Wildlife Gives a Wake-Up Call for Our Survival

Lessons from conservation photographers Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
April 19, 2014 Updated: May 7, 2015

His voice carries a palpable sense of urgency, “We are in the eleventh hour!” he says. His passion for life undeniable, “Honoring life, is more important than any interpretation of life,” Cyril Christo continues as he shares snippets of his life story, his raison d’être.

The poet, Oscar-nominated filmmaker, wildlife photographer, and son of the renowned artist-couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude does not care for fame (he grew up with it) or even for the permanence of his work, he explains. “If we could stop the ivory trade, I would burn every [photo] negative tomorrow,” he says. Representations of wildlife essentially do not matter. He would rather see those animals thriving in their natural habitat. He writes, photographs, and films to inspire others in a call to action.

“We have to have a Marshall Plan immediately for how we treat the earth, for utter respect and survival.” About 40,000 African elephants are killed every year—that is, one every 15 minutes—at the hands of poachers. At that rate, elephants could become extinct within just 10 years. 

If only time could be extended so as to fully grasp the rich tapestry of all the stories Christo begins to tell, but are left trailing. Time spent in nature in all its plethora of wonder and beauty can leave you tranquil and amazed. It’s incredibly challenging to be able to communicate that experience. Christo tries to convey how intricately interconnected nature is.

Each line of thought could turn into a lengthy poem with a powerful purpose. Each leads to the same conclusion: respect life. Christo recounts a lucid dream with words that left a profound impression, “Hold on to the waters of life.” 

Animals signal and warn us of climate change because “they form part of the immune system of our planet,” he says. Melting arctic ice leaves polar bears starving to death in their shrinking habitat. With forests dwindling, some tigers have gone rogue, hunting people instead of calves, like the so-called man-eating tiger in India’s Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states in recent months.

There are only about 3,200 tigers left, compared to 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Only about 15,000 wild lions are left in Africa, compared to 200,000 just 30 years ago.

Africa’s forest elephant plays a key role in maintaining the second largest rainforest in the world in the Congo Basin. Those rainforests are the lungs of earth. The seeds of forest trees can only germinate after passing through an elephant’s digestive tract. “So we have all sorts of climactic ramifications with the loss of 80 to 90 percent of the forest elephant,” Christo says.

What has concerned Christo and conservationists for years is starting to get through to some world leaders. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a U.N. report on March 31 warning that the state of the environment is reaching a tipping point. The Obama administration says it is taking this new report as a call for action, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying, “The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

That message echoes what Christo learned from Hopi, Navaho, and Apache elders, who told him that the next five years are crucial. The year 2020 could be the point of no return. For Christo, that means a climate bill. 

Conservation Power Couple

Christo generates all of his projects with his wife, Marie Wilkinson, an architect who started taking photographs as a hobby. Their sideline soon developed into books, films, and campaigns. They vigorously opposed the ivory trade and protested bad environmental bills put forward in the Legislature of New Mexico where the couple lives. 

They have traveled twice around the world, especially where there are no electric lights, where more stars can be seen, where the thunderous roar of lions wakes up your soul, and where indigenous elders have profound lessons to teach us. 

“Slowly we started to entwine,” Wilkinson says. That is evident in the way they converse with each other—synergistic and full of energy. “How we got into elephants is because of looking at indigenous people, how we got into indigenous people is how we were looking at culture and place. … It became quite clear that different cultures had different stories that showed an incredible understanding and respect and connection to the places that they lived,” Wilkinson explains. 

Christo elaborates, “Native people have a near mystical understanding and appreciation of animals. And we have made them, since the French enlightenment, into almost robotic beings to be dissected and things to be manipulated.” 

Nanfang Daily, a local newspaper in Zhanjian, in China’s Guangdong Province, recently published a shocking report. A party of local officials and well-heeled folks had a “fun day” by electrocuting at least 10 tigers. They called it “visual feast” entertainment. The tigers’ body parts were then given away as expensive gifts or sold on the black market.

In sharp contrast, Christo and Wilkinson strive to reverse that depravity, the popular trend of dominating the forces of nature. As artists and conservationists, they encourage us to understand and “incorporate those forces” instead.

In Predatory Light

Reading Christo and Wilkinson’s third and latest book, “In Predatory Light: Lions, Tigers and Polar Bears” (review)— one of Amazon’s Top 10 nature and photography titles of 2013—becomes a visceral, cinematic experience, taking the reader to a place and time when humans and predators cohabited peaceably. Christo and Wilkinson call it a truce.

“The lions would go to the water hole at night and the Bushmen would go drink during the day when it was warm and there would never be antagonism,” Christo wrote. There is the tale of a tiger in the Gir forest of India that would regularly hunker down by a sadhu’s temple to listen to the bell being rung every evening. 

Christo and Wilkinson take black and white photographs, they do not alter them, and they develop their images from celluloid negatives. The images have a raw beauty to them. 

The couple might wait for days or even weeks to photograph a tiger. “The thing about the tiger is: you can go looking for a tiger, but you are not going to find a tiger. The tiger is going to choose to reveal itself,” Wilkinson says. The couple would drive through the woods for hours and hours through Bandhavgarh National Park in India. Then at the most unexpected moment a huge, vibrant, tiger would suddenly appear. In seconds Wilkinson would barely get her camera ready before the tiger would disappear into the forest—just as quickly as it had appeared. 

Describing her encounter, she conveys how predators command respect. “They look straight at you. It’s like they look into your soul. They are both knowing and menacing. You don’t mess with them, even if you want to scratch them behind the ear,” Wilkinson says. 

In their natural environment predators are not prone to killing humans in the way that some humans are prone to killing them for sheer entertainment or blood money. “We understand now the disorder that we are living throughout the entire world, that kids are undergoing, is because we don’t have that millennial relationship with the organic world,” Christo says.

Traveling Childhood

Christo encountered that organic world at a young age. He grew up shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic between France, Tunisia, and New York. 

In Paris his family lived near the Guimet Museum, which was full of Asian artifacts; he lived in a small castle with lots of books in northern France; in New York City, he lived in a loft with rats running around and where he played with his father’s paintbrushes; he saw Bedouins in southern Tunisia, ate couscous, and swam with his favorite uncle. He called these and other temporary residences “a little bit of the best of the New World and the Old World.” 

When he turned 15, Christo tired of New York City and trekked to Africa to climb Mount Kenya with other students in an international exchange program. They started at 10,000 feet and climbed up to 13,000 feet the first day. Christo carried a 40-pound backpack in a downpour for nine hours through what he calls a “miasma of pure mud and hell.” The next day they went up to 17,000 feet and survived the first of many, in his words, “amazing trials.” 

He contemplated the volcanic Chyulu hills overlooking Kilimanjaro, and a parade of elephants going right by his tent. He heard lions roaring at night. “It’s an acoustic blast summoning you to the beginning of time,” he recalls. He says that whole experience “moves in your spirit for the rest of your life.” That experience, bigger than himself, strengthened Christo’s character, and instilled in him a sense of purpose. 

Despite, or maybe because of, his extraordinary background and journey growing up, Christo has a humble demeanor. “I wasn’t trained to do anything, but wanted to verbalize concerns, to try to remind people how extraordinary the world is,” he says. In some ways he has learned more from traveling than from his studies at Columbia University where he felt “a bit discombobulated.” 

Lessons From the Elders 

Christo and Wilkinson have developed an immense appreciation for nature in its stark contrast to a world where people think they would be at a loss without their smartphones and other gadgets, where obesity is on the rise, and where children spend more time playing video games than playing outdoors.

They discovered that the Maasai, the semi-nomadic people in Kenya and Tanzania, do not even have a term for nature because the Maasai don’t see a separation. They know how to farm in the deserts and scrublands. Their invaluable survival skills may finally be recognized as a way to cope with climate change. 

Like the Maasai, the Inuit in the Arctic regions understand that everything is reciprocal. “The life force for the Inuit is also part of the mind. If you don’t respect the weather, it affects your mind. If you don’t respect the polar bear, your spirit is upset,” Christo says.

A San Bushman baby of southern Africa receives the name of the first star seen at the baby’s birth, he says. This close connection to the cosmos gets lost in an urban environment. In the big city, city lights wipe out the starlight. 

Today, people are unable to see the whole picture. Christo says we only see bits and pieces of what’s important. “The Samburu elders, who have their totem called the elephant, said that we [in the modern world] are interested in body parts.” 

People kill tigers for their fur, or claws, teeth, bones, whiskers, and whatever else to make medicines. Poachers kill elephants for one relatively small body part: their tusks. The illegal ivory trade fuels half a billion dollars in annual profit (video: God’s Ivory).

“What we lost is the association with life. The modern world does not honor truly anything, to be quite frank. It honors profit and that is something that is costing the life force itself. We will not be able to survive without the other beings,” Christo says.

Humans as well as other living beings depend on a survivable environment. “There’s no amount of money that can supplant a species, an ecosystem, a river, what the Amazon gives us, the phytoplankton.” It seems we are stuck in an ethos of scarcity with the false assumption that profit can only be gained through destruction. 

Although the IPCC report, put together by 1,250 experts, gives a grim assessment, it assures that a climate change catastrophe can be prevented without sacrificing living standards. If we have the willpower, we have the capacity and the green technology to turn the tide. It could even be profitable—in a sustainable way. Secretary of State Kerry contends that the global energy market represents a $6 trillion opportunity and that investment in the energy sector could reach nearly $17 trillion by 2035.

But to turn that tide requires concerted action, and that action can only stem from a broader understanding of nature and ourselves. Christo recalls, “The Native American elders say, ‘Do not fight against yourselves, you will have enough to deal with Mother Nature.'” 

Climate change will contribute to escalating global security problems, like strife and fights over resources, like water, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IPCC reports.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of relationship do we want?’ because we are creating a society that destroys relationships. … The alienation is also with those other beings that are not human but that have an immense amount of things to teach us about who we are,” Christo says.

Those predators keep us in check. If we eliminate the last predators on earth, Christo argues humans will be in danger of self-cannibalizing. “We’ve got to honor existence again or otherwise we won’t even be in survival mode. We will be in a mode we have to make sure we don’t strangle each other. We are not thriving,” he adds.

Overcoming Obstacles, Creating for the Future

The immediacy conveyed in Christo’s voice also shows a hint of anxiety and frustration with the obstacles he’s confronted with. He calls it an “incredible parochialism of the mass lack of imagination” of those who are not concerned about climate change. He wants to make sure the earth will be sustainable for his own son and for the future of all children. 

Christo and Wilkinson are now looking to fund a feature film, titled “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant.” They are dedicating it to their 8-year-old son, Lysander, who learned to walk in Africa. It will be a personal vision based on their encounters with the native people of East Africa and the importance of the elephant to the human condition.

Christo and Wilkinson say, “We are going to go a lot further with this next film. What does the future of the elephant have to do with the future of childhood? The answer is: absolutely everything! Civilization will stand or fall on the back of the African elephant.”

For more information about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson: http://www.christoandwilkinsonphotography.com/