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BOOK REVIEW

'Hope for Animals in Their World' by Jane Goodall; 'Dawn Light' by Diane Ackerman

Reflections on the animal kingdom and humans' interconnectedness with nature.

October 11, 2009|Judith Lewis | Lewis writes about energy and environmental issues. She is a contributing editor to High Country News.

Hope for Animals

and Their World

How Endangered Species

Are Being Rescued From the Brink

Jane Goodall

Grand Central: 378 pp., $27.99

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Dawn Light

Dancing With Cranes

and Other Ways to Start the Day

Diane Ackerman

W.W. Norton: 240 pp., $23.95

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The frogs are dying. From Canada to Panama, swamps have gone still and rivers silent; insects the amphibians would have devoured proliferate. Creatures with 100 million-year histories have begun disappearing so fast biologists can hardly keep pace. In a decade, half of the 6,000 known species of amphibians may be gone.

And it's not just frogs. Panda and polar bears, falcons and vultures -- along with certain species of lynx, turtles, fish, deer and rodents -- could disappear within the next decade or two. Hundreds of island birds are already gone; more are artificially maintained in captive breeding programs.

With the climate in carbon-induced chaotic flux, "we are experiencing the Sixth Great Extinction event on Earth," writes primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall in "Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink." And yet Goodall, who has watched the Gombe chimpanzees she has tried to save continue to lose habitat and die of disease, refuses to grieve. "Whilst we become despairing or angered as we see how our own prolific and self-centered species continues to destroy," she writes, "there is yet a feeling of hope."

That hope is seductive: Environmentalists long to believe we've arrived at the moment of reckoning -- the moment, as Barack Obama put it during the 2008 presidential campaign, "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal." But Goodall offers little evidence for such optimism. Yes, the peregrine falcon has bounced back, now that large concentrations of DDT in the environment no longer thin the birds' eggshells. And the American crocodile has made a peculiar recovery near Key Largo, thriving in the 150 miles of canals built to cool effluent from Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point power station. But these successes are old stories. Goodall doesn't mention that Turkey Point is not just any power plant but a nuclear power plant, and its role in the reptile's ironic recovery is a public relations coup for that industry. Nor does she bring up the long-simmering campaign to bring back DDT on the grounds that there's no better way to defeat malaria. (DDT is still used indoors to control mosquitoes in certain African countries.)

Perhaps the real story would inspire more paralyzing hopelessness than action. And action, or at least funding for conservation projects, is what Goodall is after. So she puts on a brave face and tidies up the accelerating tragedy. In sections subtitled "Never Giving Up" and "The Heroic Struggle to Save Our Island Birds," her narrative -- written with Gail Hudson and accompanied by field notes from Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard -- tries to offer look-on-the-bright-side updates about some 35 species on the U.S. endangered species list or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "Red List."

Not one to brood over losses, Goodall instead spends her time honoring the would-be saviors: scientists, filmmakers and lay conservationists who take her on tours and offer souvenirs, such as an antler shed from a tiny Chinese deer that now survives in a cordoned-off preserve or a 26-inch wing feather from a California condor. In return, she tells their stories, playing up triumphs and glossing over controversies. When all hope for restoring a habitat seems to be lost, Goodall puts her faith in zoos.

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A realist's approach

Such faith is controversial, but it isn't surprising: She is a realist, and after a creature has "winked out," as biologists put it, there's no getting it back. Captive breeding and zoo protection is especially valuable when a single toxin in the environment has caused a dramatic population decline: Goodall writes heartbreakingly about three species of Asian vulture that have been dying off by the millions, poisoned by a cheap veterinary painkiller called Diclofenac that turns up in the carrion they feed on. Fewer than 1% of the 87 million vultures that once darkened the skies over India now remain. (When Goodall wrote her book it was 3%, which gives you a sense of the speed of the loss.) Carrion-borne illnesses and rabies have spread exponentially as feral dogs take over the vultures' job. "It just goes to show that we have no idea how human-caused species declines will later impact humans," Jemima Parry-Jones, director for the International Centre for Birds of Prey, tells Goodall. Indeed, the species we run the risk of endangering may be our own.

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