Still grieving over the tragic death of her fiancé, American wildlife biologist Catherine Sohon leaves South Africa and drives to a remote outpost in northeast Namibia, where she plans to face off against the shadowy forces of corruption and relentless human greed in the fight against elephant poaching. Undercover as a census pilot tracking the local elephant population, she’ll really be collecting evidence on the ruthless ivory traffickers.
But before she even reaches her destination, Catherine stumbles onto a scene of horrifying carnage: three people shot dead in their car, and a fourth nearby—with his brain removed. The slaughter appears to be the handiwork of a Zambian smuggler known as “the witchdoctor,” a figure reviled by activists and poachers alike. Forced to play nice with local officials, Catherine finds herself drawn to the prickly but charismatic Jon Baggs, head of the Ministry of Conservation, whose blustery exterior belies his deep investment in the poaching wars.
Torn between her developing feelings and her unofficial investigation, she takes to the air, only to be grounded by a vicious turf war between competing factions of a black-market operation that reaches far beyond the borders of Africa. With the mortality rate—both human and animal—skyrocketing, Catherine races to intercept a valuable shipment. Now she’s flying blind, and a cunning killer is on the move.
When I started to read Ivory Ghosts by Caitlyn O'Connell, my mind flew back over the years to 'see' Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the Mist", a movie about Dian Fossey and her work with the Mountain Gorillas. Thank goodness Catherine's story did not end the way Dian's did, although it was not for lack of trying on the part of Catherine's detractors.
Catherine's official mission was to fly an airplane for organizations taking a census of the elephant population of the area. Her *ahem* 'unofficial' mission was to look into slaughter of elephants and the following trade in illegally-obtained ivory. So she has a statistically significant portion of the local population worried about, if not downright hostile to, her presence. There are the native Africans, who were probably tired of 'white folks' coming in to 'fix' them and their communities. There were the criminals who apparently had no compunction about killing people (or animals) who had what they wanted or who got in their way.
There are some gruesome descriptions. But then, the slaughter of innocent animals for sport or to feed 'humanity's' (slather some irony on that one and get yourself a big paper towel to catch the dripping sarcasm) greed is a gruesome business.
It's hard for Catherine to know whom to trust in her world, the same it is for the readers. A precious few characters were what they appeared to be behind their public faces. That is a difficult situation in our otherwise most comfortable environments, let alone far from home, modern resources and family and friends. I would definitely want Catherine on my team during a fight!
There is a nice bit of romantic tension between Catherine and Jon. It goes beyond hand-holding, but stays this side of sappy or pornographic, which was a welcome relief. I guess what I mean to say is that the 'relationship' strengthens the story, rather than detracting from it or replacing it.
For me, the most grabbing part of Ivory Ghosts was when Catherine and a few of her associates stood guard with members of the local tribe to prevent elephants from coming into their fields and eating all the food the group had planted. The idea was just to chase or frighten the elephants away. But just recently, one of the tribesmen had been trampled and killed. In order to protect herself and prevent an elephant ,who has had his fill of poachers up to 'here', from killing some of the others standing guard, Catherine has to shoot the pachyderm. I cannot imagine how hard that would be on her. These passages were nothing short of riveting!
I love books that bring a cause or other interest into a work of fiction. It makes it easier on those of us outside of that particular bubble able to understand a little more of the culture. Ivory Ghosts is a stunningly good example of just such a book - in what I will call the 'cause fiction' genre.
If you read the interview with Caitlyn O'Connell which I posted yesterday, you learned that this is not the last we will hear of Catherine. I don't know how they cheer in Namibia, but here in Kentucky, I say a resounding, "HUZZAH," to that little gem!
A world-renowned expert on elephants, Caitlin O’Connell holds a Ph.D. in ecology and is a faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as director of life sciences for HNu Photonics. She is the author five nonfiction books about elephants, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense, An Elephant’s Life, A Baby Elephant in the Wild, and Elephant Don, and co-author of the award-winning The Elephant Scientist. She is the co-founder and CEO of Utopia Scientific, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and science education, and the co-founder of Triple Helix Productions, a global media forum with a mandate to develop more accurate and entertaining science content for the media. When not in the field with elephants, O’Connell divides her time between San Diego, California, and Maui, Hawaii, with her husband, Tim Rodwell, and their dog, Frodo.
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(Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher via NetGalley and TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)