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The hunt for the golden mole

dguklIn this neat little book Richard Girling delivers a slice of popular science writing with the ability to transport the reader from sitting room to savannah and back again, considering the study of environment and biodiversity from desk to field. Part memoir, part natural history lecture, part cautionary tale; ‘The Hunt for the Golden Mole’ presents a multifaceted and personal voyage of discovery in to evolution, life and extinction. 

In essence the voyage taken is sparked by a single question ‘where does one start in the hunt for a creature that may or may not exist?’ The Somali Golden Mole was first described in the mid 1960s, based solely on the evidence of a jawbone fragment found in an owl pellet. It has never been seen in the wild. Stirred by this story, Girling sets off on a bout of self-described ‘undisciplined research’, to delve deeper in to our human knack for collecting, cataloguing and controlling the natural world, while also conducting a genuine hunt for further evidence of the existence of this tiny creature. Though best read as a whole, this book is a compendium of pieces focusing on discrete topics including the history of scientific naming, hunting and species collecting at the turn of the century, taxonomy and cladistics and contemporary challenges for wildlife management and preservation.

This is a tale of adventure, but the physical travels are sometimes an understated surprise, sitting at adjectival odds with the intellectual journey undertaken. The staccato narrative can make the author’s thought-process difficult to follow, though this is part of the charm of the piece - written in a stream-of-consciousness style, studded with literary reference and copious asides that makes for compelling reading. Having a great story to tell is one thing, but having the ability to tell one is quite another, and Girling has both. Flashes of literary flourish particularly surface where intellectual or emotional passions break through. It is easy to become engrossed in the tales, travelling alongside the author on his small-yet-large voyage of personal and universal discovery.

The summary throughout, drawn from the excitement of his mental and physical journey and wonder of his human and animal encounters, it that every creature has a story to tell; that no matter how small and obscure (or even potentially non-existent!) each plays a key role in its host ecosystem. This book also acts as a platform to raise a personal and collective alarm: work on biodiversity conservation is far from over, and the interests and actions of the individual are significant in ensuring the continued existence of ecosystems as we know them.

Reviewed by Carla-Leanne Washbourne

THE HUNT FOR THE GOLDEN MOLE: ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, AND WHY THEY MATTER by RICHARD GIRLING, Published by Chatto & Windus 2014 ISBN-13: 978-0701187156 320 pages hbk. List price: £16.99 W: