Reading this weird book won’t help anyone to save rhinos or elephants

Book review by Keith Somerville


Saving elephants 

Bridget Martin, Survival or Extinction? How to Save Elephants and Rhinos, Switzerland, Springer Nature, ISBN 978-3-030-13292-7 ISBN 978-3-030-13293-4 (eBook) 2019


Having been researching and writing about human-elephant conflict and the conservation of elephants and rhinos for many years now, I was looking forward to reading this large and detailed book by Bridget Martin. The release PR from Springer emphasised that this book “shows how, by working together, people all over the world who care about these animals are gradually bringing about change for the better” and gives “an overview of how the current situation came to pass by exploring poaching and its devastating consequences and the pivotal role of organized crime”.

My expectation was that I would learn something new and gain insights into the ways of stopping poaching and conserving elephants and rhinos.  Sad to say that I was hugely disappointed.  To misquote Spock from Star Trek, “It’s a book, but not as we know it”.  It is more a list and a collection of thumbnail sketches of issues, people, organisations, documents, case studies and reports by campaigning NGOs ordered in a seemingly haphazard way. One example of this is the list of short paragraphs about all the surviving rhino species, with the Javan Rhino followed by a thumbnail description of Garamba National Park in the Congo with no explanation for the ordering and no context given.


There appears, apart from the overall focus on elephants and rhinos, to be no common theme or narrative running through the book. Reading it is like sorting through a mass of un differentiated bullet points that produced to be the basis of a detailed study, but without a clear structure,  enough linking text between the points or serious analysis of the huge amount of data presented. A massive research effort must have gone into compiling all the information but then there is no structuring or coherent organisation to provide a joined-up book rather than a mass of data, much of it thumbnail sketches or expanded bullet points.


Given the data-driven compilation, one might be tempted to say this is a great source of raw information.  But then when you find egregious errors, you realise that you would be better off going to the originals rather than accepting as accurate the paraphrasing or reprinting of large chunks from CITES documents, court cases, NGO campaigning publications (notably the Environmental Investigation Agency) and other lists of resolutions, laws etc.  Every chunk of reproduced text, documents or websites is referenced, but I’d advise anyone reading the book to check back with the originals just in case.


Why is that? Because of the terrible mistakes you find throughout and the odd writing style which means you have to read things several times over to work out how it fits together.  The errors include maps purporting to show major protected areas in Africa, but which omit the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, all of Kenya’s protected areas, Nxai Pan Mkgadikgadi and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, Luangwa Valley in Zambia and which fail to recognise the existence of South Sudan as a state or any of its protected areas.  The maps also purport to show how it is difficult it is to keep borders secure from poachers, which they don’t because they are simply maps with borders and some protected areas marked, and with no accompanying text to explain.  You then get some truly tabloid language about “insatiable” demand for ivory, and an “uncontrolled killing spree that shows no sign of ending”, ignoring that ivory prices have dropped and poaching has been reduced from the 2009-2015 levels, so poaching is dropping but not ending.  We get the obligatory “heart of darkness” reference typical of superficial studies of anything in Africa. And we are told that elephants are found “throughout much of Africa” – well no, they have clear ranges and much of Africa has no elephant habitat and so no elephants. Such inaccurate generalisations do not inspire confidence that the data mountain with which you are presented is well-chosen of accurate.


In the section on savanna elephant ranges in Africa, West Africa is initially omitted (despite there being 11,500 elephants there) and when it is finally mentioned the main range states there – Burkina Faso and Benin – are missed off the list. The section on ivory and insurgency is out of date, lacking context and just plain wrong when it comes to the alleged Boko Haram role in poaching in Gabon – this is a line spun by the Gabon government to divert attention from the oil-rich state’s failure to invest in conservation and the prevalence of killing of elephants by local and regional poachers, nor of the major role of Cameroon customs and military officials in the poaching-smuggling chain. Again, no context or analysis of the raw data presented.  The material on the Janjaweed (spelled wrong in the text) is also unreliable and ignores the long history (pre-Darfur conflict) of the Sudanese Rizeigat Arab community (from whom the Janjaweed were recruited) in ivory trading, poaching and other forms of illegal cross-border trade in the central and eastern Sahel. Instead the group is said to fund its military role in Darfur from ivory earnings, of which there is no evidence.  The Janjaweed are paid militia fighters for the Sudanese government, now heavily involved in suppressing popular protests demanding political reform.

The worst error, which seems to indicate that Springer failed to have an experienced editor look at the text before it was published, is the mixing up of Ian Player and Ian Parker.  Ian Player was a South African game warden who played the major role in saving the white rhino in Southern Africa.  Ian Parker was a Kenyan game warden who took part in mass culls of elephants in Uganda and who wrote the fascinating book on elephant conservation, What I Tell You Three Times is True.  In one of the many odd thumbnail sections (dotted randomly through the book) there are sketchy accounts of some of the key figures in elephant and rhino conservation.  The thumbnail in question is about Ian Player, but the title is Ian Parker and Parker is used throughout until the last paragraph, when suddenly it becomes Player. This is sloppy and very misleading. It destroys any confidence you might have in the accuracy of the other data.

Overall, this looks like the draft of a book that has not been converted into something with structure, joined up thinking or a coherent progress from the intro to the final section, which has the sort of conclusion you’d find in a naïve but well-meaning high-school project on saving elephants and rhinos.  I was left with a huge feeling of disappointment after wading through the immense tome and perplexity about how the author and publisher could have let it be published in this bizarre format littered with no clear structure, meaningless generalisations, tabloid whimsy and gross errors.


Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent where he is a member of its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology,  and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a member of the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group. Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence (Routledge), is published this month. Professor Somerville is also the author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa.