Finding (Rhinos and) Kony

The Last RhinosHad you written a book detailing how you were negotiating with wanted military leader Joseph Kony to rescue endangered rhinos prior to a few months ago, most of the developed world would have asked, ‘Joseph who?’

But thanks to Invisible Children’s awareness-raising campaign that went so gangbusters that the term ‘viral’ doesn’t do it justice, a book combining rhino rescue and Kony had me whipping out my credit card before you could say, ‘what a topical and timely read’.

I thought The Last Rhinos was a standalone first book by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. Turns out it’s one of many he’s written (or rather co-written with ghost writer Graham Spence), each one a bestselling work of equal parts heart and humour.

The Last Rhinos launches us straight into action (and outrage) as Anthony and his team discover some rhinos in their care had been viciously killed for their horns and set about tracking the poachers. It sets the tone for the frustrating fight conservationists face daily to keep these incredible, thick-skinned, but soft-hearted creatures safe from one of the most ridiculous, wasteful, and cruel human obsessions ever.

As Anthony writes:

It’s difficult to remain calm when you see a rhino brutally slaughtered for a horn that consists of little more than keratin, the same fibrous structural protein you find in hair and fingernails. In fact, it’s impossible. You’re more likely to be consumed by raging fury, but that won’t do any good.

Anthony has channeled his rage by dedicating his life to combating this issue in any and every way he can. Enter Kony, the man Invisible Children implored us to find (the doing deals with, not so much).

The difference I can anecdotally identify, and that makes me (and I’m guessing many others) warm to him, is Anthony’s pragmatism. For example, he writes that:

… the demonising of commerce and industry that defined the green movement in the past has to end. People have to live on the planet. Both sides must develop a better understanding of the use and value of the natural world. If an animal-rights group bluntly opposed mining, then I would expect all their members to stop using metal and glass in their own lives.

Fair point. And one that likely contributes to his ongoing success in finding a satisfactory middle ground. By gosh Anthony is also funny. I laughed more than I’d ever expected to reading a book about such dire stories, but his ability to find the humour in even the darkest moments was uncanny.

He referred to a stray they’d adopted as a ‘pavement special’: ‘She slept on our bed and spent the night purposely angling to get her butt right in my face as a wake-up present’.

Then there’s George the galago, AKA a too-cute-for-words bushbaby who won hearts and stole food and water right from under guests hands and forks with equal measure: ‘Unfortunately George used to join us sometimes for dinner. I say unfortunately because George had the table manners of a goat.’

Elephants also feature in this book, and yield some of the most incredible and touching moments, such as how they look after their matriarch who’s starting to go blind in one eye, or how the herd came to the rescue of wildebeest Anthony and his team had rounded up to move: they lifted the latch on the pen and stood back to let the wildebeest bound out. It’s definitely made me want to read The Elephant Whisperer.

Most surprising was Anthony’s take on Kony and his LRA army, with whom he did a deal to try to protect and rescue the 15-remaining white rhino of their kind in the world (and no, ‘15’ is not a typo).

He did this only after exhausting all other available rhino-protecting bureaucratic channels that were so frustrating they made me, experiencing it only second hand, want to punch someone on the nose.

Anthony painted Kony and his army as less the heartless, child-seizing thugs as which they’ve long been portrayed and more a misunderstood bunch maligned by those in power whose PR interests it’s in to cast them as the bad guys.

The Elephant WhispererI think the issue’s a bit more complex than that and that Kony is a little less innocent than Anthony considers him to be. But I do think he’s also a little less bad than he’s been painted, and Anthony’s insights into Kony’s camp were money-can’t-buy fascinating.

Anthony himself put the issue a little more cleverly and succinctly: ‘Someone once told me that the only difference between a rat and a hamster is PR.’

Without giving too much away, this book didn’t go exactly in the direction I’d expected. The result of that external issue (and through no fault of Anthony’s) made me despair. Especially as he went on to outline the escalation that’s currently occurring as the ill-informed demand for rhino horns skyrockets.

That is that poachers are poisoning waterholes and allowing rhinos (not to mention other animals) to die slow, painful deaths before pouncing to saw off their toenail-like horns. Horns that, despite the myths, hold no real medicinal value. Don’t get me started on how some poachers are even leaving grenades in the rhino carcasses to take out rangers who will pursue and arrest them. Gah.

But I don’t want to finish on a downer. Anthony’s book was an inspiring page-turner larger than its potentially depressing issues. The rhino might be in trouble, but I’ve never felt more reassured that they’re in good hands than with the likes of Anthony and his team going all-out to protect them—with or without Kony’s help.