Whoever has seen these giants marching across the last free open spaces of the world knows that this is something that must not be lost.
Romain Gary, The Roots of Heaven
Several years ago, Marie and I began to mourn the tragic dismembering of elephant society across Africa, an act that caused us to cry for the future of the greatest land mammal on earth. As we heard about the rising tide of deaths, elephants wept and mourned for their kind. Elephant society and culture were and continue to be shattered. It was the beginning of the second phase of destruction in contemporary history, the first beginning in the 1980s when 600,000 were annihilated to feed the world's greed for ivory souvenirs. In 2011 alone, 30,000 elephants were mutilated for trinkets to be sold in the Asian market. The great heart of Africa was being laid waste, not for billiard balls and piano keys as Stanley once wrote, but for toothpicks and statuettes across Asia, with China the main culprit. In 2009, in response to the suffering these great animals were experiencing, we published Walking Thunder – In the Footsteps of the African Elephant by Merrell London, prefaced by the remarkable Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose compassion for the elephants of Kenya and its orphans is a testament to the best of the human species.
We approached many magazine and news outlets to write about the resurgent poaching issue in 2009 and 2010, but it was Vanity Fair that finally understood the enormous implications of what was occurring across the continent. It took five months of talks, but they finally said they would cover it. In November 2010, they sent the gifted Alex Shoumatoff, who covered the death of Diane Fossey, to Africa to write Agony and Ivory, one of the most scorching and all-encompassing articles on a single species in the history of journalism. In it, Alex mentions the stirrings of an extinction vortex that, like a modern-day Scylla and Carybdis, was swallowing the last great herds of Africa. The article went viral and galvanized the world. National Geographic followed 14 months later with their heart-wrenching cover story Blood Ivory by Bryan Christy, which further galvanized the planet to a reality that has now plunged a stake in the conscience of the world, the slaughter of the innocents. The searing image of a rotting body was a wake-up call to the world that this action and thousands like it hold a mirror to humanity at its most depraved and barbaric. A plethora of other articles and campaigns have since arisen around the world. The planet is now firmly entrenched in Battle for the Elephants, the documentary shown nationally in February and directed by John Heminway. What few realize is that the battle for the elephant is also a battle for the human soul. We walked out of Africa alongside elephants, they helped us find water in times of drought, and their bodies have fed us for countless millennia. We are indebted to the elephant as we are to few, perhaps no, other species in our evolution.
The upcoming International March for Elephants will be held October 4, 2013, across three continents and 13 cities – from London to Rome, from Cape Town to New York, from Nairobi to Toronto, from DC to San Francisco, from Bangkok to Los Angeles, from Paris to Melbourne – and is inspired by the David Sheldrick (husband of Dame Daphne Sheldrick) Wildlife Trust. It is an October revolution for the life force of Earth. It is the first global march for another species in the history of humankind. This global tide of reckoning is a planetary wake-up call for the biosphere. If we cannot save the elephant, what on earth can we save? As The Guardian recognized, animal extinction is the greatest threat to humanity. Last year, John Kerry convened an Ivory and Insecurity meeting in Washington, D.C., addressing the larger ramifications of the ivory trade and its links to terrorism. A few days ago, Hillary Clinton made saving the elephants her new cause. President Obama recently met with the president of Tanzania to discuss the illicit wildlife trade, poaching, and the future of the elephant, and promised $10 million to stop wildlife trafficking, one of the biggest industries in the world. Increased vigilance and anti-poaching units are now responding, but something intangible must also occur in the hearts of those who buy ivory. With a critical mass of conscience on the upsurge, the upcoming march is a plea for sanity, a prayer for continuity, for I believe that when the tide is reversed and the ivory trade is finally eradicated, we will have landed on a new planet and humanity will have taken a step back from its own oblivion. If we do not reverse course, the loss of the elephant will have played a critical role in the fall of the human empire. There will be no turning back.
There are the realities of climate change too titanic to ignore, but the willful eradication of a part of our psyche that sits enthroned like a monument in the mind and soul of humanity cannot be ignored. It was Romain Gary who understood that the elephants were the last individuals. In his masterpiece The Roots of Heaven, he imagined prisoners in concentration camps closing their eyes and thinking of the elephants marching freely in the last open spaces of the world. He imagined them tearing down the barbed wire fences, reinforced concrete, and abject materialism of the camps and stepping over the SS soldiers. For make no mistake, if we were to lose the elephants, the ramifications would be a penal colony on our planet, not just for humanity but for the entire life force. It is why Elie Wiesel told us that to save the elephant "is an urgent moral imperative." The March for the Elephants is also a march for the sea and the rainforests and the frogs and the lions and tigers and bears. It is a march for what makes life ineffable. This was summarized by a ranger in Tsavo who worked for the orphaned elephants Dame Daphne has worked so tirelessly to rehabilitate. He had lost his grandfather to an elephant years ago and yet was not vindictive. He realized it was an accident and that elephants are losing ancient ancestral migration paths and habitat. In his wonderfully stark, elegant face and camouflage fatigues he turned to us and said, "A world without elephants is like a world without oxygen."
The upcoming march is a march for sanity. As one Samburu elder once told us, without the elephants and the whales and the other beings of earth, we will lose our minds. If much stiffer penalties, greatly increased jail time and fines for poachers are not enough to reverse course, then consider the curse many tribal people believe is cast on those who kill elephants. They say it is not just another animal, but they are the mind of nature. What we are beholden to is our place on earth before the cybernetic stare overwhelms the biology and life support system of the planet. As some of the largest consumers of ivory, the Chinese must do everything they can to marshal a transformation in the heart of their people for the rhino and elephant, for Chinese children, too, will want to know that these ineffable beings still exist 100 years from now and beyond. The realization that the panda is irreplaceable must now be extended to Africa's megafauna. In doing so, China and Asia will save face and avoid enormous shame for the remainder of their history. Henry David Thoreau, in his prophetic voice, understood the slaughter of the whales for oil and also the killers of elephants for ivory. He imagined a greater race than ours making buttons and flageolets out of our bones The elephant is one of the greatest ballasts we have on terrestrial ground – ecologically, spiritually, morally and even karmically. Lose the elephant and we execute wonder, for as we learned in Africa, the word pil, elephant in Hebrew, is the root of the verb to wonder.
"On an entirely manmade earth, there can be no room for man either," wrote Romain Gary. "All that will be left of us are robots."
Already there are stirrings of a realization in the Orient, stirrings in the minds and hearts, that elephants have to be killed to retrieve their tusks, that tusks do not fall out like milk teeth! How they do not realize the truth is one of the great mysteries of the human condition and illumines the great cultural gap between East and West. Perhaps they are willfully ignorant and choose to ignore the diabolical realities. But there is evidence that with the media campaigns and billboards through International Fund for Animal Welfare, WildAid and other agencies, the Chinese may be finally coming to grips with the grotesque idea that elephants have to have their faces sawed off to get at their teeth. Compared to just a year ago, many more are saying that they don't want to buy ivory. Maybe the campaigns are starting to impact the great civilization of Lao Tze. The great dijjaga tusker in India who was out of control bowed before the stalwart heart and mind of the Buddha. It is a lesson we should learn before it is too late.
Lose the elephant and you lose a firmament in the imagination of childhood. Lose the elephant and an entire foundation in the moral standing of civilization crumbles. All our human constructs and artifacts would pale before the loss of these titans. With the last elephants still marching on African soil, we may still have reason to walk toward the absolute horizon. The march this October is not only to salvage the elephant, but to salvage what is left of humanity's humanity. It is a march for sanity. Without the elephants, we become ontological cripples for the rest of our earthly stay. The elephant's future is our fate and responsibility. Without elephants we won't have a leg to stand on. Civilization will stand or fall on the back of the African elephant.
All images are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All photos are courtesy of Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.