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The Durrells' Corfu. In Conversation with Lee Durrell

Apr 12, 2016

I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk with Lee Durrell, Gerald Durrell’s widow, and now Honorary Director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.  Sitting in the Liston, just across the cricket pitch from the Durrell Bosketto gardens – dedicated to both naturalist Gerry and his author brother Lawrence – Lee told me what Corfu had meant to the author of My Family and Other Animals, and what role it still had, not simply as another destination for “sun, sea and beer”, in Lee’s words, but in fact as a hugely important centre for biodiversity.

Lee had just finished participating in the Gerald Durrell Week, an annual event bringing together botanists such as David Bellamy with interested visitors from around the world, for hands-on exploration of sites in Corfu which Gerry had himself enjoyed and written about; this time, for example, seeing rare sea-daffodils at St. Spyridon’s beach in the north of the island (where Durrell’s “Lake of the Lilies” is to be found), visiting the enormous caves at Loutses, finding crested newts and marsh frogs by the waterfalls at Nymfes, or revisiting Pontikonisi,  “which was a favourite place of Gerald Durrell and his family.”

My Family and Other Animals is the classic account of the five years (from 1935 to 1939) that Gerald Durrell spent growing up on Corfu.  The young Gerry, 10 years old when he arrives, runs free in nature, never attending school (he had a number of private tutors), but spending most of his time outside exploring, discovering and observing the natural world around him.  According to Lee, living in a family that was “pretty eccentric”, given a lot of freedom, and in an environment where “discussions around the dinner table were always very wide ranging” (brother Lawrence was to become a very significant novelist, and house guests included the likes of Henry Miller), Gerry’s mind “developed a great freedom of thinking and creativity”.

Part of this creativity took the form of writing.  In Lee’s view, “he needed to express in writing his experience of the whole world and of the world of his mind”.  By the end of his life, Durrell had produced 37 books, including three on his experiences in Corfu, accounts of his various expeditions, novels, collections of short stories, as well as books especially for children.  But Gerry’s other great act of creative energy came in the shape of his efforts to set up and run an alternative zoo.  After the war, he had worked as an animal collector, travelling the world to bring specimens to zoos.  Lee told me that this experience had a major impact on her husband: “The zoos he brought animals to didn’t know how to look after them, and they had a profligate attitude – they thought ‘there’s plenty more where they came from’; but Gerry was in a position to see that that just wasn’t true because he was watching the beginning of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, pollution, over-exploitation, and he said ‘I want to have my own zoo where I can turn it into a sanctuary for endangered species,  I can breed these endangered species, build up their numbers; and when the time’s right, when the areas are protected, I will be able to use those animals to repopulate the wild places where they have disappeared’.  And that’s exactly what he did!”

Durrell set up his zoo – the Durrell Wildlife Park - on the island of Jersey in1958, and in 1963 launched the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.  Lee now actually lives in the centre of the zoo, in the house she once shared with Gerry, and says that visitors get enthused: “people say ‘compared with other zoos, we can tell you’ve got a purpose, a mission: you’re concentrating on endangered species and telling the visitor about them, but also about the kinds of projects that you’re doing around the world to save them’ and I know that people appreciate the difference.”  Since its inception, the Wildlife Trust has been involved in 50 conservation projects in 14 different countries, and through its educational activities has helped train over 3,500 conservationists from all over the world.  Lee, herself an academic and expert on animal communication, lived and worked with Gerald until his death in 1995.  Despite a hectic pace of work for both of them – with, in addition to the zoo and wildlife trust, books that they co-wrote, and a lot of TV work – Lee has no regrets, saying: “when I was married to Gerry – for a good 15 years – it was so much fun; we had lots to do, lots of responsibilities, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.  We both felt we were doing something to help the planet – but we were having a great time at the same time!”

Given Lee’s expertise, I wanted to know what she thought was left of the “paradise” (“The Garden of the Gods”, to use the title of his third book on Corfu), that Durrell had known in the 1930s.  In an age of mass tourism, could the visitor really still find Gerald Durrell’s Corfu?  After conceding that there had been “rather a lot of human development” on the island in recent years, especially on the coasts, Lee told me that there are “still parts of Corfu that you can find, which Gerald Durrell visited, that really are inspirational in terms of beautiful landscapes, fascinating animals and plants” and that have “much to offer the visitor who is interested in natural history.”  For Lee, this reality is somewhat at odds with the kind of image Corfu has for “a lot of tourists coming, and lying on the beach, and drinking beer.”  Instead, activities such as the Gerald Durrell Week, “really should demonstrate another kind of aspect to the island, another layer of interest, that should attract people from all around the world.  You can be anywhere for sun and sand and beer, but there’s only one Corfu, and Corfu itself is fascinating – from the point of view of the animals and plants.”

According to Lee Durrell, part of what makes Corfu special in this sense is down to its geographical location: “It’s a kind of crossroads between western Europe and the Middle East.  The rainfall here, the vegetation is so lush that it really is something very special in the world of biological diversity – you know the word biodiversity that people now talk about?  Well, that’s something really important, something that we’re losing in the world today, and Corfu has got such a gem here, such an important part of biodiversity, that it really should try to protect it, and save it, and use it to attract people to come here to observe it.”  Lee describes the biodiversity of Corfu as “extraordinary”, with orchid species found nowhere else in the world (there are over 40 species on the island), a very wide range of insects, including rare and newly discovered ones (it has more than 100 kinds of butterflies, for example).  Corfu is “a very good place for the amphibians and reptiles”, with, in Lee’s words, “some beautiful snakes”, tortoises, and “various frogs and the newts and such.” 

Reflecting on her own research, and what her work and experience with Gerald had taught her about the relationship we have with nature, Lee said she wished people could think outside of themselves and outside of our own species:  “We are very self-centred, we think the whole world revolves around us – but that’s just not true; the planet, the world depends on all of the other species to support ecosystems, to come together to give us the air we breathe and the soil we use to grow things, and that biodiversity has got to be protected and preserved – if only for our own sake, the sake of our own species.”  She felt that Gerry had “gone a long way to helping people understand that – making that link between human beings and other animals”,  but that there was “still a long way to go”.  Returning to Corfu itself, her hope was for the island to “realise just what it’s got, how important it is from the point of view of biodiversity.”