Research, Research, Research – by Elizabeth Kay


 The first time I actively set out to research something was when I was writing a play about an escaped tiger, for Radio 4’s Afternoon Theatre. Up until then I’d written about what I knew, but when you’re in your twenties you run out of stuff pretty quickly unless you live in a small village filled with single men in possession of a good fortune who must be in want of a wife.

All I knew about tigers was what I’d read in books, principally Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon. In those days Chessington World of Adventures was Chessington Zoo, and they had tigers, so I rang up and asked if I could talk to the tiger keeper. I think I expected an animal lover who was both entranced and obsessed with his charges, so the first question I asked was, “How long have you worked with tigers?”

The answer was rather unexpected – “Too long.” He regarded tigers as the most dangerous of all animals in the zoo, and was looking for another job. He seemed to think he was living on borrowed time.

That particular tiger research turned up all sorts of unexpected facts, and made me aware that conversations with people at the sharp end beats books, tv programmes and the internet every time. Current guidelines are as follows: Fencing for tiger enclosures must be strong enough to withstand the weight of the cats climbing on it or jumping against it, and the mesh size used must be small enough to prevent the animals becoming entangled. Fence height must be at least 3.5m with an inwards overhang of 1m at 45° to prevent the cats from jumping out. Enclosure height should not be lower than this. I do find this slightly worrying, as tigers can jump 3.65m. Maybe the inward-facing overhang is a factor? Keeper deaths are usually due to human error, when safety doors have been left open, as in the case of Rosa King in 2017. 

Many years ago I was illustrating a wildlife book for Random House; they were scrupulous about getting their facts right, and sent me lots of material. The most surprising information was about swordfish, from the data they requested from the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton.

I wonder how many of you think a swordfish is a bit like a tuna, or a marlin, or a sailfish? Dark grey at the top, and silver to white underneath. They’re not. They’re more of a coppery colour – darker along the spine, paler below. The reason so many illustrations are actually incorrect is that the first pictures were in black and white, and these simply got copied. Although the outline of the fish was correct, the colouring was not. And the moral of that is – check your facts, and don’t take what other people say for granted.

Of course, I’ve done things the other way round too. Used places I know and people I’ve met retrospectively. Lost in the Desert used an incident with a Mongolian girl to trigger the plot.

She was the feistiest 11-year-old I have ever met. A superb horsewomen, who was herding goats along with the men who were dealing with the horses and cattle. When she realised a group of foreigners were watching them all at a waterhole, she galloped off and returned a few minutes later, offering us handfuls of curds as a welcome. Hunted used my encounters with elephants in Kenya and Zambia, as it was about ivory poaching.

Which rather neatly brings me to the reason I have just got back from Namibia.

I have been writing a book which touches on the poaching of rhinos. Rhino horn, which is actually matted hair, is regarded as an aphrodisiac in China and Vietnam, as well as a cure for all sorts of diseases. Ounce for ounce, rhino horns are worth more than gold, diamonds or cocaine and have become a status symbol amongst wealthy men.

Along with pangolin scales, also believed to effect miraculous cures, it is just about the most stupid and damaging wildlife misconception out there. I was fortunate enough to meet someone who had served in an anti-poaching capacity for ten months until he couldn’t take it any more. What he told me was horrific, and the corruption involved throughout Africa was beyond belief. And I thought I had a strong stomach, and was unshockable. Much of what he told me was off the record, as he values his own life too much to name names and risk it further. What he did say, which really surprised me, was that the way to end rhino poaching was to legalise the trade in rhino horn. De-horning has been a policy in many African countries. But rhino horns grow again, and it can take only three years for the entire horn to grow back.

Anaesthetising the animals to perform the operation is very expensive, as it involves drones and helicopters and specially trained wardens. The horns that have been harvested are stored in a vault, but the location is a closely guarded secret, and no one seems to know whether any of the contents of the vault have been plundered. The idea is to flood the market with the contents of these vaults; the price of rhino horn goes through the floor, and it is no longer a lucrative prospect for the criminal organisations who run the operation. Whether this would work I have no idea. A shoot-to-kill policy against poachers has been adopted by several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but this only targets the people doing the actual poaching. They are usually poor tribesmen, who suddenly see an opportunity to feed and educate their families. It does nothing to catch those above them – the middlemen who bribe the customs officials to export the horns, and the wealthy who actually buy them.

            I learned so very much this August, but proper research often has an unwelcome effect. I now realise that my book needs to be completely re-written, so don’t hold your breath for the result!


Peter Leyland said…
Great Elizabeth. I love reading about the importance of research and the fact that it has caused you to rewrite your book shows its value. Much research is ignored by those in positions of power and therefore it often feels wasted as I know from the amounts I have done. I think that your conversations with the person serving in an anti-poaching capacity must have been the determining factor in what you discovered to enable you to write a book that you and your readers will feel happy with when it's ready. Thanks for the post.

Umberto Tosi said…
Loved your post - better than an episode of Animal Planet. I recommended it to one of my daughters who is a school teacher here in America, as an incentive for young students to learn the metric system. You never know when you might be near a tiger, kids, Being able to convert the beast's 3.5-meter leap range to a more familiar, rough 12 feet might save your American hide. In a similar vein, when called by a panther, don't anther, as Ogden Nash put it. Good luck with your rewrite. It looks promising already what with that fascinating research. I love the idea of that tiger keeper who feels like he's living on borrowed time. Great metaphor. Grist for a short story there...

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