Developing Conservation-Wise Nations – The Power of the Book

(Guest edited by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East)


When I was eight my next door neighbor in London, Miss Walcott, gave me a book: Birds’ Alphabet, a mixture of strange poems and even stranger illustrations! Over sixty years later I still have it and can recite, almost word-for-word. It started me watching birds – just a simple book that inspired. We all have our own examples, for most birdwatchers in Britain it will surely be that wonderful Observers Book of British Birds or maybe I Spy Birds? Yes, Big Chief I Spy had a role to play.

I’ve never forgotten the power of that book to capture the imagination and so when I became involved in conservation education in the Middle East, the promotion of bird books – in Arabic, of course, – seemed so natural. The first, written with Rod Martins (but translated by others!) was Birds of Yemen. Sponsored by BirdLife International, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, various embassies and oil companies, it covered 100 species – a blend of the common, familiar and threatened. Delightfully illustrated in colour by Mike Langman, it was aimed at children and, supported by the Ministry of Education, was widely distributed to Yemeni schools. Ten years later, this time teaming up with Tony Miller of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, we produced an Arabic (and English) Birds and Plants of Socotra – another simple guide, aimed again at children. It proved so popular on the island it was soon reprinted.

Dipping my toe into Arabic literary waters made me realise just how vital ‘wildlife material’ was in a developing – conservation-wise – region, so when Birds of the Middle East was published in 1996 I asked RSPB to help fund a translation into Arabic. This proved problematical: English technical terms don’t naturally translate into Arabic; layout is back to front and finding a suitable publisher – and funding was not easy. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon rose to the challenge and once again OSME came up trumps with sponsorship, as did the World Land Trust, Dutch Embassy in Beirut, European Life Fund and others.

Now we had a blueprint the next step was to produce Arabic country editions, and this is where environmental advisers in the World Bank stepped in with encouragement and sponsorship. At the World Bank they had became very excited about promoting local language field guides and had already helped fund translations of more than 110 titles around the world into local languages.

Local language shot  local language 2

We took advantage and, spear-headed by the leading ornithologists of the country, the first ever Arabic country field guide was hatched – Birds of Iraq, soon to be followed by Birds of Syria and Birds of Kuwait. The English publisher – Bloomsbury – and artists were happy to waive any royalties in hope the books would kindle and inspire an appreciation of wildlife.

(The Yemen Minister for the Environment even asked for an Arabic Birds and Mammals of Yemen! Yes, even in unsettled times in the Middle East, these countries want their own wildlife books, in their own language).

And a further delightful spin-off has been Arabic bird books for children for Iraq and Jordan – aimed at five-year olds!

A local language bird guide helping children on Socotra

Now we have the second edition of Birds of the Middle East, authored with the late Simon Aspinall. With over 130 new species, advanced identification text, new maps, many new illustrations and easy-to-use layout I hope it will yet again inspire. As I write, an Arabic version is slowly taking shape.

Field guides on birds are only one cog in the conservation journey, enabling us to identify, quantify – and appreciate – the wonders of our natural world. For my generation these guides are books, but for the children of today it will increasingly be the eBook and App. But, leaving that aside, wouldn’t a wonderful next step be to see Arabs, who are such spell-binding story tellers, take up their pens – or iPads – and tell their own stories about their wildlife. I’d love to read the conservation equivalent of Arabian Nights.

Richard Porter. 8449
This blog has been put together for us by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East. Richard has been involved with birds in the Middle East since 1966 and is an adviser on bird conservation for BirdLife International. He is the author or co-author of several books on the Middle East and the groundbreaking Flight Identification of European Raptors.  

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