Where in the World...Turning a 20-year-old radio series and book into a new TV series.
Twenty years ago Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine set out on the trail of various animals teetering on the edge of extinction. The idea of a television series seemed simple enough. Twenty years after the original expeditions, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine would head out in search of the same species to see what has happened to both the animals and the conservation efforts that surrounded them in the intervening two decades. We immediately hit on a number of problems.
Firstly, there are some discrepancies between the animals featured in the book and radio series Last Chance to See. A vigorous debate ensued over which was the real Last Chance to See and therefore which we were catching up on. In the end we rolled the whole thing together and considered all of the animals from the book and radio series fair game for the television series. That is why lovers of the radio series, who may not have read the book (and vica versa), may find us heading off in search of something that you have never heard of.
The next problem was that some of the target species have actually become extinct and making an hour-long film about two men hunting for an extinct animal is tough, even when one of them is Stephen Fry. Having said that, we felt that it was important to put on record that some of the species have vanished. In 2006 a survey found no trace of the Yangtze River Dolphin and the species was declared "in all probability extinct". It is our intention to note the fact, to look at what became of the dolphin and then head off in search of other whales and dolphins to see what is being done to ensure their survival. So, for the series we lose the river dolphin but we gain Blue Whales and Grey Whales.
In the original series Douglas and Mark spent a lot of time waiting for a flight to take them to an island off the coast of Chile where they hoped to hunt for the Juan Fernandez Fur Seal. In fact, when the little plane finally put the intrepid explorers down on the island, the fur seals were virtually lolling on the runway. We decided that a repetition of this event hardly constituted an adventure for our modern day animal hunters, so we sidelined the fur seal. For the record, however, after reports of the seal's extinction in the mid twentieth century a population of 200 were found and protected. The result of the protection is a current population of about 10,000 animals. So they didn't get to be on TV, but they aren't complaining.
The Northern White Rhino presented us with a unique problem all of its own. Firstly there are said to be only four remaining in the wild. Secondly, the four remaining animals live in thousands of square kilometres of dense rainforest and no one has seen them for a year. And thirdly, they are in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area currently occupied by a particularly unpredictable para-military organisation. The area is consequently currently listed by the BBC as a grade one hostile environment so we decided to miss out on the Northern White Rhino, though we will be getting as close as we can. We hope to tell the story of the Rhino and many other species including other rhino, gorillas and chimps that have been affected by the conflict in the Congo in recent years.
Some species were obvious candidates for the new series. The Amazonian Manatee was endangered 20 years ago and it still is. The Aye-Aye of Madagascar (a strange gremlin-like lemur that is the subject of much superstition) is still with us, and the Komodo Dragon, a giant lizard with saliva so toxic a single bite can kill an adult, is still happy to receive visitors. So half of the series is reasonably straightforward. The rest is trickier. And I would like to report more fully on exactly how we have decided to tackle the trickier areas, but the truth is that at the moment the debate still rages, frantic phone calls are still being made at strange hours to even stranger locations around the world, and the pros and cons of various possibilities continue to be bashed out on a daily basis. By the time this series goes to air we may yet be hacking through the forests of the Congo, dodging bullets, in search of the Northern White Rhino.
Tim Green, Series Producer, Last Chance to See