These three books cover different areas of the world, but they all deal with practical
approaches to conservation in a world where one animal has suddenly become
capable of destroying his own habitat.
John Blower was a Forester and Game Ranger Warden in Tanganyika before transfer
to Uganda where he was the Chief Game Warden at Independence. His first book,
was Banagi Hill. Later, in Ethiopia Emperor
Haile Selassie had appreciated the emerging importance of tourism and had a genuine
wish to conserve some areas for future generations. So Sir Julian Huxley, former
Director-General of UNESCO, and a group of international conservationists visited
Ethiopia. One of their recommendations was for the establishment of a Wildlife
Conservation Department, with the vital requirement of initially an experienced
expatriate in charge. This took account of the realities of Ethiopia. John Blower was
appointed through this UNESCO initiative to fill the post, but Ethiopian national pride
(or if one is cynical, ruling clique greed) laid down that an Ethiopian should be in
executive charge. John Blower was relegated to the role of “advisor”, paid by the
Ethiopians, with UNESCO only taking over his funding for the last nine months of the
four year assignment. The consequence was that from day one the possibility of a viable
and worthwhile successful project was removed. I very much doubt if this was the
In retrospect forty years afterwards, it is easy to see that while still leaving John
Blower responsible for establishing an efficient government conservation department,
this removed the basic essential foundation for him to succeed (or be blamed if he
failed). However this was at a time when western organisations were shying away from
any suggestion of “colonialism”. UNESCO backed away from facing reality and did not
insist that the fundamental necessity for not wasting money was first the establishment of
an honest, efficient organisation. It is sad therefore that UN did not have the guts at that
time to be honest and stick to the fundamental principle of ensuring it only used funds honestly. The arguments “we must be realistic and accept the situation on the ground”
and “we must be practical” were not in fact justification for abandoning that fundamental
principle, and this has wasted so many millions since. You are throwing good money
after bad if you do not start with a healthy plant.
Saddest of all is the fact that the Emperor was a very wise man, and knew the old
set-up must change, and almost certainly would have accepted this requirement if only
there had been a trusted European such as his friend Col Sandford to be his intermediary.
The UN and indeed the aid world just did not understand the intricacies of the Ethiopian
way of life, which the Emperor was trying to change but in the meantime had to work
within. The fact that John Blower soon found a number of young educated Ethiopians
who were sent to the Wildlife College, and of whom he later formed a high opinion,
makes this early and most important wrong decision that much sadder.
Faced with this situation John Blower set out to explore personally the three areas
which had been suggested as possible National Parks, and from the experience gained he
laid the solid foundations of scientific knowledge on which a National Parks System
could have been based. He makes light of the very real danger he had towards the end of
his work from two very unpleasant counterparts. Ethiopia remains a fascinating country
of immense character and frustration.
In Himalayan Assignment Blower introduces the reader to a naturalists paradise with
a people of great decency to strangers - particularly in the mountains. The foundations
he and others, including many Nepalis, laid have survived the Maoist rebellion, but it
remains to be seen if they can survive the present hiatus and uncertainties and increase of
human population. The rhinoceros and tiger population at Chitwan has suffered, and the
rhinos translocated from Chitwan to Bardia in west Nepal in 1986/7 have been reduced
to danger level over the last 7 years because Guard posts were removed. Most cruel of
all has been the recent very sad loss of experienced senior staff killed in a disastrous
helicopter crash at the opening ceremony of a new Reserve near the Tibet border.
The Ethiopian book, and Himalayan Assignment covering Nepal and Bhutan, should
be textbooks of compulsory study for instructors at Universities and for their students at
International Development Courses, and for all who claim or aim to be natural resource
or environmental “experts”.
Ethiopia and Nepal are two mountainous countries with old cultures from which the
West could learn much. John Blower recounts his extraordinary journeys with a modesty
which is becoming unusual in this present day TV-dominated world. Those who know
these countries can appreciate the hard work, commitment and determination involved.
For all readers with an interest in natural history and travel these books are compulsive
reading. For those with a knowledge of these places and concern for their wellbeing they
will be of interest from page one to the end.
Clive Spinage’s book From the Dark Heart to the Kalahari covers the road he
travelled by which he became one of the most able (and honest) ecologists of Africa.
His book Animals of East Africa in 1962 was described by Sir Julian Huxley as
“The best collection of wildlife photographs I have ever seen”, and that was before he
became a wildlife ecologist in 1964. Dr Spinage, while working during the same period
as Blower, is of the next generation of Conservationists who did not grow up in the pre-independent government conservation world. His world was where one was more of
an observer than a government official. That he could maintain his dedication to
conservation in the midst of collapse and corruption is remarkable, and a tribute to his
sense of humour. The book deals with some countries beyond Anglophone Africa, and
although it is intended to be a more light-hearted account the descriptions he gives of the
Central African Republic and adjacent areas are very tragic.
These three books are recommended both for a good read and for the underlying lessons
they have for future generations of environmental conservationists. The major lesson is
similar to that given to me by Dr Jackson when I was a young tsetse officer in 1951. Dr
Jackson, who had started his work in 1926 with a six-month safari in tsetse areas, said to
me one day, “By 1929 and my first leave, I thought I knew quite a lot about tsetse. By my
next leave I was quite clear I knew a lot. By 1945 I began to wonder how much I knew,
and now (1951) I have a PhD on the subject and I know damn all about tsetse flies”. A
kind way to talk to a 22 year old, but a message that could be taken to heart after reading
these books by many present day academically qualified “experts” in International Aid.