Earlier this month we went to The Explorers Club in New York City to see Lee Durrell, Honorary Director of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Durrell was touring the United States speaking and raising money for the Trust started by her late husband, Gerald Durrell, in 1963 to work with perilously endangered species. Afterward, we spoke with Lee about the Trust, the long lost dodo, and the ways in which humans have impacted wildlife in every corner of the world.
How did you first become interested in nature and animals?
My very earliest memories are of when I was three years old – my grandfather built me what we called ‘the frog box’. I just innately loved animals and was always looking for them in the yard. My frog was the first animal that I had, and my grandfather made this simple rustic house for him. Then when I was four or five, I got a bride doll for Christmas that came with a little trunk where you could hang up her clothes, really very old fashioned. Well, I took the doll and all of her clothes out and put in a dead squirrel instead. I walked around with it for days and days until my mother found out what I had in there and very nearly had a heart attack!
After that I kept at it in school and studied biology. I went to Bryn Mawr and went into Advanced Biology because I’d done well to that point. The first day they asked me if I’d ever dissected the head of a dogfish. I didn’t even know what a dogfish was! If that was some sort of test, I failed it miserably, so I decided to major in philosophy instead. This was back in the 60s when people did that sort of thing, I was a flower child and all that. But I maintained some electives in biology so I had enough to go on to grad school in the Zoology Department at Duke.
Lee Durrell in Madagascar, 1974
When you were studying for your PhD at Duke, what did you plan to do as a career at that point?
My life plan didn’t extend much further than just being an academic. I was doing my PhD and I figured that I would be a professor somewhere and live at a university and all that. Then one day I was invited by my professors at Duke to a dinner party with the great Gerald Durrell, the author. And I thought “Wow, this is my hero” – it was very exciting. I had lived in Madagascar doing research and I had checked his books out of the mission library and read them avidly. And I was being invited, I’m sure, because I had lived in Madagascar, which was something rather exotic.
I’ll never forget when he walked into the room. It was at one of the professor’s houses. Gerry walked into the room with a powder blue suit on and his hair like a flowing white mane. He was so charismatic, he walked in and the whole room just lit up with his personality. It was extraordinary. And here I was, this child in awe. I wasn’t actually a child, I was 27 at the time. Anyway, he made kind of a bee-line for me. I was a young, attractive woman in the midst of all of these crusty old male professors. Then we all had to drive to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and he said straight away “I’ll go with Lee”. I immediately thought of my old Karmann Ghia outside filled with dead leaves and dog hair. So we led this cortege of professors because I was the only one who knew where the restaurant was. We were talking and yakking and of course got lost. It was a lot of fun talking to this person who was a hero about his dreams and what he was doing. He told me he was very keen on animal behavior, which is what I was studying, particularly animal vocalization. He got in touch a few weeks later and told me he’d been thinking of setting up a sound laboratory on the island of Jersey at his zoo. He told a story about a little old lady who had left him a bit of money and he wanted to fly me there to help set up the lab. It turned out to be a complete fabrication, but I went in January 1978 and it became pretty obvious, pretty quickly that I wasn’t there for a sound laboratory. I stayed for almost three weeks and by the end we had decided to get married. We got married in May 1979 in Memphis.
Lee and Gerald Durrell
Can you tell us a bit about Gerry’s background and how he originally founded the Trust?
When Gerry was 10 years old in the 1930s his rather eccentric family decided to move to the Greek island of Corfu. They were looking for sunshine, having been frozen out of England with the terrible weather. This is where he discovered his deep and abiding passion for the animal kingdom. Gerry wrote a book about his magical childhood in Corfu called My Family and Other Animals. Next year is the 60th anniversary of the book.
He never outgrew his fascination for animals, and when he grew up he became an animal collector for zoos. He went on collecting trips to South America and West Africa and would bring animals back to the ports in England to be sold to the highest bidder. But he became very frustrated and upset when the animals died in captivity – zoos back then were little more than menageries. And the people at the zoos would say “Don’t worry, there are plenty more where they came from”. This was the 40s and early 50s. And he knew that simply was not the case, that he was witnessing the effects of habitat loss and degradation, overhunting and pollution even. So he determined to have a zoo of his own which would be devoted to helping species survive through breeding and then releasing them back into the wild.
He went on expedition to West Africa and brought animals back to his sister’s garden in Bournemouth, a sleepy resort town in southern England. He wanted to establish his zoo there, but after nothing concrete happened for two years, the neighbors became less than keen on his makeshift zoo in the garden! He’d become a fairly famous author by this time and his publisher suggested going to the Channel Islands, which were a group of islands called Crown Dependencies lying between England and France. So in 1958 Gerry went down to an island called Jersey and leased a property, opening a little zoo there in 1959. In 1963 he set up a non-profit, Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, devoted to saving species from extinction. He chose for its symbol the dodo, an extinct bird from Mauritius.
Why was the dodo specifically chosen to represent the Trust?
The dodo became extinct 100 years after it was discovered by Europeans. It was discovered in the 1500s and, although the date is controversial, let’s say it was extinct by 1681. This was due to overhunting for food, but aside from that – because apparently it really didn’t taste that good – it happened because sailors brought dogs, cats, rats, monkeys and other sorts of invasive species to Mauritius and left them there. Those species are perfectly fine in their own homelands and their own ecosystems where they evolved, but when you put them in a new place where there are no checks and balances, no predators or competition, they can devastate an area and the indigenous species very quickly. So the poor dodo was hunted by people and out-competed by pigs and rats and things like that. Their eggs were eaten, too, and it eventually just disappeared. People thought it was a mythical bird for a couple of hundred years until the mid 19th century when bones were discovered, and they finally understood that it was a real creature that had actually existed. So it became a symbol of extinction. Gerry chose it to say “this is what can happen when human beings interfere with a natural system”.
We’ve heard Gerald called the champion of the LBJ’s. What does that refer to?
Gerry was very keen on the smaller animals, the more obscure animals. Baby bears were a great draw to the public and made the zoo money, but Gerry felt that all animals are important as nuts and bolts to the workings of the ecosystems of the planet. He believed that the small, humble creatures had just as much right to exist as all the others. He became known as the champion of what he called the “little brown jobs” or “LBJs”.
The Mountain Chicken, one of the world's largest frogs.
How was the Trust’s Academy started?
In the 1970s one of Gerry’s dreams and priorities was to turn his zoo in Jersey into a kind of mini-university for conservation - to bring people from around the world to work with our staff, study our species and learn how to do the hands-on of endangered species recovery. Our first student was Youssef Mungroo from Mauritius. He studied with us for a year and went back to Mauritius and became Director of National Parks there.
Do most graduates of the Academy keep working for you?
It depends, some do, but normally they go back to their own jobs in their own countries. There’s a great range of people – they might be strict conservationists working in a zoo or a national park or they might be a veterinarian or educator. Some of our students go through a life-changing experience with us. They could be a banker or something like that, and they decide they want to change and do something good for the world. They never go back to being a banker after our program. You’re bringing together people from so many different cultures and places, and they don’t feel alone anymore. Generally speaking, they’re frustrated by conservation issues in their own country and they think their country is the worst place in the world and has all the problems and is the most corrupt. They feel they can’t do anything to change it, but they come to one of our courses and meet people from other countries, even more developed countries that face the same issues, and then they all bond and it’s really extraordinary to watch. It’s why we call them Durrell’s Army.
The Trust has had such amazing success and has made such an impact, but do you ever feel overwhelmed by how much more there is to do?
The overall picture does get one very, very frustrated and fed up and sad about the situation in the world, but Gerry always said, you can’t just give up. If you give up, you’ve definitely failed, but if you keep on, even though it seems like an impossible task, there’s that little glimmer of hope for success. And we’ve succeeded in a lot of different ways that keep me going, even though it’s often two steps forward and one or two back, and then another step forward. For all the success stories there are certainly failures, but we just have to keep trying and trying again. That’s why our Academy is so good. It’s for conservationists who have been working alone in their own countries, feeling isolated and frustrated, and then the Academy brings these like-minded people together and gives them hope and purpose to take home with them.
We’re interested to know what impact your work with animals and habitat conservation has on life in modern society, specifically regarding environmentalism. For example, so many things we use in daily life are made of plastic, but plastic pollution is so devastating to the natural environment and animal species.
Yes, plastic packaging – you try so hard to avoid it but you can’t get away from it. I think a person operates on several levels. One is on a really personal level, so for example, I try hard not to use plastic bags. I’ve done that for years, and we had a big campaign in Jersey to ban plastic bags and that was actually fairly successful. So it’s making choices in your personal life that align with your ethics – eat line-caught fish, for example, try to keep the air miles of your food down, eat local, that sort of thing. On the other hand that could be doing some poor person out of a job! So it’s complicated, but you make a personal commitment to what you feel is right. And then in your work, you have to try to do something as well to balance things out. And you cannot do everything, but if everybody did some bit, just imagine, it would be quite amazing. Even really simple things – it’s cliché, but turn out the lights when you go out of a room, don’t run the water when you brush your teeth, don’t take a plastic bag at the grocery store. If everybody did these things, what a difference it would make.
Where do you see Durrell 10 years from now, 50 years from now?
That’s a very good question. Conservation is such a long term commitment. The projects we’re doing now, I know we’ll still be involved in them in ten years time. Our Chief Scientist says we have to plan for 100 years from now. We won’t be here, but we have got to make sure that these ecosystems that we’re restoring and the species within them persist. And it’s going to take a lot of human management for that to happen. The recovery of these things can take years and years. A little bird we work with, the Mauritius kestrel, was down to four individuals when we started in the mid 70’s and now there are 350. That’s better than four, but still not very many. We’re working with them, monitoring the situation and trying to figure out why the population isn’t increasing.
In the 70s Gerry was starting to think about habitat restoration. There was an island off the coast of Mauritius, Round Island, only about 320 acres in size. During the previous century sailors had released goats and rabbits onto the island so that they could have fresh meat when they sailed back through the region the next year. Those species absolutely devastated the island. They ate through the vegetation, the land became like an eroded moonscape and the native animal species suffered. In the 1980s we started removing the invasive animals, and almost immediately the island began to green up. With the green came the insects, and with the insects came the food for the little reptiles, and when the lizards grew in number, the snakes had something to eat. Habitats are very resilient if you just treat them properly. The restoration of Round Island is something we’re very proud of, but there’s still work to do today. A lot of the green that came back were weeds and invasive plants and they were still choking out the other plants, so what we’ve done is introduce a species of big grazing tortoise from Aldabra, which is similar to the tortoise that was native to Round Island but became extinct. They’re eating the weeds and leaving the native plants to grow up. It’s just amazing! But restoring the island to anything like its former glory will continue to take human monitoring and intervention for years to come.
We’ve so screwed up the world that we’re going to have to manage species both in captivity and in the wild, and there’s going to be a blurred distinction between the two. Just like we’re doing with the crow-like birds called the red-billed choughs that we work with. They became extinct in Jersey about a hundred years ago, but we got some individuals from a zoo in Cornwall, trained them to come to a whistle, and then we released them on the north coast where the species used to live. They’re thriving and have even had a youngster, but they still come back at the whistle to feed because at the moment there’s not enough natural habitat for them. So it’s what we call a “soft release”, an intermediary between pure captive and pure wild. We’re working on improving the habitat for these choughs, of course, but in general, there’s not going to be much wild left in the world for most species. We humans have already touched too much of it. We’re just going to have to pull up our socks and be responsible for it.
A red-billed chough
Do you find there’s enough interest from young people to keep this going?
Our Academy has many interested young people working towards careers in conservation, but that’s not huge volume. To get young people switched on to all of this you have to inspire them when they are children, when they’re almost instinctively fascinated by the natural world. And then of course they have to go through their awkward teenage years, but some of them come back to what they loved so much. Unfortunately, the schools kind of beat it out of you – natural history, science, and the wild world are just not high on the agenda, but in my opinion these are the most important things people should learn about.
How can ordinary people get involved?
They can volunteer in small or big ways – we have about 200 people that come and do even simple tasks like chopping food to feed the animals or stuffing envelopes to send out newsletters. And that really helps a lot because then we don’t have to pay people to do those tasks that have to be done and we can spend the money on direct conservation. But most people can’t just give up their jobs and run off to do volunteer work full time. So I would say, volunteer as much as you can – a group of like-minded people can move mountains. Break off one piece that you’re interested in – you can’t tackle everything. Study it and research it and decide what you want to do with it, and then go for it.