Large predators at the top of protection list for Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson - 27 East

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Large predators at the top of protection list for Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

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author on Aug 10, 2010

Cyril Christo is a poet. His language is laced with metaphor and enriched with allusions to mythology and the miraculous.

He can also sound like a biblical prophet, predicting doom for the planet unless its human inhabitants accept, as their forebears once did, that they share the turf with the animal kingdom, and that by threatening the animals’ survival, they threaten their own.

But Mr. Christo, who is back at his Amagansett home for the summer with his family—his wife and partner in all his projects, Marie Wilkinson, and their son, Lysander—does not have his head in the clouds when it comes to the facts behind his concern. The current focus of that concern is the fate of lions, tigers and polar bears and he can cite statistics that tell a chilling tale of population decline and potential extinction.

“We’re just back from Botswana where we learned that the male population of lions is down to 3,000,” Mr. Christo said in a telephone interview, adding that there has been a 90 percent decline in the total male and female population relative to the count a quarter century ago.

In past years, the Christos have returned for their summer stay in Amagansett after travels to Africa to seek out that continent’s surviving pastoral peoples and, more recently, to document the plight of the African elephant. From these forays into the wild, they have come back with extraordinary photographs as well as powerful insights into the cultures characterized by a mutual respect between man and wildlife.

These they have distilled into two portfolio-format art books that use images and essays to make the urgent case for a renewed recognition of the crucial role wild animals play on the planet and to warn of the tragic consequences that would follow their loss. “Lost Africa: The Eyes of Origin,” published in 2004, is their tribute to Africa’s surviving pastoral groups and, in Mr. Christo’s words, “a prayer for their continuity.” The couple’s next book, “Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of Giants,” was another warning, albeit an alarm expressed in stunning images and lyrical language.

It celebrates the bond between the hunter-gatherers of Africa and the elephant and decries the rupture of that bond as the encroachments of the modern world threaten the existence of both.

The book this time is titled “In Predatory Light” and its subjects, lions, tigers and polar bears, are “the three largest predators on the planet,” Mr. Christo asserted, or rather, he added, remembering the aquatic variety, the three largest terrestrial predators.

“We have been working on this project for about two years,” said Ms. Wilkinson, joining the conversation. When an article by two well-known Botswana-based wildlife experts appeared recently in the mainstream magazine Town & Country, with dire news about the endangered predators, it was a spur to action, she said.

“What seeing that piece by Derrick and Beverly Joubert did,” she explained, “was to verify the importance and the urgency of getting the news out from as many sources as possible.”

“I like to think of the predator as part of our literature,” said Mr. Christo, “to focus on what is part of our subconscious minds.”

Today’s error, in his view, is that people too often think of animals in a negative way, a mindset reflected in the pejorative, “beastly.” In many places, he said, “the lion is honored. The Bushmen say they should be respected, loved and honored.”

Ms. Wilkinson clearly agrees when her husband calls the lion, the tiger and the polar bear “totemic” and points to the huge role they play in man’s imagination from earliest childhood.

“Tigers, lions and polar bears are universally iconic, archetypal, the symbol of kings, of mythic power,” she said. “Their stealth, their godlike ability to appear from nowhere and disappear lends them a mythic quality, and all three are threatened.”

But Ms. Wilkinson is a self-described “organized thinker” and she also speaks in a more practical vein of the complex interactions in nature between prey and predator and predicts that the decimation of these major players in that complicated relationship could have consequences that “we cannot even imagine.”

“In the wild kingdom,” said Ms. Wilkinson, “it is the sick, the old and the very young that are taken out.” The healthy adult population is thus largely spared.

She contrasts that harsh but species-sustaining reality with the threats the deer population faces in modern society. The automobile, which does not necessarily take out the most vulnerable, and a short hunting season do nothing to promote the survival of the most robust among the deer. And this, said Ms. Wilkinson, “skews the ecosystem incredibly.”

“There are 3,000 tigers in all of the world,” said Mr. Christo, moving on to the second of the three threatened predators. He stressed the irony of the Chinese proclaiming this the Year of the Tiger even as the plundering continues—all to satisfy a market for bones and skins. Here, too, he cites dismal numbers: the South China tiger is considered extinct in the wild; the Javan tiger is also extinct; there are 1,000 at most in Indo-China; 1,500 in India; 450 in Siberia; 800 at most in Malaysia.

For lions and tigers, human encroachment and poaching pose the greatest existential threats, according to Ms. Wilkinson. Climate change will affect them sooner or later, but the polar bear, as most are aware, is facing its consequences right now. In light of the polar bear’s real and immediate peril, Mr. Christo is incensed that Canada still permits polar bears to be killed—the only country that does,

“For $40,000 you can still hunt the polar bear in Canada,” he observed angrily. “It should be criminal.”

There was a time, he maintained, when “we understood that if you shoot something for the fun of it, you should be punished.”

Now, “in the day of the iPod,” respect for the animals that share our planet has been lost, he believes, though perhaps not irretrievably.

That respect must be regained and “our connection with our roots must be reestablished,” Mr. Christo exhorts, or we will all—humans and animals alike—suffer the consequences.

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