Gehan de Silva
5 Nov 2018
Written for Paperback
This short review is based on a week I spent in Zambia during September 2018 where I visited Kafue, South Luangwa and Mosi-oa-Tunya. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals
was in my field bag all the time. I also had the much heavier SASOL Birds of Southern Africa
(Fourth Edition) by Sinclair et al.
in my bag together with the small and lightweight Pocket Guide: Trees of Southern Africa
by Piet Van Wyk, plus a digital SLR camera with a 100-400mm lens and a 16-35mm lens. With so much gear and books, the small size and weight of the ‘Pocket Kingdon’ were helpful as it allowed me to keep it in the bag with everything else. I kept all of this packed in, irrespective of whether I was walking about or on a safari boat or in a safari vehicle.
The coverage in the ‘Pocket Kingdon’ was very good with the illustrations and text being just about right to provide sufficient detail but concise enough to keep the book compact. There are around 1,100 species of mammals recorded in Africa. To have a compact guide which you can use as a single guide for the entire continent is quite remarkable. Of course, the book does not illustrate every species; it would be impossible to keep it so compact if it attempted that. But it probably covers every species a keen wildlife tourist is likely to see and illustrates a representative sample of species from families of the smaller mammals for completeness, although with some , you will probably be a field researcher to encounter them. There are 134 plates. I did not attempt to count, but I estimate well over 400 species are illustrated. The standard of the illustrations by the author cum artist is very high and consistent across all the plates. Text and many distribution maps face the plates. Although concise, the text is densely packed with information. For people on a safari holiday, the coverage in this book would be more than adequate. There are many other excellent books referenced in the bibliography for people who would like to read deeper.
The introductory text spanning 13 pages is very helpful for context and includes maps of rainfall, vegetation and major evolutionary realms. It draws attention to the Afrotheria which are a special African radiation and included the elephants. It points out some surprises; the zebras came from North Africa and many of the animals which are central characters in any African wildlife documentary (e.g. antelopes, giraffes and carnivores) have a Eurasian origin. The exchange has been two-way with elephants, apes and monkeys in Asia having an African origin.
For pre-trip background reading, I also read the introductory chapter of the author’s ‘Island Africa’. This goes into more detail in explaining how many climatic ‘islands’ are found within the continent giving rise to isolated populations which have evolved into different subspecies. For example, the zebras in South Luangwa Nation Park and Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, are different subspecies although they are within Zambia.
The one thing I would have found helpful was to have a full page map of Africa showing the different countries. This would have been helpful when reading the text on distribution to get my head around the many countries on the continent and their locations relative to each other. This was easily fixed on my return. With future trips in mind, I printed off a map from the internet and cellotaped it into the book.
There is never one perfect guide and I also had in my suitcase some of the other photographic guides to mammals. It is a personal choice whether you prefer photographic guides or illustrated guides and also whether you want one that focuses on a few of the larger species or something wider in coverage. But as mentioned before, this was my choice to carry about in the daypack with my camera gear.