Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: The Overloaded Ark

Recently I finished a book, by that great source of conservation optimism and enthusiasm Gerald Durrell. As I’ve said before, whenever I feel a little disillusioned by the world and the current state of affairs, I always grab one of Durrell’s books and focus on the adventures detailed within. This meant that over the past week I consumed the pages of The Overloaded Ark as if it were a large dessert, savouring the taste but always wanting to go back for more. Durrell was a great story teller and his writing is always captivating. Little did I know before I started reading The Overloaded Ark, that it was his first piece of travel/collecting writing before he founded Jersey Zoo in 1959. The premise of the book is a collecting trip which ran between December 1947 and August 1948 in the former colony of British Cameroon (now Cameroon), and the trials and tribulations that come with it.

When Durrell was visiting Africa in the late 1940’s, it must have been a spectacular sight. The large areas of rainforest which he describes were still largely untouched, I suspect that it no longer the case for a number of reasons such as the expansion of logging and the ongoing political instability in the region. It wouldn’t surprise me that if these problems arose back during Durrell’s visit, he would have found a way to overcome them with a beer in one hand whilst puffing on a cigarette. This may sound a little far-fetched to some, but having read a number of his works, it is clear that as well as being passionate about conservation and protecting wildlife, the man was also a genius. Durrell’s ability to problem solve and overcome difficult situations are admirable, especially given that in most circumstances he was faced with few tools or materials in order to do so. I’m not sure that I would have been able to spend 9 months in Cameroon collecting animals whilst ensuring that they all had adequate housing and were in good health, before going off to the zoos that had commissioned their capture. Obviously back then, zoos operated in a very different manner when it came to collecting animals as I’m sure most are aware if they’ve ever seen Zoo Quest with a very young Sir David Attenborough.

The Overloaded Ark is one of a series of books of Durrell’s adventures to the regions, followed by The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in My Luggage (both of which I still need to read). The way that Durrell recants his explorations and dialogue, is almost being like a fly on the wall to the events. I’m glad to know that a few reptiles and amphibians are mentioned (such a monitor lizards), but given that Cameroon is such a biodiverse country, the species that Durrell collected range from drills to kingfishers and everything in between. Whilst the world certainly has changed a lot since the publication of The Overloaded Ark, the general mission of conservationists hasn’t. If you want to read a travelogue with a pinch of humour, conservation and enthusiasm thrown in, then this is certainly the book for you. From what I understand, this book is one of the stepping stones that helped launch his career as a conservationist and away from just an animal collector, after reading it, it is easy to see why.

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