The best books on conservation and extinction

Errol Fuller Author Of The Great Auk
By Errol Fuller

The Books I Picked & Why

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

By David Quammen

Book cover of The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

Why this book?

There are many books on the subject of conservation and the plight that besets the planet. Most are well-written, well-intentioned, and outline the story. But many cover the same well-trodden path and are full of platitudes and an unrealistic self-righteousness. This one is very different. It tells its story in an original way and offers an approach that is particularly disturbing; it underlines problems that many conservationists simply skirt around.

The first thing to say is that the book is not really about the Dodo at all; the title is just an intriguing and engaging heading! And in any case, so far as we know, the Dodo didn’t have a song – something that the author knows very well. The awful truth that David Quammen illuminates very clearly is that setting aside tracts of land for the purposes of conservation is all very well – in its way. But it ignores a very fundamental problem, a problem that the author lays out very clearly. If anyone wants to understand the nature of the problem they will have to read the book.

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Prehistoric Animals

By J. Augusta, Z. Burian

Book cover of Prehistoric Animals

Why this book?

This is the book that brought me into the subject of extinction and specifically, as the title suggests, prehistoric creatures.

Published in 1960 at a time when colour printing was in the doldrums, this is the book that broke new ground. And it needed to because it contains reproductions of a wonderful series of paintings by the Czech artist Zdenek Burian, all shown in a large-scale format.

An argument could be made that Burian’s pictures are the most iconic and influential of all images of prehistoric animals, perhaps the only rivals being those created by the American artist Charles R. Knight. This is not to say that many more recent painters (both Burian and Knight were working in the early and middle years of the twentieth century) have failed in their efforts. They certainly have not, but it seems true to say that the painterly quality of Burian and the evocative nature of his pictures have a magic all of their own.

There are those who might say that our knowledge of dinosaurs and the prehistoric world has increased enormously since his time and that therefore some of his images are not entirely in line with current thinking. This may be true but it is beside the point. The celebrated thinker and writer Charles Fort once wrote:

I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear – for a while!

Anyone who is interested in the subject should look at this monument in publishing history, in production standards well in advance of most books of its time. Burian’s pictures have been published in many formats over the years, but this was the first in the English language. His images are accompanied by an illuminating – if a little staid – text written by Josef Augusta, an eastern European professor who specialized in prehistoric life. But it is the pictures that make this book unforgettable.

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Extinct Birds

By Julian Hume

Book cover of Extinct Birds

Why this book?

This book is an encyclopedia of recently extinct birds, and anyone who is interested in this subject should get it. My own book on this matter (also titled Extinct Birds) is a romantic ramble through the subject – accurate and informative in its own way, but serving a rather different purpose to the volume under consideration here.

Julian Hume’s book contains everything that you might wish to know about any recently extinct avian species; indeed it contains virtually everything significant that is actually known! Sometimes the accounts are lengthy, sometimes they are more meagre but in this latter case, it is simply because so little is known about the bird in question.

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The Dodo and its Kindred: Or The History, Affinities, and Osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire, and Other Extinct Birds of the Islands Mauritius, ...

By Hugh Edwin Strickland, Alexander Gordon Melville

Book cover of The Dodo and its Kindred: Or The History, Affinities, and Osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire, and Other Extinct Birds of the Islands Mauritius, ...

Why this book?

This is a beautifully presented antique book and, unfortunately for anyone who wants it, it is fiercely expensive. It is the second of my choices with Dodo in the title, but this one really is about the species.

There have been many books and scientific papers written about the subject but, curiously, most of them are full of erroneous information or are derivative in the extreme. Even my own book Dodo – from Extinction to Icon is limited. I wrote somewhere that all we actually know about the living bird could be written on the back of a postcard. Perhaps because this remark is essentially accurate, many writers on the subject have felt the need to embellish the truth and invent or copy all manner of misinformation.

The book produced by Mr. Strickland and Mr. Melville is of a very different stamp. Although written so long ago, it is a model of accuracy and non-speculation. It deals with the facts as they were then known, and little else. And, curiously, not much more is known today although many modern writers on the subject might beg to differ.

The book is characterized by its truthfulness and a series of wonderful illustrations. The major drawback is, of course, its rarity and its expense. Fortunately, modern reproductions can be bought reasonably cheaply. However, the reproductions of images will not be up to the standard and beauty of those in the original edition.

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The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise

By Peter Beard

Book cover of The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise

Why this book?

Peter Beard settled in Kenya in the late 1950s and became obsessed with the plight of wildlife in Africa. The book is full of evocative photos that he took over a period of some 20 years – some of them absolutely tragic. It is not a book for the faint-hearted; but it tells with truth the stories of explorers, entrepreneurs, big game hunters, and missionaries.

It has been published in several editions and formats. The copy I have is a large paperback that dates from 1989, but there are editions that were produced before that time and many that have been published since.

This book is certainly not an attempt to be gently persuasive, and the author’s position can be summed up in these words that he wrote:

When I first escaped to East Africa in August 1955…it was one of the heaviest wildlife areas…in the world…No one then could have guessed what was going to happen. Kenya’s modest population of five million…suddenly became a starving population of over 30,000,000. Millions of years of evolutionary processes were interfered with, cut down, fenced off, shot out, sub-divided. The Pleistocene gets paved over and this is the end of the game… We cunningly adapt to the damage we cause in a big game blame of politically correct spin…teeming populations unchecked, uneducated leadership, crude oil and crude politics, tribalism and territorialism, sensory saturation, conspicuous consumption… anarchy, insurgency, war, disease, mad cowboy, historical mediocrity, betrayal, and shame…Let’s just welcome it all and take notes while the world destroys itself.

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