BOOK REVIEW / Meat is still the name of the game in Africa: 'At the Hand of Man' - Raymond Bonner: Simon & Schuster, 16.99 pounds

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IN 1986 and 1987 about 300 people were killed by Zimbabwean game rangers in a crackdown on poaching in the Zambezi Valley. The World Wildlife Fund helped to buy Zimbabwe a helicopter for use as a gunship. Between April and August 1989, the Kenyan army killed about 30 people in game reserves as a result of a policy of shooting poachers on sight. The African Wildlife Foundation commended the policy highly.

There are questions here. What is more important, people or animals? And is this the most effective way of protecting elephants and rhinos?

To explore the answers, Bonner delves into the politics and economics of wildlife and the 1989 ban on the international trade in ivory. He turns up interesting and uncomfortable truths and reveals the gulf between what wildlife organisations were doing on the ground to manage wildlife, and what they were telling their bunny-hugging funders.

The ban, he argues, was the result of western emotion over images of dead elephants. He says it ignored the need to manage the continent's elephant population and the more pressing needs of the growing population of Africa. It was a white, Western policy, unrelated to the realities of Africa and elephants.

Bonner's well-told tale centres on the battle for the ivory ban and how it has damaged elephant protection programmes in Southern Africa. 'Buy ivory - save elephants', he suggests, would be a more realistic slogan than 'Only elephants should wear ivory'.

The uncomfortable fact is that elephants are one of the least ecologically minded animals to step off the Ark. 'Elephants spend 16 hours a day eating, and an adult bull consumes 300 pounds of trees and grass and 50 gallons of water every day. They go through an area like a slow tornado, snapping off branches and uprooting trees, leaving devastation behind.'

In Rwanda, elephants were so destructive to the rainforest that the government had to choose between them and the gorillas. It chose the gorillas and in Seventies they shot 106 elephants. Now you can see gorillas in Rwanda, but no elephants.

The other hard fact is that African subsistence farmers are not bunny- huggers. The vast majority have never seen an elephant or a rhinoceros or a lion. Attitude is important here. We call wildlife 'game', dating back to the days when white hunters shot everything that moved for sport. Wildlife in several African languages translates as meat. So what we now regard as a precious heritage to be photographed on exotic safari holidays, Africans regard as lunch. And it is not just a question of preserving wild animals, it is about the future balance between man and nature in Africa.

At the moment the white, Western view prevails, and African lives are cheaper than those of wild animals. But one clear theme emerges from Bonner's book. It is that whatever future there is for the rhinoceros, the elephant and the lion, it will be and must be Africans and not Europeans who decide and carry it out. He points to schemes in Namibia and Zimbabwe where local people are involved in managing the local wildlife - and yes, managing does mean shooting for the pot and killing off some elephants to keep them from destroying their own and everyone else's environment.

In these cases the local populations benefit directly from wildlife tourism. In the case of an experiment in Zimbabwe, Operation Campfire, the locals get a cash share of the takings from the game park gate.

The Myth of Wild Africa (by Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane, Norton, pounds 15.95) draws the same conclusions - though it is worryingly less optimistic about Operation Campfire and similar schemes. The myth its authors attack is the image of wild Africa painted by people such as Karen Blixen and Diane Fossey. They argue that this dream of an Africa teeming with wildlife but devoid of human beings has been one of the most misleading and damaging to the cause of protecting wildlife in Africa.

These are important books, and their message is clear. If you want to preserve wildlife, you have to give local people a reason to look after it.