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St. Louis-based author Ridley Pearson takes a stand against poaching in Africa with ‘White Bone’

St. Louis-based author Ridley Pearson.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis-based author Ridley Pearson.

St. Louis-based author Ridley Pearson has written over 50 suspense and adventure novels but his latest, “White Bone,” is tackling an issue that is close to him: illegal wildlife poaching in Africa.

The book features familiar characters, John Knox and Grace Chu of Pearson’s “Risk Agent” series, but this time their professional relationship becomes a bit more personal.

“It sounds so snobby to say ‘the characters write your book,’ but in so many ways the characters write your book,” Pearson said. “Especially Grace Chu, I’ve become incredibly fond of and have felt her appreciation of Knox go a bit beyond the professional, although she has never voiced it. In ‘White Bone,’ I was looking for a vehicle to bring them close together by pushing them apart.”

Ridley Pearson's newest novel takes on illegal wildlife poaching.
Ridley Pearson's newest novel takes on illegal wildlife poaching.

The premise of the book is this: Chu contacts Knox warning that her cover may have been exposed in Kenya while on assignment. Knox must retrace her steps while navigating the world of illegal poaching and the underground AIDS vaccine trade.

In writing the novel, Pearson felt it important to go to Kenya to get a grasp of what’s going on in the world of illegal wildlife poaching. He spent three weeks in the country and interviewed 25 people about the issue. One of the interviews that most influenced his book was with Ole, a guide at the Solio Lodge, north of Nairobi.

“I told Ole that I am an Eagle Scout and I’ve done an awful lot of backpacking and hiking and backcountry survivalist work and how would I hold up in the African bush? He said very politely, ‘I’m sorry sir, but you wouldn’t make it a night,’ and I said ‘no really, I’ve done a lot of this work,’ and he said ‘no, you wouldn’t make it a night.’ I said ‘well, I need to make it in my novel four to five days as a white person who knows nothing about your culture: educate me.’”

They spent the next few days going over survival skills in the wilderness.

“Everything you read in the book is something Ole taught me,” Pearson said.

Pearson said his other interviews shocked him because people were rarely honest with him about the wildlife poaching trade.

“I should be less gullible than I am because I have interviewed police and government people for the past 30 years now,” Pearson said. “I met with our State Department a few times, many conservationists … and it just turns out that everyone has a degree of skin in the game that they’re unwilling to be honest about it.”

Pearson said he was drawn to write the book featuring this issue when he heard his grandchildren wouldn’t see an elephant in the wild in Africa. There were 1.3 million in 1979, after all.

“I thought: that’s can’t be. Sure enough, there are fewer than 400,000 left. We’re losing 30,000 a year. Do the math. We have eight, nine years.”

Pearson will donate 20 percent of the royalties from this book to U.S. photographer Nick Brandt’s Big Life Foundation, which employs Maasai rangers to protect 2 million acres of wilderness in East Africa.

Listen to the rest of Pearson’s interview with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh here:

Pearson will give a talk about the book on Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1630 S. Lindbergh, St. Louis, Mo., 63131. More information here

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.