Friday, July 09, 2010

Book review: Jeff Corwin, 100 Heartbeats

100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species, by Jeff Corwin
Rodale Press, 2009
I thought of Corwin as a good TV host and knowledgeable zoologist and didn’t know he was also a good writer.
This book presents his experiences with some of the world’s rarest wildlife. (The title refers to the “100 Heartbeats Club” – the species with less than 100 known survivors.)
Corwin organizes the book, not by animal type but mainly by the type of threats to animals – pollution, habitat loss, etc. From this structure, he recounts his own experiences and plenty of scary reports and statistics. He covers some causes and effects we might not always think of, like what the popularity of plastic wine corks means for the Spanish lynx.
One anecdote that stands out to me is his almost spiritual chance encounter with a Florida panther (“It broke through the leaves and, seemingly in slow motion, floated to the ground. It was darker than the panthers I’d seen in photos, more charcoal than sage…” )
There are stories of hope here, too. I knew the Mauritius kestrel had just barely been saved from extinction, but I did not know the International Council for Bird Preservation had given up on it – they sent a scientist to shut down their effort, and he found a way to revive it instead. Corwin’s account of a Ugandan army officer who saved a wounded chimp he could have sold is as heartwarming as his tale of the Tasmanian tiger’s extinction is grim. (The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is a favorite of mine: I wrote in my book Shadows of Existence (Hancock, 2006) that a few living ones might linger, but Corwin seems sure they do not, although he allows himself a wistful bit of hope about someday resurrecting it from DNA.)
Corwin ends by asking everyone to look around for ways they can contribute to conservation. “Most things start small,” he writes.
This is a book written with scientific accuracy and presented for a broad audience. Corwin can occasionally be a little condescending (we know what an icebreaker is, Jeff), but that’s a quibble. A glossary, thorough endnotes, and a bibliography complete a book that’s an important and well-supported appeal to both reason and emotion.

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