Lee Durrell Ph.D.
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Lee McGeorge Durrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 7, 1949, the eldest daughter of Harold and Harriet McGeorge. From an early age, her empty doll boxes housed a constantly changing collection of animals, and her feminine wiles were used to persuade “Pa”, her maternal grandfather, to construct palatial enclosures for terrapins and tortoises, slugs and squirrels, bats and butterflies. At St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls Lee’s interests widened to include the tennis team, choir, drama club and senior positions as editor of the school newspaper and president of the student council. She then studied philosophy at one of America’s finest universities, Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia.
University –and Madagascar
In 1971 Lee returned to her first love, enrolling in the graduate programme at Duke University in North Carolina to study animal behaviour. As a member of the animal staff of the university’s famous primate centre, Lee mucked in to feed, clean and care for exotic prosimians (primates other than monkeys and apes, such as lemurs, tarsiers and bushbabies) from around the world. She became fascinated by animal communication, particularly the vocalisations of lemurs, the primates unique to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. She conducted research for her Ph.D. dissertation on the calls of mammals and birds during a turbulent two-year stint in Madagascar. By the time Lee left in 1975, the island’s socialist regime was soliciting scientific assistance only from other socialist countries. One of the last westerners to conduct research there, Lee was to be instrumental in re-opening Madagascar to western scientists nearly a decade later.
In 1977 Gerald Durrell, author, naturalist and founder of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, was invited to lecture at Duke University where Lee was writing up her Ph.D. thesis and running biology courses. Introduced to Lee, Gerry adopted a behaviour pattern instantly recognisable to animal observers, the courtship display. When they married in 1979 Gerry claimed with characteristic over-statement that he was the only man in the world to be married for his zoo!
Lee first became involved with the programmes already established for endangered species at the Trust headquarters in Jersey, and later influenced the development of new overseas projects.
Lee returned to Madagascar in 1981, not as a research scientist, but as co-presenter with Gerry of a wildlife television series. The Durrells travelled throughout Madagascar and Mauritius for Ark on the Move, the first of four 13-part series broadcast on Britain’s Channel Four and distributed internationally. The Amateur Naturalist was based on the best-selling book co-authored by Gerry and Lee. Both book and the series enabled the pair to demonstrate how to explore nature in habitats as diverse as a freshwater pond in Sussex, an Arizona desert, and a rainforest in Panama.
In 1984 Gerry, Lee and their crew became the first western television unit to film the wildlife of the Soviet Union for Durrell in Russia. Together they also published a book of the same title recounting their extraordinary experiences behind the Iron Curtain. Finally, Ourselves and Other Animals allowed Gerry and Lee to explore man’s relationship with animals. These series have been sold to networks and satellite stations in over 40 countries around the world, reaching 150 million viewers.
In the midst of almost non-stop filming during the ‘eighties, Lee also published her own book - The State of the Ark. This readable reference work on the issues facing conservation and modern methods of tackling environmental problems was used by British and North American science students for a number of years.
Saving the ploughshare tortoise
As the relentless travel for television filming abated, Lee expanded her conservation activities within the Trust and was invited to join the governing bodies of several other conservation organisations.
When the World Conservation Union identified the urgent need to begin a recovery programme for the world’s rarest tortoise, Lee was asked to undertake the task. The ploughshare tortoise, or angonoka as it is known locally, is found only in an isolated region on the northwest coast of Madagascar.
The species was believed to number less than 400 in the wild when Lee launched the project in 1986, with funding from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and other conservation organisations. She was determined to address all the problems facing the angonoka. Project Angonaka is now recognised internationally as the model of an integrated approach to species conservation, involving breeding, research, community action and the re-establishment of a wild population.
Gentle lemurs and jumping rats
In 1990 Gerry and Lee led an expedition to Madagascar to collect several endangered animal speciesfor breeding programmes at Durrell’s Jersey headquarters.
Several of the species, including the Alaotran gentle lemur and the Malagasy giant jumping rat, had never before been targeted for breeding. The arduous four month expedition to remote parts of the country yielded not only an important collection of animals, but a one-hour television special as well. To the Island of the Aye-Aye, broadcast on Britain’s ITV network, subsequently won the Gold Award at the New York International Film and Television Festival. On the Durrells’ return to Jersey, Lee became the co-ordinator of all the Trust’s Madagascar programmes.
Honorary director –and pilot
Gerry’s health deteriorated following the Madagascar expedition. Lee increasingly accepted new duties on behalf of the Trust, speaking at conservation conferences, travelling to project sites and reviewing conservation priorities for endangered species. On Gerald Durrell’s death in January, 1995, Lee succeeded him as the Honorary Director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
In 1999 Lee gained her private pilot’s license and became a keen aviator. To reduce costs and ensure animal welfare during transport, she continues to fly animals between Jersey and the UK and Europe for breeding exchange programmes. Lee continues to play an important ambassadorial role for the Trust, particularly in the media, and maintains a key position on the Board of Trustees as Chairman of the Governance Committee.