A journey through Equatorial Africa to study the fate of elephants and other wildlife produces a somber chronicle of irrevocable loss, relieved only by noted naturalist and novelist Matthiessen's lucid prose and concluding intimations of some redress. Matthiessen, a frequent traveler to Africa, began his investigation with a visit in the late 1970's to Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast, where the encroaching Sahel, unbridled hunting, and burgeoning populations had almost destroyed the elephant and wildlife population as well as the indigenous forest. As Matthiessen accompanied naturalists through the few preserves, often run-down and small, it became clear that the situation was even more grave than anticipated--``the animals are so scarce that they have no reality in daily life.'' It was a loss that went beyond conventional needs for preservation, for these animals have been the traditional totems and protectors of the clans. In 1986, Matthiessen returned to study the forest elephants of Gabon and Zaire, an area where ``a great silence'' descended after the depredations of the slave trade ended, allowing elephants to increase. But more recently, local wars and the enormous demand for ivory have ended this growth. In these equivalents of the Amazon rain forest, Matthiessen and his companions met pygmies, observed gorillas, and established that there are indeed two distinct kinds of elephants: forest and savannah, with a large intermediary hybrid group that wanders between the forest and grassland. The recent ban on ivory offers some hope of preserving the elephant, a species that, excepting fire and man, has ``more impact on habitat than any force in Africa.'' There are the usual incidents and frustrating run-ins with local bureaucrats, but Matthiessen offers much more: a moving and never-sentimental evocation of loss to both man and beast, infused with sympathy and realism. Vintage Matthiessen.