How does the slaughter of elephants happening now across Africa affect the innocence of children? For the makers of the film Lysander’s Song, they are inseparable. Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s five-year-old son Lysander was the inspiration for their project, a deeply-felt outcry against the illegal ivory trade. The rampant killing of these great leviathans of the earth has consequences beyond an animal’s death, rupturing into the heart of what makes us human. As Wilkinson pointed out, “Children are the best part of us.”
Christo and Wilkinson are a husband and wife team devoted to documenting the beauty of the iconic creatures who share our world and the terrible toll of their loss. Their book, Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of the African Elephant is a gorgeous tribute, its black and white prints evoking the vanishing herds, like photographs from a forgotten time. But the spike in the numbers of elephants being killed by poachers is reaching devastating proportions. Christo and Wilkinson’s film is an urgent call for global action.
“What needs to be brought to the world’s attention is that the elephant killing has to stop, because the future of childhood is at stake. For their sanity, their wonder, for us not to tell them this is where the wild things were.” Christo’s dark curls mobbed his forehead above round, Potterish glasses and searching eyes. His passion ignited, Christo took me on the journey of the elephant in its mythic, cultural, psychological and spiritual connections to our own species. As a poet and filmmaker, Christo’s language is filled with images and associations evoking the luminous heart of human experience, that which gives it meaning. The deaths and possible extinction of these “walking whales” has far greater consequences for humanity than we can fathom. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee,” Christo quoted from Moby Dick. Like Ahab, in killing the elephant, we kill a vital part of ourselves.
Wilkinson is a measured counterpoint to her husband’s exuberance. She is quieter, resolved, her personal warmth coming across even as she described the commodification of animals that permits their destruction. Explaining the creative difference that animates their partnership, she said, “I think we come from two separate approaches. Cyril is always trying to find the universal ideal and raise it up in a poetic way, and I am trying to find those poetic ideals and bring them back down to a pragmatic, practical, accessible way.”
Wilkinson and Christo’s investigation of the effects of species loss, climate change and globalization deepened through the time they spent with indigenous peoples learning the clashing world views of extractive mining industries versus a storied and ensouled connection to the land. They spent six years studying herders, “cattle people” from Ethiopia through Eastern Africa and down to Southern Africa. “Our peers who are considered “primitive” we consider as holding the knowledge of our future survival. And we are dismissing it,” Marie said.
“We started to learn about the justice system among the Kikuyu,” Marie added, “and their use of the atlas bone of the elephant, which is the largest vertebrae, as an embodiment of ultimate truth. You can’t lie in front of the atlas bone. When there is a dispute going on, first the two try to work it out, then the family tries to work it out, then the community, then the larger community does, then the judges or elders do. If that doesn’t work, then the atlas bone comes out. Because of its unique form, it holds some sort of inherent truth.”
“Elephant” in Hebrew, Christo says, comes from the same root as the verb “to wonder.”
That creature in its powerful stature is the spark of wonder to the imagination of childhood and everything in us that yearns toward awe. “Lysander, when he says ‘aaahh’ in wonder about something, it is literally the life breath, the anima, an incredible connection to the life beat.” There is no animal with a greater presence in human history, its mythos representing “the ability to realize our own power and be free.” If we lose the elephant and other of the great four-leggeds, Christo warned, “Something will happen that is irrefragable, irretrievable, irreducible: we will not be fully human. Something will start to corrode in the human soul and heart.” The time to act is now to save all endangered species, especially the elephants, wolves, tigers, dolphins, apes, polar bears. We are veering toward ultimate loss. Christo calls it The Crucifix Moment.
If we do not act, we will lose the combined physical and ecological presence of the great creatures, the elephant, whales and other species within their habitats – which Christo and Wilkinson call the horizontal plane. The vertical plane of the crucifix is the intangible loss of their moral, social and spiritual connection to humankind throughout time.
In March 2012, more than 450 elephants were killed in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djidia National Park. Tusks were carved away and strapped to the horses of marauding Sudanese invaders, the bodies of the elephants left to rot in the sun. President Paul Biya finally authorized military intervention in the park, but by then, more than half of the indigenous elephant population had been killed. A month later, in April 2012, helicopter-borne poachers massacred 22 elephants, hacking off their tusks and genitals, in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to an analysis by the conservation organization Tusk Trust, up to 35,000 elephants were slaughtered in 2011, roughly 10 percent of the entire population in Africa. If the killing continues at this rate, there will be no more elephants roaming the plains and forests of Africa by 2020. This is the price of greed for white gold, the blood gold: ivory.
The demand for ivory is insatiable. Alex Shoumatoff, in his heartbreaking article for Vanity Fair titled “Agony and Ivory,” bears witness to the slaughter, and traces the illegal trade from point of killing to smuggling routes, to fraud at point of sale. He states that an average of 45,000 pounds of ivory is seized annually, representing 3600 elephants. That is the tip of the iceberg.
Since 2004, the African elephant has been listed as Vulnerable to Extinction, as a warning flag from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an organization that tracks threatened species around the world. But the virulent epidemic of poaching is getting worse. Local tribespeople who formerly protected the elephants are succumbing to the profit from ivory. Professional poachers transgress borders and laws.
It is a holocaust.
Christo and Wilkinson’s film Lysander’s Song brings together the elephant and childhood. Elephants figure hugely in children’s imaginative repertoire. Marie listed some: “Babar, Baggypants, Dumbo, Horton – the big, loveable creature. They each embody a different aspect of the elephant – Babar being the most diverse and wisest.”
Addressing the issue of poaching from the point of view of children highlights the shocking contrast of innocence and murder. For adults with our own overwhelmed compassion – crammed with information and exposure to global injustice – childhood is the way to connect deeply with this endangered species.
Christo said, “At the end of our film, a ranger, a guard, says something very very very special – and he knows, because his grandfather was killed by an elephant, and you’d think he would be angry, but no, he’s out in force knowing that was an accident, and it could happen. At the end of the film he says, ‘a world without elephants is like a world without oxygen.’”
Read the full article on Izilwane here.
To purchase some of Christo and Wilkinson’s amazing photos seen here, please visit our photo gallery On the Wild Plains. All images are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are courtesy of Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.
— By Zoe Krasney