Birds, Beasts & Relatives

How Memphian Lee McGeorge Durrell married into one of Britain's literary first families and along the way became a zookeeper in the Channel Islands.

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Gerry and Lee in Madagascar with Aepyornis egg, 1981.

Beginning in 1976, the Durrell Trust’s first long-term field work was conducted on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. In fact, the extinct, flightless bird from Mauritius — the dodo — is the symbol of the Trust. The breeding program on Jersey has increased the number of Mauritius kestrels in the wild from only four to more than 500. Durrell’s largest conservation program, which has been in existence for 25 years, now with 40 paid staff members, is in Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa. It is a place with amazing biodiversity and very dear to Lee’s heart due to the fact she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on animal behavior there. In certain areas of the island, she is fondly called “Grandmother Tortoise,” due to her work with the endangered ploughshare tortoise. On the island of Jersey itself, the Durrell Conservation Academy was set up with headquarters adjacent to the Wildlife Park; over 3,350 conservationists from 135 countries have been trained to date in this mini-university.

The 25th anniversary of the Wildlife Park in 1984 was the banner year of “first releases,” meaning that animals bred at the zoo were turned back into the wild. The Durrell Trust has also mounted a major rescue operation in the tiny Caribbean nation of Montserrrat, home of the mountain chicken, which is not a bird but one of the largest frogs in the world and is critically endangered. There is not room here to list all the amazing successes of the Durrell Trust, but clearly they are many.

Lee Durrell herself is also an accomplished author, having written several books, including A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist (with Gerald Durrell), Durrell in Russia (with Gerald Durrell), and State of the Ark: An Atlas of Conservation in Action. Though she modestly did not tell me, I also happen to know that for her many achievements, she was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of  the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2011 Birthday Honors. And speaking of the royal family, Princess Anne has been the Durrell Trust’s patron for some 40 years.

But times have changed, and Lee is now a woman with a new and essential mission right here in the United States. Tourism on Jersey is not what it used to be, and as a result, declining revenues from the Wildlife Park have caused the Durrell Trust to suffer as well. In order to continue the organization’s vital work, Lee is in the process of setting up a Memphis-based foundation that will be a sister organization; as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, its mission will be to promote and support the work of the conservation organization established by Gerald Durrell. She plans to travel around the country to raise funds for what will be called the American Friends of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust — American Friends of Durrell for short.


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