Beloved Beasts

Michelle Nijhuis / W. W. Norton & Company / 352 pages

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis, is a cross between a Ken Burns–style historical documentary and the 2016 film Hidden Figures, bringing to life the history of key players who helped promote wildlife and wildlands conservation. While Nijhuis highlights the restoration of the American plains bison, bald eagle, and whooping crane, it is the stories about the conservation champions featured in the book that make it a compelling read. 

From Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to CRISPR genetic technology, from the millinery trade to Namibian wildlife conservancies, and from Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, to Michael Soulé, the father of conservation biology, Nijhuis covers a panoply of issues, species, and personalities in this well-researched ode to conservation. 

Those featured in Beloved Beasts represent a walk through conservation history. While some of the people referenced in the book (such as Darwin and President Theodore Roosevelt) are well known to the general public, many (such as Linnaeus, Aldo Leopold, William Hornaday, Rosalie Edge, Julian Huxley, Rachel Carson, Soulé, and Garth Owen-Smith) may be less familiar to those outside the conservation field. 

From Hornaday’s killing of some of the last few bison for a museum exhibit to his successful efforts to restore the species, or from Edge’s role in creating Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, it is the adventures, linkages, and accomplishments of those featured in Beloved Beasts that highlight the important, yet underappreciated, role such people have played in advancing conservation.

Beloved Beasts does not provide a blueprint for saving imperiled species, and it fails to adequately scrutinize whether trophy hunting plays any role in wildlife conservation. Nevertheless, by sharing the stories of those responsible for the modern conservation movement, it challenges present-day and future conservationists to do their part in saving the planet’s myriad inhabitants.

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