Being interesting is a bit like being beautiful. More often than not, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I find most of the washed-up shells I see on the beach more beautiful than a highly polished cut-diamond, but a whole lot of people are going to disagree with me on that. Similarly, the guy at the fuel station might be more interesting than Sigmund Freud – it just depends on your point of view. And then there is Peter Beard. Written by: Naturalist and author Duncan Butchart
That being said, some people are UNDENIABLY interesting, and, once in a while, you might be lucky enough to cross their path.
So it was that I once sat down for a drink with Peter Beard at a sidewalk café in Johannesburg. Born into a wealthy New York family, Beard first travelled to Kenya in the 1950s, then returned after his Yale graduation to work in Tsavo National Park, documenting the mass death of 35,000 elephants – and other wildlife – that formed the core of his 1965 book, The End of the Game. This provocative tome, overflowing with beauty and horror, captured the harsh reality of starvation, poaching and hunting in Kenya – a reality check when Joy Adamson’s Born Free was portraying Africa as a sort of Disneyland. More than anything, the enigmatic Beard wanted to portray the truth, like a photojournalist on a war front. The graphic and sometimes shocking images are more than many people can handle.
Personifying the ‘devil-may-care’ approach of those prosperous enough to be defiant of authority, Beard wanted to show the world how Africa’s game was disappearing. At the same time, he was documenting the end of an era – the end of colonial control. That, too, was a game – one of intrusion and greed.
My copy of the second edition of The End of the Game is among my most treasured books. Beard’s images of elephants, lions, vultures and gazelles are all in stark monochrome, adorned with layers of his own handwritten notes and quotes from Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen, with whom he was friends), Roosevelt, Selous and others. Bizarrely, his multi-layered pictures are often smeared with blood to make his point. Shocking to many, these visceral images remind us of how powerful and wasteful humankind is.
Styling himself on Hemmingway, with a good dose of Denys Finch Hatton thrown in, Beard was part of New York’s Studio 54 crowd, and his unique images of Kenyan wildlife and beautiful women regularly adorned the pages of glossy magazines and calendars. Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon were among his friends, and he discovered the Somali supermodel Iman. Peter Beard is essentially a diarist and scrapbooker – the camera is just one of his tools, and his photographs are often only a canvas for a collage of found objects, newspaper clippings, woodcuts and other artwork. In some pictures, there are gorgeous women, usually naked, among the animals – these being models enticed out to the wilds of Kenya by the dashingly handsome Beard, who was just as at home among the Maasai and the thorn scrub as he was with Vogue fashion editors and the jet-setters of the world.
It is more than 50 years since The End of the Game was published, and I’m guessing that Peter Beard might just be surprised at how much wildlife still survives in Africa. The blood of rhinos continues to be spilt, and they are teetering on the brink; elephant poaching is out of control in some regions, but the pachyderms are too populous in others. Lions are certainly in big trouble; they have become extinct in several African countries since the book was published, and only seven countries now have populations of greater than 1,000.
However, the protected area network has increased significantly in some countries, and responsible ecotourism operators are providing sound economic reasons for local people to safeguard nature. There is hope. Perhaps Beard’s book woke up enough people in time.
Naturally, I asked Peter Beard to autograph my copy of his book when I met him way back in 1989. This was no ordinary flick of the wrist: he poured half a bottle of Indian ink into a soup bowl, placed his hand in the liquid, and then smeared it across the title page! After holding fast for a good fifteen minutes, he took out a nibbed pen and inscribed the book.
Note: Taschen is apparently releasing a 50th-anniversary edition of The End of the Game – as relevant now as it was back in ’65.
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