Among necessary giants: why we can’t afford to lose the elephant

single bull
Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson, authors of Walking Thunder, explain why the survival of the elephant is critical for our own future

‘He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down,’ wrote Melville in Moby Dick. What percentage of Europe and America’s wealth has been drawn from the bodies of whales? What are we to make of a species – ours - supposedly sapient, supposedly sentient, that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of whales in the cause of lighting our cities, corsets and lubricating intercontinental ballistic missiles as the Russian did in the 1970s. That was surely the apex of our madness? Sadly it wasn’t.

In the 1980s, over 600,000 elephants - more than half the total African pachyderm population - were destroyed for the hanko stamps so sought after by the Japanese. At the height of the slaughter, 70,000 a year were being killed. Kenya burned tons of confiscated ivory in 1989 in a gesture of defiance to the rest of the world. The message? The slaughter of the innocents and the ivory trade has to stop. The killing of whales and elephants constitute the twin arms of the crucifix of the greatest non- human genocide of our time. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, even remarked that to save the elephant ‘is an urgent moral imperative’ and that this might well be our last chance to save them - and ourselves - from oblivion. If we lose the elephant, many other species will unravel, including ours.

Today thanks to the Chinese bloodlust for ivory trinkets and statuettes, and the demands of the Asian market, elephants are being decimated again. If this continues the world will see most of its elephant herds gone within 15 years. Civilisation may never be the same and the culture of elephants will be gone forever. Human children, raised on the stories of Dumbo and Babar, will never recover.

‘There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is wisdom,’ continues Melville. But what wisdom will we reap when that species with whom we walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago becomes a vestige of their former self? Can humans contemplate such a time? Can we ecologically and spiritually afford such a loss? For the Hindus, the elephant is one of the pillars that upheld the world. The elephant is a deity and as such they know as modern scientists have only recently learned that elephants understand who they are. Elephants pass the mirror and self-recognition test and are increasingly intolerant of our kind. Lately they have come into conflict with humans in both Asia and Africa. Images of elephants rampaging through the streets of Mysore and tackling cars illustrates how much wild elephants are being challenged for territory, and the extent that their migration paths have been cut. The stress inflicted on elephants is altering an ancient culture, as was made convincingly clear in Gay Bradshaw’s article in the NY Times Sunday Magazine in October 2006 entitled: ‘Are We Driving Elephants Crazy?’

There is the ecological element to this story. The African forest elephant fertilises the Congo rainforest – the second largest (after the Amazon) on earth. Then there is the mythical component of a fellow being who has influenced our history, evolution and our very survival for millennia like no other creature has: we walked out of Africa following ages-old elephant migration paths. But there is also the spiritual element, one that we were privy to thanks to the Samburu of Kenya whose tales are akin to the miraculous, stories that reconfirm our species on the level of mind and heart.

The Samburu have fire and tick among their clans but their greatest clan is that belonging to the elephant for they have walked alongside elephants ever since they migrated to Kenya from the Sudan hundreds of years ago. In one account, told to us in 2007 by Samburu elder Pacquo Lesorogol, Lesematia, a Samburu, was conscripted by the British army to fight in the Ethiopian campaign during WWII, where he lost a leg. Many years later, he was on his crutches, walking towards his uncle’s house at dusk. Two male lions appeared on either side of him, sensing he was easy prey. There was nothing Lesematia could do but pray and meditate on his brother, the elephant. Within a few minutes three bull elephants came out of the bush and placed themselves around Lesematia, keeping the lions at bay for the whole night. The next morning the lions gave up and disappeared back into the bush. The elephants had saved Lesematia’s life. We inhabitants of the modern world can easily dismiss such stories as legends, as just so stories, but what do we really know of life and what connects us to the other? What inextricable resonance weaves us into the fabric of life on earth?

Recently, researching elephant stories in Kenya, we came upon a story that reconfirmed the extraordinary bond humans have with the elephant. It was told to us by a Maasai tribesman living near Mount Kilimanjaro. The story goes that a pregnant Maasai woman was walking to her clinic at three in the morning when an elephant came out of nowhere and startled her and her husband. The woman was left behind as the husband rushed to the village to get help thinking his wife had been killed. Upon his return, he found his wife flat on the ground and upon approaching her, heard his son crying. The elephant moved on and the man found that his wife was alive and well. The elephant had stayed with her during her labour and built a three-foot tall acacia thorn fence around her to protect her from hyenas. The elephant had assisted in her delivery. What interspecies language was evinced by that exchange goes back to the roots of our species and to the roots of humanity as it moved out of Africa. We have heard stories among the Ndorobo, the hunter-gatherers of Kenya that in times of drought elephants helped humans to find water and that humans helped elephants by finding honey for them. In this time of ecological constraints, the native peoples of Africa hold secrets to a web of relationships that modern society has forgotten and largely eliminated in the rush for globalisation and mechanisation. This interspecies communication was the fabric of who we have been and is still the hallmark of much of what is best in the world. If we sever our roots, our origins, we sever the connective tissue to life. Future worlds will not resemble this one and the dreams of childhood will place elephants alongside the dinosaurs on the irretrievable mantelpiece of loss.

Science does not recognise karma, that response from the will of time when the natural order is upset. We are living in a time when humanity can decide to spare itself the ignominy of imposing a life sentence on one of the supreme marvels of the world, the elephant. A moratorium needs to be sounded across diplomatic channels that the elephant could be entering its last phase. ‘From hell’s heart’ we have stabbed at the whale’s and now the elephant’s heart, wrote Melville. But we also stab at our own soul. We in the modern world have seen the elephant as a commodity. It continues to be talked about in terms of tons of ivory and dollars per pound of tusk, neglecting the fact that each elephant is an individual who mourns, who remembers and who is capable of altruism like very few other species are. In the elephant’s eyes blaze an enormity of compassion and sentience we must place alongside us as a peer, as a mentor, perhaps superior. If in 50 years, 100 years time elephants still roam, we will have cause to wonder. Nature will not have been completely overwhelmed. For that is what modern civilisation has done: overwhelmed the world. The elephant stands as a bastion to wonder. The elephant forces us to spiritually stop in our tracks. The word ‘pil’ (elephant) is the root of the verb ‘to wonder’ in Hebrew. Perhaps there is time left to sacrifice our bloodlust for the sake of elephants and their children and for the sake of ours. Perhaps there is still yet time to alter our ways.

I am reminded of the story of the last Javan tiger to disappear in the 1970s. Within weeks of its disappearance, two members of the royal family died, hundreds of acres of forest went up in flames and a plane load of pilgrims from Jakarta to Mecca crashed. Many attribute these accidents to the loss of the last Javan tiger. All eyes should be focused on Asia. All voices should try to redirect the Chinese penchant for ivory and ask that they spare the elephant for future generations. The fate of future generations rests upon us. The freedom of what it means to be alive will partly be answered by the future of the elephant or as Romain Gary, the visionary French writer wrote in 1956, ‘Whoever has seen these giants on the march across the last great free spaces of the world knows that this is something that must not be lost.’

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson have been working together as a husband and wife team since 1997, when they began investigating and documenting the relationship between the indigenous human and natural world on five continents.  Their concerns about climate change, globalisation and the future of life on earth originated in the late 1990s, as they witnessed drought, fire and floods around the world. Their first book of photography in black and white - Lost Africa: The Eyes of Origin (Assouline, Paris, NewYork 2004) explores the ecological and man-made challenges facing tribes from Ethiopia to Namibia.  Their second book, Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of the African Elephant (Merrell, London 2009) is a testament to the African elephant. Now, with their son Lysander, who has been with them on trips to Africa, India and the Arctic, Cyril and Marie are working on a dedication to three endangered bioregions - the Arctic, the African savannah and the forests of India, called In Predatory Light.

Their work can be seen at

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