Dale Zimmerman is a biologist of some considerable standing, but to birders he is undoubtedly best known for being the illustrator and co-author of two seminal field guides, Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, and Birds of New Guinea. Rather less well known, but equally important for the aspiring field birder in Kenya in the days before there was a decent field guide, was a slim booklet written by Zimmerman and published by the American Museum of Natural History in 1972 entitled The Avifauna of the Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya, including a Bird Population Study. This fairly obscure publication was essential reading for anyone wanting to unravel the confusing bulbuls and illadopsises of Kakamega Forest. This was my first encounter with the name of Dale A. Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s association with East Africa (and especially Kenya) is particularly profound, and he made repeated visits between 1961 and 1992 to study the region’s incomparable fauna, notably the birds, mammals and butterflies. This sumptuous volume, running to almost 800 pages and filled with hundreds of large-format colour photos, is both a readable account of these visits, based on his diaries and those of his wife Marian, and a celebration of the fabulous wildlife that he encountered.
It all makes for fascinating reading. The author writes well and the pages are filled with glorious anecdotes of living, travelling and birding in East Africa in its golden age. The three decades or so that are described in the book are the years when East African wildlife was still abundant and good habitats were not confined to national parks, yet modern transport enabled naturalists to explore the region with relative ease. Huge population growth and vast environmental deterioration are now placing enormous pressures on the region’s wildlife, and future generations are unlikely to be able to experience the East Africa described in this book.
Zimmerman’s memoir is a hugely enjoyable read, especially if you know the birds and places described, and share the author’s passion for them. But, if I can be brutally honest, the extravagance of the photographs is a trifle self-indulgent, especially as many look decidedly inferior compared to modern digital images. Many are of historical interest and thus irreplaceable, while others are superb portraits of Africa’s iconic wildlife. But some have simply been reproduced too large or are of relatively little interest. This heavy tome would have worked just as well with fewer photographs and a smaller format. That might also have helped to make the book more affordable, and thus more widely appreciated. Nevertheless, I for one am delighted that Dale Zimmerman has provided us with this fascinating account of his long love affair with an East Africa that we may never see again.