It’s no secret that I’m a bit obsessed with books. Of course a substantial portion of my reading material consists of natural history books, nature-related memoirs and biographies of my favourite conservationists; and for World Book Day 2020, I felt it was a good chance to share some of my top book recommendations* for those of you looking for something new to read over the coming year.
Update: I realise a whole week has now passed since World Book Day, but my intended list jumped from 5, to 10, to 20 books — as recalling how much I loved one particular book, reminded me just how much I loved another… and so forth.
If you’d like to keep up-to-date with some of my new book purchases, or see my recommended reads; you can follow my hashtag #kateonconservationbooks on Instagram.
*Disclaimer: I can’t speak of everyone’s taste, and perhaps many will disagree with my choices, but this list is simply highlighting books that I’ve personally enjoyed reading — and I’d welcome any more suggestions in the comments below.
My recommended natural history books for 2020
I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite reads from the last few months, to introduce (or re-acquaint) my blog readers to these well-deserving books and authors, some of which are perhaps lesser known in some literary circles.
I’ve tried to choose books that are relatively new releases (with a few exceptions!), and have omitted some of the most obvious best-sellers of the last year or so – because, chances are, you already know all about those.
So here it goes…
1. Get Your Boots On by Alex White
‘Get Your Boots On’ is a fantastic collection of tips, facts, photos and diary entries for exploring the great outdoors from teenage naturalist Alex White. With some interesting contributing notes from many great conservationists, Alex uses passion for the natural world, and his wisdom beyond his years to reveal the simple and low-cost ways that people can enjoy nature.
2. Beastly Journeys: Unusual Tales of Travel with Animals by Bradt Travel Guides
Beastly Journeys is a compilation of 45 tales of extraordinary animal travel experiences from Bradt Travel encompassing hilarious holidays with pets to journeys on which wild animals somehow came along for the ride; it’s fun, exciting and surprising — and a great read for a train, bus or plane journey!
3. A Book of Rather Strange Animals by Caleb Compton
A Book of Rather Strange Animals is a collection of one hundred remarkable animal specimens from around the world, with fascinating descriptions of nasty feeding habits, bizarre mating rituals and shocking defense mechanisms, it manages to demonstrate both the splendour and gruesomeness of nature in an engaging way.
4. Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom Hird
Blowfish’s Oceanopedia — 291 Extraordinary Things You Didn’t Know About the Sea; is billed as a ‘beautifully designed, one-stop guide to all we know about our oceans and the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit them.’
Tom ‘the Blowfish’ Hird, marine biologist and fish-fanatic, takes readers on a journey through the planet’s oceans to reveal all the strange and fascinating creatures lurking beneath the waves.
5. Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness
Bird Therapy is an incredibly important book — one that might just change (or save!) your life. Author Joe Harkness looks at the connection between mental health wellbeing and birding. He defines the ‘5 points of Well-birding’, and openly and honestly leads readers through his process of managing difficult mental health issues, one birdwatching experience at a time.
I was absolutely glued to this book in the wake of postnatal recovery. It’s so easy to lose yourself when life changes, but as Joe explains through his own personal story; connecting with nature can be hugely beneficial to bringing balance to your emotions and a more level perspective to some of those most challenging times.
6. Jane Goodall – Little People, BIG DREAMS by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
The true life story of legendary primatologist anthropologist, Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara delivers another beautifully illustrated, children’s biography in her signature Little People, BIG DREAMS style. This book is bound to deliver inspiration and delight in equal measure.
7. The Magic of Hope by Matthew Copham, Pia Dierickx and Karin Van Couwenberg
The Magic of Hope is an absolutely stunning photography book; and it’s self-published to allow all proceeds to go to the Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots Foundation and Save the Elephants Foundation.
This book — the second by Matthew Copham, Pia Dierickx and Karin Van Couwenberg — is filled with messages of hope from politicians, writers, royalty and conservationists and has a wonderful foreword written by Dr. Jane Goodall.
Karin says: “Our project begins from children’s drawings in Africa and Europe depicting their view of wildlife, to messages of hope from conservationists and iconic individuals throughout the world together with our photographs.
Through “The Magic of Hope” we connect the purity and innocence of the next generations to the confidence and wisdom of generations present and past. There will be a day when all will admire the rhino, practice conservation and inhale the wilderness. Embrace the beauty of our planet, our Earth and believe in Hope.”
8. Back to the Blue by Virginia McKenna
This charming book is one from my childhood, which I have recently revisited with my own daughter. Beautifully illustrated by Ian Andrew, it tells the story of how three captive dolphins, from two of the UK’s last dolphin shows, were given a chance of freedom.
Born Free‘s place in this successful release story holds a special place in my heart. Supported by the Mail on Sunday, Born Free and other animal welfare groups campaigned to close the UK’s last dolphinaria.
The Into the Blue campaign resulted in the rescue of three dolphins, Missie and Silver from Brighton Dolphinarium, and Rocky from Morecambe Marineland. All three were rehabilitated and released back into the wild in the Caribbean and The UK has remained dolphinaria-free ever since.
Through this book, Born Free’s Virginia McKenna tells the tale in a most timeless way.
9. The Voices in the Sea by John T. Kinsella
For many years John T. Kinsella worked extensively on subsea development for companies involved in the exploration and production of Oil and Gas reserves. Through this work, John became interested in the conservation of the oceans and seas that we all rely upon.
This is his first novel, which focuses attention on the intelligence and preservation of the Orca or Killer Whale and the fractured and unstable narrative of our times.
The story centres around Chulyin, Shaman of the North. Chulyin is on the wind of time. He flies high above man and watches with interest as the prospect of nuclear war begins. Chulyin chooses Eleanor, a scientist attempting to translate the language of the killer whale at an oceanographic Institute in the United Kingdom, to help him avert international disaster.
The shaman makes sure that Eleanor’s dreams take her on journeys across the threshold of man’s dominions and into the shaman’s world.
10. Born to be Free by Gareth Patterson
Born to be Free is a delightful children’s book by Gareth Patterson, written during his time living and working in the camp of the legendary George Adamson and his lion pride, it tells the inspirational true tale of three orphaned young lions, Rafiki, Furaha and Batian.
When the grand old ‘lion man of Africa’, George Adamson, passed away, the last of his lion cub orphans faced an uncertain future. Would the cubs have to spend their entire lives behind bars in a zoo, or would they have a free life in the wild, as George had intended for them?
Lion expert Gareth Patterson rescues George’s cubs and, by living as a human member of the little pride, Gareth prepares to introduce the young lions back into the wild.
Interestingly, the manuscript was lost for many years ago, and only recently resurfaced. The book that almost never was! Well worth a read (with great pictures too!).
11. Christian the Lion: The Illustrated Legacy by John Rendell and Derek Cattani
Staying with the theme of George Adamson’s lions, it’s lovely to see another present-day retelling of an incredibly powerful and influential story.
You may have seen or heard of the much-loved story; ‘Christian the Lion at World’s End’; or ‘the Harrods lion’.
In 1969, the three month old lion cub was sold by Harrods department store in London to John Rendall and Anthony (Ace) Bourke.
For a year Christian lived happily and safely with them in the World’s End on the King’s Road in Chelsea, where Derek Cattani first began photographing him.
Christian eventually outgrew his London home, and with the help of George Adamson was rehabilitated back into the wild.
When former owners, John and Ace, returned to Kenya to try and find him, their emotional reunion was captured on film — a clip that has gone viral on YouTube with over 100 million people viewing.
This book by Christian’s one-time owner John Rendall and photographer Derek Cattani shares many more fascinating moments of this much-adored lion’s story, captured on film and shared for the first time by Bradt Guides.
12. The Marsh Lions by Brian Jackman, Jonathan and Angie Scott
The Marsh Lions by Brian Jackman, Jonathan and Angie Scott tells the story of a pride of lions in Kenya’s world-famous Masai Mara game reserve.
First released in 1982, The Marsh Pride takes an intimate look at the trials and tribulations of lion life on the African savannah.
13. My Name Is Happiness by Veronica Plumbe
This delightful children’s book is all about Happiness — in more ways than one.
Happiness is the name of the warthog piglet at the centre of this tale about life on an African game reserve, which involves our unlikely protagonist facing predators and poachers — and thankfully features a rescue and release in an animal sanctuary.
I love that this story, unusually, has a warthog as the heroine. It’s also been created to support the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, which is an added bonus!
Children (young and old!), are bound to enjoy this story.
14. A Cheetah’s Tale by Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent
In a wonderful, unlikely series of events; HRH Princess Michael of Kent personally sent me a signed copy of her book, after reading my blog post about Big Cat Festival. HRH Princess Michael of Kent‘s fascinating connection with cheetahs is something I knew very little of before Big Cat Festival, but following the event, her book ‘A Cheetah’s Tale‘ was top of my wishlist.
As a teenager, Princess Michael was entranced by the African landscape, by the wildlife and by the people she met. The Princess counts this as one of the happiest times of her life, made even more so by the orphaned cheetah cub (called Tess) that she helped to raise.
A Cheetah’s Tale is the account of the relationship between Princess Michael and Tess, and is also an enchanting and often surprising story about the realities of living in Africa.
15. Saving Wild by Lori Robinson
Saving Wild is Lori Robinson’s second book, drawing inspiration from leading conservationists to inspire hope.
“According to scientists, we are entering the sixth great mass extinction event. It’s easy to feel a sense of ecological despair, to lose hope, and to give up trying to make a difference,” the author explains.
In Saving Wild, 50 of the world’s leading conservationists, who have devoted their lives to save some of the most endangered species on Earth, answer the question How do you stay inspired?
16. Beyond the Last Village: A Journey of Discovery in Asia’s Forbidden Wilderness
It’s well-documented on this blog that the late Dr Alan Rabinowitz is one of my biggest conservation inspirations. I received this lesser-known gem as a Christmas gift, and it’s now one of my prized pieces on my bookshelf.
Alan, dubbed the ‘Indiana Jones of wildlife science’ — and well-known for his once debilitating stutter — recounts his arrival in Myanmar, formerly as Burma, in 1993. His goal was to establish a wildlife research and conservation programme and to survey the country’s wildlife.
He succeeded — not only discovering a species of primitive deer completely new to science, but also in playing a vital role in the creation of Hkakabo Razi National Park, now one of Southeast Asia’s largest protected areas.
The powerful landscape and unique people the author befriends during his mission help him come to grips with the traumas and difficulties of his past and emerge a man ready to embrace the world anew.
This book is very much a personal journey of discovery, interwoven with his scientific expedition in Myanmar, and his learning and understanding of the people he met and the situations he encountered.
It’s a must-read for those looking for the kind of story (and real life hero!) that may just alter your entire perception in life.
17. Tracking the Panthera Family by Jan Fleischmann & Maria VenekeYlikomi
Tracking The Panthera Family mbark on a magnificent adventure in the trails of the big cat animals, all belonging to the Panthera family.
Through stunning photos, exciting field stories and informative factual texts, the photographer Jan Fleischmann and writer Maria Veneke Ylikomi guide readers through the large cats’ territories; the tiger’s jungles, the savannahs and bush forests where the lion and leopard are residing, and the rivers and wetlands where the mighty jaguar is roaming.
An insightful read that reveals much about the habits and habitats of the world’s big cat species — including the elusive snow leopard — and the scientists and nature guides who are fighting for the big threatened felines.
18. The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf
The multi award-winning biography tells the story of a Prussian naturalist born in 1769. Alexander von Humboldt was an explorer and geographer whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism.
One of six books written by acclaimed author Andrea Wulf (other titles include; This Other Eden and The Brother Gardeners), this is one that deserves time and attention — and is certainly worth the investment.
19. Ivory, Apes and Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa by Alan Root
Continuing on the theme of ‘inventing’, Alan Root is recognised as one of the major innovators of modern nature documentary filmmaking, and one of the great wildlife pioneers of our time.
His innovative filming techniques saw him taking a close-up look at whole ecosystems — trees, insects and natural springs — rather than the charismatic megafauna that usually found their way onto film.
Esteemed natural history journalist and author Brian Jackman pointed out that Alan’s career “involved firsts such as tracking the wildebeest migration from a balloon, then flying it over Kilimanjaro, filming inside a hornbill’s nest and diving with hippos and crocodiles.”
This considerably underrated autobiography follows his boyhood in Kenya to his daredevil lifestyle that saw him living on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya up until his final days (has passed away there aged 80).
20. A Wild Life: The Edwin Wiek Story by Jane Fynes-Clinton
Edwin Wiek is a true wildlife warrior. A rebel from childhood, this Dutchman is the founder of Asia’s largest multi-species wildlife rescue centre, a fearless interrupter of illicit wildlife trafficking and an advisor to the Thai government on animal law reform.
He has been raided, arrested several times, injured and threatened, but his focus is unwavering.
This thorough biography of a remarkable game-changer gives a no holds barred insight into a man who is confidently rude, rebellious and recalcitrant, but who has done more than anyone to give so many rescued animals in Asia as close to a wild life as possible.
Next on my reading list…
Hopefully there’s a vast amount of great reading material here to sink your teeth into, but for those looking for a little extra: I’ve included my two World Book Day 2020 purchases.
Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night by Tiffany Francis, and Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones are the two books highest on my reading list at present, having just finished re-reading Bird Therapy; and very much being in a personal headspace where I would like to indulge in more reading material that infuses nature writing into personal reflection and self-growth — something about on being on the cusp of turning 30, I believe.
I’ll post more about these on my social media feeds soon, I’ve no doubt, but for now — happy reading!