GAME WARS: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers By Marc Reisner (Secker & Warburg, $170) THE poacher in fiction is often a romantic figure exercising the primeval right of the common man to hunt for food. In the past his enemies were the gamekeepers of the rich; today they are the wardens of the state. Marc Reisner's Game Wars is the true story of US undercover federal agent Dave Hall, Louisiana game warden extraordinaire. It seems the indiscriminate slaughter of wild animals had gone on in Louisiana for generations. Mr Hall's first assignment, which started in 1966 and lasted several years, was to save the American alligator from possible extinction. It is a fascinating story written in an easy-going style which is a rich mixture of Mark Twain, Damon Runyon and Tom Wolfe. And aided by A.J. Caro, a Cajun ex-poacher from Lake Arthur, Mr Hall managed to break the big gangs of alligator poachers. The tale is full of colourful villains. ''In Dave Hall's pantheon of criminals, there are bad dudes, bad-assed dudes, outlaws, raggedy-assed outlaws, gangsters, no-goods, scumbags, low-lifes, dirtbags, dirtballs, hoodlums, gypo hoodlums and bikers.'' There is also Boyd Abrams, a mountain man who was indescribably filthy. ''If you threw a handful of millet seed on Boyd, it germinates instantly.'' The second case here took place in 1980 and concerned the poaching of walrus ivory in Alaska. The ponderous, grotesque beasts were being slaughtered by the thousand every year. So Mr Hall used a New Orleans shop called ''Endangered Species'' as a front and recruited its owner, Vaughn Doak, as a special agent. Mr Doak's chequered career added to his credibility as an illegal ivory dealer. He had once owned a topless bar called ''The Ore House''. Together Mr Hall and Mr Doak flew up to Alaska on a buying spree. They bought tonnes of ivory from Sealskin Charlie and sea otter skins from a murderous ex-Hells Angels biker called Jerry Kingery, who kept a skull of his ex-girlfriend on his desk as a conversation piece. Sealskin Charlie eventually went to jail but Mr Kingery did not. And unlike alligator poaching, walrus hunting still takes place on a large scale in Alaska. The tusks are traded with the Eskimos for drugs. In 1986, Mr Hall took on a case which involved smashing the Larto Lake Gang who specialised in poaching white perch, or crappie. The Cajuns call it sacalati - ''bag of milk'' - because of its sweet white flesh. When commercial sacalati fishing was banned the old fishing families turned to poaching. For 40 years they got away with it because poachers, law enforcement officers and judges were kin. Mr Reisner was fortunate enough to be able to be in on the investigation from beginning to end eventually witnessing the arrest of arch-poacher Beatle Book. As a true-life detective story Game Wars is a fascinating book. It is also a chilling tale of the massacre of wildlife in North America, many of which, like the beaver and alligator, were slaughtered to satisfy the whims of fashion. Often, like the greatauk, they have become extinct. The methods of Mr Hall and his agents are unorthodox to say the least. ''The moral equivalent of the Gestapo,'' complained Sealskin Charlie. But statements like ''No one left me no buffalo, so I ain't gonna leave anyone no ducks'' tend to tarnish the modern poacher's Robin Hood image. In the age of the environmentalist, Mr Hall is the good guy.