23 - 29 March 2000
Issue No. 474
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Spring has sprung, and the Griffons are soaring
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Focus Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons
The call of the wildProfile by Pascale Ghazaleh
I am skulking -- there is no other word for it -- outside the ground floor offices of the American University in Cairo's Falaki campus. Just next door is a massive construction site, and the noise is deafening. On one of the wicker tables, cats are lounging in the sun: a very butch and much battle-scarred tom, his lady, a tad remiss in her grooming but otherwise very charming, and two kittens, scrawny beneath the fluff. I am a bit of a cat person, and I am hoping Richard Hoath is too. He will turn out not to be, although he does have one feline friend -- Qutta -- but he is nevertheless the reason for my skulking here on this particular sunny morning. I have only heard his voice on the phone before, and it is a good voice, resonant and well modulated if slightly hesitant, as if its owner had answered reluctantly and was only half willing to let the outside world intrude. I have not been able to imagine a face to fit it. Will he be my ideal-type vision of a bird-watcher -- tall, gangling, bespectacled, stooped and shuffling along ever so gently? Could he be large, bearded, bushy-haired? Half an hour early for our appointment, I sit thus, next to the cats, drinking AUC coffee (otherwise fondly known, among its adepts, as toxic sludge) and wondering what Richard Hoath looks like.
Never having been a great fan of biology (school experiments dissecting helpless frogs -- not to mention an unfortunately close encounter with a large, glazed eye, which, I felt, studied me with a puzzled expression, despite its detachment from its original bovine owner -- did much to dampen any initial enthusiasm), I am a little puzzled myself as to what I am doing here. But it is Hoath himself who is the object of my curiosity, more than the Fan-tailed Warblers, Dugongs or Bluebarred Parrotfish of which he writes with such passion. These are the objects of his affection. I, on the other hand, would not know a Mimic Blenny if it smacked me in the face.
It is for people like me -- well, perhaps a little more informed -- that Hoath writes Nature Notes, his column in Egypt Today magazine. It is often funny, always informative, and accompanied by his beautiful sketches, sometimes in colour, sometimes in attractive tones of sepia. His topics here are the animals one sees every day in Egypt: "If I can write about the swifts screaming about, and mating over our heads," he explains, "or the geckos crawling up the walls, people can see those and know what they're doing. Why do those big egrets fly up and down the Nile every evening? Where are they going? People will be asking these questions, and perhaps I can provide an answer. If I was to write just about rare exotic things, people wouldn't read Nature Notes as much as they do, because they'd never see anything I was writing about."
Richard Hoath is a naturalist -- an avid student of nature in the truest sense of the expression. He has been all over the country, sketchbook in hand, taking notes and watching. It is easy to imagine him sitting quietly for hours on his balcony, listening to the bats swoop past, or hovering over a coral reef, observing the behavioural mechanisms of Cleaner Shrimps. He is tall and bespectacled, but neither gangling nor stooped. He has no beard. He greets me enthusiastically enough -- he is hardly effusive, but then I suppose leaping about and waving one's arms is hardly the technique to adopt when one is trying to creep up on a Dorcas Gazelle. He strikes me as being somehow camouflaged -- capable of sitting more or less unnoticed on a rocky outcrop, somewhere in the Western Desert, sketching away, but also slipping by unobtrusively on AUC's campus, where brighter plumage by far is after all the norm. He wears baggy clothes in neutral colours: beige, khaki, ochre.
His demeanour, then, I like to think, like Hoath's book, Natural Selections, is testimony to his abiding passion for Egypt's wildlife. It is precisely the fact that the creatures of which he writes are so prosaic, I feel, that makes the book, like Nature Notes, so appealing. Hoath can inject a little magic into seemingly the most mundane props of urban life: "In Cairo," the blurb on the back of Natural Selections informs the reader, "air-conditioning units are the popular strutting grounds for lovelorn Palm Doves."
Now it had never occurred to me to keep an eye on my A/C in the hope of glimpsing a Palm Dove, nor to stake out a vantage point from which to observe toads, until I read that "toad-watching is a more fascinating and relaxing way to spend an evening than it might otherwise seem." Hoath's writing reminds me of my childhood -- hours spent in my grandmother's garden, watching ants or pulling strangely shaped pods off trees to find out what was inside. Cairo does a lot to stifle that curiosity about the natural world -- the world of plants, birds, insects or fish. Apart from stray cats and dogs, we tend to think, the city is an inhospitable place for anyone but the hardy cockroach.
Not so, however. While Hoath's remarks on desert wildlife or rare species are always interesting, it is his notes on the animals we see every day -- shrikes, geckoes, or weasels, say -- that really fascinate me. They seem to open up a new world within the uniform drabness of urban life -- a world securely lodged in the interstices of human activity.
Hoath has a propensity to blush at the slightest provocation. He holds himself carefully, walks with a stiff-shouldered ambling gait, as if he were trying to move as little air as possible. I envisage him sitting motionless for hours on end, utterly absorbed in the teeming life all around him. He was always interested in wildlife, from way back. As a boy, he "collected bugs and dead things and pressed flowers, kept newts and frogs... Unlike most children, who have a manic interest in horses or stamps or train spotting, instead of growing out of it I grew into it more and more. It's become much more than an interest -- an all-consuming passion."
Hoath's sketch of a Fennec Fox, from Natural Selections, AUC Press (1992)
After he left university -- Cambridge's Jesus College, specifically, where he received a BA in geography in 1984 and a Master's, also in geography, in 1988 (he describes his specialisation as "basically knowing a little about a lot, but a lot about nothing") -- Hoath had no real idea what he wanted to do except travel. He got a job with an oil company, in the land department, looking at the viability of oilfields. After short-term postings to Tunisia and Spain, he was sent to Egypt in 1987 as financial manager. "It sounds very grand but there were only two of us here, and we had this minute field out in the Western Desert. After about two years they wanted me to go back to the London office: the field was not financially viable." Hoath, however, had other plans: he had started writing for Egypt Today and working on a book, and decided this was much more what he wanted to do. So he stayed.
Teaching, as well as increasing awareness of the country's environmental heritage and the importance of preserving it, are among the reasons Hoath did not turn out to be another one of the many who have passed through Egypt before continuing on their travels in search of a new thrill. He could have been a traveller, after all; perhaps written a guidebook and then moved on. "In the UK," he explains, "you can't walk for people who are interested in conservation, but here the movement has just been started in the past few years. It's very exciting... but it is just beginning." So it is hardly the exotic that's kept him here? "That's probably a product of where I am. Egypt does have some of what you might call exotic wildlife. We have six different species of wildcat, including possibly the leopard and the cheetah, but a lot of the desert wildlife is hard to find: very well camouflaged, often nocturnal, often very rare. You don't see very much of it, and the more 'prosaic' things -- the bats, the swifts, black kites, owls at night, the karawan -- all of these are things people can see."
Besides coordinating and lecturing in the Core Seminar, a critical reading course at AUC, and teaching a course on the Freshman Writing Programme, Hoath is faculty adviser for the Environmental Awareness Association. While his own writing may not reach a wide audience directly, therefore, he hopes the association's activities will. "They've been involved in an outreach project, providing educational materials to a local government school. The Biology Club is also very active, bringing in guest speakers, organising workshops in several protected areas, like Ras Mohamed and Wadi Degla. These young people are the movers and shakers of the next generation. I have my limitations: I can't get up and give a talk in Arabic, but they can, and so I can work with them at this level." Eventually, he hopes, this new awareness will pervade the rest of society.
When I mention Richard Hoath in passing, a former student's eyes light up with delight. She waxes lyrical about his teaching skills -- more precisely, his pedagogical method. "I liked him as a teacher because he took me seriously," she explains earnestly. "He's such a -- decent man. He respects his students and their ideas. He's serious without being boring. He made things interesting." She reflects for a while, then adds pensively: "We used to talk about Seminar topics out of class, so I guess he must have made them interesting. I sometimes said things just for the sake of being argumentative, but he didn't brush them aside. He would stop and discuss them."
While the format of the Seminar itself, which seeks to introduce undergraduates to a broad survey of ideas through works as diverse as Gilgamesh and the Communist Manifesto, may be debated, many students see it retrospectively as one of the highlights of their university years. It offers an opportunity to discover and discuss Really Big Ideas, in relatively small tutorial groups, with a (hopefully) dedicated and attentive tutor.
Hoath enjoys lecturing, certainly, but as he lopes across campus, greeting students and faculty by name, asking about projects and listening with genuine interest, I realise that he also seems to take pleasure in human contact. He is not as shy as he seems at first; nor has he used his interest in wildlife as an escape hatch from human society.
Still, the list of his achievements is impressive. Since 1990, he has been Egyptian correspondent for the BBC Wildlife Magazine (besides writing his environmental column for Egypt Today). He served for two years as ornithological consultant to the Egypt Exploration Society at the Sacred Animal Necropolis in Saqara. He has spent the past five years working with the Born Free Foundation to improve conditions at the Giza, Tanta and Alexandria Zoos; and he is collaborating with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and the Zoological Society of London to reintroduce the Egyptian Tortoise to North Sinai.
Whether the topic is the zoo or the importance of saving a species from extinction, Hoath is emphatic and passionate, never maudlin. He knows how to phrase his arguments in a way that will appeal not only to nature lovers armed with little more than moral indignation, but also to policy-makers. "I certainly believe we have a moral duty to preserve our natural heritage," he tells me, leaning forward just a little and dropping his head as he searches for the exact words. "It is as valuable and worth preserving as the historical heritage of any country. The desert wilderness is just as important to preserve as the Pyramids or the temples of Luxor. That doesn't carry much weight when you're talking about increasing tourism, but when people go to the Red Sea, they want to see the reefs -- so the health of those reefs is important for the health of the tourist industry. Desert ecotourism is the same: people don't want to go to the desert and see nothing, or just garbage heaps or the remains of the Cairo-Dakar Rally. Now if they can go and see a gazelle or an Oryx, and go with people who are educated in the desert environment, who can show them the wildlife, they're going to get much more out of it."
Hoath himself knows the value of such first-hand experience. He will take himself off into the desert and walk for miles, alert to any unusual encounter. "If you go on a walking safari, you'll see far less but it will be much more immediate," he says with a smile. "My best desert encounter was with gazelles. All the photos you see are of gazelles running, generally being chased by the photographer's jeep. Well, I was in the Eastern Desert with a friend and we got out of the car. In the distance, we saw two animals walking away. We got the binoculars out -- and they were gazelles." If Hoath were the type of person to chortle with satisfaction, he would be chortling now. Instead, his eyes glint as he pushes his glasses back into place. "We went around in a great circle to the wadi where we thought they were heading and peeped over the crest, and there they were: a pair of Dorcas Gazelles. The male was lying down, just hanging out; the female was feeding. We watched them for an hour and a half. I had my notebook, I was writing and sketching, and the wind suddenly rustled the paper. As soon as they heard that, they were off. I'm glad I didn't have my camera, because the first click would have frightened them. Also, when you have a camera the temptation is to just go click, click, click. And you end up not seeing the animal, except when you get the film developed."
His ease in an environment so inhospitable to humans is the flip side of his distress at seeing wildlife in captivity -- kept, indeed, in often unbearable conditions. Still, unlike many other non-Egyptians, Hoath will not explain away cruelty with portmanteau references to culture or religion. He is trying hard to understand, really he is. He cites the introduction to The Island of Animals, adapted by Denys Johnson-Davies from a 10th-century fable, for stories of the Prophet Mohamed's kindness to cats and other creatures. He particularly loves the one about the prophet cutting a piece out of his cloak so as not to disturb a cat that was sleeping there. This is hardly the patronising glibness of the non-Muslim trying to point the unenlightened in the right direction; although he is outraged by conditions at the Giza Zoo, for instance, he is also sincerely perplexed. "The attitude to animals is very different than what it is in the West," he concedes, "but when I was small I remember going to the London Zoo and seeing Guy the Gorilla. Things are changing, but a lot of people here don't understand the respect that other forms of life deserve and I don't understand why."
His work with the Born Free Foundation has brought him face to face with conditions at the Zoo. Speaking of the situation, a bitter note creeps into his voice for the first time. "Oh, there are lots of lovely cafeterias and beautiful gardens, and the grottoes have been repaired. It's great -- unless you're an animal." All the Foundation has managed to do so far is to place water troughs in the lion cages Hoath refers to as death row. Zoo employees, however, have been somewhat remiss in filling the troughs, he says. As for the monkeys, they show "severe signs of psychotic behaviour. Orangutans -- the world's largest arboreal -- are designed to live in trees, but at the Zoo they don't have anything to climb on."
For Hoath, the sight is particularly painful when contrasted with his experiences in Zaire, where he had a close brush with Silverback Gorillas. I suggest, as tactfully as possible, that I would like to see the diaries in which he records his trips into the jungle or the desert. I feel they would give readers a better understanding of what he is like. He gazes at me for a second or two, possibly stunned by my lack of discretion, then the pedagogue kicks in again and he nods thoughtfully: "Yes, it would be more interesting than the traditional structured article," he comments. I feel absurdly pleased, as if I had just received an A on a term paper. I have always been a sucker for a professor's approval.
I have just had the most incredible wildlife experience of my life. To have a fully-grown adult male Silverback just walk unconcernedly past you, brushing against you, is an experience that must remain with you for the rest of your life. To not be able to advance down the path because a gorilla is standing on your foot is an experience I have only ever dreamt of.
There is more: from Zaire, but also Morocco, where he happened upon a troop of rare Barbary Macaques, and Malawi, where he saw a Spotted Eagle Owl. Then I read the words that seem to say it all, written while Hoath was trekking in Morocco:
I really do not know what I would do without my intense and passionate interest in nature. I cannot understand how people... who do not share the passion find interest in things. What is a walk in the country without nature? A leg stretch, fresh air perhaps, but little more. To the naturalist, getting from A to B is a huge adventure... How does someone without this interest perceive the world? They must see it very differently from me...
photos: Randa Shaath