Horn of Darkness: Rhinos on the Edgeby Carol Cunningham, Joel Berger
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The black rhino is nature's tank, feared by all animals. Even lions will break off a hunt to detour around one. And yet the black rhino is on the edge of extinction, its numbers dwindling from 100,000 at the turn of the century, to less than 2,500 today. The reason is that in places like Yemen, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, the rhino's horn is more valuable than gold, so valuable that people will risk their lives to harvest it. To deter rhino poachers, African governments have spent millions--on helicopters, paramilitary operations, fences and guard dogs, even relocation to protected areas. Finally, Namibia decided to dehorn its rhino population, in a last ditch effort to stop the slaughter. In 1991, Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger, and their eighteen-month-old daughter Sonja, went to Namibia to weigh the effects of dehorning on rhinos. In Horn of Darkness, they tell the story of three years in the Namib Desert, studying Africa's last sizable population of free-roaming black rhinos. This is the closest most readers will come to experiencing life in the remaining wilds of Africa. Cunningham and Berger, writing alternate chapters, capture what it is like to leave the comforts of civilization, to camp for months at a time in a land filled with deadly predators, to study an animal that is reclusive, unpredictable, and highly dangerous. The authors describe staking out water holes in the dead of the night, creeping to within twenty-seven meters of rhinos to photograph them, all the while keeping a lookout for hyenas, elephants, and lions. They recount many heart-pounding escapes--one rhino forces Carol Cunningham up a tree, an unseen lion in hot pursuit of hyenas races right past a frozen Joel Berger--and capture the adrenaline rush of inching closer to a rhino that might flee--or charge--at any moment. They also give readers a clear sense of the careful, patient work involved in studying animals, the frustration of long days without finding rhinos or seeing other people, coping with heat and thirst (the Namib desert is one of the driest on Earth), with dirt and insects, driving hundreds of kilometers in a Land Rover packed to capacity, slowing amassing records on one hundred individual rhinos over the course of several years. And perhaps most important, the authors reveal that the data they collected suggests that the dehorning project might backfire--that in the four years after dehorning began, calf survival was down (the evidence suggests that hyenas might be preying on calves and the hornless mothers couldn't defend their offspring). They also describe the dark side of scientific work, from the petty jealousy of other scientists--outside researchers were often seen as ecological imperialists--to the controversy that erupted after the authors published their findings, as furious officials of the Namibian conservation program denounced their findings and through delays and other tactics effectively withheld a permit to allow the couple to continue their study. Weaving together the historical accounts of other naturalists, a vividly detailed look at life in the wild, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of scientific work and the dark side of the conservation movement, Horn of Darkness is destined to be a classic work on the natural world.
Consider the black rhinoceros, fearless, scattering lions and elephants as it motors along at 30 mph. Now consider that in less than 100 years its numbers have shriveled from 100,000 to 3,000, cut down by machine-gun-toting poachers desirous of their horns, made of a keratin-like substance similar to fingernails that brings huge sums in Hong Kong; it is valued for its medicinal qualities in China, Korea, and Taiwan and as dagger shafts in Yemen. Cunningham and Berger, of the University of Nevada, Reno, spent four years in the Namibian Desert, studying in particular the effects on the rhinos of dehorning, which had come into vogue as a means of harvesting the horns' wealth while saving the animals themselves from poachers. In alternating chapters, the two authors plait their days afield into a delightful memoir: how they learned to track, to dodge rhino charges, to set up house in a Land Rover with their toddler daughter, to overcome all the logisitical problems of cameras and auto mechanics and night-vision equipment and life without a tossed salad. Berger gets in a few volleys condemning the treatment of the local population by European imperialists, and he appreciates the simple fact that starving people will understandably kill endangered species to survive. But rhinos were his preoccupation. Perhaps too much so; when he wrote a paper with his wife questioning the value of dehorning (he raised the issue of calf mortality as a possible consequence of dehorned mothers left unable to defend for them), he ran hard against national pride and the fact that legally cut horns could be sold by the state for hard currency. Namibia gave Cunningham and Berger the bum's rush and told them not to return.
Consider the black rhinoceros, and pity him too; without Cunningham and Berger in his corner, his future gets that much dimmer.
"Few would have had the courage to take their families into the harsh and lonely landscape of the Namib; even fewer would have returned with so much for science, humanity and the wildlife they studied.... This book is a must read for anyone seeking insight into the lives of those who struggle to conserve endangered species and those who want to know more about the desperate plight of the black rhinoceros."Mark Dykes, Administrative Director, Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation
"In alternating chapters, the two authors plait their days afield into a delightful memoir: how they learned to track, to dodge rhino charges, to overcome all the logistical problems of cameras and auto mechanics and night-vision and life without a tossed salad."Kirkus Reviews
"Horn of Darkness, a fast-moving adventure about field studies in the Namib desert, is also an object lesson about the politics of conservation. When the Namibian government began to de-horn black rhinos in the early 1990s as a deterrent to poachers, Berger and Cunningham were welcomed as guest scientists to examine the biological consequences. Their gypsy-like quest for data contains humor, understanding, and the insight that the human dimension, rather than biology, poses the greatest challenges to wildlife conservation." Chris Wemmer, Smithsonian Institution
"These remarkable authors, Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger, show that the process of Science is subject to the distortions of political agendas, of whimsical authority. Yet their trials are described with sensitivity, emotion, humor and a deeply felt commitment to the future of humankind and their fellow species and environments." A.R.E. Sinclair, Professor of Ecology and Director, Centre for Biodiversity Research
"A compelling tale of how scientists work under physically and politically challenging conditions in an attempt to determine if radical management can help conserve one of the world's most critically endangered mammals in one of the world's wildest places. The reader is treated to a blend of science with a unique personal perspective into the family life of field biologists."Steven R. Beissinger, Division of Ecosystem Sciences, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley
"The two authors...and their young daughter still in nappies, spent 3 seasons in Namibia dehorning rhino and researching the wildlife biology of this species. The book is a narrative of their time in Namibia. It reads like a novel, starting with their first tentative steps in the country and following their scientific and social interaction with the people of the country. Through their writing you can feel the heat and sweat, the exhilaration of the work and their reaction to feeling like unwanted invaders of privacy when meeting with remote tribes people. When their fourth session of work is stopped before it really starts because of politics, the reader gets an object lesson about the politics of conservation. This book is every bit as good as 'Out of Africa' but with a lot more good ecology in it." Bulletin of the British Ecological Society
- Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author
Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger have worked as a team for fifteen years studying conservation and wildlife issues from Africa and Alaska to the Great Basin Desert. They both work at the University of Nevada, in Reno, and live up in the Sierras.
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