Overkill by James Clarke. Published by Struik Nature 2017
The subtitle – The Race to Save Africa’s Wildlife – sums up the conservation goal, but the scope of the book is wider, offering readers a comprehensive summary of past and present threats to Africa’s wildlife, both marine and land-based. Describing 2015 and 2016 as “the worst of years and the best of years” Clarke refers to the former as the costliest in terms of the wanton slaughter of the continent’s megafauna. But the 24 months will also go down , he thinks, as the time when the tide started to turn... As he puts it, the lowest ebb is always the turn of the tide
South Africans and those who come from afar to visit our parks and reserves have been reading about and viewing the wanton destruction wrought there in the present century, often with a feeling of helplessness as well as fury. Plenty of facts in this paperback to add to those sentiments, but also some positive data to offset the gloom as we read of the extent of international awareness and the gradual increase in African realisation of the benefits of eco-tourism.
Africa is the only continent that survived the disappearance of the world’s megafauna, as early humans migrated from Africa to the rest of the world. Clarke sets out to describe how this happened using the term “overkill” to mean anything done to excess.
In North America the European settlers extinguished whole species as they migrated southwards while similarly humans in Europe and Asia shared in the global overkill – all comparatively recently, geologically speaking.
But in Africa – the continent from which humans originated – this did not happen, and the fauna survived because of, rather than in spite of, the hunters. This was because the big mammals had watched humans graduate from stone-throwing hunters to athletic spear throwers and on to using more sophisticated weapons and learned to keep their distance. But in the 19th and 20th centuries this changed as hunters practised “overkill” – slaughtering all they could for the fun of it. Their exploits, proudly published form the mid-1800s onward, make sickening reading.
With lion populations in steep decline today, Clarke muses that the well-reported killing of Cecil , the renowned Zimbabwean black-maned lion and subject of a research project at Oxford University resulted in international disgust and the start of laws prohibiting the import of hunting trophies in both the USA and the EU. The elephant slaughter is dealt with next, followed by that of the rhino, with the huge demand from China and Vietnam for horns. The shameful story of the recent exploitation of marine life and the pollution of our oceans presents equaly horrifying reading.
On the positive side, a year ago, in January 2017 , China announced its reduction and gradual closing down of the ivory industry which was a huge step toward saving the surviving elephant population.Fusing protected areas into mega-parks across Africa is another hopeful sign.
Clarke has been writing articles and books with environmental themes for decades, and writing for newspapers since he was 16. He is one of the three founders of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and one of the most readable of journalists, and his new title confirms this.