We have compiled Part 1 of our list of the Best Books on Animals, Wildlife and Humanity’s place in the natural world.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Humanity’s “most enduring legacy” will be our effect on the rest of life on Earth”
Elizabeth Kolbert delivers a meticulously researched and well-written book, combining scientific analysis and personal narrative to document the mass extinction of species that seems to be unfolding before our eyes.
Kolbert writes a clear and comprehensive history of the earth’s previous mass extinctions before delivering a compelling call to action. “Right now,” she writes, “we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”
Kolbert traces the intellectual history of how we have come to understand concepts of exctinction, and more recently, how we have come to recognize our role in it.
“A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.”
The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of ‘rogue’ elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa, his commonsense told him to refuse. But he was the herd’s last chance of survival – notorious escape artists, they would all be killed if Lawrence wouldn’t take them. He agreed, but before arrangements for the move could be completed the animals broke out again and the matriarch and her baby were shot. The remaining elephants were traumatised, dangerous, and very angry. As soon as they arrived at Thula Thula they started planning their escape…As Lawrence battled to create a bond with the elephants and save them from execution, he came to realise that they had a lot to teach him about life, loyalty and freedom. Set against the background of life on the reserve, with unforgettable characters and exotic wildlife, this is a delightful book that will appeal to animal lovers everywhere.
The Elephant Whisperer is a heartwarming, exciting, funny, and sometimes sad memoir of Anthony’s experiences with these huge yet sympathetic creatures. Set against the background of life on an African game reserve, with unforgettable characters and exotic wildlife, Anthony’s unrelenting efforts at animal protection and his remarkable connection with nature will inspire animal lovers and adventurous souls everywhere.
“But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those that we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.”
Be sure to read Anthony’s other books:
Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals (Quarterly Essay 45) by Anna Krien
For the first time in history, humans sit unchallenged at the top of the food chain. As we encroach on the wild and a vast wave of extinctions gathers force, how has our relationship with animals changed?
Whether the focus is on Japanese whaling or the slaughter of livestock in Indonesia, the Australian public has strong views on how animals should be treated abroad – less so when the problem is closer to home. Anna Krien’s dazzling Quarterly Essay is an incisive narrative account of our ‘nuanced and often contradictory relationship’ with animals: ranging from the live cattle trade to our use of primates in science, to our attempts to control native wildlife populations through cyclical breeding and culling.
As she delves deeper, she finds that animals can trigger primal emotions in us, which we are often unwilling to acknowledge. This is a clear-eyed meditation on humanity and animality, us and them, that brings out the importance of animals in an unforgettable way.
“I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?” — Anna Krien, Us & Them
Polar bears are creatures of paradox: They are white bears whose skin is black; massive predators who can walk almost silently; Arctic residents whose major problem is not staying warm, but keeping cool. Fully grown they can measure 10 feet and weigh close to 2,000 pounds, but at birth they are just 20 ounces. Creatures that may wander thousands of miles over the course of a year, they begin life in a snowdrift.
Human encounters with these legendary beasts are cause for both excitement and apprehension. Tales throughout history describe the ferocity of polar bear attacks on humans; but human hunting of polar bears has exacted a far larger toll, obliging Arctic nations to try to protect their region’s iconic species before it’s too late.
Now, however, another threat to the polar bears’ survival has emerged, one that is steadily removing sea ice and the life it supports. Without this habitat, polar bears cannot exist. Kieran Mulvaney’s, The Great White Bear celebrates the story of this unique species. Through a blend of history, both natural and human, through myth and reality and observations both personal and scientific, Mulvaney masterfully provides a context for readers to consider the polar bear, its history, its life, and its uncertain fate.
“The first time I ever saw a polar bear was at the zoo in Louisville when I was eight. I stood with the crowd along the railing and looked at the big white animal – so familiar to me from my picture-books back home – paced back and forth in his cage with an almost mechanical intensity.
The second time I saw a polar bear was twenty years later, when I’d taken a dog-sled two days north of Ellesmere Island in winter and was resting the dogs in the morning. I was standing in my sled trying to steady my map against the strong wind, and my team were all curled up in their traces, catching a quick nap. A gust of wind caused my map to flap up at one edge, and when I raised my head, he was there, not fifty yards away, sitting very upright in the snow, looking right at me. My dogs hadn’t yet realized he was there – he’d approached in complete silence, and from downwind – and I realized at that moment that my rifle was strapped to my gear, at the rear of the sled. I studied him, struck not only by his size – adult male polar bears are the biggest bears in the world, and they carry themselves that way, which makes them seem even bigger – but by the inescapable fact that he was also studying me. Bears are champion sprinters; he must have known he could reach me before I could rouse the dogs or reach my gun. As we looked at each other, he was deciding whether or not he wanted to do that. What I wanted didn’t enter into the equation at all – the entire encounter was under his control, as he’d probably intended for the whole time he’d been watching me. After a few minutes, he decided not to bother killing me and ambled away.
For years, I considered the second encounter to be more frightening than the first.
If I had any lingering doubts on that score, Kieran Mulvaney’s fantastic, fascinating, and ultimately fatalistic book The Great White Bear has dispelled them once and for all. That bear in the zoo – that magnificent creature hard-wired by millions of years of evolution to wander over a vast Arctic territory, now confined all day every day to an enclosure the size of a living room – so clearly broken by his captivity, so clearly psychotic in his endless, clockwork pacing, is far, far more frightening than a majestic predator in his natural environment. And the most frightening thing about that poor zoo-bear is that in very little time – in our present lifetime, very likely – he’ll be the only kind of polar bear there is on Earth”.-Tuc MacFarland on The Great White Bear.
This national bestseller exploring the complex emotional lives of animals was hailed as “a masterpiece” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and as “marvelous” by Jane Goodall.
Not since Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals has a book so thoroughly and effectively explored the full range of emotions that exist throughout the animal kingdom.
From dancing squirrels to bashful gorillas to spiteful killer whales, Masson and coauthor Susan McCarthy bring forth fascinating anecdotes and illuminating insights that offer powerful proof of the existence of animal emotion. Chapters on love, joy, anger, fear, shame, compassion, and loneliness are framed by a provocative re-evaluation of how we treat animals, from hunting and eating them to scientific experimentation. Forming a complete and compelling picture of the inner lives of animals, When Elephants Weep assures that we will never look at animals in the same way again.
With their large brains, sturdy physique, sophisticated tools, and hunting skills, Neanderthals are the closest known relatives to humans. Approximately 200,000 years ago, as modern humans began to radiate out from their evolutionary birthplace in Africa, Neanderthals were already thriving in Europe descendants of a much earlier migration of the African genus Homo.” But when modern humans eventually made their way to Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals suddenly vanished. Ever since the first Neanderthal bones were identified in 1856, scientists have been vexed by the question, why did modern humans survive while their evolutionary cousins went extinct?
The Invaders musters compelling evidence to show that the major factor in the Neanderthals demise was direct competition with newly arriving humans. Drawing on insights from the field of invasion biology, which predicts that the species ecologically closest to the invasive predator will face the greatest competition, Pat Shipman traces the devastating impact of a growing human population: reduction of Neanderthals geographic range, isolation into small groups, and loss of genetic diversity.
But modern humans were not the only invaders who competed with Neanderthals for big game. Shipman reveals fascinating confirmation of human’s partnership with the first domesticated wolf-dogs soon after Neanderthals first began to disappear. This alliance between two predator species, she hypothesizes, made possible an unprecedented degree of success in hunting large Ice Age mammals a distinct and ultimately decisive advantage for humans over Neanderthals at a time when climate change made both groups vulnerable.”
“People today are often frightened of strangers; how much more threatening would meeting another hominin species be? Limited resources and food competition would only heighten the fear. Possibly there was no conscious awareness of competition between Neanderthals and modern humans, but equally possibly, there was. At any rate, Neanderthals went extinct after the arrival of modern humans and possibly not long after.”
Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species by J.A. Mills
Blood of the Tiger takes readers on a wild ride to save one of the world’s rarest animals from a band of Chinese billionaires.
There may be less than three thousand wild tigers left in the entire world. More shocking is the fact that twice that many—some six thousand—have been bred on farms, not for traditional medicine but to supply a luxury-goods industry that secretly sells tiger-bone wine, tiger-skin décor, and exotic cuisine enjoyed by China’s elite.
Two decades ago, international wildlife investigator J. A. Mills went undercover to expose bear farming in China and discovered the plot to turn tigers into nothing more than livestock. Thus begins the story of a personal crusade in which Mills mobilizes international forces to awaken the world to a conspiracy so pervasive that it threatens every last tiger in the wild.
In this memoir of triumph, heartbreak, and geopolitical intrigue, Mills and a host of heroic comrades try to thwart a Chinese cadre’s plan to launch billion-dollar industries banking on the extinction of not just wild tigers but also elephants and rhinos. Her journey takes her across Asia, into the jungles of India and Nepal, to Russia and Africa, traveling by means from elephant back to presidential motorcade, in the company of man-eaters, movie stars, and world leaders. She finds reason for hope in the increasing number of Chinese who do not want the blood of the last wild tigers to stain their beloved culture and motherland.
Set against the backdrop of China’s ascendance to world dominance, Blood of the Tiger tells of a global fight to rein in the forces of greed on behalf of one of the world’s most treasured and endangered animals.