BOOKS: The Art Of Being A Lion and The Art Of Being An Elephant

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:

The Art Of Being A Lion and The Art Of Being An Elephant
both by Christine & Michel Denis-Huot
Barnes & Noble Inc. (122 5th Ave., New York, NY 100011), 2003.
224 pages, 224 color photos, hardcover. $19.95.

The authors of these twin photo collections are Michel
Denis-Huot, a wildlife photographer who has spent the past 30 years
in Tanzania, and his wife Christine Denis-Huot, a former computer
engineer who writes the accompanying texts.
Typical of the glossy coffee table book genre, the books
parade the beauty of animals in the wild, describing the behaviour
and natural history of lions and elephants.
The Art Of Being A Lion includes chapters on the history of
lion/human interaction, lion anatomy, social life and sexuality,
the lion family, and the art of eating.
Unfortunately, I found myself flicking the pages over as if
paging through a magazine, speed-reading the text to get a vague
notion of the content before turning to the next photo. Some hard
research and statistical analysis of the issues affecting the
survival of lions and the other wildlife they interact with would
have relieved the tedium of turning the pages from one lovely photo
to another until they all began to look the same, and would have
rescued the book from characteristic blandness.

Coffee table books as a genre studiously avoids any
controversy or criticism of wildlife management. From books like
this, one might never guess that the survival of these magnificent
predators is in dire jeopardy from hunting, human encroachment upon
their habitat, and diseases introduced by livestock and cattle dogs.
Jackal predation on cubs is listed as a major cause of lion
mortality, but not human persecution, even though for every cub
killed by jackals there must be hundreds, if not thousands, killed
by human action.
Even if human destruction of lions as a wild species is not
the main theme of the book, it is so over-arching that failure to
describe it amounts to participation in a conspiracy of silence.
Outside of the game reserves where Michel Denis-Huot took his
photos, lions are regarded by stock farmers as problem animals and
treated as if they were armed terrorists. They are routinely trapped
and poisoned. They are shot secretively and at random as if they
were worthless.
Within game reserves lions are dying out from human induced
diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and distemper. Increasingly,
they are being hunted even inside game reserves, as Third World
governments interpret the doctrine of sustainable use to justify
sustained abuse.
When hunters have thinned lion populations to the point that
the numbers of lions left in the wild are inadequate to support
further shooting, enterprising land owners imprison some of the
remaining lions in small cages to breed in captivity. The tame
hand-reared cubs can then be raised and sold as living targets.
Thus the canned lion hunting industry has become big business
in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other nations, spreading through
southern Africa with the rapidity of AIDS. Our national icons are
stolen out of the public domain to provide private profits.
Governments collude in the theft by granting export permits for the
victims’ body parts.
Allowing foreigners to pillage our natural resources in this
way is the exact opposite of conservation. It is colonialism.
The number of lions abused in this way in South Africa alone
has risen from about 300 in 1997 to more than 3,000 today.
When concerned citizens complain to indifferent officials,
the officials defend their stupefying complacency by pleading the
support of mainstream conservation groups such as the World Wildlife
Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, and Safari Club International.

Missing chapters

If the authors and publishers of coffee-table books had the
courage to spell out, even in passing, the human threats to the
survival of the magnificent animals they depict, world opinion might
begin to recognize the extent of their peril.
These criticisms of The Art Of Being A Lion apply equally to
The Art Of Being An Elephant. Once again we have the syndrome of the
missing chapter, which should have spelled out for the reader the
plight of elephants in Africa today. We are educated about the
exploitation of elephants as war machines 2000 years ago, but not
about how elephants are currently persecuted and exploited.
We are shown a photograph of a warehouse filled with
thousands of elephant tusks, each pair a testament to some blood
stained atrocity, but the photo was taken in 1895. We do not see
photos of the tusk caches assembled currently by the African nations
who are engaged in reviving the international ivory traffic, and
there is no mention of Richard Leakey burning piles of poached tusks
in Kenya, no doubt because that would be contentious.
We read about the minutest trivia of elephant behaviour, but
not about Leakey’s struggle to save from destruction the very
elephants and habitat depicted in the book. Corruption so pervaded
the Kenya Wildlife Service when Leakey took charge of it in 1988 that
Leakey was forced to fire half the entire service of 4,600 personnel.
The very elephants photographed by Michel Denis-Huot were being
poached by some of the corrupt game rangers whom Leakey fired. Is
this fact not more relevant to the photographs than what happened in
the Punic Wars so many years B.C.?
The missing chapter might also helpfully have dealt with the
commodification of elephants, called by its proponents “wise use” or
“sustainable use.” It might have described how the debate over ivory
trafficking has split and threatened the very existence of the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It could
have exposed the macabre system of prizes and tax deductions used by
Safari Club International to encourage the slaughter of African
elephants, and the neo-colonial CAMPFIRE program, funded by U.S.
taxpayers to help provide trophy hunters with targets.
The missing chapter should have explained that extensive
poaching encouraged by governmental incompetence and corruption cut
the elephant population by 95% in Uganda, and 80% in Kenya,
Tanzania and Zambia during the 1980s, and that after about a decade
of partial elephant population recovery encouraged by the CITES ban
on ivory trafficking, elephant poaching is again on the increase.
Mention could have been made of the Tuli elephant scandal,
in which the world got a rare glimpse of the cruel trade in young
wild-caught elephants.
The failure of The Art Of Being An Elephant to mention any of
the vitally important issues that affect the very survival of
elephants leaves a void that renders the book irrelevant. A veil is
drawn over the entire debate which currently rages around the
management of wild elephant populations in their last refuges. It is
as if the authors do not know that there is a war going on, or that
the elephants are being driven back on all fronts.
As animal welfarists living with, and fighting for, wild
animals in a remote area of South Africa, we find such books as
relevant to the needs of the wildlife as a glossy photo book on the
flowers of Auschwitz, dated 1944, would have been to the Holocaust.
–Chris Mercer

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