Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press on March 1st 2016
Genres: Biography/Autobiography, Non Fiction, Science & Nature
“Running with rhinos” is not a euphemism—not when you’re ground support for the International Rhino Foundation’s Rhino Conservancy Project.
Edward M. Warner, a self-proclaimed radical conservationist, presents his outrageous adventures from more than a decade of collaboration with the veterinarians and biologists who care for endangered rhinos in Africa. Few if any laymen like Warner have been invited to do what amounts to some of the most dangerous volunteer fieldwork around.
Fewer than five thousand black rhinos remain in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa. About five hundred live on private conservancies in Zimbabwe. For Warner, working on the frontlines of rhino conservation not only allowed him to help rhinos, it gave him the opportunity to pursue and refine his emerging philosophy of radical conservationism, to cultivate partnerships between local communities and private landowners in Africa, and to export the lessons about land and wildlife management back home to the United States.
In Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist, Warner takes readers along as he weasels his way into becoming volunteer ground support for the International Rhino Foundation’s Rhino Conservancy Project, or “Rhino Ops,” in Zimbabwe. It is gritty, sweaty, sometimes scary, and exhilarating work. Warner succeeds in telling a remarkable story of the extraordinary bonds between humans—and their dedication to protecting endangered animals—all while weaving eye-opening stories about the flora, fauna, geology, geography, and politics of sub-Saharan Africa.
When I read it…
I read this between April 1st and 10th 2016.
What I’d heard before I read it:
Nothing! This was an impulse request as soon as I saw it on NetGalley, because I love rhinos and I really genuinely love a good discussion about rhino conservation approaches.
What worked for me:
- Warner’s genuine love of Africa: Warner obviously has genuine love for Africa, and I liked the snippets of fauna, flora and geological knowledge throughout the book.
- Comments on differing conservation approaches: Although I’d have liked to see more, I liked that Warner talked about a few different conservation approaches, such as de-horning, arming anti-poaching patrols, private land conservancies and trophy hunting. Private land conservancies is obviously the area he feels most strongly about, and his genuine belief in this type of conservation really came across.
- The insight into logistical conservation problems: Conservation involves huge amounts of work that aren’t as exciting as darting rhinos, and we got to see a lot of the problems field conservation programmes struggle with, such as equipment difficulties, problems importing equipment and financial constraints. These aren’t huge, dramatic stories, but nonetheless the genuine reality of field conservation, and I liked that these were reflected throughout the book.
What didn’t quite work for me:
- The writing style: I felt like this book was just too focused on Warner. That might seem an odd sentiment given that the book is effectively a memoir, but on at least two separate occasions he tells us about taking people out to dinner “at the most expensive restaurant in town” and he also casually mentions buying someone a new car. The new car does contribute to field work at least, but none of these stories felt like they really added anything worthwhile to the story.
- Dismissive comments: There were a few occasions where comments that I think were supposed to come across as funny, fell totally flat to me. Warner says “The only reason I haven’t gone into politics is that I refuse to demean myself”, that he found it “intolerably boring to go on game drives with tourists” and uses the phrase “Bambi environmentalists” a few times to disparage conservationists who are against trophy or sport hunting – as if to say there’s no scientific or economic arguments against trophy hunting for conservation. While I think these were meant to be funny, these comments instead came across as judgemental and borderline-offensive at times.
- Not enough “big-picture” conservation: Ed Warner describes himself as a “radical conservationist” and so I expected quite a lot of conservation debate or opinion, but there was no real mention of the bigger picture of rhino conservation – not once is the issue of demand discussed, which I found disappointing.
I think ultimately Running with Rhinos just wasn’t what I expected from the synopsis. I think I expected a lot more stories about the animals and conservation methods, whereas in reality there were a lot of stories about people and these really overwhelmed the stories about rhinos themselves for me. Of course rhino conservation involves huge amounts of work that doesn’t involve contact with rhinos, but a lot of the stories weren’t really about work, they were about going to the bar, and so although we see rhinos being darted, having horns shaved, having snares removed and being relocated, I felt like I had to work to get to those stories. Despite only being 232 pages, and the only book I was reading at the time, this took me 10 days to read, and on more than one occasion I have to admit, I nearly stopped altogether.
Warner’s heart is, I’m absolutely sure, in the right place, and I love the fact that the profits of the book go to rhino conservation, but the book and I just didn’t fit together unfortunately, no matter how desparately I wanted us to. I would be more likely to shelve this in autobiography than natural history, which I think sums up exactly why the book didn’t work for me. I do think with a rather critical edit, this book could be great, but as it stands now, I personally much preferred The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony.