For more than a decade, Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson have been waging an uphill battle against what they see as an increasingly narcissistic culture—one in which the wonders of the natural world inspire no awe and the wanton destruction of wildlife provokes no outrage.
Their weapons of choice have been both visual and verbal: stunning black and white photographs, notably those taken in remote areas of East Africa, paired with poetically powerful language in essays that celebrate the mysteries and myths of pastoral life and the animal kingdom, and warn of a desolate future without them.
In 2004, Editions Assouline published their “Lost Africa: The Eyes of Origin,” a large-format book with photographs and accompanying essay that illuminates the lives of pastoral groups whose members have long shared a harsh, if starkly beautiful, environment with Africa’s once abundant wildlife. Now they have a new book coming out this September from Merrell Press, “Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of the African Elephant,” while another work by the well-known leader in wildlife conservation Gay Bradshaw, “Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Have To Teach Us About Humanity,” recently published by Yale University Press, features Mr. Christo’s photographs.
“Walking Thunder” is again a large-format work of art in which the authors use poetry, polemic and pure visual artistry to make the urgent case against the forces of greed, vanity and willful ignorance that threaten the elephant—and perhaps mankind as well—with extinction.
“This book is a manifesto,” declared Cyril Christo in a recent interview when he and his wife and collaborator Marie Wilkinson, summer residents of Amagansett, discussed the book and their hopes for it. A manifesto, Mr. Christo continued, “that presents itself more as a poem.”
Certainly, as a call to action, it is deeply felt and its lyrical eloquence in celebrating the elephant’s mythical and physical powers is undeniable. But Mr. Christo stresses that he and Ms. Wilkinson have approached their subject from both “a native and western perspective” and argues that their sense of urgency, as well as their empathy for this animal that shares so many qualities with humans, is “grounded in science.”
That scientific perspective is evident in their choice of Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose work in raising and reintegrating orphaned elephants has brought her world renown, to write the book’s prologue.
Dame Sheldrick’s orphanage in Kenya has rehabilitated some 80 elephants to date, according to Mr. Christo, who noted that she and Ms. Bradshaw, whose studies of animal psychology and trauma have been providing evidence of the elephant’s high level of awareness and emotional sensitivity, are at the forefront of a dedicated cadre of conservationists fighting for the salvation of the elephant.
But salvation, warn the authors, is by no means assured.
In fact, said Mr. Christo, “The dice are loaded against it.”
That has largely been the case throughout history, observed Ms. Wilkinson. She noted that in North Africa and the Middle East, “all the herds were lost by the first few centuries AD,” victims of early civilizations that thought nothing of slaughtering them to fashion weapons and statues from their body parts.
“All artifacts to deities were built on the bodies, blood and destruction of the Other—the elephant,” said Mr. Christo.
In the Middle Ages, ivory was taken from Africa for ornamental use, and more recently, once the buffalo population of the American West had been decimated by an orgy of killing that destroyed at least “10 million and probably 50 million buffalo,” according to Mr. Christo, Africa became western civilization’s new “playground” for unrestrained “sport.”
The authors clearly see no improvement in the situation today, despite all the compelling evidence now available pointing to the interdependency of the planet’s inhabitants and the potentially catastrophic consequences of ignoring it.
The plundering continues, said Mr. Christo, with some 600,000 elephants killed in the 1980s—half the population—and probably 400,000 or so left today.
“What is happening now,” he said, is a battle between the forces of conservation and forces in Southeast Asia, China and Japan. “The Orient is doing a little bit of what we were doing.”
“They are taking the elephant’s body for making hankos in Japan,” said Mr. Christo, referring to the carved ivory stamps that are used to make prints. “They are using it for chopsticks, figurines and cigarette holders in China,” he added. “We are looking at vanity exploding—at the explosion of the biosphere.”
Mr. Christo’s outrage at what he does not hesitate to call “genocide of the inhuman kind caused by humans,” is the more intense because of the findings of scientists, including Ms. Bradshaw, whose work in recent years has proved the high level of elephants’ self-awareness and their susceptibility to stress and emotional pain.
“They have passed the mirror test,” said Mr. Christo. Given a mirror, “they are able to recognize themselves,” an ability, he added, that has implications for what makes each being unique.
As long as the elephants roamed free in a land where human populations were limited and many pastoral groups actually held them in deep respect, their mindfulness, their ability to communicate with each other on a subsonic level—more evidence, recently confirmed, of their evolved consciousness—were advantages.
They were the kings of their realm, suggested Ms. Wilkinson, speaking admiringly of “the scale, the grace with which they walk, their ability to both tread lightly, silently through the bush,” while at the same time they can on occasion “make more noise than anyone can imagine.”
Elephants today are suffering from pressures from multiple sides, added Ms. Wilkinson, citing “the obvious pressure of the growing ivory trade.”
The value of ivory “has gone up hugely,” said Mr. Christo. “People are actually investing in it.”
Another stress affecting the elephants is the growing human population throughout the world, which “puts pressure on their habitat,” said Ms. Wilkinson. “Elephants are inherently migratory. They move through the landscape and don’t overgraze. Now they run into human habitation. They devastate the crops of the poor, who then feel justified in killing them.”
Displaced from the locations where they once ate, drank and mated, and subject to culling, which in its saddest manifestation herds young adolescent males together, separating them from females and their elders—ostensibly as a measure of population control—the elephants suffer from terrible stress.
“Gay Bradshaw has been responsible for measuring that stress,” said Ms. Wilkinson. In her work with elephants, Ms. Bradshaw has confirmed that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Culling affects the psyche in a very deep way,” affirmed Mr. Christo, who noted that it has resulted in “outrageous behavior” on the part of its victims.
There have been reports of elephant rampages and even some incidences of elephants raping rhinos, according to Mr. Christo—abhorrent behavior that he asserts “has never been seen before.”
For Mr. Christo, it’s an easy leap from the stress-induced aberrations of the elephants, who have lost “so many life-support systems,” to the atrocious behavior of humans who have lost touch with nature.
“It’s not a coincidence,” he said, “that people have started to unravel internally now that they are dissociated from the organic whole.”
As Mr. Christo sees things, elephants are the oracles: “They are showing us that they are our peers—in mind and evolution.”
Citing Charles Siebert, who wrote recently of the elephant “crackup” in The New York Times, he added that elephants are “forcing us to obviate the sin of anthropomorphism—the sin of believing that we are the superior beings of the world and can do whatever we want.”
That attitude must change, and it must happen in the next decade, Mr. Christo asserted.
If it doesn’t, warned Ms. Wilkinson, “we are on a slip-sliding slope to our own destruction.”
Mr. Christo and Ms. Wilkinson will be signing copies of “Walking Thunder” and photos from the book will be on view at the Clic Book Store and Gallery at 23 Newtown Lane in East Hampton on August 29 from 6 to 8 p.m.
One fine body…