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Who was Gerald Durrell? The life of the renowned conservationist explored

Patrick Barkham investigates the life and legacy of conservationist Gerald Durrell

A picture of Gerald durrell
Published: September 17, 2022 at 8:50 am

Gerald Durrell's Corfu in the 1930s was beautiful, funny and full of very strange beasts: Geronimo the insect-ambushing gecko; Quasimodo the pigeon who loves music but refuses to fly; and elderly Mrs Kralefsky, who believes that flowers talk.

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It all comes alive so vividly in his classic memoir My Family and Other Animals, because it’s seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old.

Who was Gerald Durrell?

Gerald Durrell was the boy who enjoyed an idyllic childhood and grew into a legendary, larger-than-life figure who revolutionised zoos and the world of conservation. It is more than two decades since Gerald passed away but the zoo he founded in Jersey, now a major conservation organisation, continues to thrive. More importantly, this passionate animal lover left a vision of how to save species that is perhaps more pertinent now than ever.

When and where was Gerald Durrell born?

Gerald Durrell was born on 7 January 1925 in India, the youngest of child Louisa Florence Dixie and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. Lawrence died a few years later.

When did Gerald Durrell move to Corfu?

Louisa moved the family to Corfu in 1935 and it was here the Gerry as he was known began to be fascinated with local fauna. The family were on Corfu for just four years but his experiences stayed with him forever.

The love of nature instilled by his Corfu childhood never left young Gerry, who became a trainee keeper at Whipsnade Zoo after World War II. A £3,000 inheritance enabled him to travel to Cameroon to collect wild animals for British zoos. He began writing humorous accounts of his missions to fund further trips and struck gold with his sixth book, My Family and Other Animals, published in 1956.

“It’s very conscious craftmanship and meticulous plotting by an author at the peak of his powers,” says nature writer Simon Barnes, one of more than five million people who have bought the book. “He knew he had the most amazing material from his childhood and he wasn’t going to risk blowing it.”

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How and where did Gerald Durrell start his zoo?

It was a life-changing book. Suddenly Durrell had the funds to open his own zoo on the island of Jersey. But his ambition didn’t end there; he held a much bolder vision. Rather than zoos being menageries for entertainment, Durrell demanded that they become arks and save endangered species. He created captive-breeding programmes and also began saving wild animals in their country of origin.

Jeremy Mallinson was one of Durrell’s growing army of young fans who got a job as a trainee keeper in 1959. “He was a very warm person but he didn’t suffer fools gladly,” Jeremy recalls. “Once you came under the charm of Gerry Durrell it was very difficult to refuse him. He could be pretty annoying at times, but he wasalmost always right.”

His friends and colleagues say his deep sense of wonder in the natural world was an enduring trait. “You’d go for a walk and he’d be just like a child – looking in hedgerows, picking up things,” says Carl Jones, chief scientist of what is now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, who won the 2016 Indianapolis Prize – the ‘Nobel Prize’ of wildlife conservation. “Gerry saw great beauty all around him and he just loved the world.”

How was Durrell's zoo different?

Durrell’s zoo was different from the others. “Gerry always said: the animals come first, then the keepers, then the public. And so many zoos have it the other way round,” remembers Lee Durrell, his widow, who still runs Durrell Wildlife Park today. In the 1960s, staff were trained to take scientific observations to help learn how to keep these animals alive in the wild.

In the 1970s, Gerry turned his formidable energy to saving the endangered species of Mauritius. John Hartley who, like Mallinson, worked with Gerry for over four decades, remembers travelling to ask for support from the Mauritius government. Driving between fields of sugarcane, their car received a direct hit from a revolving irrigation spray. “A gazillion gallons of water came in one window and we were absolutely drenched,” remembers John. “We had to stand in the government car park with our arms up to dry out. We were trying to be serious scientists but we looked like bedraggled rats.”

Characteristically, before meeting the Mauritius government, Gerry told John he would offer the minister a scholarship for his new academy – a mini-university for conservationists. “But we haven’t got a training programme yet,” said John. “That’s the problem with you Hartley,” Gerry retorted. “You allow yourself to get bogged down in minor details!”

As John says now: “Gerry was an ideas generator – he came up with ideas which were way ahead of their time.” The academy was duly established to educate people to save endangered species. Gerry, who never went to university, believed that teaching practical conservation skills people could use in their own countries was the key to enduring conservation. His academy has trained more than 4,000 people from 141 countries. “We sometimes call them Durrell’s army,” says Lee.

Gerry’s love of nature lives on in his students, and in his millions of readers – for years his books were used to teach English to students overseas – but perhaps his greatest legacy is the species that might not be on this planet were it not for his foresight and perseverance.

What animals did Gerald Durrell save?

Sheer determination helped Gerry pull numerous rarities back from the brink on the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, including the pink pigeon, orange-tailed skink and echo parakeet. A scientific paper in Conservation Biology that measured the impact of conservation work on species’ survival found that Gerry’s work moved eight species to a more favourable status on the IUCN’s Red List, reducing the risk of extinction.

Carl Jones was one of many inspired by Gerry’s books as a child. In 1974, there were just four Mauritius kestrels left in the wild. Working in partnership with Gerry on the island from 1980, Jones’s hands-on conservation techniques – including captive-breeding, supplementary feeding, provision of nestboxes and predator control – has seen the rare raptor’s numbers recover to 300 today.

“I loved him. He was the most amazing man,” Carl says. “He saw the world in a very colourful and creative way. He thought not only like a scientist, but also like an artist and writer. Gerry said zoos should become conservation organisations and came up with the idea of using captive-breeding. He was very critical of the traditional zoo paradigm in the 1970s, saying that zoos were consumers of animals rather than producers of animals. And, now zoos have caught up with his thinking, we need to challenge them again.”

According to Carl, some conservationists are still stuck debating whether we should save species or whole ecosystems. In fact, Carl argues, Gerry’s legacy shows that saving species drives the repair of ecosystems. In 1976, Gerry sailed from Mauritius to tiny Round Island. “Gerry and I virtually cried,” remembers John Hartley. This once-verdant island of unique endemic species, such as the Round Island boa, Guenther’s day gecko and another gecko now named after Durrell, was like the moon – destroyed by introduced goats and rabbits.

“Gerry was really captivated by Round Island,” says Carl. “He could see that to save these reptile species he had to restore the whole habitat.” Rabbits were humanely eradicated and the ecosystem repaired. Now Carl is devising a 100-year vision for Round Island. The Mauritian giant tortoise is sadly extinct, but Carl has overseen the introduction of 500 Aldabra giant tortoises to replace that species’ role as an ecosystem engineer – the tortoises spread seeds and maintain open areas for endemic grasses and herbaceous plants.

Carl remembers talking to Gerry about moving species onto islands where they’d never been before. So if he were alive today, would he have been a rewilder? “No doubt about it,” says Carl. “Gerry was a great believer in the power of the individual. Don’t talk about it – go and build it,” he’d say. All this doom and gloom about how we can’t save species – think hard enough and you can find a solution. We’ve got to move on from just conserving areas and become a lot more proactive. With climate change we cannot turn the clock back. We have got to take risks and build and rebuild systems, using different species and moving them around the globe.”

Carl declares he is an eternal optimist, although, on occasions, Gerry’s own optimism faltered. “The world is being destroyed at the speed of an Exocet missile, and we are riding a bicycle,” he once confessed. “I feel despair 24 hours a day.” Perhaps because of this, Gerry drank heavily and was prone to depression, though many friends say he was saved by Lee, the brilliant American zoologist he married in 1979.

When did Gerald Durrell die?

Gerry dies on 30 January 1995 and his ashes are buried in Jersey Zoo

What is Gerald Durrell's legacy?

Since Gerry’s death in 1995, Lee has tirelessly extended his legacy. “He was an action person and that’s a legacy we’ve got,” she says. “We are still an action organisation.” The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust still saves often-unfashionable endangered animals, hands-on in their country of origin. Take the pygmy hog – this tiny, Critically Endangered wild pig teeters on the brink of extinction, but the Trust is working with local conservation groups in Assam, India, to rescue it.

The organisation is also working in partnership with the Charles Darwin Foundation, San Diego Zoo and others to raise and release chicks of the mangrove finch from the Galápagos Islands, which is falling victim to a parasitic fly that kills newly hatched fledglings. “

Gerry was always for the underdog,” says Lee. “Of course we’ve got still gorillas in the Wildlife Park on Jersey, but we also work with pretty obscure species.”

Like Durrell, Lee remains an outspoken critic of many zoos for focusing on ‘box-office species’ and only paying lip-service to conservation. “Gerry always said his answer to the anti-zoo movement was: where would we be if Florence Nightingale had gone round trying to shut down hospitals? But zoos need to put their money where their mouths are and work with other zoos on conservation programmes.”

Even in his final years, Gerry would take a break to collect caterpillars and watch them pupate. “He never lost his sense of wonder over nature,” says Lee.

Gerald Durrell books

Including his Corfu Trilogy Gerald Durrell wrote around 40 books. Here are some of our favourites

A Zoo in My Luggage

Read how Gerry strove to set up his own zoo after years helping other zoos

Encounters with Animals

Join Gerald as he recounts his travels across the world and the extraordinary animals he encounters

The Aye-Aye and I

Follow Gerald as he goes in search of the Aye-Aye in Madagascar

The Whispering Land

Gerald has got his zoo! Follow the zoo's early years on the island of Jersey.

Fillets of Plaice

Gerald shares humorous anecdotes about his family and animals

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Main image: Gerald Durrell in 1966 by ©Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ Getty Images

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