Tribal warfare, political upheavals, and an astounding biodiversity are endemic to the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rainforests of the Congo hold endless biological and cultural secrets. Species unknown to science are still to be discovered. Ethnic histories and traditions are yet to be revealed. Emerald Labyrinth offers readers a look behind the veil of mystique and wonder that has shrouded the Congo since the earliest reports from European explorers. Eli Greenbaum's adventures in Africa are just what one would expect from an intrepid explorer: encounters aplenty with exotic wildlife and unfamiliar human societies. Some are perilous, some bizarre, some beautiful. All are intriguing. The author's primary focus is on his experiences with a variety of native wildlife, including face-to-face, potentially life-threatening encounters with a young elephant, a silverback gorilla, a spitting cobra, and numerous vipers. Added to this are the continual threat of tribal warfare, the risk of contracting tropical diseases, and the rigors of exhausting overland journeys. Collectively, the author's treks through the jungles and other ecosystems in the Congo provide more excitement than most people will experience in a lifetime. He also recounts his adventures with the animals that are his specialty: frogs, snakes, and lizards. The color photographs are eclectic yet fitting records of the author's travels: Congolese animals and natural habitats, a village scene, a ferry crossing, people he meets along the way, and members of his field team. Grayscale photographs of people, places, and wildlife are scattered throughout the chapters, further revealing the character, culture, and biodiversity of the region that surrounds the Congo River. Almost 5000 kilometers long, as much as 14 kilometers across in some areas, and with a watershed covering more than 4 million square kilometers, the Congo is the continent's second-longest river. View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide Emerald Labyrinth is an engaging book. Greenbaum has a captivating writing style and deftly blends on-the-ground natural history with modern ecological and evolutionary concepts. His explanation of how he used DNA and morphological data to describe a new genus of lizards provides a clear explanation of what a phylogenetic tree is. He positions his own adventures within the context of the historical drama that for centuries has consumed the land we know as the Congo. Adding to this carefully researched scholarly work is an impressive reference list of more than 250 historical and biological sources, each properly cited in the text. A recurring theme reveals the author's true passion, frogs, the world's most diverse group of amphibians. No mention is made of salamanders because of their absence from sub-Saharan Africa. Accounts of exploratory nighttime field trips, incidental captures during a trek, and efforts to find particular species of frogs are found in most chapters. Photographs and DNA samples (that will be analyzed later) are among the tools used to identify specimens. Each capture has the prospect of being a species previously unknown to science. One chapter is a commentary on the troubling decline of elephants in the region due to poaching promulgated by the perplexing craving of some cultures, especially American and Chinese, for ivory. Fittingly, the chapter includes a field trip involving the capture of small frogs that live in the footprints of elephants. In the chapter titled “King Kong of Kahuzi Volcano,” the author keeps the reader intrigued with accounts of his adventures with gorillas. He provides an equally entertaining and articulate overview of the scientific discovery and first observations of gorillas in the wild by Western Europeans. He discusses in easily digestible terms the topic of allopatric subspeciation, explaining how the divergence of gorilla populations into isolated geographic units could result in recognizable and measurable changes through genetic drift. He also notes that not all primate biologists agree on whether gorillas are a single species, with some maintaining that certain identifiable populations should be considered full species. Greenbaum does not shy away from controversial topics surrounding the unsavory political and exploitive history of the region. His narrative on the slaughter of gorillas in times past by poachers and during tribal warfare paints an unsettling picture of human behavior that unfortunately continues today. His dismay at the destruction of a tropical rainforest by commercial interests is unequivocal: “The environmental devastation from deforestation for agriculture, illegal drugs, cattle ranching, and mining… is extensive.” He uses his pulpit well in addressing the global problem of overpopulation. A reader interested primarily in the rich biodiversity of tropical Africa may be less interested in the extensive historical background on native cultures, international politics, and the consequences of colonization. The author clearly delved deeply into the sources of exploitation of the region's resources. Many are not uplifting tales, revolving as they do around human greed and the lust for power that led to exploitation of the native inhabitants—fauna, flora, and human alike. That historical background explains why the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity is a plight for much of the African tropics. Emerald Labyrinth packs in more about the country's biological, cultural, and political history than is likely to be found in any other single book. It should be required reading for all ecologists, missionaries, politicians, and decision-makers who journey to tropical Africa, especially the Congo. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
BioScience – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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