I have just finished reading The Storm Leopard by Martyn Murray (in about 4 sittings, across 2 days), most of the second half of which I hadn’t previously read. Previously? Why would I?
Well, I have this declaration to get out of the way: I know Martyn, and his travelling companion Stu, who accompanied him for most of the journey comprising this book. So, I put my hand up to let you know that there is a connection, in fact, you will see me mentioned in a couple of places in the text, but I will try to be disconnected as far as possible. Nonetheless, it is an honour to have been a part of something so worthwhile.
Beyond that, I was honestly, totally blown away by how beautiful The Storm Leopard is in places, especially in the bits that I hadn’t previously read, or in the additions to earlier drafts that I had seen.
So, kudos Mart – nice job!
Now that’s out of the way, I can tell you that the reason behind Martyn’s journey from the Cape to the Serengeti was to check the veracity of an “Old Timer’s” claims that all wild places will disappear. In itself, this is also an assessment of human attitudes towards nature, and how they underpin management policies.
We all have a relationship with nature, however much we feel a part of, or, removed from it. Whether living in the African bush, digging for roots and hunting game as are the Bushmen that Martyn and Stu stay with, or studying herds of wildlife to better understand animal behaviour as did Martyn in his previous life in Africa. Or, more likely buying our food from a supermarket, picking out a clingfilm-wrapped packet of beef, or actively choosing not to eat meat, we are all living at the heart of a relationship with nature. So, depending on our survival needs and cultural norms, our own position within nature is defined by our ethics. This commonly throws up conflicts, contradictions and hypocrisies: from not being prepared to kill our own meat, to culling populations towards maintaining habitat and thus improving animal survival.
The Storm Leopard seeks an ethos for modern cultures that can balance modernity with the persistence of natural resources. To that end, Martyn’s personal goal is to define a philosophy towards nature that can bridge the divide between economics and ethics, an attitude often at odds with “the powers that be”. To the establishment, Martyn is the outsider, an environmental hippy who rubs up against stiff-collared administrators, and he certainly has his run-ins. His argument are impassioned but each is countered by his opposition, be it Stu or a park director, or anyone else.
In contrast with his adversaries who argue from viewpoints of economic survival and community welfare, Martyn draws on the beliefs of ancient cultures and ethnic groups, such as the Bushmen and Red Indians, who he argues respect animals via a spiritual plane, and this leads to improved animal management and utilisation. Martyn thus seeks a spiritual solution to animal welfare and conservation, especially for elephants and the human-elephant conflict over land and crops, the conservation of his previous home Sengwa where he studied impala, and generally wildlife worldwide. One of Martyn’s conclusions on his travels is that good welfare for individual animals may be founded on care: people caring about their animals. This is not trite, as it might seem; park management, farmers, owners and handlers are not necessarily motivated by affection for their charges, or are only deluded in thinking that they are acting in the animals’ best interests, for example, by planning a cull of over half the elephant population of northern Botswana.
The upshot is that while he finds only a few allies for his ideas developed over a long career in African ecology and conservation, we are treated to an account of a journey through southern and eastern Africa that is stacked with insightful knowledge about a host of plants and animals nowhere near limited to just impala and elephants, drama and comedy, and has a strong message of a worrying environmental future. It is therefore on a par with the likes of, for example, Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens, but with elements of Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon. Also, look out for a cameo by Tom Cruise.
En route we learn truths about science methodology and the expectations and preconceptions of field scientists; it also comprises an honest account of carrying out fieldwork in Africa, under difficult, frustrating and trying conditions, often with personality clashes where internal wrangling often threatens progress. All this I can confirm really does happen.
Stu’s contrary rationalism is nicely captured within the book, as is some of his ready wit with a few laugh-out-loud moments cropping up. In reality, Stu is actually a lot funnier, and less cockney. Martyn’s descriptions of subequatorial Africa and gorgeous colour photography, including the cover shot, are so accurately evocative that I immediately wanted to drop everything and go back there myself. It is an account of a great adventure; no small wonder that they both returned different people.
Lastly, it is a great shame that this book has not reached mainstream audiences, but the publicity required to do so was never put in place by the publisher. This seems a cripplingly counterproductive approach to selling books.
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