The best books on conservation and extinction

Errol Fuller Author Of The Great Auk
By Errol Fuller

Who am I?

I am a painter who specializes mostly in sleazy sports (boxing, snooker, etc. – nothing really healthy!) who happens to have written and designed 18 books. Obviously, producing books has become something of a habit. These books are about curiosities of natural history and also about art – but they have little to do with my paintings. Anyone who is interested in either the books or the paintings can see them on my website. I suppose the book that I’m best known for is Drawn from Paradise, a book that I did with David Attenborough on one of our two mutual obsessions – birds of paradise. Apart from books and paintings, my life is fairly humdrum; in fact, there isn’t a lot of time for much else, although I’ve been married more than once and have children. I’ve now reached an age when I should start slowing down but I’ve no intention of stopping what I do until either bad health or death finish me off!


I wrote...

The Great Auk

By Errol Fuller,

Book cover of The Great Auk

What is my book about?

It is difficult for me to pick a favourite from the various books I’ve published, but since I’m obliged to make a choice, it has to be The Great Auk. This is a volume about a bird that has been extinct since 1844 and, surprisingly perhaps for a book about a single species, it runs to almost 450 large pages. It even surprises me that I found so much to write about. When I started it, I expected it to run to, perhaps, a hundred pages or so, but the obsession to produce something entirely complete just went on and on and on.

I tried to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for information and pictures. In fact, the size became a problem when it came to finding a publisher. In addition to all the written material, I had collected more than 200 coloured pictures of what is essentially a black and white bird. No publisher is likely to tolerate such self-indulgence, and all wanted to cut it to more reasonable proportions. This was something I couldn’t even begin to consider – so I published it myself. Then, when it was done an American publisher (Abrams) decided to take it on after all and they produced a US edition. Naturally, I was pleased about this but unfortunately, they changed the dustwrapper and it is nowhere near as beautiful as the dust jacket on my privately published UK edition.

The books I picked & why

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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.

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

By David Quammen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Song of the Dodo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Compulsively readable—a masterpiece, maybe the masterpiece of science journalism.” —Bill McKibben, Audubon

A brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope and far-reaching in its message, The Song of the Dodo is a crucial book in precarious times. Through personal observation, scientific theory, and history, David Quammen examines the mysteries of evolution and extinction and radically alters our understanding of the natural world and our place within it.

In this landmark of science writing, we learn how the isolation of islands makes them natural laboratories of evolutionary extravagance, as seen in the dragons of Komodo, the elephant birds of Madagascar, the…


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.

Prehistoric Animals

By J. Augusta, Z. Burian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prehistoric Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text defines the role and scope of nuclear medicine imaging techniques (gamma scintigraphy) in pharmaceutical research, giving information from clinical trial data.


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.

Extinct Birds

By Julian Hume,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Extinct Birds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Extinct Birds was the first comprehensive review of the hundreds of the bird species and subspecies that have become extinct over the last 1,000 years of habitat degradation, over-hunting and rat introduction. It has become the standard text on this subject, covering both familiar icons of extinction as well as more obscure birds, some known from just one specimen or from travellers' tales. This second edition is expanded to include dozens of new species, as more are constantly added to the list, either through extinction or through new subfossil discoveries.

Extinct Birds is the result of decades of research into…


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.

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,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dodo and its Kindred as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Well versed in natural history, particularly geology and ornithology, Hugh Edwin Strickland (1811-53) became fascinated by the dodo and mankind's influence on its extinction. Seeking to investigate this flightless bird and other extinct species from islands in the Indian Ocean, he invited the comparative anatomist Alexander Gordon Melville (1819-1901) to help him separate myth from reality. Divided into two sections, this 1848 monograph begins with Strickland's evaluation of the evidence, including historical reports as well as paintings and sketches, many of which are reproduced. Melville then analyses the osteology of the dodo and Rodrigues solitaire, describing his findings from dissections…


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.

The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise

By Peter Beard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The End of the Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book describes the origins, history, and prospects of big game in Africa.Researched, photographed, and compiled over 20 years, Peter Beard's "End of the Game" tells the tale of the enterprisers, explorers, missionaries, and big-game hunters whose quests for adventure and "progress" were to change the face of Africa in the 20th century. This landmark volume is assembled from hundreds of historical photographs and writings, starting with the building of the Mombasa Railroad ("The Lunatic Line") and the opening-up of darkest Africa. The stories behind the heroic figures in Beard's work - Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Courtney Selous, Karen Blixen (Isak…


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