Good Reads: A family in isolation, Pakistan's difficult present, Africa's biggest game

This week's good reads includes a profile of a Russian family that lived in isolation for 40 years, a young professor's return to Pakistan from the United States after 13 years, and efforts to end big game hunting in Africa.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A lion rests in the grass plains of the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya.

In 1978, a group of Soviet geologists trying to land their helicopter in the taiga (thick wilderness) of remote Siberia saw startling evidence of human life. Soon they found the Lykov family – who had been living in an encampment for more than 40 years with no contact with the outside world.

Mike Dash, writing for, recounts their incredible story and the chance meeting that brought it to light. The Lykovs were Old Believers, a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect that had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great. In 1936, after his brother was shot and killed by a Communist patrol, Karp Lykov took his wife, Akulina, and two young children and fled into the forest.

For 40 years the family eked out a living in the unforgiving Siberian wilderness, “permanently on the edge of famine.” Two more children were born. Akulina died of starvation in 1961 when a June snow destroyed the family’s small crop. The Soviet scientists were astounded to learn that the family had no knowledge of World War II, the moon landing, or any other major development of modern society of the past half century. The two youngest children had never seen a person outside their own family.

But over the next few years, says Mr. Dash, as “the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence.”

The family at first spurned, then gradually accepted most of the modern technology they saw at the scientists’ research camp nearby. When, during this period, three of the Lykovs died, scientists tried to convince Karp and his daughter Agafia to leave the wilderness, but they chose to rebuild their small cabin and stay on.

After Karp died in 1988, Agafia, the youngest child, again refused to leave the life her family had forged – and the only one she has ever known. “A quarter of a century later, now in her seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.”

Pakistan, a forbidden love

For Taymiya Zaman, Pakistan is not Osama bin Laden or blasphemy laws or drone attacks. It is her homeland, a place of rich culture and history, struggling under the weight of change and competing stereotypes. But for many people in the United States, where she is a history professor, Pakistan is a harbor for terrorists or the scene of poor brown children waiting for Western benevolence.

Ms. Zaman’s rich personal essay appears in Tanqeed, an online magazine of politics and culture that focuses on Pakistan. Her essay first ran in the quarterly magazine Critical Muslim.

Tired of the questions and accusations surrounding her nationality, Zaman “builds a wall” around Pakistan. Finally, weary of the disconnect, and against the advice of her colleagues, she returns to Lahore for a sabbatical year. It will be the longest she’s been home since leaving for college 13 years earlier.

She describes the homecoming: “Landing in Karachi is like running into the arms of a lover you’ve been forbidden to see for years.” Once there, however, she gains “the realization that I can’t hide from the things about being here that leave me troubled and edgy.” She is heckled by a bearded student who accuses her of disrespecting Islam. The traffic congestion is overwhelming.

Zaman returns to her teaching position in San Francisco with newfound appreciation for the US and enduring love for her Pakistan. “I know the newspaper images that fuel Pakistan-bashing. I know the minefields of personal sorrow and betrayal that don’t make it to newspapers. I also know a Pakistan beneath these images that is rich with extraordinary possibilities....”

Take photos, not big game, on safari

On Foreign Policy Blogs, Daniel Donovan writes of Botswana’s recent decision to ban big-game trophy hunting by 2014. Zambia followed suit soon after by banning hunting of lions and leopards.

Botswana’s move has inspired both praise and criticism. In spite of short-term setbacks to the hunting industry, Mr. Donovan points to Kenya’s thriving nonhunting safari business as a sign of greater long-term economic gains in banning trophy hunting.

“While hunters and hunting advocates point to large profits being made in hunting of animals in Africa ... the reality is that photographic tourism far outdistances any money made in hunting safaris,” he writes. Big-game hunting in Africa has always held an allure for the rich and famous, but one study in Botswana showed that trophy hunting only represented approximately 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to phototourism, which yields 11 percent. And as Zambia’s tourism minister, Sylvia Masebo, put it: “Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry.”

Donovan concedes that “[c]ritics of the decision argue that it will encourage poaching over the long-term,” which has reached alarming levels in Kenya. But “even countries that encourage trophy hunting are not immune from illegal hunting,” as revelations of poaching violations in South Africa and Tanzania show.

“Ultimately, each country must decide which direction will benefit them both ecologically and economically.”

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