Friday, August 2, 2013

Book review: "Wildlife Wars" by Richard Leakey

When it comes to protecting wildlife, Kenya is one of Africa's leaders. The country has set aside nearly a quarter of its land for parks and reserves where animals roam free.

But even in Kenya, conservation is a continual battle, as Richard Leakey makes clear in his 2001 book "Wildlife Wars."

Leakey was head of Kenya Wildlife Service the agency that oversees the country's game parks from 1989 to 1994 and again in 1998-99. In this book, he describes his fight against poachers, corruption and political rivals to protect elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.

Leakey was thrust into this role in an odd way. After speaking out on the importance of protecting elephants from poachers, Kenyan President Daniel Moi suddenly put Leakey in charge of the national parks without telling him. Leakey only learned of his appointment when a colleague heard a news report on the radio.

Still, Leakey leaped into his new role with a zeal, battling to improve the ill-equipped and undertrained ranger force so they could go after the poachers who were killing elephants for their tusks. He had to fight government bureaucracy to push out incompetent and lazy employees. He made a lot of enemies by steadfastly resisting the accepted culture of bribery, refusing to give handouts to favored friends and hiring employees based on their qualifications rather than their connections.

None of this was easy, and it wore Leakey down. Certainly Leakey is telling the stories from his perspective, and others might put a different spin on events. Still, I liked how he admits in the book to doubting his abilities and wondering whether he was up to the job.

The KWS battle with poachers is a focus of much of the first half of the book, and makes for interesting reading. In the second half, Leakey's battles become less tangible, as he delves more into the murky world of backroom politics. The story perhaps loses some of its zip here, but I still found it worthy reading.

I read this prior to, and during, a safari trip to Kenya. This worked well, as Leakey's book give some background on the history of the parks.

I did find it interesting that one of Leakey's goals in the early 1990s was to get the Kenyan government to improve the bone-rattling roads leading to some of the national parks. This is clearly one goal Leakey failed to achieve. Having just been there, I can assure you that the roads are still horrible.

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