells the tale of an Expedition to Madagascar in 1992.During the trip, funded by various western conservation initiatives, the research team explores various corners of this island often termed ‘The Galapagos of Africa’, and Durrell provides us with many hilarious and eye-opening anecdotes to a country that is rarely mentioned and hardly travelled.
The Expedition aims to collect various specimens of vulnerable or endangered species to keep in international zoos, as an insurance policy against the deterioration of their wild populations in their native Madagascar; the theory termed ‘The Ark’ was popular during this era of conservation. Species collected included the Ploughshare tortoise, the gentle lemur, and the notorious aye-aye, all of which are vulnerable to conflict with expanding human populations in their homeland of Madagascar.
‘I once described Madasgascar as looking like a badly presented omlette… like all the best omlettes, well or badly presented, it is stuffed with goodies’.
The aye-aye, to which the book holds its title, is a unique primate which utilises echolocation during feeding; a long finger will tap branches and listen for echoes of creatures that may inhabit the tree trunks. Durrell describes his first encounter with the aye-aye:
“Then, to my alarm, it discovered my ear. ‘Here’, it seemed to say to itself, ‘must lurk a beetle larva of royal proportions and of utmost succulence’. It fondled my ear as a gourmet fondles a menu, and then, with great care, it inserted its thin finger”.
Sadly to be his last major venture before his death in 1995, Durrell’s book ‘The aye-aye and I’ tells of Madagascar 20 years ago. Slash and burn, an agricultural method used extraordinarily loosely in rural Madagascar, is hugely threatening to the future of the islands forests and wildlife. During a recent trip to Madagascar to undertake a research Expedition myself, I found his predictions of the future are by all means accurate, though I have even observed very little or no changes since his described visit.
‘To the unarticulated eye, these hills looked pleasantly green and lush but in twenty or so years they would bring disaster for those that lived amongst them and endeavoured to obtain a living from the ever-decreasing soil’.
Though the Expedition encounters many problems ranging from violent river crossings to a case of cerebral malaria, it concludes successful, with many collected specimens taken to zoos abroad for conservation purposes. You can read more about the Durrell Conservation initiatives at their website, and find out how you can get involved.
Durrell’s comedic writing is poetic and full of imagery; his fondness of nature’s animals and plants shining through. Attenborough comments that ‘he was truely a man before his time’; we can only wish for the next generation to love and care for out diminishing environment.
‘If, with our help and the help of others, remnants of the wonderful island of Madagascar can be saved and we can return the princeling’s progeny to them that, in some way, would be man’s apology for the way he has treated nature’