Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Some books I have been reading

9 September, 2011 - 15:49 -- John Burton

On holiday earlier this year, I went to the island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) in the Greek Ionian Islands. Readers of this blog may recall that some time back I commented on the novel by Louis de Berniers, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (an excellent novel, turned into a rather second-rate film). And my comment in my earlier blog was that in the novel a pet Pine Marten appeared, and this was totally out of range.

On the first day of my holiday I was able to confirm this mammalian observation, as walking back from the restaurant, shortly after dusk a Stone (or Beech) Marten scampered across our path, and climbed a wall into a back garden before disappearing. That same evening less than 15 minutes later we saw another one wandering along the roadside, fairly obviously with an intent to raid dustbins. Now Stone Martens and Pine Martens are fairly easily confused, some I certainly don’t hold it against de Berniers, and it certainly did not detract from the novel.

But my next mistaken identity occurred when I was travelling to India recently. I was reading Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in India,  by William Dalrymple. It was a pretty good read on the aeroplane, and seemed pretty accurate, until I came across a passage that taking place in Pakistan, which referred to a black swan, and the author walking around the nests of flamingos. Neither are impossible. But both are very unlikely, and are so rare as to deserve a pretty detailed explanation. Black swans certainly don’t tend to fly around the northern hemisphere (they are native to Australia), though they are found in zoos and private collections. But flamingos are infamous for nesting in some of the most inhospitable and remote locations. Indeed some of the nesting sites, despite involving colonies of many thousands of birds, remained totally unknown even in Europe until then middle of the last century. So it did seem rather unlikely that a non-ornithologist ended up wandering among a nesting colony with black swans passing overhead. Not impossible, but it does then make one wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the book.

And talking of accuracy, I have just read a book with a rather sensational title: Nature Crime: How we’re getting conservation wrong. Written by Rosaleen Duffy, who is a Professor at the Centre of International Politics in Manchester, she apparently researches  ‘the politic of wildlife management around the world’. A very glib title, and a pity, since I could just as easily describe the book as ‘ Writing About Conservation and how some authors get it wrong’.  Trying to write about complex issues in a journalistic and simplistic manner is fraught with problems, not least when things become over simplified — which happens all too often in this book.

For instance she claims that

species listed under Appendix II of CITES are endangered but not necessarily threatened with extinction; therefore trading in them is permitted but it is strictly regulated to prevent overuse.”

Simply not true. Many appendix II species are listed as lookalikes for Appendix I, c.f all orchids, many of which are extremely common. A simple, but glaring error such as this is easily checked by reading the actual convention documentation, but does undermine the credibility of the author. Similarly claiming that the Aldabran Tortoise was driven to extinction on the island of Mauritius is a bit daft. Not only is the Aldabran Tortoise actually alive and well on Aldabra (where one might expect to find it), but there are also some on Mauritius in captivity, whereas  the other two species of Giant Tortoise that did in fact occur on Mauritius, are now extinct.

Garbled facts do nothing to enhance the author’s credibility.  But my main criticism of this particular book, is its title.  The author bases nearly all her examples on her experiences in Africa, and nearly all the examples are drawn from the BINGOs (Big International NGOs). Despite their huge size and despite the size of their budgets, I would argue that a very large, possibly the largest, part of actual conservation on the ground is carried out by much smaller organisations, and many of those small organisations do not  get it ‘wrong’. Most seem to be doing conservation the way Dr Duffy seems to think is right. At least that is my experience, particularly outside Africa.

To end on a more positive note, I have just received a copy of  The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 450 pages packed with information on almost all aspects of conservation of birds in the New World. It has a massive bias towards North America, but there is plenty of interest for conservationists in the southern hemisphere, particularly as so many of the North American birds migrate southwards. I see no point whatsoever in describing its contents. But I see every point in every North American conservationist buying a copy, and even those outside the continent would be well advised to have it on their bookshelf, as it contains so much good straightforward thinking, that many of the principles can be applied almost anywhere. Similar volumes should be planned for other groups of wildlife, and other areas.

As a former author I find it depressing how many books are published, often dealing with the same old subjects. It is also depressing when poorly researched books appear, sensationalising and adding nothing to the common pool of knowledge. But ABC have show the way for really useful books, filling an important niche.

Read book reviews by John and other WLT staff and supporters »


Submitted by Barry O' Dowd on

Hi John, thanks for a very interesting blog. I am off to Western USA soon for 4 months following 3 months travelling through Central America. I was thinking of buying the ABC conservation book, and will now following your recommendation. Another great book (which is available on Amazon at a low price) is 'Restoring North America's Landbirds- lessons from landscape ecology' by Robert Atkins - despite the title the lessons apply generally. I am a WLT supporter and hope to visit the Programme for Belize reserve and maybe some others. Myself and my wife are proffesional ornithologists working for the RSPB and taking a year out. We are volunteering for a month with Audubon California on a 7000 acre ranch and hope to get some new ideas on conservation to bring home.
Keep up the great work and good luck with the big give, I shall help too

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