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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘hunting’

What Trump’s Triumph Means for Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2016

As a brown bear lunges for fish, a gray wolf waits for scraps in Alaska's Katmai National Park. (Photo: Christopher Dodds/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

As a brown bear lunges for fish, a gray wolf waits for scraps in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. (Photo: Christopher Dodds/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/

For people who worry about the nation’s (and the world’s) rapidly dwindling wildlife, the only vaguely good news about Donald Trump’s election might just be that he doesn’t care. This is a guy whose ideas about nature stop at “water hazard” and “sand trap.” Look up his public statements about animals and wildlife on, and the answer that bounces back is “no matching public statements found.” It’s not one of those things he has promised to ban, deport, dismantle, or just plain “schlong.”

More good news (and you may sense that I am stretching here): Trump is not likely to appoint renegade rancher and grazing-fee deadbeat Cliven Bundy to head the Bureau of Land Management. When Field and Stream magazine asked Trump early this year if he endorsed the Western movement to transfer federal lands to state control (a plank in the Republican platform), he replied: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”

This was no doubt the real estate developer in him talking, but his gut instinct against letting go of land will surely outweigh the party platform. “We have to be great stewards of this land,” Trump added. “This is magnificent land.” Asked if he would continue the long downward trend in budgets for managing public lands, Trump said he’d heard from friends and family that public lands “are not maintained the way they were by any stretch of the imagination. And we’re going to get that changed; we’re going to reverse that.”

This was apparently enough, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s upset election, for Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, to suggest that

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Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Angry Tweets Won’t Help African Lions

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016


(Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

THE killing of Zimbabwe’s celebrated Cecil the Lion by a Minnesota dentist, on July 1 of last year unleashed a storm of moral fulmination against trophy hunting. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued an official statement calling for the hunter, Walter J. Palmer, to be hanged, and an odd bedfellow, Newt Gingrich, tweeted that Dr. Palmer and the entire team involved in the killing of Cecil should go to jail. The television personality Sharon Osbourne thought merely losing “his home, his practice and his money” would do, adding, “He has already lost his soul.”

More than one million people signed a petition demanding “justice for Cecil,” and three major American airlines announced that they would no longer transport hunting trophies. A few months later, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed lions from West and Central Africa and also India as endangered, shutting down the major markets for trophies from that region. Australia, France and the Netherlands banned lion trophy imports outright.

Unfortunately, the furor did almost nothing to slow the catastrophic decline in lion populations, down 43 percent over the past two decades. That’s because trophy hunting was never really the main problem. Lions are disappearing in Africa for a reason Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

How the Hook-and-Bullet Mindset Still Rules Our Wildlife Agencies

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2016

Elk hunter (Photo: William Albert Allard/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)

Elk hunter (Photo: William Albert Allard/’National Geographic’/Getty Images)


My latest for

In January, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game sent a helicopter into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to radio-collar wolves. This incursion violated the rules of the federally protected wilderness area. It also broke the department’s own agreement with the federal government, dating from a prior violation in which Fish and Game sent a trapper into the protected area to exterminate wolves. By the time conservationists filed suit in that 2013 incident, nine wolves in two packs were already dead.

Idaho Fish and Game is, let’s be frank, an outlaw agency. It regards killing wolves as part of its sacred duty to protect elk for hunters. The agency is apparently clueless about the abundant evidence that strong predators make strong habitats and strong prey.

But let’s not pick on Idaho. What happened there fit seamlessly with the entire long history of wildlife agencies manipulating the environment for the benefit of hunters. In truth, that kind of game management dates back at least to Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, and it persists today in the names and the mind-set of the many wildlife agencies that still call themselves fish and game departments.

Predator control tends to get the headlines. But these agencies also engage in large-scale alterations of the landscape—by clearing forests, conducting prescribed burns, building water catchments, removing shrubs from wetlands, and other means—to benefit game animals, with little or no regard for how this will affect all the other non-game species living in that habitat. And the habitat in question is huge. In Scotland, for instance, 58 percent of the total land area Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Why We Are Such Suckers for Trophy Photo Outrage

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 11, 2015

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

(Photo: It came from Facebook)

My weekly column for

Lately, I’ve been lurking on the outskirts of a provocative Facebook conversation about hunting. Everybody involved in the debate fit the description “conservationist.” But that was about the only thing they agreed on. (And if I’d stuck around a little longer, they might have gotten ugly about that, too.) The topic of the debate was: “Why have trophy photographs become such a standard object of Internet outrage?”

12308389_10207858489478242_7719123601841035935_nThe person who started it all put that question in an intriguing context: The earliest cave paintings almost always depicted hunters pursuing trophy-quality animals—mastodons with great curved tusks and antelope with enormous antlers. The primitive people who painted them were the ancestors of us all, and we would not be here without them or the hunting by which they lived. Their paintings also represent the beginnings of art and human culture. So how can we revere those ancient trophy images and yet also feel such anger toward their modern counterparts?

The two things are radically different, one writer replied. Scholars generally interpret the hunts in cave paintings as expressions of shamanic or magical links to the quarry. They also served Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Slaughtering Houbara Bustards (and Sheltering Osama)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 8, 2015

(Photo: Oldansolo / Flickr)

(Photo: Oldansolo / Flickr)

I’ve written before about how sexually-insecure Middle Eastern sheiks like to compensate by traveling to Pakistan and slaughtering huge numbers of houbara bustards.   They think bustards are aphrodisiac.  Today the New York Times has a front page update about a hunt now ostensibly NOT taking place, with some interesting details about the international implications. (I had not known that the United States had an opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s while he was visiting a houbara bustard hunting camp, but declined for fear of killing his host.)

Here’s part of today’s story by Declan Walsh:

For decades, royal Arab hunting expeditions have traveled to the far reaches of Pakistan in pursuit of the houbara bustard — a waddling, migratory bird whose meat, they believe, contains aphrodisiac powers.

Little expense is spared for the elaborate winter hunts. Cargo planes fly tents and luxury jeeps into custom-built desert airstrips, followed by private jets carrying the kings and princes of Persian Gulf countries along with their precious charges: expensive hunting falcons that are used to kill the white-plumed houbara.

This year’s hunt, however, has run into difficulty. It started in November, when  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

It Took 2500 Humans Just 100 years to Hunt the Moa to Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 8, 2014


A new study shows that early Polynesian settlers in New Zealand needed just a century, and a maximum population of about 2500 people, to drive the huge flightless bird called the moa to extinction.  This strikes me as interesting partly because environmentalists often exaggerate and romanticize the conservationist ethic of pre-European populations, a line of wishful thinking now widely discredited by evidence from around the world.  If the timetable is correct, Polynesians were ravaging the environment in New Zealand–2500 people in an area the size of Colorado–at about the same time Europeans were doing so in the New World.

What’s more interesting, by inference, is the idea that it’s not just the number of people living in a place that causes extinctions. It’s how they choose to live there.  That is, with the skills and weapons any human population brings to the hunt, it takes basic rules to ensure the permanent availability of major resources.  Eating all the eggs of your largest bird? Bad idea.

Here’s the press release:

A new study suggests that the flightless birds named moa were completely extinct by the time New Zealand’s human population had grown to two and half thousand people at most.

The new findings, which appear in the journal Nature Communications, incorporate results of research by international teams involved in two major projects led by Professor Richard Holdaway (Palaecol Research Ltd and University of Canterbury) and Mr Chris Jacomb (University of Otago), respectively.

The researchers calculate that the Polynesians whose activities caused moa extinction in little more than a century had amongst the lowest human population densities on record. They found that during the peak period of moa hunting, there were fewer than 1500 Polynesian settlers in New Zealand, or about 1 person per 100 square kilometres, one of the lowest population densities recorded for any pre-industrial society.

They found that the human population could have reached

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Yes, Hotshot Harry Can Be A Hunter and a Conservationist, Too

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2014

Prince Harry

Britain’s Prince Harry continues to take heavy flak for being simultaneously a hunter and a conservationist, with the appearance in today’s Daily Mail of the above photograph.  It’s 10 years old, and shows “Crackshot Harry, The Buffalo Killer” in Argentina, smiling over the carcass of a water buffalo, not exactly an endangered species.

Harry has been taking a public relations hit since going out earlier this month on a boar hunt in Spain with his brother William, immediately prior to making a public pledge to fight against the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and other endangered animals.

My Irish and American family background means I am no great fan of royalty, and I should probably welcome the endlessly clumsy, tone-deaf behavior by the British Royals.  It makes a better case for republicanism than any Fenian or Federalist ever did.  (And it’s so much more entertaining.)  But that said, a legal hunt for water buffalo or boar is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Surprising Fallout From Hunting Top Predators

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 25, 2013


My latest, for TakePart:

Humans have probably been hunting big, scary predators for as long as we have been human, and for the obvious reasons: They are big. They are scary. And they are competition. The fear goes deep in our culture— the Big Bad Wolf was appearing in folk tales in the early middle ages. When I spent a little time on foot in lion habitat a few years ago, the fear felt even more deeply rooted, down somewhere in my gut. Hunting helps restore our precious illusion of control.

Even today, and even among people who may privately loathe the practice, trophy hunting of top predators can seem like a useful tool. The theory is that trophy fees—$10,000 for a lion, say—help pay to protect habitat and keep out poachers. These fees can also provide economic benefits to local communities. That may increase tolerance among people who still live with large, dangerous animals outside their garden gates. Hunting some species may thus serve as the means to increase their numbers— killing predators in order to save them.

But a new study in the journal Biological Conservation asks whether what’s actually happening is the opposite: These methods may be saving large carnivores numerically, but Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »