Speak to someone working in conservation, almost anywhere in the world, and there is a good chance that Gerald Durrell played some role in inspiring them to their future career.
The naturalist and zookeeper, who died 20 years ago, was a great advocate for endangered species. Durrell was a regular on British TV for decades and a prolific author, with books translated into 31 languages.
As a nine-year-old I was transported from my bedroom to the azure seas around Corfu, to watch the magical aquatic world from the gently bobbing “bootle bumtrinket” (the unforgettably named, home-made boat of Gerry’s childhood). Like so many others, my first impressions of what a rainforest is like – its smells and sounds – came from Gerald Durrell’s beguiling descriptions of his later trips throughout the tropics.
Durrell’s accounts of his animal collecting expeditions in far flung countries can make the modern reader feel very slightly uncomfortable (in a way they might not be able to quite put a finger on). They were clearly written in, and for, a very different age.
However, in many ways Gerald Durrell was far ahead of his time. He believed that a zoo shouldn’t be simply a place for people to go and see unusual animals, but they should also play a real role in conservation and education. The success of his early books enabled him to found a zoo in Jersey, where he made breeding animals on the edge of extinction a major focus.
Durrell recognised that successful conservation of threatened species in the wild depended on the skills and dedication of people working in the countries where they were found. Back in 1984, he set up his international training centre (now the Durrell Conservation Academy). This brought government officials, those working for small, underfunded charities, and anyone else with a real influence over the future of the critically threatened species Durrell cared about, together in Jersey to exchange skills and learn new ones.
The real power of this approach was in creating a network of like-minded people around the world and ensuring conservationists on the ground had access to up to date methods and approaches. The academy has now trained 3350 conservationists from 135 countries.
I have the privilege of working closely with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust team in Madagascar: a dynamic crew of 45 conservationists delivering community-focused projects targeting threatened species across the island.
Durrell himself loved Madagascar, an island he described as “filled with magic”. The Trust has been active in the country now for nearly 30 years and their hard work has been very influential – though the threats to Madagascar’s dwindling natural habitats, so eloquently described in one of Durrell’s last books The Aye-Aye and I, remain pressing.
Many have said that Durrell was a man who left the world a better place than he entered it. The trust which bears his name, and continues with his work and vision, have this week made an important step in trying to quantify the impact of that work. They have launched the Durrell Index, which tackles the difficult challenge of measuring and communicating their impact on biodiversity around the world.
Gerald Durrell’s biggest impact however is likely to be the hardest to measure. It is the millions of children inspired to care just a little more about wildlife, and it is the conservation professionals trained and supported by the Durrell Academy, working hard to protect animals and their habitats all around the world.