_African Silences_ by Peter Matthiessen is a well-written account of three different trips to the continent by the author.
The first essay detailed a trip he made in 1978 to West Africa, accompanying primatologist Gilbert Boese on a wildlife survey of Senegal, Gambia, and Ivory Coast. When the journey began Matthiessen was hopeful, as it was a region he had not previously visited and included such varied terrains as long-grass savanna, forest, and the Sahel, an arid country that stretches all the way east to Sudan, a land of "parched thornbrush of baobab and scrub acacia, red termite hills, starlings and hornbills."
Matthiessen did see some wildlife. In Niokolo Koba, the last stronghold of large animals in Senegal, he spied baboons, several monkey species, several antelope species (such as duiker and waterbucks), hippos, forest buffalo, warthogs and parakeets. Along the Senegalese coast, in a mangrove swamp, he spotted the unusual palm-nut vulture, a striking white bird that lives mainly on the nut of the oil palm.
Largely though the author saw remarkably little wildlife. He noted that some researchers felt that some mammals - such as the black rhino, wildebeest, and zebra - if they ever occurred in West Africa, vanished long ago. Others believed that the poor soil of the region could not support much in the way of large game animals, though Matthiessen pointed out its similarities with the soil of the famous East African game plains. No, West Africa lacks wildlife simply because it is more populous than East Africa and has been inhabited a great deal longer, with people present raising crops of pearl millet and sorghum, burning woodland, and hunting for at least the last 2000 years, competing for the same land favored by the megafauna. In addition, there isn't much impetus to preserve wildlife for the tourist trade as there is in East Africa and also the populous nations of this region are filled with poor, protein-starved desperate people, viewing wildlife as a much needed part of their diet. Indeed in several languages in West Africa the word for "animal" is the same word for "meat." As a result, most of the region has virtually "unobstructed poaching" and in some nations, such as Nigeria, it is unusual to see any live wild animal outside of its one game reserve (the black rhino, giant eland, and all but 9 of its 32 hoofed mammal species have gone extinct in Nigeria).
His second essay takes place in the same year but in Zaire, where the author journeyed to look for the very rarely seen Congo peacock (according to one source at the time only one non-African had ever seen one live in the wild) and the gorilla. After a delay in the broken-down, littered, depressing city of Kinshasa, the author journeyed deep into the forested interior (Zaire is huge, comparable in size to Europe). While Matthiessen got some good observations of gorillas and delighted in some of the animals unique to the highlands, such as the red-faced woodland warbler, regal sunbird, and the L'Hoesti monkey, the peafowl eluded him.
The longest and most enjoyable essay in the book was that describing his 1986 sojourn through Central Africa to determine the status of the small forest elephant of the Congo Basin. Since the savanna or bush elephant (_Loxodonta africana africana_) had at the time been imperiled by rampant ivory poaching, conservationists feared that poachers would turn to the smaller forest race (_L. a. cyclotis_). Ivory trade proponents argued that large numbers of the forest race were hidden in the dense jungle and could continue to support the ivory trade while ecologists feared that in fact the forested interior was inhospitable habitat and forest elephant numbers had always been low. In addition to the importance this would have on getting international support to curtail or stop the ivory trade, researchers wanted to know if there really was a third race, perhaps even a separate species, of elephant, the pygmy elephant (_L. pumilio_). Did it exist at all? Were they merely smaller members of the more common forest race?
Matthiessen and those he traveled with found many surprises, such as the presence of "bush" elephants deep in the forest. Were they refugees from the ivory trade, wandering individuals who had simply journeyed deep into the jungle, or did they always exist there, perhaps genetic evidence that the now nearly continuous forest was once broken up into a number of refugia, separated by savanna and grassland? They also found many individuals showed characteristics of both bush and forest races, indicating a very wide zone of hybridization and speculated that the "pygmy elephant" was merely a juvenile forest elephant, which as a race had offspring independent at an earlier age.
The entire expedition made for great reading. It was a long one, covering 7000 miles, beginning in Kenya and ending in Libreville, on Gabon's Atlantic coast, largely concentrating on the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Zaire. Made in a light plane, it was a perilous journey, the pilot and the author at the mercy of the titanic thunderstorms of the region, continually having to risk arrest by landing in unauthorized areas to refuel, dealing with corrupt officials, and almost never able to put down thanks to the "awesome inhospitality of the equatorial forest," as any light plane landing in the jungle would "disappear into this greenness like a stone dropped from the air into the sea." The immense forest, "undulating in all directions to the green horizon," a "dark green sea," was, while dangerous to fly over, nevertheless magnificent, containing all the greens in the world - "[f]orest green and gray-green, jade, emerald, and turquoise, pond green, pea green," a land of hard to find but nevertheless remarkable wildlife, including gorillas, chimpanzees, okapi, bongos, buffalo, and such primates as the vervet or green monkey, a carrier for the dangerous "green monkey disease," said to be related to the AIDS virus. Matthiessen also spent some time with a group of pygmies, the Mbuti.