Working for birds in Africa

Ivory, Apes and Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa

Wed, 06/05/2013 - 09:52 -- abc_admin
Alan Root, 2012. London, UK: Chatto & Windus. 307 pp, 16 pages of colour photographs. ISBN 978-0-70118-603-6 (hardback) and 978-0-70118-604-3 (softback).

Alan Root is one of the pioneers of wildlife filming in Africa with several major credits to his name. He was born in UK in 1937 and was initially furious at having to leave Britain shortly after the end of the Second World War because he had just learnt to identify all of the birds he was seeing, meaning that he was going to have to start afresh. However, Kenya was a revelation and he has lived in East Africa ever since.

His films were ground breaking at the time and often recorded behaviour and activities new to science, although he has almost never written up his observations formally. Examples include the breeding behaviour of hornbills (in the film about the baobab tree) and the activities of hippos and crocodiles underwater (at Mzima springs in Tsavo West). Another film brought ballooning safaris to Serengeti, and Mysterious Castles of Clay (much of it filmed from inside a termite mound) was nominated for an Oscar. Along the way there have been many adventures of course, including contretemps with hippos, puff adders and others, and interesting encounters with a wide variety of animals. One claim to fame was introducing Dian Fossey to Mountain Gorillas Gorilla g. beringei. He has had his disappointments too.

Alan Root has travelled more than most in the Democratic Republic of Congo and he remains one of the relatively few people to have seen (and filmed) the Congo Peacock Afropavo congensis in the wild (see Bull. ABC 2: 42). This trip (which also filmed Okapi Okapia johnstoni, Aquatic Genet Osbornictis piscivora and Water Chevrotain Hyemoschus aquaticus) was an adventure in itself and included being pinned beneath a heavily laden motorbike in deep mud. Luckily, the only person he had passed in about eight hours of riding was only a mile or so earlier and heading in the right direction. However, he was extremely drunk and Alan had great difficulty in persuading him to help. At the end too, when he was flying himself out of DRC for the last time, he was well into Rwandan airspace when he heard a BBC newsflash reporting that a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi had been shot down a few hours earlier. A hasty change of direction was required.

This is a well-written and moving autobiography of a remarkable man who has lived through a turbulent period for conservation and wildlife in eastern Africa, and who has often been responsible for showing us all just how remarkable some of the region’s wildlife is.

Peter Lack

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