If, as Gandhi said, the mark of a civilization can be measured by how it treats animals, then our planetary civilization is failing. The latest news of the total butchery of 26 elephants in Chobe, Botswana, marks a diabolical phase in the continuing loss of earth’s greatest mammal, the African elephant.
Poachers might come by helicopter from across the border in Namibia or neighboring Zambia looking for the last great population of elephants. Botswana is the last outpost and the last great wildlife frontier on the planet. Dare we lose Botswana, we will lose a cornerstone of the planet!
Poachers are looking for easier targets after the bloodlust over the last five years eliminated over 60 percent of Tanzania’s elephants, especially in the Selous Game Reserve. The forest elephants have seen an over 65 percent reduction in their overall population over the same period. We have now entered an epochal moment for life on earth. If the greatest elephant refuge on earth cannot be protected, what on Earth can we save?
Having spoken in front of the United Nations at a march for the elephant in October 2013, the first march for any species in human history, I asked my son, Lysander, to say a few words. As an 8-year-old, he said very simply, in biblical terms, “Do not do to elephants what you don’t want them to do to you!”
I have seen him take some of his first steps and utter his first words of sheer amazement in Africa, the place of our origins. He has absorbed the lessons of the wild and its irreplaceable wonders. The battle for the elephant is a battle for what is best in the world.
“Lose the other beings, our fellow animals,” as a native Samburu elder told us in Kenya, “and we will lose our minds. The only thing left will be to kill ourselves.” Many tribal elders have talked about putting a curse on those who kill elephants. This should be a reminder that something enormous is at stake.
As humanity designates this time as the Anthropocene, we need to pull back and ask ourselves what species we really want to be here for the coming generations. Just as France has forbidden the trade of ivory in France and French territories worldwide, so too must the English. A recent article in the Guardian mentioned that the Tories do not back a comprehensive ban on ivory.
We know the corruption in Africa, fueled by demand in Asia, has been rampant, but do we need the conservatives of the British Empire to hijack the conservation process? The pledge to stop the internal ivory market has not been met. Between 2009 and 2014, 40 percent of all seizures in the U.K. have been ivory! And as the article underscores, the Chinese wonder why they should close their markets if the English can’t.
This is not the kind of international cooperation that will save the elephant. Hopefully the helicopter incident will not incite another. Botswana may be better equipped than Tanzania. But let us remind Botswana that shooting San Bushmen from the air because they were looking for antelopes to feed themselves is unforgivable.
As the oldest continuous genetic group on Earth, the San know better than anyone how to honor the earth. It is indeed ironic that just as Botswana was implicated in serious human rights violations against its own people—people whom its president does not honor—a major tragedy for an incomparable animal happened on its northern frontier.
From Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, member states will gather in South Africa for the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) and will decide whether to place the elephant on Appendix 1, a more protected status than Appendix 2. Richard Leakey has correctly urged the world to make CITES into KITES (Killing the International Trade on Endangered Species).
Half the world’s wildlife has been lost since I was born. The recent incident in Chobe, Botswana, is a reminder that no place on earth is exempt from massacre. We can no longer gamble with the elephant’s future. We now know through the great elephant census paid for by Paul G. Allen that Africa has little more than 350,000 savanna elephants remaining.
Vanity, corruption, and business as usual is deciding the fate of a being whose fate is entwined with our own. We now know how many elephants remain. Now we must close every loophole in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America and pay for serious operations and rangers’ abilities to respond on the ground. They are outmanned and out gunned.
The recent elephant census only cost a few million—seven, to be exact. But what are the world’s billionaires willing to pay to save the place where man was born? We as a species need to do more, much more, while we still can. In 10 years, it will be too late. Humanity will have lost a continent.
The world community must decide on salvation because the elephant is one of the pillars of the planet. Certain wildlife groups in the United States are loathe to push for Appendix I status, groups which supposedly cherish and fight for animals. They are the conservation mercenaries who play games with a species lifeline. They are those paid off by the special interests of the world. These have to come to an end. The elephant’s fate is our fate. The survival of what is left of nature is the great existential issue of our time.
The elephant issue, the near ontological miscarriage of an entire species, is something Mother Nature will never forgive us for. We have butchered ourselves for millennia. What is occurring to a species that helped us feed ourselves through their flesh, leading us to water and migrating alongside us across the face of the Northern hemisphere during our entire earthly passage is something commensurate with genocide. They are wholly innocent and more coherent with the world than we can ever hope to be. That is why we need them more than ever before. The tide must be reversed this year.
I have seen elephants in states of high anxiety after seeing rangers passing by in their cars in Kenya and Tanzania. The corruption is an inside job. But the European powers too must change internally and immediately, or the elephant will continue down the extinction vortex.
One has to wonder if a country that brought big game hunting to Africa and that continues to persecute foxes for the whimsy of an elite class can alter its behavior. Seven out of 10 trophy hunters come from the United States. We are supposed to be conservation’s vanguard, but we are obliterating the life force of the world! And we are running out of time.
Patrick Hemingway, the son of Ernest, once told me, “My bet is that we will lose the elephant.” The very esteemed Leakey once wrote, “As an expert in evolution, I can assure you that the extinction of the elephant is no more certain than the extinction of man is certain.”
If we lose the elephant, we will have lost not just another species, not just a fellow citizen on planet Earth, not just an enormous ballast in the ecology and spirit of the world, not merely a mind of comparable proportion and feeling to ours, but a singular sentinel in our ability to experience life and be fully human.
Something immorally profound is stalking the conscience of the world. It is the other side of the coin that allows people to divide and persecute each other over religious or cultural differences. But make no mistake: This slaughter of the elephant goes back to the roots of who we are as a species. In the beginning we hunted to survive. Now we act as barbarians. If we do not cure ourselves of this disease, the stage will be set for our complete unraveling.
As a rabbi in South Africa told us, the word “pil” (elephant) is the root of the verb “to wonder.” We will have no words to explain to children of the future that adults dismembered their world, that the elephant was lost, and with it, wonder for all time. Children, and humanity, will have nothing to look forward to. Civilization will stand or fall on the back of the African elephant. The elephant persecution is civilization’s Golgotha.
Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have traveled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories.