At the unlikely age of six, the animal-loving Gerald Durrell took a momentous decision and informed his mother he was going to build his own zoo. Luckily for us and for the wildlife he helped pull back from the brink of extinction, that is exactly what eventually happened. Gerry, as the naturalist, conservationist, and author was affectionately called, set up a wonderful zoo on the isle of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. Durrell Wildlife Park is one the world’s finest zoos: Its raison d’être is to captive-breed endangered animals with the intention of eventually returning them to the wild.
I first read Durrell’s My Family & Other Animals when I was 12, and his inspirational work played a role in setting me on my path for life. I work to conserve wild animals and forests—a friend calls me nature’s advocate—and have set up a trust called Bagh for this purpose. In fact, like me, many conservationists can attribute their wild ways to Durrell’s influence. Not surprisingly, I’ve long dreamt of visiting the zoo that he set up. I was years too late to meet the great man who died in 1995, but the first thing I did when I travelled to the U.K. early this year, was to plan a trip to Jersey. I had to make my date with his family and other animals.
The Channel Islands are picture-postcard pretty and an A-list destination for tourists and businessmen (it’s a tax haven) alike. But to me, the sun, sand, and sea were merely an exquisite background to the wildlife park. Besides reviving threatened species, Durrell’s “army”, part of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust that he established, also works in habitat conservation, striving to ensure that there is a wilderness for the animals to return to. The trust also runs a training academy for zoo and conservation professionals. Its logo is the dodo, the bird that is now an infamous symbol of extinction.
Durrell’s wife, Lee, is a gracious, courageous, and remarkable woman. Like her husband, she is a conservationist and author, as well as a scientist and pilot. The first “animal” I encountered at the park was “Gerry’s favourite”, she told me with a wink. Just like me, she too first met Durrell in the pages of My Family & Other Animals, reading it by a kerosene lamp in remote Madagascar, occasionally laughing out aloud to the bewilderment of a rescued fruit bat that was her companion. She eventually met her life partner at a lemur breeding programme at Duke University.
Durrell’s ideal zoo, described in his book The Stationary Ark, is one that saves and nurtures animals that are most in need of protection. Most of his ark’s creatures have been saved from extinction, making them all the more special. For instance, the portly, pink pigeon from Mauritius with its bright red lipstick and kajal, which would have gone the way of the extinct passenger pigeon had it not fortuitously encountered Durrell. Once reduced to just 16 survivors, there are now about 400 pink pigeons cooing and flying around their island home. At the zoo, I had the opportunity to meet one. His name was Giuseppe, sweetly named after his keeper’s father with whom he shares a birthday.
The golden-domed ploughshare tortoise is another threatened species found at the zoo, as are the delightful ring-tailed lemurs. Both are endemic to the island of Madagascar. The exuberant primates have striking banded tails and perky pointed ears; they yodel and shriek as they jump from branch to branch. One curious creature came close by to inspect me, with the same curiosity with which I was examining him.
The nicest part of the Durrell philosophy is that the trust also fusses over obscure, maligned creatures that are mostly neglected by other organisations. Bats, for instance, have a place of honour here, and I spent a fascinating hour watching these endearing (what else can an animal that hangs and walks upside down be?) flying mammals. Their young keeper walked nonchalantly through the aviary, checking feeds and water as endangered Livingstone and Rodrigues fruit bats flew around her.
From there I wandered toward the reptile house, which houses everything from Komodo dragons to boas, skinks, and iguanas. Poison frogs glowed like beautiful jewels, their bright colours advertising their deadly nature and serving as a warning to enemies. Unfortunately, their dazzling shades have made them collectors’ items, and they are heavily traded in the illegal wildlife market.
Besides being Hollywood stars, most recently in Life of Pi, meerkats are cute and hilarious. Almost apologetically, their keepers explain that they are here even though they aren’t endangered as they are excellent “box-office” draws for visitors. I watched a mob of them stand in a row, alert and erect like soldiers, and then quite suddenly nod off, falling to the ground asleep.
I also saw otter pups at play, got a ringside view of flamingos in a mating dance, saw the very rare mountain chicken which is really a frog, and caught a glimpse of the gorgeous and extremely rare monkey, the golden lion tamarin. As I watched, I felt unbelievably sad about what we are doing to the awe-inspiring array of life that makes this planet vibrant and beautiful. The thought preyed on my mind when I met the park’s handsome gorillas. A mischievous little one scampered in all directions ignoring its mother’s increasingly angry instructions. Sitting quietly, I watched them for hours. What about them held me so captive? Was it that they were such joy to observe? Or was it the connection I felt, as I looked into the eyes of the elderly silverback sitting against a tree, almost as if he was contemplating life? When he lifted his great head and stared at me unblinking, I had the strange feeling that his thoughts mirrored mine, that he knew we were kin—after all we share nearly 98 per cent of our DNA. But I felt like the nasty, greedy cousin who had somehow betrayed his ilk.
One of the most wonderful parts of the park is “Gerald Durrell’s story”, a visual history of his life and times. The museum offers an aesthetic and humorous account of Durrell’s extraordinary journey: his unusual childhood, even his Indian connection (he was born in Jamshedpur), the animals and people he met on his expeditions, how he set up this zoo and achieved his vision.
During my three-day visit, I spent a lot of time with the animals. Wandering around, I saw that each species’ lodging was created just the way they’d want it, with big, leafy dwellings for the gorillas, hot and humid environments for the bats, and so on. There is a vet on call, most of the animals’ food is grown on the premises and prepared with care.
The keepers are bright, compassionate, and committed, making this really the perfect ark. There is no ambiguity about the pecking order: Animals come first. I don’t think Homo sapiens can become part of Durrell’s family of animals, but I would most certainly like to apply.
Pen and ink sketches by the late Gerald Durrell have been reproduced with the permission of the estate of Gerald Durrell.
Les Augrès Manor, a 19th century manor house on Jersey island, is the headquarter of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Photo: Gordon Shoosmith/Alamy/Indiapicture
Orientation Durrell Wildlife Park is located in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, which is an archipelago of the British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, just off the coast of Normandy, France. In addition to the park, the island also has beautiful beaches, great walks, shopping, and the Jersey War tunnels, which tell the story of German occupation during WWII.
Getting There Jersey is an hour’s flight from London and a good side trip on a visit to that city. If you book in advance it is possible to get flights for about £26/₹2,400 one way.
Entry Durrell Wildlife Park is open daily 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults £14.50/₹1,388, children 10/₹957, senior citizens 12.50/₹1,148, students 12/₹1,956; +44-0-1534-860045; www.durrell.org.
Stay Visitors can also stay overnight at the campus. There are luxury tents (£480/₹44,500 for a three-night package; tents accommodate two adults and two children; one- or two-night options available on request) and the Durrell Wildlife Hostel (£30/₹2,780 per night per person), which offers great value for money. I stayed at the latter, which is located in a traditional Jersey farmhouse, and found it very comfortable. There’s a cosy lounge for relaxation with a well-stocked selection of wildlife books. However, getting a room here can be tough, unless you book in advance (www.durrell.org/wildlife-park/#stay).
Shop Besides Gerald Durrell’s books, visitors can purchase lovely souvenirs at the zoo shop, including pricey limited-edition prints of sketches by Durrell. All proceeds from sales are put back into the wildlife park and its conservation efforts.
Prerna Singh Bindra
is a writer, conservationist, and a wanderer of wild places. She has served on India’s National Board for Wildlife, edits TigerLink, and has established Bagh, a trust that aims to secure India’s wildlife and its habitats.
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