Childhood & Early Life
Gerald Malcolm Durrell was born on January 7, 1925, in Jamshedpur, British India, to Louisa Florence Dixie and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. Both his parents were born in India. His father was a British civil engineer and worked for India’s bridge and railway system.
Durrell was youngest of the 4 children of his parents - Lawrence George Durrell, Leslie Durrell, and Margaret. He developed love for animals at a very young age, allegedly after visiting a zoo in India.
Durrell’s family relocated to England and after some time his father died in 1928. They lived in South London where he studied at the ‘Wickwood School,’ but did not so much interest in studies. In 1935, the family went to live on the Greek Island of Corfu where his eldest brother, Lawrence, had already settled with his wife.
Durrell explored around Corfu and went on expeditions with family friend and scientist Theodore Stephanides. His novelist brother, Larry/Lawrence, suggested and encouraged him to chronicle his experiences with nature. These Corfu journals were later published as ‘Corfu Trilogy.’
During his field trips with mentor Stephanides, Durrell began collecting local fauna, and brought home new pets, including birds, tortoises, scorpions, owls, and even donkeys.
At the beginning of the World War II, the Durrell family returned to England (1939). For a while he worked at a pet shop. (He didn’t serve in military due to medical reasons). Later he began working as a student keeper at the ‘Whipsnade Zoo’ at Bedfordshire. His zoo experiences were later published as ‘Beasts in My Belfry.’ He recorded and studied the behavior of the zoo animals and compared with studies of biologists. Soon he realized that many species faced the threat of extinction.
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Life As A Naturalist
When he turned 21 in 1946, Durrell inherited £3,000. He left his work at zoo, and set out on expeditions to collect wildlife. He first went to British Cameroons in 1947. From the deep rain forests of West Africa he collected several animal, bird and reptile species (that required more than 100 cages and crates for transportation).
Next, Durrell visited Bafut region of Cameroon and British Guiana in South America. Later, he explored Paraguay, Argentina, and Sierra Leone. On all his expeditions, Durrell collected only those animals which were endangered and not the ones which fetched high price at zoo or from collectors. Thus, he didn’t receive much in return.
He got married to Jacqueline/Jacquie Sonia Wolfenden on February 26, 1951. As Jacqueline’s father was against this alliance, they eloped and got married. She helped him in his expeditions and the two lived in Durrell’s sister Margaret’s boarding house at Bournemouth.
On his brother Larry’s advice, Durrell began writing humorous accounts of expeditions to raise funds for his conservation work. His first book about the Cameroon expedition, ‘The Overloaded Ark,’ was published in 1953, and became very successful. He followed it with more books, including ‘The Bafut Beagles’ and ‘Three Tickets to Adventure.’
His 1956 autobiographical book, ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ which was based on his Corfu journals, became a best-seller, earning him recognition as a naturalist and a distinguished author. The widely appreciated TV series ‘The Durrells’ (2016-19) was based on this best-seller. This book became the first of the ‘Corfu Trilogy,’ while the other two were ‘Birds, Beasts, and Relatives,’ and ‘The Garden of the Gods.’
Durrell’s next expedition to Cameroon was recorded in a film ‘To Bafut With Beagles,’ which, too, was a success. His autobiographical radio program, ‘Encounters with Animals,’ also became popular. Thereafter, his work became a regular feature on TV (BBC Natural History) and radio. The proceeds from the sale of his books and TV appearances helped his expeditions and conservation work.
Durrell was finding it difficult to house his increasing animal collection. (This resulted in the book ‘A Zoo in My Luggage’). He located a small island (Jersey) on Channel Island, which had a large manor house, to house his animals.
On March 26, 1959, Durrell opened the zoo on Jersey Island. The number of zoo animals increased with his expeditions. His main aim was to breed rare animals in captivity and then, return them to their wild habitat. In 1963, he founded ‘Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust’ (Now ‘Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’). In 1971, an international branch ‘Wildlife Preservation Trust International’ (Now Eco Health Alliance’) was set up at Philadelphia, USA. He began a training center for conservationists at the zoo in 1978.
Durrell and Jacquie divorced in 1979; the same year, he married Lee Wilson McGeorge, an American zoologist and conservationist. She helped him breed the endangered species in captivity. She was co-author of several of his books. After his death, she became the Honorary Director of the trust.
In 1982, Durrell was made an Officer of the ‘Order of the British Empire.’ He was a member of numerous naturalist societies and received several honors and honorary degrees for his conservation work. He is founding member of the ‘World Cultural Council.’
In 1990, Durrell made his final expedition to Madagascar, where he worked for 4 months. He found aye-aye, a rare species of lemur, and this work was filmed by an accompanying BBC crew. The TV film ‘The Island of the Aye-aye’ won awards, and the book, ‘The Aye-Aye and I: A Rescue expedition in Madagascar,’ earned accolades.
Durrell suffered health issues during later years and underwent hip replacement. An alcoholism-related liver problem led to a liver transplant in March, 1994. Durrell died of septicaemia on January 30, 1995, at the ‘Jersey General Hospital.’ His ashes were buried at the ‘Jersey Zoo.’