By Philip Fourie

Penguin Books, 2015

300 pages


As Nicky Oppenheimer says in his foreword, ‘This is a timely book’. Given the worldwide focus on rhino poaching, the vast amounts of money and the numbers of people involved, there is no doubt that this appropriately named book is essential reading. However, there is much more to the book than rhino poaching, as anyone interested in nature conservation in all its aspects will agree.

In the opening chapter the author mentions two formative events which took place during his last school year in 1961: he read Serengeti shall not die by Bernhard Grzimek, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was launched. He was accepted by Magdalene College in Cambridge, to read for a Natural Sciences Tripos majoring in Zoology, but before starting was able to fit in nine months working as a volunteer in Africa under the aegis of the WWF (of which he became International Projects Manager in 1985).

Hanks studied under Roger Short, a reproductive biologist with a special interest in elephants, and did a PhD on the reproductive physiology of the African elephant in the Luangwe Valley, Zambia. He then went on to a number of posts throughout southern Africa, starting at the Kafue National Park in Zambia in 1965 and ending with the Natal Parks Board in 1975. During these years he became aware of the rising tide of poaching that was to devastate Africa’s wildlife, and also of the complicity of many corrupt politicians.

In 1985 Hanks moved on to the international stage at WWF, and worked with many influential persons including Anton Rupert and Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands (known as PB). His portraits of these people make fascinating reading. He became involved with the political and financial realities of conservation, and the ideological differences between the ‘pure’ conservationists and those who believed that conservation and human development had to go hand in hand. He also realised the importance of Roger Short’s dictum that ‘human population growth is the transcending problem of our times’, a credo that Hanks has promoted over the years.

In 1988 Operation Lock was formulated. Briefly this was that the international syndicates that controlled and benefited from poaching could only be fought covertly. The decision to implement this operation led to the involvement of David Stirling, the legendary founder of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). The description of the operation takes up a large part of the book. The operation itself also influenced the author’s career, especially during his later involvement with the South African government and some of its agencies. Readers of the book will realise that we have forgotten (sometimes conveniently) much of the political atmosphere and many of the events of the years before 1994. Suffice to say that Operation Lock was highly controversial, and that Hanks became the target of much ill-informed criticism.

The final chapters make for most interesting reading. Chapters 15 to 17 describe the present situation concerning rhino conservation and give thought-provoking options for the future. Appendices I and II deal with CITES and TRAFFIC respectively and give essential information on the international trade in endangered species. To sum up: this is an important book by an author describing his life’s work.