Book review – Mammals of Africa- II

Following is a book review written by James Santigie Kanu, former official of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and currently Associate Editor of African Prospects Journal.

Mammals of Africa
Eds: Jonathan Kingdon, David Happold, Tomas Butynski, Micheal Hoffmann, Meredith Happold and Jan Kaliman

Books and field guides on mammals in Africa have been written before, but many of these mainly focused on a few larger mammal species in some regions in Africa. For the first time ever, a group of scientists, comprising 356 authors and editors, who worked for more than a decade in the compilation of a handbook and inventory of the mammalian fauna of the continent of Africa, have published Mammals of Africa. The book is a magnificent treasure trove consisting of a series of six volumes written in lucid prose and describing in detail, every extant species of African land mammal that was recognized at the time the profiles were written.

The volumes contain the very latest information and detailed discussion of the morphology, distribution, biology, and evolution, (including reference to fossil and molecular data) of every currently recognized species of African land mammal. The reader will learn from Mammals in Africa, that Africa has the greatest diversity and abundance of mammals in the world, totaling more than 1160 species and 16-18 orders. The reasons for this and the mechanisms behind their evolution are thoroughly explored in Mammals of Africa.

Among its many attributes, Mammals of Africa has become the most authoritative database for conservation policy makers. The authors convince us of the need to know more about land mammals in Africa, mainly because “humans in Africa and most of their primate ancestors have been an integral part of these communities for many millions of years.”   “We are African mammals,” the authors declare. The authors point out that:

An ancient lack of awareness of Africa, certainly of evolution in Africa, once deprived people of any possibility of correctly answering central puzzles of human existence: ‘where do we come from?’ ‘where is our ancestral home?’ ‘from what natural communities did we emerge?’ and ‘what is our place in the natural communities of the future?’

Mammals of Africa, opens the way in our search for answers to these tantalizing questions.

The authors observe that while “Other mammalian inventories of other continents have been published and are important for what they can tell us about the biological history and evolution of the modern world… the mammal community of Africa deserve special attention for several uniquely compelling reasons… For a start, the diversity of orders, families and genera is far higher than that of any continent…” The reader learns in Mammals of Africa that “Of all continents, Africa has the longest history of humans exploiting mammals as wild food. Hunting, both traditional, and modern, legal and illegal, continues to play a significant part in human social relations, nutrition and recreation. When it comes to the husbandry of crops and livestock… the impact of mammals is also pervasive.”

We must, therefore, heed the alarm raised in Mammals of Africa of the threat posed to some species, which could eventual lead to their extermination due to certain human activities, such as commercial logging, illegal hunting and the rapid expansion of modern agriculture. The authors point out that “Throughout the continent, extensive areas of forest have been destroyed and much of the forest that remains is degraded and fragmented, Savanna habitats have been altered by felling of trees and development of agriculture.  Many of the direr areas are threatened with desertification. As a result, the abundance and geographic ranges of many species of mammals have declined. Some marginally, some catastrophically, some to extinction.” The authors strongly believe that this threat could be averted if policy makers in African countries adopt and implement bold and appropriate conservation policies.

To fully understand and appreciate the importance of land mammals, the authors emphasize the need for us to rid ourselves of certain prejudices and preconceived ideas about mammals in general. Mammals in Africa points out that “ when a culture persuades its adherents that other animals are obscene or funny when they perform the same functions as ourselves, that indoctrination effectively blocks both knowledge and empathy… It is just such indoctrination that blocks entire cultures from any appreciation of mammals as worthy subject matter for adult intellect.” 

We need to change our attitude towards land mammals because of the important role they play in our daily lives, and because of the growing evidence that we share a common ancestry with land mammals. While we have come a long way from the time when, according to Mammals of Africa, in 1619 the Italian philosopher, Lucilio Vanini was burned alive by the Inquisition for suggesting among other heresies that humans might have originated from apes, the authors ask us not to be complacent. More needs to be done to rid humans of their prejudices and hostility towards land mammals. Mammals of Africa, is leading the way in unraveling the mystery of the evolution of the species.

Each volume of Mammals of Africa follows the same format, with detailed profiles of every species and higher taxa. Mammals of Africa include some 660-colour illustrations by Jonathan Kingdon and his many drawings highlight details of morphology and behaviour of the species concerned. Diagrams, schematic details and line drawings of skulls and jaws are by Jonathan Kingdon and Meredith Happold. Every species also includes a detailed distribution map.

Mammals of Africa Volume I comprises eight introductory chapters covering topics such as evolution, geography and geology, biotic zones, classification, behaviour and morphology. The rest of the book is devoted to the Afrotheria, a grouping that comprises six orders and 49 species; these are the hyraxes, elephants, dugong, manatees, otter-shrews, golden-moles, sengis (elephant-shrews) and aardvark.

Volume II is devoted to the order primates, and includes the great apes, Old World Monkeys, lorisids and galagos. Using the taxonomy adopted for Mammals of Africa, the four families represented comprise 25 genera and 93 species. A new species of monkey described in 2011 brings the total to 94, and this is briefly mentioned and illustrated. Approximately 8% of Africa’s species of mammal are primates. 

Mammals of Africa Volume III contains profiles of 395 species of rodents, comprising squirrels, dormice, jerboas, blind mole-rats and mice, swamp mouse, climbing mice, fat mice, white-tailed rat, rock mice, voles, maned rats, spiny mice, brush-furred mice, gerbils, jirds, taterils, African forest mouse, rats and mice, vleirats, whistling rats, anomalures, springhares, gundis, African mole-rats, porcupines, noki (dassie rat), cane rats, and coypu. The volume concludes with 13 species of hares and rabbits.

Mammals of Africa Volume IV: Hedgehogs, Shrews and Bats, profiles 156 species of insectivores, comprising the hedgehogs and shrews. The rest of Mammals of Africa Volume IV: Hedgehogs, Shrews and Bats, is devoted to the 224 species of African bats. The latter are divided into nine families namely, fruit bats, horseshoe bats, leaf-nosed bats, false vampire bats, mouse-tailed bats, sheath-tailed bats, slit-faced bats, free-tailed bats, and vesper bats.

Mammals of Africa Volume V: Carnivores, Pangolins, Equids and Rhinoceroses comprises 83 species of carnivores, and includes jackals, wolves, dogs, foxes, weasels, polecats, striped weasels, zorilla, otters, ratel, fur seals, palm civet, cats, genets, linsangs, African civet, hyaenas, aardwolf, and mongooses. Mammals of Africa volumes V: Carnivores, Pangolins, Equids and Rhinoceroses, is completed with profiles of four pangolins, four zebras, and two rhinoceroses.

Finally, Mammals of Africa Volume VI: Pigs, Hippopotamuses, Chevrotain, Giraffes, Deer and Bovids, comprises a single order, currently subdivided into three suborders, containing the pigs, hippopotamuses, chevrotains, giraffe, okapi, deer, buffalos, spiral-horned antelopes, dwarf antelopes, duikers, grysboks, beira, dik-diks, gazelles, klipspringer, oribi, reduncines, impala, alcelaphines, horse-like antelopes, sheep, and goats. African mammals volume VI contains 98 species profiles. Mammals of Africa also contains useful references for readers eager to have more detailed information on a variety of topics covered in the book.



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