Gerald Durrell

British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author and television presenter. Gerald Malcolm Durrell, OBE was born 7 January 1925 in Jamshedpur, India. He was the fourth and final child of Louisa Florence Dixie and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. Durrell’s father was a British engineer and, as was commonplace and befitting the family status, the infant Durrell spent most of his time in the company of an ayah (nursemaid). Durrell reportedly recalled his first visit to a zoo in India and attributed his lifelong love of animals to that encounter. The family moved to Britain shortly before the death of his father in 1928 and settled in the Upper Norwood, Crystal Palace area of South London Durrell was enrolled in Wickwood School, but frequently stayed at home feigning illness.

Mrs. Durrell moved with her three younger children (Leslie, Margaret and Gerald) to the Greek island of Corfu in 1935, joining her eldest son, Lawrence, who was living there with his wife. It was on Corfu that Durrell began to collect and keep the local fauna as pets. The family lived on Corfu until 1939. This interval was later the basis of the book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods, plus a few short stories such as “My Donkey Sally”. Durrell was home-schooled during this time by various family friends and private tutors, mostly friends of his eldest brother Lawrence (who later became a successful novelist).

Theodore Stephanides, a Greek doctor, scientist, poet, philosopher and a friend of one of Durrell’s tutors, became Durrell’s greatest friend and mentor, his ideas leaving a lasting impression on the young naturalist. Together, they examined Corfu’s fauna, which Durrell housed in a variety of items including test tubes and bathtubs. Stephanides’ daughter, Alexia Mercouri (born 1927), accompanied the two on their field trips. Another major influence during these formative years, according to Durrell, was the writing of French naturalist Jean Henri Fabre.

In 1939 Gerald, his mother, his brother Leslie and their Greek maid Maria Kondos moved back to Britain. However It was difficult to find a job during the Second World war and post-war years, especially for a home-schooled youth, but the enterprising Durrell worked as a helper at an aquarium and pet store. His call-up for the war came in 1943, but he was exempted from military duty on medical grounds, and asked to serve the war effort by working on a farm. After the war, Durrell joined Whipsnade Zoo as a junior or student keeper fulfilling a lifelong dream. Durrell left Whipsnade Zoo in May 1946 in order to join wildlife collecting expeditions of the time, but was denied a place in the voyages due to his lack of experience.

Durrell’s wildlife expeditions began with a 1947 trip to the British Cameroons (now part of Cameroon) with ornithologist John Yealland, financed by a £3,000 inheritance from his father on the occasion of his turning 21. The animals he brought back were sold to London Zoo, Chester Zoo, Paignton Zoo, Bristol Zoo and Belle Vue Zoo (Manchester). He continued such excursions for many decades, during which time he became famous for his work for wildlife conservation. He followed this successful expedition with two others, accompanied by fellow Whipsnade zookeeper Ken Smith: a repeat trip to the British Cameroon, and to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1949 and 1950 respectively and met and befriended the shrewd and colourful Fon of Bafut Achirimbi II, an autocratic West African chieftain, who helped him organise future

Durrell was dedicated to looking after the animals he collected and housed and fed his captives with the best supplies obtainable, never over-collecting specimens, never trapping animals having merely “show value”, or those which would fetch high prices from collectors. Unfortunately Durrell and George Cansdale, superintendent at London Zoo, fell out and Durrell was blackballed by the British zoo community and could not secure a job in most zoos, ultimately securing a job at the aquarium at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester where he remained for some time. Gerald Durrell married Jacqueline (‘Jacquie’) Sonia Wolfenden in 1951 after eloping due to opposition from her father They moved to Durrell’s sister Margaret’s Bournemouth boarding house. Jacquie accompanied Durrell on most of his following animal expeditions and helped found and manage the Jersey Zoo. With encouragement and assistance from Jacquie, and advice from elder brother Lawrence, Gerald Durrell started writing humorous autobiographical accounts to fund his expeditions and conservation efforts. His first book The Overloaded Ark was such a success, he wrote others including My Family and other Animals, A Zoo in My Luggage, Beasts in my Belfry, The Stationary Ark, Garden of the Gods. He visited South America again in 1954 however this was abandoned due to political unrest in Paraguay.

The publication of My Family and Other Animals in 1956 made Durrell a notable author and brought him public recognition as a naturalist and also helped to fund Durrell’s next expedition. Durrell’s disliked the way zoos were run, and believed that they should primarily act as reserves and regenerators ro conserve of endangered species, this made him contemplate founding his own zoo. So in 1957 he journeyed to Cameroon for the third and last time to collect animals which would form the core collection of his own zoo. This expedition was also filmed, as “To Bafut with Beagles”, this together with his autobiographical radio programme Encounters with Animals, made Durrell a regular with the BBC Natural History unit. On returning from Bafut, Durrell and wife Jacquie stayed with his sister Margaret at her boarding house in Bournemouth. His animals were housed in her gardens and garage on a temporary basis, while Durrell sought prospective sites for a zoo. This experience provided material for his book A Zoo in My Luggage.

In 1959 Durrell founded the Jersey Zoological Park (now Durrell Wildlife Park) to house his growing collection of animals. The site for the zoo, was a 17th-century manor house, Les Augres Manor, which Durrell leased to set up his zoo on the redesigned manor grounds. In the same year, Durrell undertook another, more successful expedition to South America to collect endangered species. The zoo was opened to the public in 1959. Both The zoo and the number of projects undertaken to save threatened wildlife in other parts of the world expanded and Durrell was instrumental in founding the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (now Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), on 6 July 1963 to cope with the increasingly difficult challenges of zoo, wildlife and habitat management.

In 1971 The Trust opened an international wing, the Wildlife Preservation Trust International, in the United States, to aid international conservation efforts in a better fashion. That year, the Trust bought out Les Augres Manor from its owner, Major Hugh Fraser, giving the zoo a permanent home. Durrell’s initiative caused the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society to start the World Conference on Breeding Endangered Species in Captivity as an Aid to their Survival in 1972 at Jersey, today one of the most prestigious conferences in the field. In 1972 Princess Anne also became a patron of the Trust. During The 1970s Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust became a leading zoo in the field of captive breeding, championing the cause among species like the lowland gorilla, and various Mauritian fauna. Durrell visited Mauritius several times coordinating large scale conservation efforts in Mauritius with conservationist Carl Jones, involving captive breeding programmes for native birds and reptiles, ecological recovery of Round Island, training local staff, and setting up local conservation facilities and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation was founded in 1984.

Sadly Jacquie Durrell separated from and then divorced Gerald Durrell in 1979. Durrell married his second wife Lee McGeorge Durrell whom he had met in 1977 when he lectured at Duke University, where she was studying for a PhD in animal communication. They married in 1979. She co-authored a number of books with him, including The Amateur Naturalist, and became the Honorary Director of the Trust after his death. In 1978 Durrell started the training centre for conservationists at the zoo, As of 2005, over a thousand biologists, naturalists, zoo veterinarians and zoo architects from 104 countries have attended the International Training Centre. Durrell was also instrumental in forming the Captive Breeding Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union in 1982. In 1985 Durrell founded Wildlife Preservation Trust Canada, now Wildlife Preservation Canada, and launched The official appeal Saving Animals from Extinction in 1991.

In 1989, Gerald and Lee Durrell, along with David Attenborough and cricketer David Gower helped launch the World Land Trust (then the World Wide Land Conservation Trust). In order to purchase rainforest land in Belize as part of the Programme for Belize. Around this time Gerald Durrell developed a friendship with Charles Rycroft, who donated funds towards building works in Jersey (the Harcroft Lecture Theatre) and worldwide conservation work in East Africa and Madagascar. In 1990 the Trust established a conservation programme in Madagascar similar to the Mauritius programme. Durrell visited Madagascar in 1990 to start captive breeding of a number of endemic species like the aye aye. Durrell chose the dodo, the flightless bird of Mauritius that was hunted to extinction in the 17th century, as the logo for both the Jersey Zoo and the Trust.

Sadly The hard, outdoor lifestyle gave Durrell health problems in the 1980s. He underwent hip-replacement surgery in a bid to counter arthritis, but he also suffered from alcohol-related liver problems. His health deteriorated rapidly after the 1990 Madagascar trip. Durrell had a liver transplant in King’s College Hospital on 28 March 1994, but sadly died of septicaemia on 30 January 1995, shortly after his 70th birthday in Jersey General Hospital. His ashes are buried in Jersey Zoo, under a memorial plaque bearing a quote by William Beebe.

A memorial celebrating Durrell’s life and work was held at the Natural History Museum in London on 28 June 1995. Participants included personal friends such as David Attenborough and Princess Anne. Following his death, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust was renamed Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at the 40th anniversary of the zoo on 26 March 1999. The Wildlife Preservation Trust International also changed its name to Wildlife Trust in 2000, and adopted the logo of the black tamarin.

Durrell always intended writing books to help environmental causes and as a means to raise funds for his conservation work. Durrell’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, have a wry, loose autobiographical style that pokes fun at himself as well as those around him and are characterised by a love for nature and animals, dry wit, crisp descriptions, and humorous analogies of human beings with animals. A good example is the Corfu trilogy — My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods which tells of his idyllic, if oddball, childhood on Corfu. The Corfu trilogy was also Later made into a TV series. Gerald Durrell also wrote short stories, like “Michelin Man”, Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium, “The Entrance”. His book Marrying Off Mother and Other Stories also has a few short stories. Rosy is My Relative, is a story about a bequeathed elephant which Durrell claimed is based on real life events, and The Mockery Bird, the fable based loosely on the story of Mauritius and the dodo. The Stationary Ark is a collection of technical essays on zoo-keeping and conservation while The Amateur Naturalist is the definitive guide for budding naturalists. The Donkey Rustlers is set on a Greek island, and The Talking Parcel is a tale of children at large in a land of mythological creatures. Durrell also wrote many books for young children including The New Noah which recounts encounters with animals from Durrell’s previous expeditions, Puppy Tales, Island Zoo, Keeper, Toby the Tortoise, The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure and The Fantastic Flying Journey which are all lavishly illustrated. Durrell’s works have been translated into 31 languages and made into TV serials and feature films. He has large followings in Northern and Eastern Europe, Russia, Israel and in various Commonwealth countries, including India. The British Library houses a collection of Durrell’s books, presented by him to Alan G. Thomas, as part of the Lawrence Durrell Collection. Durrell was also a regular contributor to magazines like Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, and the Sunday Times Supplement and his novels are included in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.He was also a regular book reviewer for the New York Times.

During his life Gerald Durrell received many honours in recognition of his huge contribution to wildlife cnservation; In 1981 Durrell was awarded the Order of the Golden Ark by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and also became a founding member of the World Cultural Council. In 1982 Durrell received the OBE. Durrell featured in the United Nations’ Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement in 1988, becoming part of 500 people (“Global 500”) to be given this honour in the period 1987–92. The University of Kent started the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in 1989, the first graduate school in the United Kingdom to offer degrees and diplomas in conservation and biodiversity. In 1995 The journal Biodiversity and Conservation brought out a special volume of the journal in tribute to Gerald Durrell, on the theme of “The Role of Zoos”. The Gerald Durrell Memorial Funds, were launched in 1996 by the Wildlife Trust to help conservation projects financially. The statue park in Miskolc Zoo, created a bust of Gerald Durrell in 1998. Whipsnade Zoo also unveiled a new island for housing primates dedicated to Durrell in 1998. From 2001 The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife, has given the Gerald Durrell Award for the best photograph of an endangered species. In 2002 The Durrell School in Corfu, was established offering an academic course and tours in the footsteps of the Durrells in Corfu. Botanist David Bellamy has conducted field trips in Corfu for the school.

Gerald Durrell has also been recognised in many other ways. In 2006 The town hall of Corfu announced that it would rename Corfu Bosketto (a park in the city of Corfu) Bosketto Durrell, after Gerald and Lawrence Durrell as a mark of respect. Wildlife Preservation Canada also established the Gerald Durrell Society in 2006 as recognition for individuals who have made legacy gifts. The Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary in the Black River Valley in Mauritius, is the home of the Mauritius Wildlife Appeal Fund’s immensely successful captive breeding programme for the Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon and echo parakeet.The Durrell Wildlife Park has a bronze statue of Gerald Durrell by John Doubleday, cast along with a ruffed lemur at his knee and a Round Island gecko at his feet. Jersey brought out stamps honouring the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and Mauritius brought out a stamp based on a race of a rare gecko named after Durrell. The de-rodentification of Rat Island in St. Lucia by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to create a sanctuary for the Saint Lucia whiptail lizard on the lines of Praslin Island has caused an official change in name for Rat Island. It is in the process of being renamed Durrell Island. The Visitors’ Centre at the Belize Zoo is named the Gerald Durrell Visitors’ Centre in honour of Durrell.

Many rare animals born in captivity have been named “Gerry” or “Gerald” as homage to Durrell, among them the first Aldabra giant tortoise born in captivity. Cornwall college Newquay’s centre for applied zoology has two buildings, one the Durrell Building, opened by his wife Lee Durrell in 2007. Many Species of rare and endangered animal have also been named in honour of Gerald Durrell such as:
Salanoia durrelli: a relative of the brown-tailed mongoose, from Lake Alaotra, Madagascar. Centrolene durrellorum: A glassfrog of the family Centrolenidae from the eastern Andean foothills of Ecuador, Clarkeia durrelli: A fossil brachiopod of the order Atrypida, from the Upper Silurian age, Nactus serpensinsula durrellorum: The Round Island race of the Serpent Island gecko is a distinct subspecies and was named after both Gerald and Lee Durrel, Ceylonthelphusa durrelli: Durrell’s freshwater crab: A critically rare new species of Sri Lankan freshwater crab, Benthophilus durrelli: Durrell’s tadpole goby, Kotchevnik durrelli Yakovlev: A new species of moth of the superfamily Cossoidea from Russia and Mahea durrelli Kment: A new species of shield bug of the family Acanthosomatidae from Madagascar.

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