Review of ‘Darwin’s Dreampond: Drama in Lake Victoria and No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo and Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa’

Drama in Lake Victoria and No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo and Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa

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Redmond O'Hanlon's book No Mercy looks at natural history with less scientific insight, but no less fascinating results. O'Hanlon, once the natural history editor of the Times Literary Supplement in London, is joined by an animal behaviorist from America, and the biologist-director of the Congo Republic's Ministry for the Conservation of Fauna and Flora, on an expedition through the heart of central Africa's Pygmy country. They are bound for the remote, almost inaccessible Lake Tele, long reported to be the home of a living sauropod dinosaur known as Mokele-mbembe, the Congo's version of the Loch Ness monster. O'Hanlon avidly chronicles many rare jungle species: giant eagles with claws on their elbows, large enough to carry off antelopes; the Congo dwarf crocodile, which growls from its forest burrow; the hammerkop, a bird that is the size of a pied crow and builds a huge nest so strong a man can stand atop it.

O'Hanlon is as interested in culture as science, and can jump from taxonomy and genetics to fetishes and jungle spirits. As his party observes a flying squirrel, the Congolese biologist lectures the Westerners on the science of a Pygmy named Muko, their guide: "In Muko's world, that squirrel is part-bird, part-mammal. He's a link between the birds and the rat. He connects the air to the ground. And when your wife is pregnant, you can't eat him -- not until your child can walk by itself, not until you're certain . . . that [the child] won't die, fly away, join the spirits!"

As he reaches the shores of Lake Tele, O'Hanlon is taken to a sacred spot by a local villager named Doubla, and he records this exchange: "'Look,' I said, feeling like some nineteenth-century ethnographer, 'I'm sure you can tell me the truth in this holy place. There's something I'd really like to know. Have you seen Mokele-mbembe?' 'What a stupid question,' said Doubla, looking genuinely surprised, stopping with the water-bottle halfway to his lips. 'Mokele-mbembe is not an animal like a gorilla or a python. . . . It doesn't appear to people. It is an animal of mystery. It exists because we imagine it. But to see it--never. You don't see it.'"

In Camping With the Prince, journalist Thomas A. Bass explores African science in a collection of profiles, describing the heroic work of both Western scientists working in Africa and Africans who are creating their own scientific institutions and traditions. The book was written in the late 1980s and well deserves republication now. Bass' theme is the need for science to grow African roots rather than transplanting Western assumptions, a process that is full of surprises and new insights.

Visiting laboratories and deserts with Bass, we find that the nomads usually blamed for overgrazing and desertification are actually better at preserving arid lands than the governments and development agencies who resettle them. We learn that famines are caused not by drought but by breakdowns in economic relations (there's often plenty of food in the markets, but starving herders can't afford it because the price of their cattle has plunged). And we find that some green revolution crops requiring fertilizers and pesticides may end up feeding fewer people than the indigenous varieties they replace.

Bass visits a wide array of successful research projects, from work on pheromones and tsetse flies to studies of termites and viruses. Termites, he tells us, are the oldest type of organized community on earth, and in Africa the termites and ants outweigh all mammals put together. They would seem to be a natural resource, but one research project, designed to harness termite enzymes that extract energy from cellulose, didn't lead to any practical application: "Termites proved too clever for us," the scientists concede.

The scientists are the heroes of Bass' accounts, but too often there are villains in the ranks of government bureaucrats and international development experts who fail to support the findings of African science. As one researcher puts it, "Even if you know what needs to be done, the powers that be won't necessarily allow you to do it." And as a nomad says to a researcher who proposes a new system for surviving droughts, "Your plan sounds very good. But I doubt that anyone would ever do anything so sensible."

Paul Trachtman is a freelancer who is based in rural New Mexico.


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