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African Silences

by Peter Matthiessen

225 pages, paperback Vintage, 1991

African Silences is a powerful and sobering account of the depredation of the African landscape and its wildlife. The book describes several of Matthiessen's African journeys, including an expedition to survey West African wildlife and an expedition to survey the status of the small forest elephant in the Congo basin.

Praise for African Silences

"African Silences is an account of two trips Matthiessen made to Africa; it's as multifaceted as he is. It's part travelogue, part nature study, part adventure; each of these parts benefits from the author's keen observation and ability to describe what he sees in almost lyrical prose." --Columbus Dispatch

"His work is that rare combination of solid information and splendid writing. . . . His book is elegant and elegiac. For his fans, that will come as no surprise. For new readers, it can be a wonder." --Detroit Free Press

"What has been justly called the gravitas of Peter Matthiessen is here--the weight and honesty, the civility, the ironic balance, the clarity of intellect." --Seattle Times

Quotes from African Silences

"In East Africa, the loss of habitat through intensive settlement, land use, and overgrazing has been the main threat to wildlife; but in West African countries such as Nigeria, which tolerates year-round hunting (often at night and often in gangs) of every species, regardless of scarcity, sex, or age, together with epidemic use of steel traps, snares, and encircling fires, the outright destruction of the animals themselves may be more damaging. . . . In these populous, poor countrysides, wild game has always formed a high percentage of the meager protein diet; thus, nama, the local Hausa word for 'animal,' also means 'meat'."

"Unlike Kenya and Tanzania, where the ambivalent attitude toward wildlife is quite similar but where the economic impetus of tourism is clear, these countries see small reason to protect what is left of their wildlife, far less restore what is now gone."

"It is now assumed that the great West African states of early times were not in the equatorial rain forest but on the river plains of the savanna such as that region between the middle Senegal River and the Niger Bend where (it is thought) both pearl millet and sorghum were developed; and that the savanna all the way east to Lake Chad has been occupied by large and successful populations of cultivator-fishermen for at least two thousand years. Since these riverine margins, gallery forests, and savannas were also the optimum habitat for wildlife, it is not surprising that the wildlife is now gone."

Table of Contents of African Silences

  1. Prologue
  2. African Silences: Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast (1978)
  3. Of Peacocks and Gorillas: Zaire (1978)
  4. Pygmies and Pygmy Elephants: The Congo Basin (1986)
  5. Epilogue

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