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Two new field guides to the Serengeti raise awareness without belaboring point

Birds of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area by Adam Scott Kennedy and Animals of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy

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One of the dreams that most wildlife and travel enthusiasts hold dear is a trip to visit the awe-inspiring living kaleidoscope which is the African Serengeti.

Some plates from the Princeton University WILDGuides Series Birds of the Serengeti and Animals of the Serengeti.
Princeton University Press

Even seasoned wildlife-watchers will probably be bringing some sort of field-guides with them to sort out the less famous critters, the myriad of monkeys, diverse birds, the similar-looking hoofed stock, those reptiles that might or might not be venomous. Too, due to the the somewhat dangerous political as well as wilderness realms, they will book the services of a professional photographic or wildlife safari guide service.

The authors of this new set of WILDGuides from Princeton University Press, Adam Scott and Vicki Kennedy, lend an 'insider's view' of wildlife found in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Areas. Both are seasoned wildlife professionals, having managed remote luxury safari camps not just in areas of Africa, but South America, Europe and New Zealand, as well a private guiding businesses.

The striking layout of these books, the crisp, clear, colorful photography and the printing are really lovely. The size is just right, if not to slip into a pocket, to hold and read comfortably and stash into a back pack.

In the opening pages of Animals of the Serengeti, the authors state their intent to have these guides be companions to a guided tour, to be used in conjunction with the presence of an expert in the wildlife of the (very specific) region covered by the books. In real life, though, I suspect many armchair enthusiast folk will pick up these attractive volumes as a way to go on safari vicariously..

The two guides, one on bird life and the other covering most everything else, are a little different in personality:

Of the two, Birds of the Serengeti, by Adam Scott Kennedy, reads most like a conventional field guide (but arranged differently): Straight-forward, with descriptions, clear, striking photos, and lovely presentation showing such things as male, female, young, habitat, nests and behavior. There are plenty of images of the soaring birds in flight so you can see the silhouette and field marks of these grand hunters and scavengers.

The index and color-coded habitat bars are an easy way to find the group in which to locate and identify your species, perhaps a more intuitive format for the budding birder than the classic, standard order seen in the majority of guides. Woodland, scrub and garden? Plains? Lakes and marshes? Air? Night? This makes narrowing it down simple! Just flip to the right niche and find your bird

This volume is a delight to look at, satisfying and functional as well.

Animals of the Serengeti, by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy, not as much.

I take a risk by saying that here. Most reviewers praise this volume with enthusiasm.

Both the volume on Birds and the one on the other Animals unfortunately share some pretty serious omissions, in my view. While they are noticeable in Birds of the Serengeti, to me, they are glaring in Animals of the Serengeti.

I hate to admit that, although this also appears to be a lovely book, with lovely photos and lovely page layout, interesting personal anecdotes from both the authors and the six trusted, seasoned guides offering some nice tidbits of insider information - it might not be the one I choose to bring with me into the field.

Actually, to me (and I'm trying to say this in the nicest possible way), I would find it next to worthless as an actual, stand-alone field guide. It makes a nice armchair indulgence, but I would not want to be caught with it and nothing else to help me out if I were in the Serengeti meeting unfamiliar wildlife on my own.

First, although they do explain the reason for the omission of an entire order of mammals (the bats), I was disappointed. I am a bat fan, and bats, losing ground throughout the world, are a crucially important group, performing critical tasks like pollination and insect eating. I'm just not sure I agree with their decision to exclude the entire order Chiroptera simply because getting close enough for accurate species identification might be unlikely.

Next, the snakes.

Africa has her share of highly venomous snakes. But not every snake is venomous, deadly or likely to bite. And there is a wide variance in the the type, potency and amount of venom injected, depending on species and the mood of the snake at a given time (often they can even give a relatively harmless 'dry' bite). These are all crucial graduations in the umbrella term 'venomous'.

The only way to safely enjoy meeting snakes in the wild is to be very respectful and give them their distance, but if you do get close enough to have a chance at identifying a snake, it's pretty important to know at a glance if that stunning snake in the tree you just found yourself inches from is a gentle, inoffensive species or one of the most deadly in Africa.

I understand the author's intent to create an accessible, easy-to-grasp beginner's guide.

Obviously, too, telling the difference at a glance, when in the field, can save your life.

Why there is no icon, color-coded bar, or even a big, bold word saying VENOMOUS or HARMLESS, accompanying each snake entry and photo, is beyond me. Maybe the authors don't want to encourage close encounters - But they might happen anyway.

I love snakes, and have worked with them in a zoological setting, but I am not familiar with every species. If I were to flip open this book to find out if that slender, pretty, greenish serpent up in that tree is dangerous, I would have to stop and actually read the text and try to ascertain from the description if this was a harmless species or a deadly-lethal one.

So, is that lovely slender greenish Spotted Bush Snake venomous? Let's slow down and dig through the entry. Hmmmm, looks like . . . No? How about the handsome African Rock Python? Not sure - Doesn't actually say. (But, really, no. Large ones can be dangerous, though, can bite and constrict, but although there is an anti-coagulant in the saliva, they are not going to inject any actual venom into you.) Still, that isn't immediately apparent when you glance at the page.

I was once taken to Grady Hospital, as a routine matter, after a bite from an anaconda I was caring for at the zoo. She had gotten excited and went around the plexi-glass shield thinking the chicken I was feeding her was there - But instead, by accident, she got my arm.

Even though it was no big deal and needed, at most, a tetanus booster shot, I had to go to the emergency room as a matter of city-employee policy.

Poor folks. They were frantic to find the right antivenin - Until we explained that anacondas are not venomous. I'd be just fine, thank you!

So, yeah, these things really aren't self-explanatory to the uninitiated.

And what about the cute fat puff adder, sinister-looking black mamba, or any of the enchanting but potentially deadly cobras a tourist might encounter? Might seem like common sense to know they all pack a powerful venom, but I would feel more comfortable with even a single word, or a red dot, or something highlighting which are the 'hot' ones. I would want my readers to be very clear, very fast, on details like that.

My concern deepened as I looked for the next 'comfort' point in this volume: species conservation status.

It's the same thing missing from the Birds volume.

You know - That code or color or (whatever) that let's you know if that bird you just spotted is as ubiquitous as the English House Sparrow is in the US, or a real rarity, or if that black rhino you're seeing might be one of the most vulnerable, most dramatically imperiled, on-the-brink endangered species on the planet, being driven to the edge solely out of greed, solely by humans. (It is.)

Again, if you read the accompanying text, you will learn more about the rarity or stability of the species in question, as well as the reasons why. But - outside of a recliner in the living room, I suspect most tourists will look for fast, easy symbols or bold words first, then quickly move on to the next distraction.

This seeming oversight (which was too glaring to actually be an oversight) prompted me to write the publisher so I could ask the authors why.

My contact at Princeton University Press very kindly forwarded my query to the Kennedys.

Here is an excerpt from the thorough and respectful response I received:

.
You raise an interesting point about the lack of conservation status information of the species we feature within this title and I hope the following serves in some small way to help you enjoy the book more.

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the book is intended as an identification and educational tool for visitors to the greater Serengeti region. For many, this is will be the first and only time they ever take a ‘safari’ in their lives so we decided that the book must stimulate an active interest in the wildlife presented to people of all ages. We are delighted that the format is easy on the eye and easy to read with easily-digestible bite-sized nuggets of information. As authors, we are obviously restrained by how much information we can include on any given page and, consequently, difficult decisions were made. Inclusion of IUCN data was one of many other items that were considered when the page-layouts were being created but, along with other members of the Princeton design team, we agreed to omit it.

Secondly, having spent much of the last 5 years working in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, we do not fully agree with the IUCN conservation status given to a number of species and, in several cases, we feel that the IUCN are negligent in their status appraisal. One case in point is the Pangolin (or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin to be precise) which is given a Least Concern status by IUCN. Despite the vast quantity of good quality habitat, this is a species that few of the most experienced guides are seeing in the ecosystem these days and it has all but disappeared from non-protected areas across East Africa. In fact, across its entire African range, it is, at the very least, Endangered and possibly Critically so.

This is but one example where one could argue that the IUCN has it very wrong. So, I hope you understand our sentiments on using the IUCN as a genuine barometer of conservation status. This train of thought was included in our decision when we agreed not to include the data within the species accounts. After all, if we do not agree with it, it would be morally wrong for us to include it.

The authors then asked me to consider various species they listed (referring me to page numbers), predict what I might presume the official conservation status of several to be, according to the IUCN, and then see for myself how the designation differs from the actual level of threat (which turns be out to grossly underplayed by the IUCN in most instances). They then asked me to see the comments they'd included, with 'hard-hitting facts about the perils facing the animals featured within the book.' .

Yes, when you tuck into the text and take the time to read it, there are mentions of the challenges and dangers to many of the Serengeti's most beloved or iconic animals.

I understand their reasoning, and their issue with the disappointing inaccuracy of the IUCN designations. The author's first-hand knowledge about things being worse out there than even the conservation orgs have acknowledged, is alarming and distressing. People out in the field have their fingers on the pulse of wildlife, habitat and biological-systems health. Tragic news, but in my view, necessary information.

So, I understand why they didn't want to use designations they felt were not accurate.

But - But - I wish they had said that in the book, just as they'd explained it to me. Also, I wish they'd addressed the conservation status of each entry, not just in fine print but with some sort of highlight (a color bar, something) to let readers see instantly where each species population stands, in the book's authors' expert opinion.

I have taken quite a few days mulling this issue over. I want to be fair, but I also want to remain honest.

While I don't like the 'short attention span' of modern readers, it's the way things are now, and I feel we have a responsibility to make sure crucial information is imparted quickly and precisely, when teaching people about the emergency facing a growing numbers of Africa's (and the world's) species.

Including the info they'd sent me in a preface or introduction to the guides, would (in my opinion) have been a wise, proactive decision by the authors/publishers, without unduly burdening the book's economical use of space.

For this reason, as much as I love the beauty of both Birds of the Serengeti and Animals of the Serengeti, I reluctantly withhold one star from my rating.

Then again, maybe new wildlife enthusiasts can be better recruited by not belaboring the point that it's all at risk. After all, it's nice to have a break from the angst and heartbreak of being in the midst of the 6th great extinction event in the planet's history; an extinction event being driven entirely by foolish, selfish or ignorant human actions.

Wildlife watching and safaris are much more than mere entertainment. The delight, the discovery, the fun, the challenge, the personal and spiritual growth of simply encountering nature and learning about the mind-boggling complexity, grandeur, interconnectedness and ancient rhythms of life on Earth, paves the way to reconnect to the Earth, and to our souls. It's how we come to cherish and protect.

It's how we learn to love.

The books you bring along on your journey should ignite and buoy all that, and also instill the sense urgency that makes speaking for, working for and voting to protect our precious natural heritage among the most urgent issues of the day.

Those are not, in my opinion, mutually exclusive goals.

Animals of the Serengeti and Ngorongo Conservation Area, by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy, and Birds of the Serengeti and Ngorongo Conservation Area, by Adam Scott Kennedy, Princeton University Press WILDGuide Series.