Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hope for Animals and Their World – Jane Goodall ****

Jane Goodall is one of those figures in science (or, at least, natural history) who is near mythical. I have to confess to a tendency to confuse her with Diane Fossey (not to be confused with Bob Fosse), so I was slightly surprised that she was English and lives in Bournemouth. However what is certainly not mythical is her enthusiasm for animals which in this book (co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) she manages to put across in spades.
The idea is that we hear so much doom and gloom about animals being driven to extinction by climate change and human intervention, and this is a chance to hear the good news – the stories of animals we have managed to bring back from the brink. This works very well. It is heartening to hear. Also fascinating to see the in-fighting between those conservationists who believe animals should always be left in their natural habit and those who believe captive breeding is often essential. Goodall comes down on the side of the captive breeders, and it really does look like the other camp is putting philosophy ahead of the survival of animals.
The writing style is very light and personal. Some of it is almost as if it’s written by a very well-read ten-year-old. I don’t mean that to sound condescending – Goodall is certainly child-like in her joy in living creatures, but not childish. It’s just that this isn’t polished science writing, it’s more like reading a personal journal. I used to love Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, and I was reminded of that same personal enthusiasm and involvement.
I only had two small problems with this book. One was the sheer length of it. It’s 380 pages without the index, and to be honest, while there are obviously big differences between stories of black robins and of condors, there are just so many ‘bird being saved’ stories you can read without them getting a bit samey. I think there’s a bit of ‘famous author syndrome’ here – the editor didn’t dare suggest cutting down. I think the book would have been better with about half the case stories and a bit more depth to the science.
The other problem is that there was a touch of hypocrisy in the way we are encouraged not to destroy the world, yet Jane Goodall clearly flies thousands of miles each year, visiting many countries. This really isn’t justifiable, given the impact of that travel on the environment. (There’s even a section on the back that seems to encourage people to travel the world to see these creatures. No! Don’t! Just read about them, please.)
Despite those concerns, this is a really interesting book. I would have liked to see something about how we should make the decisions on which species to concentrate on. We see a lot of time, effort and money being spent on specific species – there’s no way we could afford to do this for (say) every insect in danger. How do we make those decisions? Even so it is good to know that some species have been hauled back from the brink – and good to see Goodall’s enthusiasm, shining through every page.
Paperback:  
Also hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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