You can ‘start at the beginning’ by visiting The Gerald Durrell Story Exhibition at Durrell Wildlife Park. For those of you who can’t visit, here is a brief online journey through The Gerald Durrell Story!
Gerald Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India on 7th January 1925. As fate would have it, the first word he spoke was "zoo", and insisting on daily visits to the nearest menagerie. This was to be the beginning of an extraordinary journey for the young Gerald.
The untimely death of his father saw the remainder of his family reluctantly relocating to a rather less inviting climate and settling, albeit temporarily, in England. Tiring of the British weather, the family soon made the move to the enchanting Greek island of Corfu.
Here Gerald explored his passion for the animal kingdom with his inspirational tutor, Dr Theodore Stephanides. The backdrop was sunshine, happiness and the love and laughter of a doting, slightly eccentric family, celebrated by Gerald twenty years later in his most famous book, "My Family and Other Animals".
The outbreak of World War II a few years later saw the Durrell family returning to England. The young Gerald’s interest in animals was not to be dampened by the climate, and he soon followed a career path that saw him move from Pet Shop Assistant to ‘Odd Beast Boy’ at Whipsnade Zoo.
Aged 21, a small inheritance allowed him to embark upon the life he had dreamed of - a heady mix of travel, adventure and zoology. As well as being rich in subject matter for his blossoming writing career, this period was to provide Gerald’s most startling revelation – that species everywhere were on the decline. He resolved to create “a new kind of zoo”.
His vision that zoos could be a sanctuary, and work to provide a “reservoir for endangered species” was somewhat controversial in its time, and two years of frustrating searches for a location in England followed. In the meantime, his sister’s garden became an unlikely, if not unsuitable place for a zoo!
A suggestion from his first wife Jacquie directed his search towards the Channel Islands. Within an hour of landing in Jersey, the beautiful Les Augres Manor had been secured for the purpose, its grounds providing the perfect venue. Gerald tirelessly sought support for his new zoo, and his enthusiasm was infectious. By July 1963, he had personally paid off the debts and established the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust!
During the 1960’s Gerald travelled widely collecting both material for his books and television films, as well as animals for Jersey Zoo. The Trust survived a few early financial crisis thanks to the generosity of its Jersey supporters, and found its place on the world map as a centre for animal conservation, as well as a great place to spend a day out! The Trust began to gain a reputation for the best enclosures, animal health, natural behaviour and breeding.
Gerald and Jaquie visited many continents, and discovered many animal species they had never seen before. Amongst the many animals that Gerald chose to bring back to Jersey was the ‘volcano rabbit’ or teporingo - hardly a show stopper, but critically endangered, and highlighting how Gerald saw equal value in all life on earth - even what he termed “little brown jobs”!
The 1970’s was a great time for Gerald and the Trust! As well as gaining both a permanent home (Les Augres Manor was purchased by the Trust) and an awe-inspiring silverback gorilla; ‘Jambo’, Gerald gave a personal tour to HRH Princess Anne, who was to become both a Royal Patron and a dedicated supporter for many decades... and remains so to this day! Jersey Zoo hosted the first international conference on breeding endangered species, attracting many world leaders in the field.
Additionally, many of Gerald's famous friends helped lend weight to his fundraising efforts. This allowed him to make a pilgrimage to Mauritius the land of the dodo, where he began to work with another apparently ‘lost cause’, the Mauritius Kestrel. This rarest of raptors went from a population of four, to numbering in the hundreds, thanks to Gerald’s determination.
In 1979, Gerald married a young American zoologist named Lee McGeorge, and the 1980’s saw the pair working together to spread their shared passion for conservation far and wide.1984 saw the Trust celebrating its 21st year, along with the 25th anniversary of Jersey Zoo. Gerald began to see his dreams come true - releasing wild animals bred in Jersey back to the wild, and establishing what would become Durrell Conservation Academy. He received many honours and awards, and his zoo and conservation biology work continued to break new ground.
The 1990’s began with an expedition to Madagascar, an Island nation who's animals and people Gerald had described as being “in the greatest peril”. There he collected animals for captive breeding programmes, as well as material for what was to be his last book. Despite his declining health, his determination to celebrate his 70th birthday with his many friends that helped him achieve his life’s goals was characteristically strong... and on January 7th 1995, he achieved this too!
Gerald Durrell died on the 30th of January 1995. Today, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust stands as the direct continuation of the Trust he created in 1963 and its mission; saving species from extinction. The name was changed from ‘The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust’ in 1999, in our founder’s honour. We continue to make a difference through pioneering work and sheer determination, and share his conviction that our work is absolutely vital to the wellbeing of the planet.
That the Trust enjoys an internationally respected, influential position today is thanks to the foresight, passion and drive of our founder. Our ‘three pillar’ strategy that combines Durrell Field Programmes, Durrell Conservation Academy and of course Durrell Wildlife Park to all work in harmony for biodiversity, just as Gerald had envisioned they would.
We’d like to think that Gerald would be enormously proud of his legacy, and that the achievements we continue to make - often against the odds - are done under the proud banner of his name.