Whether you’re spending the holiday season with loved ones in the wilderness or unwinding next to tranquil waters, a good book is the cherry on top. The Wild team shares some of their favourite books of the past year.

#1: Mother of wild orphans

A Rhino in my Garden. Love, Life & the African Bush. Conita Walker with Sally Smith. Jacana Media. 2017. R240.

This enthralling (and at times distressing) book gives an account of a brave conservation career that spans 50 years, as long as Conita’s marriage to Clive Walker, founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Dedication to the wilderness has guided her life’s work and inspired her to keep going despite the premature death of a patron, land claims that they were not willing to fight in court, and the devastating loss of wild animals she hand-reared and loved.

Conita gives an intimate glimpse into her life not only as a foster mother of wild orphans, but also as an educator who enriched the lives of thousands who came to her garden in the Waterberg. She was instrumental in establishing the Lapalala Wilderness School, which has seen more than 80,000 children, teachers and university students pass through its doors.

The sadness is profound when Conita describes how rhino poachers killed her darling Moêng at close range while the little one opened her mouth, as she had always done to take a treat of game pellets. Someone entered her enclosure, fired a handgun in her face, then gouged out her small horns. The author’s memoirs document a courageous fight against the odds that nevertheless ends with hope. She writes: “When you work with animals, as closely as I had done, you sign on for much more than the duties of a conservationist. It is not a job. It is an investment of your heart and soul.”

Perhaps all one needs are a few basics, she muses, and a dream that is big enough. – Romi Boom

#2: ‘It’s my blessing, and my curse’

Josh’s Big Year. From Deserts to Jungles. A Battle with Aspergers. By Josh Crickmay. Self-published. 2017. R699. For every book sold, R50 will be donated to various wildlife charities across the globe.

In 2012, Andrew and Kathy Crickmay took an unexpected blow when their only child dropped out of school and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and severe depression. In 2013 they decided to fight back and give 15-year-old Josh a purpose in life. Motivated by their son’s passion for wildlife, the Crickmays quit their jobs and embarked on a Birding Big Year. This is one of the most gruelling wildlife related challenges, the aim being to spot 1,000 birds in one calendar year.

Josh, now 20, writes with an engaging sense of humour about their adventures in southern Africa and the Amazon Rainforest, where they hack their way through jungle, mud and clouds of mosquitoes in search of macaws, hoatzins and toucans. Their travels take them to eight countries; they journey over 70,000km in buses, planes and dugout canoes, in waters infested with piranha, cayman and anaconda.

The coffee table book is a tour de force. I keep returning to it, lured by Josh’s writing talent, the quirky design elements and the truly magnificent photos of birds and wild places. “It illustrates just how crucial and impactful the fostering of interests is in young people with autism and Aspergers,” write Ernie and Liesl Els, founders of the Els for Autism Foundation, in the foreword.

The author himself writes that his goal with the book is to inspire with a message of hope: “Before the Big Year, I could see no future for myself. […] I now see that there is a place for someone like me to make my mark. […] But only because I had the passion to do it. It is my blessing, and my curse.” – Romi Boom

[Take note: Josh’s Big Year. From Deserts to Jungles. A Battle with Aspergers is not available in shops and can only be purchased online.]

#3: Hefty reference tool

African Game. Species and Subspecies. By Stephen J Carton-Barber. Published by The African Wildlife Subspecies Foundation. 2017. R1,083.

Have you ever seen a king cheetah with its striking, almost stripe-like coat pattern? I hadn’t, until recently, when I learnt that it is not a subspecies, but a colour mutation. Fascinating information, indeed, and a quick check showed that it is included in this comprehensive book which took 21 years to compile. The author spent time in the rain forests of Africa, the deserts of Namibia, the plains of Kenya and most countries in between, to gather information about subspecies.

Why should you know about subspecies? “Because they are the species of tomorrow, albeit many millennia from now,” explains Stephen Carter-Barber. An example in question: while the Southern white rhino is a conservation success story, the Northern white rhino has been allowed to slide into oblivion almost unnoticed. “It once outnumbered its southern counterpart by a large factor,” says Stephen. The last few animals, captively held, are about to die off.

Another motivation for looking at wildlife on a subspecies level is to highlight the richness of Africa’s game. The photos in the book clearly illustrate variations that are often vast. Only if we are aware of the differences can attention be drawn to the plight of those that are disappearing off the face of the Earth.

Distribution maps indicate the historic and present ranges of species and subspecies. It is a shocking reflection on what has become of wildlife in Africa, the continent with the greatest diversity. Nature enthusiasts and the scientific community alike will spend many hours perusing this hefty (2,5kg!) reference tool. – Romi Boom

#4: ‘By verre die mooiste boek’

Botanicum. Katie Scott & Kathy Willis. Protea Boekhuis. 2017. R450.

First published in 2016, Botanicum is a visual encyclopedia of the plant kingdom. The glorious illustrations by Katie Scott and accessible text by Kathy Willis, scientific director at the Kew Botanical Gardens, capture the astounding diversity of plants on Earth. Now it has been translated into Afrikaans and published by Protea Boekhuis.

Dié betowerende boek neem die leser op ’n ontdekkingsreis deur die planteryk. Waar kom plante vandaan? Hoe op aarde het so ’n verskeidenheid ontwikkel? Hoe pas plante by hul omgewing aan? Professor Kathy Willis beantwoord die vrae op onderhoudende en verstaanbare wyse. Voorbeelde kom van oral op aarde en wissel van plante wat in die lug hang tot party wat vleis eet. ’n Mens kan ure lank na Katie Scott se illustrasies kyk, selfs die pynappel lyk so pragtig soos ’n orgidee. Botanicum is by verre die mooiste boek wat ek nog ooit in my hande gehou het. – Magriet Kruger

#5: ‘An incredible, captivating read’

Nicole: The true story of a great white shark’s journey into history. Richard Peirce. Struik Nature. 2017. R180.

When I heard about this famous great white shark named after one of my favourite Hollywood actors, Nicole Kidman, ten thousand questions popped into my mind. I was like a cat on a hot tin roof in anticipation of reading the book. All the more so, when I got the opportunity to interview the author, Richard Peirce. (Read the interview with the passionate shark conservationist here.)

As I was reading, I drove my partner up the walls exclaiming “No way!” and “Unbelievable!” as I gulped up every page. Nicole swam 22,000km in less than nine months, but the most shocking of all? From South Africa, this remarkable creature made her way to Western Australia and back with pinpoint accuracy. In describing Nicole’s journey, the book makes a compelling case for global protection of sharks.

Richard writes: “For the rest of my life I will feel proud and privileged that I knew Nicole and played a part in telling her story to the world.” I can only say: This book will most certainly change the way you see and feel about our deep blue seas. An incredible, captivating read that will leave you stunned. – Arnold Ras