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Can We Live With Africa's Wildlife?


By Rick Ridgeway

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Henry Holt

288 pp., $27.50

For those readers whose appetites for African safari continue unabated, Rick Ridgeway's thoughtful trek from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro through Tsavo Game Park to the Indian Ocean will open new doors of contemplation.

Rather than a series of exciting encounters, the author ponders questions: "What does the future hold for the great game animals of East Africa? Will any indigenous people hold onto the fragile niche which has been theirs for thousands of years?"

The man Rolling Stone magazine once called "the real Indiana Jones" knows all about danger. But in this book, instead of high adventure encountered on his 300-mile walk across East Africa, we have a series of flash-backs and reminiscences about the opening of Kenya to big-game hunting and continuing conservation efforts.

Ridgeway, whose television documentaries have won a number of Emmy awards, writes from his deepest concerns over the enigma of survival. He and his walking companions face relatively minor threats, yet dangers always lurk. His book is spiced with familiar and hair-raising encounters of early African explorers and hunters, which Africa afficionados may have read in earlier accounts.

Ridgeway retells the stories well, though, adding his own reaction to the confrontations. He writes of the "exhilaration in near-death" and of spotting a trekker on the trail whose T-shirt announces: "Inedible."

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While traversing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the author's keen eye and pen tell us "mineral colors look like ground spices, like they should each have a distinct taste," and tree trunks "blink stroboscopically."

Yet the bulk of the recording of this long walk is focused on the author's thoughts about African humanity, conservation, and government. He speaks often of the paradox of killing elephants to save them. He is interested in the fact that the wildlife conservation movement was headed most avidly by former big-game hunters who were having second thoughts about the results of their carnage.

He ponders the conundrum "of asking people to get off the land they had occupied seasonally for untold generations." Most engrossing are the details of the lives of the elusive Waliangulu elephant bow hunters, who have lived for eons with elephants as their only livelihood.

Using the strongest bows and poisons known to man, they killed for need alone, not affecting the future survival of the species. The strength of the bow was such that occasionally a man would be killed trying to draw it. He notes, "A typical Waliangulu arrow carried enough poison to kill a twelve-thousand-pound elephant 70 times over."

The possibility is considered that the La Brea tar pits are the result of men relentlessly pursuing animals, and that history repeatedly shows the dangers of ignoring people's effect on the environment. Great controversies continue to rage between those who consider people more important than wildlife, versus pure conservationists who support Chief Seattle's warning, "Whatever happens to the beasts, happens to man."

As the weary walkers strip off their clothes to plunge, hooting and shouting, into the Indian Ocean, the month-long walk becomes lucidly rewarding to trekker and reader alike.

* Marjorie D. Hamlin is a freelance writer in St. Louis who has traveled widely in Africa.

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